When I finally returned to the Park, 36 hours had passed and Lil had not come back to the house. If she'd tried to call, she would've gotten my voicemail—I had no way of answering my phone. As it turned out, she hadn't been trying to reach me at all.
I'd spent the time alternately moping, drinking, and plotting terrible, irrational vengeance on Debra for killing me, destroying my relationship, taking away my beloved (in hindsight, anyway) Hall of Presidents and threatening the Mansion. Even in my addled state, I knew that this was pretty unproductive, and I kept promising that I would cut it out, take a shower and some sober-ups, and get to work at the Mansion.
I was working up the energy to do just that when Dan came in.
“Jesus,” he said, shocked. I guess I was a bit of a mess, sprawled on the sofa in my underwear, all gamy and baggy and bloodshot.
“Hey, Dan. How's it goin'?”
He gave me one of his patented wry looks and I felt the same weird reversal of roles that we'd undergone at the U of T, when he had become the native, and I had become the interloper. He was the together one with the wry looks and I was the pathetic seeker who'd burned all his reputation capital. Out of habit, I checked my Whuffie, and a moment later I stopped being startled by its low score and was instead shocked by the fact that I could check it at all. I was back online!
“Now, what do you know about that?” I said, staring at my dismal Whuffie.
“What?” he said.
I called his cochlea. “My systems are back online,” I subvocalized.
He started. “You were offline?”
I jumped up from the couch and did a little happy underwear dance. “I was, but I'm not now.” I felt better than I had in days, ready to beat the world—or at least Debra.
“Let me take a shower, then let's get to the Imagineering labs. I've got a pretty kickass idea.”
The idea, as I explained it in the runabout, was a preemptive rehab of the Mansion. Sabotaging the Hall had been a nasty, stupid idea, and I'd gotten what I deserved for it. The whole point of the Bitchun Society was to be more reputable than the next ad-hoc, to succeed on merit, not trickery, despite assassinations and the like.
So a rehab it would be.
“Back in the early days of the Disneyland Mansion, in California,” I explained, “Walt had a guy in a suit of armor just past the first Doom Buggy curve, he'd leap out and scare the hell out of the guests as they went by. It didn't last long, of course. The poor bastard kept getting punched out by startled guests, and besides, the armor wasn't too comfortable for long shifts.”
Dan chuckled appreciatively. The Bitchun Society had all but done away with any sort of dull, repetitious labor, and what remained—tending bar, mopping toilets—commanded Whuffie aplenty and a life of leisure in your off-hours.
“But that guy in the suit of armor, he could improvise. You'd get a slightly different show every time. It's like the castmembers who spiel on the Jungleboat Cruise. They've each got their own patter, their own jokes, and even though the animatronics aren't so hot, it makes the show worth seeing.”
“You're going to fill the Mansion with castmembers in armor?” Dan asked, shaking his head.
I waved away his objections, causing the runabout to swerve, terrifying a pack of guests who were taking a ride on rented bikes around the property. “No,” I said, flapping a hand apologetically at the white-faced guests. “Not at all. But what if all of the animatronics had human operators—telecontrollers, working with waldoes? We'll let them interact with the guests, talk with them, scare them… We'll get rid of the existing animatronics, replace 'em with full-mobility robots, then cast the parts over the Net. Think of the Whuffie! You could put, say, a thousand operators online at once, ten shifts per day, each of them caught up in our Mansion… We'll give out awards for outstanding performances, the shifts'll be based on popular vote. In effect, we'll be adding another ten thousand guests to the Mansion's throughput every day, only these guests will be honorary castmembers.”
“That's pretty good,” Dan said. “Very Bitchun. Debra may have AI and flash-baking, but you'll have human interaction, courtesy of the biggest Mansion-fans in the world—”
“And those are the very fans Debra'll have to win over to make a play for the Mansion. Very elegant, huh?”
The first order of business was to call Lil, patch things up, and pitch the idea to her. The only problem was, my cochlea was offline again. My mood started to sour, and I had Dan call her instead.
