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PART III


Sammy had filled a cooler and stuck it in the back-seat of his car the night before, programmed his coffee-maker, and when his alarm roused him at 3AM, he hit the road. First he guzzled his thermos of lethal coffee, then reached around in back for bottles of icy distilled water. He kept the windows rolled down and breathed in the swampy, cool morning air, the most promising air of the Florida day, before it all turned to steam and sizzle.

He didn’t bother looking for truck-stops when he needed to piss, just pulled over on the turnpike’s side and let fly. Why not? At that hour, it was just him and the truckers and the tourists with morning flights.

He reached Miami ahead of schedule and had a diner-breakfast big enough to kill a lesser man, a real fatkins affair. He got back on the road groaning from the chow and made it to the old Wal-Mart just as the merchants were setting up their market on the roadside.

When he’d done the Boston ride, he’d been discouraged that they’d kept on with their Who-ville Xmas even though he’d grinched away all their fun, but this time he was expecting something like this. Watching these guys sell souvenirs at the funeral for the ride made him feel pretty good this time around: their disloyalty had to be a real morale-killer for those ride-operators.

The cops were getting twitchy, which made him grin. Twitchy cops were a key ingredient for bad trouble. He reached behind him and pulled an iced coffee from the cooler and cracked it, listening to the hiss as the embedded CO2 cartridge forced bubbles through it.

Now here came a suit. He looked like a genuine mighty morphin’ power broker, which made Sammy worry, because a guy like that hadn’t figured into his plans, but look at that; he was having a huge fight with the eyebrow guy and now the eyebrow guy was running away from him.

Getting the lawyers to agree to spring the budget to file in every location where there was a ride had been tricky. Sammy had had to fudge a little on his research, claim that they were bringing in real money, tie it to the drop in numbers in Florida, and generally do a song and dance, but it was all worth it. These guys clearly didn’t know whether to shit or go blind.

Now eyebrow man was headed for the cop-cars and the entrance, and there, oh yes, there it was. Five cars’ worth of goths, lugging bags full of some kind of home-made or scavenged horror-memorabilia, pulling up short at the entrance.

They piled out of their cars and started milling around, asking questions. Some approached the cops, who seemed in no mood to chat. The body-language could be read at 150 feet:

Goth: But officer, I wanna get on this riiiiiide.

Cop: You sicken me.

Goth: All around me is gloom, gloom. Why can’t I go on my riiiiiide?

Cop: I would like to arrest you and lock you up for being a weird, sexually ambiguous melodramatic who’s dumb enough to hang around out of doors, all in black, in Florida.

Goth: Can I take your picture? I’m gonna put it on my blog and then everyone will know what a meanie you are.

Cop: Yap yap yap, little bitch. You go on photographing me and mouthing off, see how long it is before you’re in cuffs in the back of this car.

Scumbag street-vendors: Ha ha ha, look at these goth kids mouthing off to the law, that cop must have minuscule testicles!

Cop: Don’t make me angry, you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

Eyebrow guy: Um, can everyone just be nice? I’d prefer that this all not go up in flames.

Scumbags, goths: Hurr hurr hurr, shuttup, look at those dumb cops, ahahaha.

Cops: Grrrr.

Eyebrow: Oh, shit.

Four more cars pulled up. Now the shoulder was getting really crowded and freeway traffic was slowing to a crawl.

More goths piled out. Family cars approached the snarl, slowed, then sped up again, not wanting to risk the craziness. Maybe some of them would get on the fucking turnpike and drive up to Orlando, where the real fun was.

The four-lane road was down to about a lane and a half, and milling crowds from the shantytown and the arriving cars were clogging what remained of the thoroughfare. Now goths were parking their cars way back at the intersection and walking over, carrying the objects they’d planned to sacrifice to the ride and smoking clove cigarettes.

Sammy saw Death Waits before Death Waits turned his head, and so Sammy had time to duck down before he was spotted. He giggled to himself and chugged his coffee, crouched down below the window.

The situation was heating up now. Lots of people were asking questions of the cops. People trying to drive through got shouted at by the people in the road. Sometimes a goth would slam a fist down on a hood and there’d be a little bit of back and forth. It was a powder-keg, and Sammy decided to touch it off.

He swung his car out into the road and hit the horn and revved his engine, driving through the crowd just a hair faster than was safe. People slapped his car as it went by and he just leaned on the horn, ploughing through, scattering people who knocked over vendors’ tables and stepped on their wares.

In his rear-view, he saw the chaos begin. Someone threw a punch, someone slipped, someone knocked over a table of infringing merch. Wa-hoo! Party time!

He hit the next left, then pointed his car at the freeway. He reached back and snagged another can of coffee and went to work on it. As the can hissed open, he couldn’t help himself: he chuckled. Then he laughed—a full, loud belly-laugh.

Perry watched it happen as though it were all a dream: The crowds thickening. The cops getting out of their cars and putting their hands on their belts. A distant siren. More people milling around, hanging out in the middle of the road, like idiots, idiots. Then that jerk in the car—what the hell was he thinking, he was going to kill someone!

And then it all exploded. There was a knot of fighting bodies over by the tables, and the knot was getting bigger. The cops were running for them, batons out, pepper-spray out. Perry shouted something, but he couldn’t hear himself. In a second the crowd noises had gone from friendly to an angry roar.

Perry spotted Suzanne watching it all through the viewfinder on her phone, presumably streaming it live, then shouted again, an unheard warning, as a combatant behind her swung wide and clocked her in the head. She went down and he charged for her.

He’d just reached her when a noise went off that dropped him to his knees. It was their antipersonnel sound-cannon, which meant that Lester was around here somewhere. The sound was a physical thing, it made his bowels loose and made his head ring like a gong. Thought was impossible. Everything was impossible except curling up and wrapping your hands around your head.

Painfully, he raised his head and opened his eyes. All around him, people were on their knees. The cops, though, had put giant industrial earmuffs on, the kind of thing you saw jackhammer operators wearing. They were moving rapidly toward… Lester who was in a pickup truck with the AP horn stuck in the cargo bed, wired into the cigarette lighter. They had guns drawn and Lester was looking at them wide-eyed, hands in the air.

Their mouths were moving, but whatever they were saying was inaudible. Perry took his phone out of his pocket and aimed it at them. He couldn’t move without spooking them and possibly knocking himself out from the sound, but he could rodneyking them as they advanced on Lester. He could practically read Lester’s thoughts: If I move to switch this off, they’ll shoot me dead.

The cops closed on Lester and then the sour old male cop was up in the bed and he had Lester by the collar, throwing him to the ground, pointing his gun. His partner moved quickly and efficiently around the bed, eventually figuring out how to unplug the horn. The silence rang in his head. He couldn’t hear anything except a dog-whistle whine from his abused eardrums. Around him, people moved sluggishly, painfully.

He got to his feet as quick as he could and drunk-walked to the truck. Lester was already in plastic cuffs and leg-restraints, and the big, dead-eyed cop was watching an armored police bus roll toward them in the eerie silence of their collective deafness.

Perry managed to switch his phone over to streaming, so that it was uploading everything instead of recording it locally. He faded back behind some of the cars for cover and kept rolling as the riot bus disgorged a flying squadron of helmeted cops who began to methodically and savagely grab, cuff, and toss the groaning crowd lying flat on the ground. He wanted to add narration, but he didn’t trust himself to whisper, since he couldn’t hear his own voice.

A hand came down on his shoulder and he jumped, squeaked, and fell into a defensive pose, waiting for the truncheon to hit him, but it was Suzanne, grim faced, pointing her own phone. She had a laminated press-pass out in her free hand and was holding it up beside her head like a talisman. She pointed off down the road, where some of the goth kids who’d just been arriving when things went down were more ambulatory, having been somewhat shielded from the noise. They were running and being chased by cops. She made a little scooting gesture and Perry understood that she meant he should be following them, getting the video. He sucked in a big breath and nodded once and set off. She gave his hand a firm squeeze and he felt that her palms were slick with sweat.

He kept low and moved slow, keeping the viewfinder up so that he could keep the melee in shot. He hoped like hell that someone watching this online would spring for his bail.

Miraculously, he reached the outlier skirmish without being spotted. He recorded the cops taking the goths down, cuffing them, and hooding one kid who was thrashing like a fish on a hook. It seemed that he would never be spotted. He crept forward, slowly, slowly, trying to feel invisible and unnoticed, trying to project it.

It worked. He was getting incredible footage. He was practically on top of the cops before anyone noticed him. Then there was a shout and a hand grabbed for his phone and the spell was broken. Suddenly his heart was thundering, his pulse pounding in his ears.

He turned on his heel and ran. A mad giggle welled up in his chest. His phone was still streaming, presumably showing wild, nauseous shots of the landscape swinging past as he pumped his arm. He was headed for the ride, for the rear entrance, where he knew he could take cover. He felt the footsteps thud behind him, dimly heard the shouts—but his temporary deafness drowned out the words.

He had his fob out before he reached the doors and he badged in, banging the fob over the touch-plate an instant before slamming into the crash-bar and the doors swung open. He waited in agitation for the doors to hiss shut slowly after him and then it was the gloom of the inside of the ride, dark in his sun-adjusted eyesight.

It was only when the doors shivered behind him that he realized what he’d just done. They’d break in and come and get him, and in the process, they’d destroy the ride, for spite. His eyes were adjusting to the gloom now and he made out the familiar/unfamiliar shapes of the dioramas, now black and lacy with goth memorabilia. This place gave him calm and joy. He would keep them from destroying it.

He set his phone down on the floor, propped against a plaster skull so that the doorway was in the shot. He walked to the door and shouted as loud as he could, his voice inaudible in his own ears. “I’m coming out now!” he shouted. “I’m opening the doors!”

He waited for a two-count, then reached for the lock. He turned it and let the door crash open as two cops in riot-visors came through, pepper-spray at the fore. He was down on the ground, writhing and clawing at his face in an instant, and the phone caught it all.