We met her up at Imagineering, a massive complex of prefab aluminum buildings painted Go-Away Green that had thronged with mad inventors since the Bitchun Society had come to Walt Disney World. The ad-hocs who had built an Imagineering department in Florida and now ran the thing were the least political in the Park, classic labcoat-and-clipboard types who would work for anyone so long as the ideas were cool. Not caring about Whuffie meant that they accumulated it in plenty on both the left and right hands.
Lil was working with Suneep, AKA the Merch Miracle. He could design, prototype and produce a souvenir faster than anyone—shirts, sculptures, pens, toys, housewares, he was the king. They were collaborating on their HUDs, facing each other across a lab-bench in the middle of a lab as big as a basketball court, cluttered with logomarked tchotchkes and gabbling away while their eyes danced over invisible screens.
Dan reflexively joined the collaborative space as he entered the lab, leaving me the only one out on the joke. Dan was clearly delighted by what he saw.
I nudged him with an elbow. “Make a hardcopy,” I hissed.
Instead of pitying me, he just airtyped a few commands and pages started to roll out of a printer in the lab's corner. Anyone else would have made a big deal out of it, but he just brought me into the discussion.
If I needed proof that Lil and I were meant for each other, the designs she and Suneep had come up with were more than enough. She'd been thinking just the way I had—souvenirs that stressed the human scale of the Mansion. There were miniature animatronics of the Hitchhiking Ghosts in a black-light box, their skeletal robotics visible through their layers of plastic clothing; action figures that communicated by IR, so that placing one in proximity with another would unlock its Mansion-inspired behaviors—the raven cawed, Mme. Leota's head incanted, the singing busts sang. She'd worked up some formal attire based on the castmember costume, cut in this year's stylish lines.
It was good merch, is what I'm trying to say. In my mind's eye, I was seeing the relaunch of the Mansion in six months, filled with robotic avatars of Mansion-nuts the world 'round, Mme. Leota's gift cart piled high with brilliant swag, strolling human players ad-libbing with the guests in the queue area…
Lil looked up from her mediated state and glared at me as I pored over the hardcopy, nodding enthusiastically.
“Passionate enough for you?” she snapped.
I felt a flush creeping into face, my ears. It was somewhere between anger and shame, and I reminded myself that I was more than a century older than her, and it was my responsibility to be mature. Also, I'd started the fight.
“This is fucking fantastic, Lil,” I said. Her look didn't soften. “Really choice stuff. I had a great idea—” I ran it down for her, the avatars, the robots, the rehab. She stopped glaring, started taking notes, smiling, showing me her dimples, her slanted eyes crinkling at the corners.
“This isn't easy,” she said, finally. Suneep, who'd been politely pretending not to listen in, nodded involuntarily. Dan, too.
“I know that,” I said. The flush burned hotter. “But that's the point—what Debra does isn't easy either. It's risky, dangerous. It made her and her ad-hoc better—it made them sharper.” Sharper than us, that's for sure. “They can make decisions like this fast, and execute them just as quickly. We need to be able to do that, too.”
Was I really advocating being more like Debra? The words'd just popped out, but I saw that I'd been right—we'd have to beat Debra at her own game, out-evolve her ad-hocs.
“I understand what you're saying,” Lil said. I could tell she was upset—she'd reverted to castmemberspeak. “It's a very good idea. I think that we stand a good chance of making it happen if we approach the group and put it to them, after doing the research, building the plans, laying out the critical path, and privately soliciting feedback from some of them.”
I felt like I was swimming in molasses. At the rate that the Liberty Square ad-hoc moved, we'd be holding formal requirements reviews while Debra's people tore down the Mansion around us. So I tried a different tactic.
“Suneep, you've been involved in some rehabs, right?”
Suneep nodded slowly, with a cautious expression, a nonpolitical animal being drawn into a political discussion.
“Okay, so tell me, if we came to you with this plan and asked you to pull together a production schedule—one that didn't have any review, just take the idea and run with it—and then pull it off, how long would it take you to execute it?”
Lil smiled primly. She'd dealt with Imagineering before.
“About five years,” he said, almost instantly.