All Perry wanted was for someone to cut the plastic cuffs off so he could scrub at his eyes, though he knew that would only make it worse. The riot-bus sounded like an orgy, moaning and groaning with dozens of voices every time the bus jounced over a pothole.

Perry was on the floor of the bus, next to a kid—judging from the voice—who cursed steadily the whole way along. One hard jounce made their heads connect and they both cussed, then apologized to one another, then laughed a little.

“My name’s Perry.” His voice sounded like he was underwater, but he could hear. The pepper spray seemed to have cleared out his sinuses and given him back some of his hearing.

“I’m Death Waits.” He said it without any drama. Perry wasn’t sure if he’d heard right. He supposed he had. Goth kids.

“Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise.” Their heads were banged together again. They laughed and cursed.

“Christ my face hurts,” Perry said.

“I’m not surprised. You look like a tomato.”

“You can see?”

“Lucky me, yup. I got a pretty good couple of whacks on the back and shoulders once I was down, but no gas.”

“Lucky you all right.”

“I’m more pissed that I lost the tombstone I brought down. It was a real rarity, and it was hard to get, too. I bet it got tromped.”

“Tombstone, huh?”

“From the Graveyard Walk at Disney. They tore it down last week.”

“And you were bringing it to add it to the ride?”

“Sure—that’s where it belongs.”

Perry’s face still burned, but the pain was lessening. Before it had been like his face was on fire. Now it was like a million fire ants biting him. He tried to put it out of his mind by concentrating on the pain in his wrists where the plastic straps were cutting into him.

“Why?”

There was a long silence. “Has to go somewhere. Better there than in a vault or in the trash.”

“How about selling it to a collector?”

“You know, it never occurred to me. It means too much to go to a collector.”

“The tombstone means too much?”

“I know it sounds stupid, but it’s true. You heard that Disney’s tearing out all the goth stuff? Fantasyland meant a lot to some of us.”

“You didn’t feel like it was, what, co-opting you?”

“Dude, you can buy goth clothes at a chain of mall-stores. We’re all over the mainstream/non-mainstream fight. If Disney wants to put together a goth homeland, that’s all right with me. And that ride, it was the best place to remember it. You know that it got copied over every night to other rides around the country? So all the people who loved the old Disney could be part of the memorial, even if they couldn’t come to Florida. We had the idea last week and everyone loved it.”

“So you were putting stuff from Disney rides into my ride?”

“Your ride?”

“Well, I built it.”

“No fucking way.”

“Way.” He smiled and that made his face hurt.

“Dude, that is the coolest thing ever. You built that? How did—How do you become the kind of person who can build one of those things? I’m out of work and trying to figure out what to do next.”

“Well, you could join one of the co-ops that’s building the other rides.”

“Sure, I guess. But I want to be the kind of person who invents the idea of making something like that. Did you get an electrical engineering degree or something?”

“Just picked it up as I went along. You could do the same, I’m sure. But hang on a sec—you were putting stuff from Disney rides into my ride?”

“Well, yeah. But it was stuff they’d torn down.”

Perry’s eyes streamed. This couldn’t be a coincidence, stuff from Disney rides showing up in his ride and the cops turning up to enforce a court order Disney got. But he couldn’t blame this kid, who sounded like a real puppy-dog.

“Wait, you don’t think the cops were there because—”

“Probably. No hard feelings though. I might have done the same in your shoes.”

“Oh shit, I am so sorry. I didn’t think it through at all, I can see that now. Of course they’d come after you. They must totally hate you. I used to work there, they just hate anything that takes a Florida tourist dollar. It’s why they built the monorail extension to Orlando airport—to make sure that from the moment you get off the plane, you don’t spend a nickel on anything that they don’t sell you. I used to think it was cool, because they built such great stuff, but then they went after the new Fantasyland—”

“You can’t be a citizen of a themepark,” Perry said.

The kid barked a laugh. “Man, how true is that? You’ve nailed it, pal.”

Perry managed to crack an eye, painfully, and catch a blurry look at the kid: a black Edward Scissorhands dandelion clock of hair, eyeliner, frock-coat—but a baby-face with cheeks you could probably see from the back of his head. About as threatening as a Smurf. Perry felt a sudden, delayed rush of anger. How dare they beat up kids like this “Death Waits”—all he wanted to do was ride a goddamned ride! He wasn’t a criminal, wasn’t out rolling old ladies or releasing malicious bioorganisms on the beach!

The bus turned a sharp corner and their heads banged together again. They groaned and then the doors were being opened and Perry squeezed his eyes shut again.

Rough hands seized him and marched him into the station house. The crowd susurrations were liquid in his screwed-up ears. He couldn’t smell or see, either. He felt like he was in some kind of terrible sensory deprivation nightmare, and it made him jerky, so whenever a hand took him and guided him to another station in the check-in process (his wallet lifted from his pocket, his cheek swabbed, his fingers pressed against a fingerprint scanner) he flinched involuntarily. The hands grew rougher and more insistent. At one point, someone peeled open his swollen eyelid, a feeling like being stabbed in the eye, and his retina was scanned. He screamed and heard laughter, distant through his throbbing eardrums.

It galvanized him. He forced his eyes open, glaring at the cops around him. Mostly they were Florida crackers, middle-aged guys with dead-eyed expressions of impersonal malevolence. There was a tiny smattering of brown faces and women’s faces, but they were but a sprinkling when compared to the dominant somatype of Florida law.

The next time someone grabbed him to shove him towards the next station on this quest, he jerked his arm away and sat down. He’d seen protestors do this before, and knew that it was hard to move a sitting man expeditiously or with dignity. Hands seized him by the arms, and he flailed until he was free, remaining firmly seated. The laughter was turning to anger now. Beside him, someone else sat. Death Waits, looking white-faced and round-eyed. More people hit the floor. A billy-club was shoved under his arm, which was then twisted into an agonizing position. He was suddenly ready to give up the fight and go along, but he couldn’t get to his feet fast enough. With a sickening crack, his arm broke. He had a moment’s lucid awareness that a bone had broken in his body, and then the pain was on him and he choked out a shout, then a louder one, and then everything went dark.

As it turned out, his prison infirmary time didn’t last long at all. Kettlewell had faded fast from the riot, headed back to the guesthouse and got the lawyers on the phone. He’d shown them the stream off of Perry’s phone and they were in front of a judge before Perry reached the jail.

Perry was led out of the infirmary with his arm in a sling. His face was still painfully swollen, and he’d managed to turn an ankle as well. At least his hearing was coming back.

Kettlewell took Perry’s good arm and gave him a soulful hug that embarrassed him. Kettlewell led him outside, to where a big cab was waiting. In it were the family Kettlewell, Lester, and Suzanne. Lester had a couple bandages taped to his face and when Suzanne smiled, he saw her lips were stained red and one of her front teeth had been knocked out.

He managed a brave smile. “Looks like you guys got the full treatment, huh?”

Suzanne squeezed his hand. “Nothing that can’t be fixed.” Ada and Pascal looked goggle-eyed at them. Ada was popping Korean lotus-bean walnut cakes into her mouth from a greasy paper bag, and she offered them silently to Perry, who took one just to be polite, but found after the first bite that he wasn’t really hungry after all.

Kettlewell and Perry fought about what to do next, but Kettlewell prevailed. He took them to a private doctor who photographed them and examined them and x-rayed them, documenting everything while Ada Kettlewell played camera-woman with her phone, videoing it all.

“I don’t think suing the police is going to help, Landon,” Perry said. Suzanne nodded vigorously. The three victims were in paper examining gowns, and the Kettlewells were still in street clothes, which gave them a real advantage in the self-confidence department.

“It’ll help if we cash out a big settlement—it’ll bankroll our defense against the Disney trademark claims. IP lawyers charge more than God per hour. I got the injunction lifted, but we’re still going to have to go to court, and that’s not going to be cheap.”

It needled Perry—he didn’t like the idea of being embroiled in the legal system in the first place, and while he could grudgingly admit a certain elegance in using cash settlements from the law to fund their defense in court, the whole business made him squirm.

Eva sat down beside him. “I can tell this sucks for you, Perry.” Ada whispered the word sucks and giggled, and Eva rolled her eyes. “But there’s fifty people we didn’t bail out in there, who are all of them going to have to figure out their own way through the legal system. You can’t run a business if your customers risk a solid beating and jail time just for showing up.”

I don’t want to run a business, he thought, but he knew that was petulant. He was the man with the roll of bills down his pants. “There are fifty people still in the slam?”

Kettlewell nodded. Suzanne had her camera out and she was recording. It had been a long time since Perry had really felt the camera’s eye on him. It was one thing to be recorded by some friends for remembrance, but now Suzanne’s camera seemed like the gaze of posterity. He needed to rise to it, he knew.

“Let’s get them out. All of them.”

Kettlewell raised his eyebrows. “And how do you plan on doing that?”

“We’ll charge it to the business,” Perry said. Lester chuckled and gave him a thump on the back. “It’s a legit expense—these are our customers after all.”

Kettlewell shook his head at all of them, then he left the doctor’s office. He already had his phone stuck to his head and was talking with the lawyer before he got out of earshot.

Perry and Lester and Suzanne and Eva exchanged mischievous glances, grinning with unexpected delight. Pascal, riding on Eva’s hip, woke up and started crying and Eva handed him to Lester while she went for the diaper bag.

“Here we go again,” Lester said, wrinkling his nose and holding the wailing Pascal at arm’s length.

Suzanne got it all with her phone, then she flipped it shut and gave Lester a hard kiss on the cheek.

“Fatherhood would suit you,” she said.

He went bright red. “Don’t you get any ideas,” he said. Suzanne laughed and skipped away, looking all of ten.

Perry felt huge. Larger than life. The adventure was beginning anew, with these good people whom he loved like family. He had the work and the people, and who needed anything more.

It was a feeling that lasted all the way back to the ride.

But then he surveyed the ride itself and found it in utter ruins, far worse than it had been left when he’d been dragged out of it. Every single exhibit was smashed, strewn here and there.