“Five years?” I squawked. “Why five years? Debra's people overhauled the Hall in a month!”
“Oh, wait,” he said. “No review at all?”
“No review. Just come up with the best way you can to do this, and do it. And we can provide you with unlimited, skilled labor, three shifts around the clock.”
He rolled his eyes back and ticked off days on his fingers while muttering under his breath. He was a tall, thin man with a shock of curly dark hair that he smoothed unconsciously with surprisingly stubby fingers while he thought.
“About eight weeks,” he said. “Barring accidents, assuming off-the-shelf parts, unlimited labor, capable management, material availability…” He trailed off again, and his short fingers waggled as he pulled up a HUD and started making a list.
“Wait,” Lil said, alarmed. “How do you get from five years to eight weeks?”
Now it was my turn to smirk. I'd seen how Imagineering worked when they were on their own, building prototypes and conceptual mockups—I knew that the real bottleneck was the constant review and revisions, the ever-fluctuating groupmind consensus of the ad-hoc that commissioned their work.
Suneep looked sheepish. “Well, if all I have to do is satisfy myself that my plans are good and my buildings won't fall down, I can make it happen very fast. Of course, my plans aren't perfect. Sometimes, I'll be halfway through a project when someone suggests a new flourish or approach that makes the whole thing immeasurably better. Then it's back to the drawing board… So I stay at the drawing board for a long time at the start, get feedback from other Imagineers, from the ad-hocs, from focus groups and the Net. Then we do reviews at every stage of construction, check to see if anyone has had a great idea we haven't thought of and incorporate it, sometimes rolling back the work.
“It's slow, but it works.”
Lil was flustered. “But if you can do a complete revision in eight weeks, why not just finish it, then plan another revision, do that one in eight weeks, and so on? Why take five years before anyone can ride the thing?”
“Because that's how it's done,” I said to Lil. “But that's not how it has to be done. That's how we'll save the Mansion.”
I felt the surety inside of me, the certain knowledge that I was right. Ad-hocracy was a great thing, a Bitchun thing, but the organization needed to turn on a dime—that would be even more Bitchun.
“Lil,” I said, looking into her eyes, trying to burn my POV into her. “We have to do this. It's our only chance. We'll recruit hundreds to come to Florida and work on the rehab. We'll give every Mansion nut on the planet a shot at joining up, then we'll recruit them again to work at it, to run the telepresence rigs. We'll get buy-in from the biggest super-recommenders in the world, and we'll build something better and faster than any ad-hoc ever has, without abandoning the original Imagineers' vision. It will be unspeakably Bitchun.”
Lil dropped her eyes and it was her turn to flush. She paced the floor, hands swinging at her sides. I could tell that she was still angry with me, but excited and scared and yes, passionate.
“It's not up to me, you know,” she said at length, still pacing. Dan and I exchanged wicked grins. She was in.
“I know,” I said. But it was, almost—she was a real opinion-leader in the Liberty Square ad-hoc, someone who knew the systems back and forth, someone who made good, reasonable decisions and kept her head in a crisis. Not a hothead. Not prone to taking radical switchbacks. This plan would burn up that reputation and the Whuffie that accompanied it, in short order, but by the time that happened, she'd have plenty of Whuffie with the new, thousands-strong ad-hoc.
“I mean, I can't guarantee anything. I'd like to study the plans that Imagineering comes through with, do some walk-throughs—”
I started to object, to remind her that speed was of the essence, but she beat me to it.
“But I won't. We have to move fast. I'm in.”
She didn't come into my arms, didn't kiss me and tell me everything was forgiven, but she bought in, and that was enough.
My systems came back online sometime that day, and I hardly noticed, I was so preoccupied with the new Mansion. Holy shit, was it ever audacious: since the first Mansion opened in California in 1969, no one had ever had the guts to seriously fuxor with it. Oh, sure, the Paris version, Phantom Manor, had a slightly different storyline, but it was just a minor bit of tweakage to satisfy the European market at the time. No one wanted to screw up the legend.