He couldn’t believe it. He brought up the clean-up lights, flooding the place, and then he saw what he’d missed at first: the smashed exhibits were not smashed exhibits—they were replicas of smashed exhibits. At every ride in the country, police had gone in smashing, and every other ride in the country had faithfully reproduced the damage, dutiful printers churning out replica detritus and dutiful robots placing it with micrometer precision.

He began to laugh and couldn’t stop. Lester came in and immediately got the joke and laughed along with him. They managed to stop laughing just long enough to explain it to Suzanne and Kettlewell, who didn’t find it nearly as funny as they did. Suzanne took pictures.

Finally he got down to business, opening the change-log and rolling the ride back through the “revisions” to its unsmashed state. It would take the robots a long time to set everything right again, but at least he didn’t have to oversee it.

Instead, he tracked down as many of the market-stall vendors as he could locate in the shantytown and made sure they were all right—they were, though they’d lost some inventory. He comped them all a month’s rent and made sure they knew that steps were being taken to keep it from happening again. He knew that they could make nearly as much money selling from a roadside or online, and he wanted to keep them happy. Besides, it wasn’t their fault.

He was exhausted and his arm was really starting to gripe him. He found himself stopping in the street every few steps to rub his eyes and force himself on. Francis came on him when he was like that, leaning against the prefab concrete wall of one of the tall, twisty shanties, and he took Perry’s car-keys away and drove him home. Perry was in too much of a state by the time he got there to think about how Francis would get back—he was already lying in bed before it occurred to him that the old man with the gimpy leg probably walked the ten miles home.

He woke up later that night to sex noises from Lester’s room and he recognized Suzanne’s voice. Later, he woke again to hear the tail end of another argument between Lester and Suzanne, and then Suzanne storming out of the apartment. Oh, goody, he thought. He lay on his back, trying to find sleep again—the clock said 3AM—and found thoughts of Hilda drifting unbidden into his mind.

It was silly—they’d only spent one night together, and he had to admit that as great as the sex had been, he’d had better with the fatkins gymnasts you could pick up down on South Beach. She was too young for him. She lived in Wisconsin. But there were touches in the ride that had originated with her instantiation—he looked over the logs every now and then—and he found himself contemplating them with sentimental smiles.

He fell asleep again and only woke when he rolled over on his bad arm and yelped himself awake. The smell of waffles, bacon and eggs was strong in the apartment. He couldn’t be bothered to figure out how to shower with his cast on, so he pulled on a pair of shorts and let himself into the living room.

Lester was at the stove, cooking up half a pig and pouring maple batter into the waffle-iron. He waved a spatula at him and pointed out at the terrace. Perry stepped out and saw Suzanne and Tjan and Tjan’s little kids—what were their names? Lyenitchka and the little boy? Man, the whole family was here.

“Your arm is broken,” Lyenitchka said, pointing at him.

Perry nodded gravely. “That’s true. Want to sign my cast?” He was pretty sure that he had a grease-pencil that would mark the surface, though the hospital had sworn that it would shed dirt, ink and anything else he threw at it.

She nodded vigorously. Tjan looked him over and gave a little wave, then Perry went back into the living room and asked his computer to find the grease-pencil.

“Thought you’d be busy in Boston,” he said, while Lyenitchka painstaking spelled out her name, going over the letters to get them to show up dark—the cast surface really didn’t want to suck up any tint.

“Boston came out OK. We had lawyers on tap at the start and the vibe was cool. I incorporated there, so it was easier than you guys had it. But some of the others were hit bad, like San Francisco and Madison.”

Madison?” Perry was alarmed by how alarmed he sounded.

“Mass arrests. The cops there are real hard-cases, with all this antipersonnel gear left over from the stem-cell riots.”

Perry jerked and spoiled Lyenitchka’s writing. He patted her head and set his arm back down where she could get at it. He groaned.

“They’re mostly still in. We’re trying to get them bailed out, but the judge at the arraignment set bail pretty high.”

“I’ll post it,” Perry said. “I can put up my savings or something…”

Tjan looked uncomfortable. “Perry, there are 250 people in the lockup in Wisconsin. Some of them are going to skip out, it’s nearly a certainty. If you bail them all out, you’ll go broke. I mean, it’s good to see you and I’m sorry you got hurt and all respect, but don’t be an idiot.”

Perry felt himself go belligerent. His hands went into fists and his broken wing protested. That brought him back to reality. He forced himself to smile.

“There’s a girl in Madison, I want to make sure she’s OK.”

Tjan and Suzanne stared at him for a second. Then Lester clapped him across the back from behind him, startling him and making him squeak. “Big fella!” he crowed. “I should have known.”

Perry gave him a mock glare. “You have no right to say anything on this score.” He darted a glance at Suzanne and saw that she was blushing. Tjan took this in and nodded, as though his suspicions had just been confirmed.

“Fair enough,” Tjan said. “Let’s make some inquiries about the young lady. What’s her name?”

“Hilda Hammersen.”