What the hell made the Mansion so cool, anyway? I'd been to Disney World any number of times as a guest before I settled in, and truth be told, it had never been my absolute favorite.
But when I returned to Disney World, live and in person, freshly bored stupid by the three-hour liveheaded flight from Toronto, I'd found myself crowd-driven to it.
I'm a terrible, terrible person to visit theme-parks with. Since I was a punk kid snaking my way through crowded subway platforms, eeling into the only seat on a packed car, I'd been obsessed with Beating The Crowd.
In the early days of the Bitchun Society, I'd known a blackjack player, a compulsive counter of cards, an idiot savant of odds. He was a pudgy, unassuming engineer, the moderately successful founder of a moderately successful high-tech startup that had done something arcane with software agents. While he was only moderately successful, he was fabulously wealthy: he'd never raised a cent of financing for his company, and had owned it outright when he finally sold it for a bathtub full of money. His secret was the green felt tables of Vegas, where he'd pilgrim off to every time his bank balance dropped, there to count the monkey-cards and calculate the odds and Beat The House.
Long after his software company was sold, long after he'd made his nut, he was dressing up in silly disguises and hitting the tables, grinding out hand after hand of twenty-one, for the sheer satisfaction of Beating The House. For him, it was pure brain-reward, a jolt of happy-juice every time the dealer busted and every time he doubled down on a deckfull of face cards.
Though I'd never bought so much as a lottery ticket, I immediately got his compulsion: for me, it was Beating The Crowd, finding the path of least resistance, filling the gaps, guessing the short queue, dodging the traffic, changing lanes with a whisper to spare—moving with precision and grace and, above all, expedience.
On that fateful return, I checked into the Fort Wilderness Campground, pitched my tent, and fairly ran to the ferry docks to catch a barge over to the Main Gate.
Crowds were light until I got right up to Main Gate and the ticketing queues. Suppressing an initial instinct to dash for the farthest one, beating my ferrymates to what rule-of-thumb said would have the shortest wait, I stepped back and did a quick visual survey of the twenty kiosks and evaluated the queued-up huddle in front of each. Pre-Bitchun, I'd have been primarily interested in their ages, but that is less and less a measure of anything other than outlook, so instead I carefully examined their queuing styles, their dress, and more than anything, their burdens.
You can tell more about someone's ability to efficiently negotiate the complexities of a queue through what they carry than through any other means—if only more people realized it. The classic, of course, is the unladen citizen, a person naked of even a modest shoulderbag or marsupial pocket. To the layperson, such a specimen might be thought of as a sure bet for a fast transaction, but I'd done an informal study and come to the conclusion that these brave iconoclasts are often the flightiest of the lot, left smiling with bovine mystification, patting down their pockets in a fruitless search for a writing implement, a piece of ID, a keycard, a rabbit's foot, a rosary, a tuna sandwich.
No, for my money, I'll take what I call the Road Worrier anytime. Such a person is apt to be carefully slung with four or five carriers of one description or another, from bulging cargo pockets to clever military-grade strap-on pouches with biometrically keyed closures. The thing to watch for is the ergonomic consideration given to these conveyances: do they balance, are they slung for minimum interference and maximum ease of access? Someone who's given that much consideration to their gear is likely spending their time in line determining which bits and pieces they'll need when they reach its headwaters and is holding them at ready for fastest-possible processing.
This is a tricky call, since there are lookalike pretenders, gear-pigs who pack everything because they lack the organizational smarts to figure out what they should pack—they're just as apt to be burdened with bags and pockets and pouches, but the telltale is the efficiency of that slinging. These pack mules will sag beneath their loads, juggling this and that while pushing overloose straps up on their shoulders.
I spied a queue that was made up of a group of Road Worriers, a queue that was slightly longer than the others, but I joined it and ticced nervously as I watched my progress relative to the other spots I could've chosen. I was borne out, a positive omen for a wait-free World, and I was sauntering down Main Street, USA long before my ferrymates.