Tjan’s eyebrows shot up. “Hilda Hammersen? From the mailing lists? That Hilda?”

Hilda was the queen of the mailing lists—brash, quick, and argumentative, but never the kind of person who started flamewars. Hilda’s arguments were hot and fast, and she always won. Perry had watched her admiringly from the sidelines, only weighing in occasionally, but he seemed to remember now that she’d taken Tjan to the cleaners once on an issue of protocol resolution.

“That’s the one,” Perry said.

“I always pictured her as being about fifty, with a machete between her teeth,” Lester said. “No offense.”

“Lyenitchka, go get my phone from my bed-stand,” Perry said, patting the girl on the shoulder. When she got back he went through his photos of Hilda with them.

Lester made a wolf-whistle and Suzanne punched him in the shoulder and took the phone away.

“She’s very pretty,” Suzanne said, disapprovingly. “And very young.”

“Oh yes, dating younger people is so sleazy,” Lester said with a chuckle. Suzanne squirmed and even Perry had to laugh.

“Guys, here it is. I need to spring Hilda, and we need to do something about all those customers and supporters and so on who went to jail today. We need to fight all the injunctions—all of them—and prevent them from recurring.”

“And we need to eat breakfast, which is ready,” Lester said, gesturing at the table behind him, which was stacked high with waffles, sausages, eggs, toast, and pitchers of juice and carafes of coffee.

Lyenitchka and Sasha looked at each other and ran to the table, taking seats next to one another. The adults followed and soon they were eating. Perry managed a waffle and a sausage, but then he went off to his room. Hilda was in the slam in Madison, and who the hell knew what the antipersonnel stuff the Madison cops used had done to her. He just wanted to get on a fucking plane and go there.

Halfway through his shower, he knew that that was what he was going to do. He packed a shoulder-bag, took a couple more painkillers, and walked out into the living room.

“Guys, I’m going to Madison. I’ll be back in a day or two. We’ll work everything out over the phone, OK?”

Lester and Suzanne came over to him. “You going to be OK, buddy?” Lester said.

“I’ll be fine,” he said.

“We can spring her from here,” Tjan said. “We have the Internet, you know.”

“I know,” Perry said. “You do that, OK? And tell her I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

The security at the airport went bonkers over him. The perfect storm: a fresh arrest, a suspicious cast, and a ticket bought with cash. He missed the first two flights to Chicago, but by mid-afternoon he was landing at O’Hare and submitting to an interim screening procedure before boarding for Madison. His phone rang in the middle of the screening, and the wrinkly old TSA goon-lady primly informed him that he might as well get that since once the phone rings, they have to start the procedure over again.

“Tjan,” he said.

“They can’t spring her today. Tomorrow, though.”

He closed his eyes and shut out the TSA goon. She had a huge bouffant of copper hair, and a midwesterner’s sense of proportionality when it came to eye-shadow and rouge. She was the kind of woman who could call you “honey” and make it sound like “Islamofascist faggot.”

“Why not, Tjan?”

There was a pause. “She’s in the infirmary and they won’t release her until tomorrow.”

“Infirmary.”

“Nothing serious—she took a knock on the head and they want to hold her for observation.”

He pictured a copper’s electrified billy-club coming down on shining blond hair and felt like throwing up.

“Perry? Buddy. She’s OK, really. I had our lawyer visit her in the prison infirmary and she swears she looks great. The lawyer’s name is Candice—take a cab to her office from the airport. OK?”

“Why is she in the prison infirmary, Tjan? Why can’t she be moved to a real hospital?”

“It’s just a liability thing. The police don’t want to risk the suit if she goes complicated on them between hospitals.”

“Jesus.”

“Seriously, she’s fine. We’ve got a good lawyer on the scene.”

But Perry had a bad feeling. The TSA goon picked up on it and gave him a little bit of extra attention. Acting nervous or agitated in an airport was a one-way ticket to a cavity search.

But then he was lifting off and headed for Madison, and though the time crawled on the one-hour flight, it was, after all, only an hour. He even napped briefly, though a sky marshall woke him shortly after for a random bag-search. His fellow passengers—badly dressed midwesterners and a couple of hipster students—all turned their bags out in the cramped cabin and then got back in their seats for the landing.

Perry had meant to phone in a car reservation at O’Hare, but the extra search had eaten up the time he’d allocated for it, and now all the rental counters were sold out. Reluctantly, he got into a taxi and asked the driver to take him to the office of the lawyers that Tjan had hired.

The cabbie was a young African kid with a shaved head. He had a dent in one temple and more dents in one of his wrists, visible as he let his long hands drape over the steering wheel.

“I know where it is,” he said when Perry gave him the address. “That lawyer, she is very good. She helped me with the Homeland Security.”

The kid was young, 21 or 22, with a studious air, despite his old injuries. He reminded Perry of the shantytowners, people who didn’t always get medical attention for their ailments, people who were often missing a tooth or two, who had mysterious lumps from badly-set bones or scars or funny eyebrows like his. The midwesterners on the plane had been flawless as action-figures, but Perry’s friends and this African kid looked like something carved out of coal and chalk.