Returning to Walt Disney World was a homecoming for me. My parents had brought me the first time when I was all of ten, just as the first inklings of the Bitchun society were trickling into everyone's consciousness: the death of scarcity, the death of death, the struggle to rejig an economy that had grown up focused on nothing but scarcity and death. My memories of the trip are dim but warm, the balmy Florida climate and a sea of smiling faces punctuated by magical, darkened moments riding in OmniMover cars, past diorama after diorama.
I went again when I graduated high school and was amazed by the richness of detail, the grandiosity and grandeur of it all. I spent a week there stunned bovine, grinning and wandering from corner to corner. Someday, I knew, I'd come to live there.
The Park became a touchstone for me, a constant in a world where everything changed. Again and again, I came back to the Park, grounding myself, communing with all the people I'd been.
That day I bopped from land to land, ride to ride, seeking out the short lines, the eye of the hurricane that crowded the Park to capacity. I'd take high ground, standing on a bench or hopping up on a fence, and do a visual reccy of all the queues in sight, try to spot prevailing currents in the flow of the crowd, generally having a high old obsessive time. Truth be told, I probably spent as much time looking for walk-ins as I would've spent lining up like a good little sheep, but I had more fun and got more exercise.
The Haunted Mansion was experiencing a major empty spell: the Snow Crash Spectacular parade had just swept through Liberty Square en route to Fantasyland, dragging hordes of guests along with it, dancing to the JapRap sounds of the comical Sushi-K and aping the movements of the brave Hiro Protagonist. When they blew out, Liberty Square was a ghost town, and I grabbed the opportunity to ride the Mansion five times in a row, walking on every time.
The way I tell it to Lil, I noticed her and then I noticed the Mansion, but to tell the truth it was the other way around.
The first couple rides through, I was just glad of the aggressive air conditioning and the delicious sensation of sweat drying on my skin. But on the third pass, I started to notice just how goddamn cool the thing was. There wasn't a single bit of tech more advanced than a film-loop projector in the whole place, but it was all so cunningly contrived that the illusion of a haunted house was perfect: the ghosts that whirled through the ballroom were ghosts, three-dimensional and ethereal and phantasmic. The ghosts that sang in comical tableaux through the graveyard were equally convincing, genuinely witty and simultaneously creepy.
My fourth pass through, I noticed the detail, the hostile eyes worked into the wallpaper's pattern, the motif repeated in the molding, the chandeliers, the photo gallery. I began to pick out the words to “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” the song that is repeated throughout the ride, whether in sinister organ-tones repeating the main theme troppo troppo or the spritely singing of the four musical busts in the graveyard.
It's a catchy tune, one that I hummed on my fifth pass through, this time noticing that the overaggressive AC was, actually, mysterious chills that blew through the rooms as wandering spirits made their presence felt. By the time I debarked for the fifth time, I was whistling the tune with jazzy improvisations in a mixed-up tempo.
That's when Lil and I ran into each other. She was picking up a discarded ice-cream wrapper—I'd seen a dozen castmembers picking up trash that day, seen it so frequently that I'd started doing it myself. She grinned slyly at me as I debarked into the fried-food-and-disinfectant perfume of the Park, hands in pockets, thoroughly pleased with myself for having so completely experienced a really fine hunk of art.
I smiled back at her, because it was only natural that one of the Whuffie-kings who were privileged to tend this bit of heavenly entertainment should notice how thoroughly I was enjoying her work.
“That's really, really Bitchun,” I said to her, admiring the titanic mountains of Whuffie my HUD attributed to her.
She was in character, and not supposed to be cheerful, but castmembers of her generation can't help but be friendly. She compromised between ghastly demeanor and her natural sweet spirit, and leered a grin at me, thumped through a zombie's curtsey, and moaned “Thank you—we do try to keep it spirited.”
I groaned appreciatively, and started to notice just how very cute she was, this little button of a girl with her rotting maid's uniform and her feather-shedding duster. She was just so clean and scrubbed and happy about everything, she radiated it and made me want to pinch her cheeks—either set.
The moment was on me, and so I said, “When do they let you ghouls off? I'd love to take you out for a Zombie or a Bloody Mary.”