Perry was one big jitter from the trip and the coffee and the pills for his arm, but he found himself drawn into conversation as they whizzed past the fields and malls, the factories and office-parks.

“I’m from Gulu, in Uganda. There has been civil war there for thirty five years. I studied chemical engineering through the African Virtual University wiki-program, and qualified for a Chavez scholarship here in Madison.” His accent was light but exotic, the African rolling of the Rs, the British-sounding vowel-shifts. “But the Homeland Security didn’t want to renew my visa last year. They said I had financial irregularities. I was paypalling to a friend in Kampala who withdrew it in shillings and sent it to my family in giros. Homeland Security said that I was money laundering. I thought I’d be sent away or put in prison, but Ms Candice wrote them a letter and they vanished.” He snapped his long, knuckly fingers for emphasis.

“Jesus. Well, that’s good. She’s going to help me get my girlfriend out of jail.” Perry realized he’d just called Hilda his girlfriend, which would be news to her, but there it was.

“You don’t need to worry. She’ll get your friend free.”

Perry nodded and tried to close his eyes and relax. He couldn’t. What the hell had happened to the world. It had seemed so exciting when his father was bringing home new shapes he’d spun off his CAD/CAM rig. When Perry had started to trade designs with people, to effortlessly find people on the net who wanted to collaborate with him and vice-versa. When Perry had started a business making cool art out of free junk and selling it off an Internet connection that was likewise free.

Free, free, free. No need to talk to a government, or grovel for a curator, or put up with an agent or a boss. He’d just assumed all along that he’d end up living in a world where all those parasites and bullies and middlemen would just blow away in the wind.

But they’d all found jobs in the new world. They weren’t needed anymore, but that didn’t mean that they went away. Now they were wanding him in airports and suing him for trademark infringement and busting his girlfriend and breaking his arm and giving hassle to this poor African kid who’d taught himself to be an engineer with a ferchrissakes wiki.

He dry-swallowed another pain-killer and then remembered that taking the pills meant he wouldn’t be able to get a drink, which he could sure as shit use.

“My name’s Perry,” he said.

“Richard,” the driver said. “We’re almost there, Perry. I wish you the very best of luck.”

“You too,” he said. The driver shook his hand warmly after getting his luggage out of the trunk, a limp handshake by North American standards, but gentle and friendly nonetheless. His dented wrist flexed oddly as the half-knit bones there moved.

The lawyer’s office was not what Perry was expecting. It looked like someone’s living room, with a couple of overstuffed sofas, a dozing cat, and the lawyer, Candice, who was a young-looking woman in her mid-twenties. She dressed in jeans and an oversized UW sweatshirt, with a laptop perched on one knee. She had a friendly, open face, framed with lots of curly brown hair.

“You must be Perry,” she said, setting the laptop down and giving him an unexpected hug. “That was from Hilda. I saw her a couple hours ago. She was very adamant that I pass it on to you.”

“Nice to meet you, he said, accepting a cup of tea from an insulated jug on a cardboard side-board. “Hilda is all right?”

“Sit down,” the lawyer said.

Perry’s stomach turned a somersault. “Hilda’s all right?”

“Sit.”

Perry sat.

“She was gassed with a neurotoxin that has given her a temporary but severe form of Parkinson’s disease. Normally it just renders people immobile, but one in a million has a reaction like this. It’s just bad luck that Hilda was one of them.”

“She was gassed?”

“They all were. There was a hell of a fight, as I understand it. It really looks like it was the cops’ fault. Someone told them that there were printed guns in the ride-location and they used extreme and disproportionate force.”

“I see,” Perry said. His blood whooshed in his ears. Printed guns? No frigging way. Sure, ray-guns in some of the exhibits. But nothing that fired anything. He felt tears begin to stream down his face. The lawyer moved to his sofa and put her arm around his shoulders.

“She’s going to be fine,” Candice said. “The Parkinson’s is rare, but it goes away in 100 percent of the the cases where it occurs. What this means is that we’ve got an amazing chance of taking a huge bite out of the local law that we can use to fund future defense. Tjan told me that that’s the strategy and I think it’s sound. Plus the harder we hit the law today, the more reluctant they’ll be to rush off half-cocked the next time someone trumps up a BS trademark claim. It could be much worse, Perry. There’s a kid who lost an eye to a rubber bullet.”

Perry fisted the tears away. “Let’s go get her,” he said.

“They say she shouldn’t be moved,” Candice said.

“What does our doctor say?”

“I phoned a couple MDs this afternoon and got conflicting stories. Everyone agrees that not moving her is safer than moving her, though. The only disagreement is about how dangerous it would be to move her.”

“Let’s go see her, then.”

“That we can do.”

Perry had trouble with the search at the prison hospital. His cast and their scanners didn’t get along and they couldn’t be satisfied with a hand search. For a couple minutes it looked like he was going to be kept out, but Candice—who had changed into a power-suit before they left the office—put on a stern voice and demanded to speak to the duty sergeant, and then to his commanding officer, and in ten minutes, they were on the hospital ward, where the metal-railed beds had prisoners handcuffed to them.