Which led to more horrifying banter, and to my taking her out for a couple at the Adventurer's Club, learning her age in the process and losing my nerve, telling myself that there was nothing we could possibly have to say to each other across a century-wide gap.
While I tell Lil that I noticed her first and the Mansion second, the reverse is indeed true. But it's also true—and I never told her this—that the thing I love best about the Mansion is:
It's where I met her.
Dan and I spent the day riding the Mansion, drafting scripts for the telepresence players who we hoped to bring on-board. We were in a totally creative zone, the dialog running as fast as he could transcribe it. Jamming on ideas with Dan was just about as terrific as a pass-time could be.
I was all for leaking the plan to the Net right away, getting hearts-and-minds action with our core audience, but Lil turned it down.
She was going to spend the next couple days quietly politicking among the rest of the ad-hoc, getting some support for the idea, and she didn't want the appearance of impropriety that would come from having outsiders being brought in before the ad-hoc.
Talking to the ad-hocs, bringing them around—it was a skill I'd never really mastered. Dan was good at it, Lil was good at it, but me, I think that I was too self-centered to ever develop good skills as a peacemaker. In my younger days, I assumed that it was because I was smarter than everyone else, with no patience for explaining things in short words for mouth-breathers who just didn't get it.
The truth of the matter is, I'm a bright enough guy, but I'm hardly a genius. Especially when it comes to people. Probably comes from Beating The Crowd, never seeing individuals, just the mass—the enemy of expedience.
I never would have made it into the Liberty Square ad-hoc on my own. Lil made it happen for me, long before we started sleeping together. I'd assumed that her folks would be my best allies in the process of joining up, but they were too jaded, too ready to take the long sleep to pay much attention to a newcomer like me.
Lil took me under her wing, inviting me to after-work parties, talking me up to her cronies, quietly passing around copies of my thesis-work. And she did the same in reverse, sincerely extolling the virtues of the others I met, so that I knew what there was to respect about them and couldn't help but treat them as individuals.
In the years since, I'd lost that respect. Mostly, I palled around with Lil, and once he arrived, Dan, and with net-friends around the world. The ad-hocs that I worked with all day treated me with basic courtesy but not much friendliness.
I guess I treated them the same. When I pictured them in my mind, they were a faceless, passive-aggressive mass, too caught up in the starchy world of consensus-building to ever do much of anything.
Dan and I threw ourselves into it headlong, trolling the Net for address lists of Mansion-otakus from the four corners of the globe, spreadsheeting them against their timezones, temperaments, and, of course, their Whuffie.
“That's weird,” I said, looking up from the old-fashioned terminal I was using—my systems were back offline. They'd been sputtering up and down for a couple days now, and I kept meaning to go to the doctor, but I'd never gotten 'round to it. Periodically, I'd get a jolt of urgency when I remembered that this meant my backup was stale-dating, but the Mansion always took precedence.
“Huh?” he said.
I tapped the display. “See these?” It was a fan-site, displaying a collection of animated 3-D meshes of various elements of the Mansion, part of a giant collaborative project that had been ongoing for decades, to build an accurate 3-D walkthrough of every inch of the Park. I'd used those meshes to build my own testing fly-throughs.
“Those are terrific,” Dan said. “That guy must be a total fiend.” The meshes' author had painstakingly modeled, chained and animated every ghost in the ballroom scene, complete with the kinematics necessary for full motion. Where a “normal” fan-artist might've used a standard human kinematics library for the figures, this one had actually written his own from the ground up, so that the ghosts moved with a spectral fluidity that was utterly unhuman.
“Who's the author?” Dan asked. “Do we have him on our list yet?”
I scrolled down to display the credits. “I'll be damned,” Dan breathed.
The author was Tim, Debra's elfin crony. He'd submitted the designs a week before my assassination.
“What do you think it means?” I asked Dan, though I had a couple ideas on the subject myself.
“Tim's a Mansion nut,” Dan said. “I knew that.”
He looked a little defensive. “Sure. I told you, back when you had me hanging out with Debra's gang.”
Had I asked him to hang out with Debra? As I remembered it, it had been his suggestion. Too much to think about.
“But what does it mean, Dan? Is he an ally? Should we try to recruit him? Or is he the one that'd convinced Debra she needs to take over the Mansion?”
Dan shook his head. “I'm not even sure that she wants to take over the Mansion. I know Debra, all she wants to do is turn ideas into things, as fast and as copiously as possible. She picks her projects carefully. She's acquisitive, sure, but she's cautious. She had a great idea for Presidents, and so she took over. I never heard her talk about the Mansion.”
“Of course you didn't. She's cagey. Did you hear her talk about the Hall of Presidents?”
Dan fumbled. “Not really… I mean, not in so many words, but—”
“But nothing,” I said. “She's after the Mansion, she's after the Magic Kingdom, she's after the Park. She's taking over, goddamn it, and I'm the only one who seems to have noticed.”
I came clean to Lil about my systems that night, as we were fighting. Fighting had become our regular evening pastime, and Dan had taken to sleeping at one of the hotels on-site rather than endure it.
I'd started it, of course. “We're going to get killed if we don't get off our asses and start the rehab,” I said, slamming myself down on the sofa and kicking at the scratched coffee table. I heard the hysteria and unreason in my voice and it just made me madder. I was frustrated by not being able to check in on Suneep and Dan, and, as usual, it was too late at night to call anyone and do anything about it. By the morning, I'd have forgotten again.
From the kitchen, Lil barked back, “I'm doing what I can, Jules. If you've got a better way, I'd love to hear about it.”
“Oh, bullshit. I'm doing what I can, planning the thing out. I'm ready to go. It was your job to get the ad-hocs ready for it, but you keep telling me they're not. When will they be?”
“Jesus, you're a nag.”
“I wouldn't nag if you'd only fucking make it happen. What are you doing all day, anyway? Working shifts at the Mansion? Rearranging deck chairs on the Great Titanic Adventure?”
“I'm working my fucking ass off. I've spoken to every goddamn one of them at least twice this week about it.”
“Sure,” I hollered at the kitchen. “Sure you have.”
“Don't take my word for it, then. Check my fucking phone logs.”
“Well? Check them!”
“I'll check them later,” I said, dreading where this was going.
“Oh, no you don't,” she said, stalking into the room, fuming. “You can't call me a liar and then refuse to look at the evidence.” She planted her hands on her slim little hips and glared at me. She'd gone pale and I could count every freckle on her face, her throat, her collarbones, the swell of her cleavage in the old vee-neck shirt I'd given her on a day-trip to Nassau.
“Well?” she asked. She looked ready to wring my neck.
“I can't,” I admitted, not meeting her eyes.
“Yes you can—here, I'll dump it to your public directory.”
Her expression shifted to one of puzzlement when she failed to locate me on her network. “What's going on?”
So I told her. Offline, outcast, malfunctioning.
“Well, why haven't you gone to the doctor? I mean, it's been weeks. I'll call him right now.”
“Forget it,” I said. “I'll see him tomorrow. No sense in getting him out of bed.”
But I didn't see him the day after, or the day after that. Too much to do, and the only times I remembered to call someone, I was too far from a public terminal or it was too late or too early. My systems came online a couple times, and I was too busy with the plans for the Mansion. Lil grew accustomed to the drifts of hard copy that littered the house, to printing out her annotations to my designs and leaving them on my favorite chair—to living like the cavemen of the information age had, surrounded by dead trees and ticking clocks.
Being offline helped me focus. Focus is hardly the word for it—I obsessed. I sat in front of the terminal I'd brought home all day, every day, crunching plans, dictating voicemail. People who wanted to reach me had to haul ass out to the house, and speak to me.
I grew too obsessed to fight, and Dan moved back, and then it was my turn to take hotel rooms so that the rattle of my keyboard wouldn't keep him up nights. He and Lil were working a full-time campaign to recruit the ad-hoc to our cause, and I started to feel like we were finally in harmony, about to reach our goal.
I went home one afternoon clutching a sheaf of hardcopy and burst into the living room, gabbling a mile-a-minute about a wrinkle on my original plan that would add a third walk-through segment to the ride, increasing the number of telepresence rigs we could use without decreasing throughput.
I was mid-babble when my systems came back online. The public chatter in the room sprang up on my HUD.
And then I'm going to tear off every stitch of clothing and jump you.
And then what?
I'm going to bang you till you limp.
Jesus, Lil, you are one rangy cowgirl.
My eyes closed, shutting out everything except for the glowing letters. Quickly, they vanished. I opened my eyes again, looking at Lil, who was flushed and distracted. Dan looked scared.
“What's going on, Dan?” I asked quietly. My heart hammered in my chest, but I felt calm and detached.
“Jules,” he began, then gave up and looked at Lil.
Lil had, by that time, figured out that I was back online, that their secret messaging had been discovered.
“Having fun, Lil?” I asked.
Lil shook her head and glared at me. “Just go, Julius. I'll send your stuff to the hotel.”
“You want me to go, huh? So you can bang him till he limps?”
“This is my house, Julius. I'm asking you to get out of it. I'll see you at work tomorrow—we're having a general ad-hoc meeting to vote on the rehab.”
It was her house.
“Lil, Julius—” Dan began.
“This is between me and him,” Lil said. “Stay out of it.”
I dropped my papers—I wanted to throw them, but I dropped them, flump, and I turned on my heel and walked out, not bothering to close the door behind me.
Dan showed up at the hotel ten minutes after I did and rapped on my door. I was all-over numb as I opened the door. He had a bottle of tequila—my tequila, brought over from the house that I'd shared with Lil.
He sat down on the bed and stared at the logo-marked wallpaper. I took the bottle from him, got a couple glasses from the bathroom and poured.
“It's my fault,” he said.
“I'm sure it is,” I said.
“We got to drinking a couple nights ago. She was really upset. Hadn't seen you in days, and when she did see you, you freaked her out. Snapping at her. Arguing. Insulting her.”
“So you made her,” I said.
He shook his head, then nodded, took a drink. “I did. It's been a long time since I…”
“You had sex with my girlfriend, in my house, while I was away, working.”
“Jules, I'm sorry. I did it, and I kept on doing it. I'm not much of a friend to either of you.
“She's pretty broken up. She wanted me to come out here and tell you it was all a mistake, that you were just being paranoid.”
We sat in silence for a long time. I refilled his glass, then my own.
“I couldn't do that,” he said. “I'm worried about you. You haven't been right, not for months. I don't know what it is, but you should get to a doctor.”
“I don't need a doctor,” I snapped. The liquor had melted the numbness and left burning anger and bile, my constant companions. “I need a friend who doesn't fuck my girlfriend when my back is turned.”
I threw my glass at the wall. It bounced off, leaving tequila-stains on the wallpaper, and rolled under the bed. Dan started, but stayed seated. If he'd stood up, I would've hit him. Dan's good at crises.
“If it's any consolation, I expect to be dead pretty soon,” he said. He gave me a wry grin. “My Whuffie's doing good. This rehab should take it up over the top. I'll be ready to go.”
That stopped me. I'd somehow managed to forget that Dan, my good friend Dan, was going to kill himself.
“You're going to do it,” I said, sitting down next to him. It hurt to think about it. I really liked the bastard. He might've been my best friend.
There was a knock at the door. I opened it without checking the peephole. It was Lil.
She looked younger than ever. Young and small and miserable. A snide remark died in my throat. I wanted to hold her.
She brushed past me and went to Dan, who squirmed out of her embrace.
“No,” he said, and stood up and sat on the windowsill, staring down at the Seven Seas Lagoon.
“Dan's just been explaining to me that he plans on being dead in a couple months,” I said. “Puts a damper on the long-term plans, doesn't it, Lil?”
Tears streamed down her face and she seemed to fold in on herself. “I'll take what I can get,” she said.
I choked on a knob of misery, and I realized that it was Dan, not Lil, whose loss upset me the most.
Lil took Dan's hand and led him out of the room.
I guess I'll take what I can get, too, I thought.
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