“Hilda?” She looked sunken and sick, her face slack and her jaw askew. Her eyes opened and rolled crazily, they focused on him. Her body shook through two waves of tremors before she was able to raise a shaking hand toward him, trailing IV tubes. She was trying to say his name, but it wouldn’t come out, just a series of plosive Ps.

But then he took her hand and felt its fine warmth, the calluses he remembered from all those months ago, and he felt better. Actually better. Felt some peace for the first time in a long time.

“Hello, Hilda,” he said, and he was smiling so broadly his face hurt, and tears were running down his cheeks and dripping off his nose and running into his mouth. She was weeping, too, her head vibrating like a bobble-doll. He bent over her and took her head in his hands, burying them in her thick blond hair, and kissed her on the lips. She shook under him, but she kissed him back, he could feel her lips move on his.

They kissed for a long time. He subconsciously took note of the fact that Candice had moved back, giving them some privacy. When the kiss broke, he had an overwhelming desire to tell her he loved her, but they hadn’t taken that step yet, and maybe a prison hospital bed wasn’t the right place to make pronouncements of love.

“I love you,” he said softly, in her ear, kissing the lobe. “I love you, Hilda.”

She cried harder, and made choking sobs. He hugged her as hard as he dared. Candice came back and stood by them.

“They think that she’ll be better in the morning. She’s already much better off than she was just a couple hours ago. Sleep’s the only thing for it. They’ve got her mildly sedated, too.”

Hilda smelled like he remembered, the undersmell beneath her shampoo and the chemicals clinging to her hair. It took him back to their night together, and he stroked her cheek.

“I’ll stay here,” he said.

“I don’t think that they’re going to let you do that, Perry. This is a prison, not a hospital.”

“I’ll stay here,” he said again. “Just make it happen, OK? We’re going to sue them into a smoking hole, right? That’s got to give us some leverage. I’ll stay here.”

She sighed and looked at him for a long time, but he wouldn’t take his eyes off of Hilda. His broken arm throbbed and he was out of painkillers. They’d have painkillers here.

Candice went away, and then, a while later, she came back. “Stay here,” she said. “I’ll come and get you in the morning.”

“Thanks,” he said. Then he thought that he should say something more, and he turned around, but the lawyer had gone.

He fell asleep holding Hilda’s hand with his good hand, and woke up with an unbelievable pain in his broken arm and couldn’t find a nurse. He bit down on the pain and spent a long watch that night staring at Hilda, thinking of all she meant to him and how weird it was that she meant so much when they’d had so brief a moment together. They hadn’t let him bring his phone in, or he’d have taken a thousand pictures of her face in repose. He nodded off again.

He woke when she did, stirring in her bed. Her movements were still weak and feeble, but they lacked the uncontrolled tremors of the night before. He leaned in for a kiss, not caring about his sour breath or hers.

“Good morning,” he said.

“Morning, gorgeous,” she said, and took him in a soft, sleepy hug.

Candice sprung them and took them across town to her doctor, a young man who took great care in examining Hilda, explaining patiently which fluids he was drawing and which tests he planned on running on them. Perry had noticed that midwesterners came in two flavors: big Scandinavian Aryans with giant shoulders and easy smiles, and exchange students and immigrants in varying shades of brown, who looked hurt and bent alongside of the natives—looked like the people he knew from back home, people who didn’t have ready access to medical care or good nutrition in their formative years.

The doctor was Vietnamese, but he was at least a couple generations in, judging by his accent, and he had the same midwestern smile and seemed big and bulky compared with the Vietnamese people Perry knew in Florida. He watched the man peer intently at a screen after taping some electrodes to Hilda’s head, and felt like he’d come to some land of Norse giants.

The doctor eventually told Hilda to go home and rest, and she promised she would. Perry and she got into the back of Candice’s car and cuddled up to one another, dozing. It wasn’t until Perry got back with her to her apartment—every stick of furniture made from clever cardboard—and emptied out his pockets that he remembered to switch his phone on again.

He was down to his boxers and she was in cotton PJs with sexy cowgirls printed on them, and when he powered the phone up, it went bonkers, lighting up like a Christmas tree, vibrating, and making urgent bleats.

“Shit,” he said, and began to sort through the alerts while his back and neck muscles tightened. He sat on the edge of the bed and prodded at the phone with his right hand, holding it awkwardly in his left hand, trying to work around the cast. Hilda took the phone and held it for him so he could work more freely and they both read what was going on.

A second round of lawsuits had been filed that night, and the injunctions had been reinstated. The story about the rides being a source of printed arms and munitions had spread, and in San Francisco the ride had been taken apart by Homeland Security bomb robots that had detonated several key pieces of equipment. Three of the San Francisco ride-crew ended up in the hospital after clashes with overreacting cops.

Hilda nodded and took the phone from him and set it down.

“Right, what’s the game-plan?”

“How should I know?” Perry said. He could hear the whine in his voice. “I just build stuff. Tjan and Candice say that they think we can sue the cops over the brutality and use the money to fund legal defenses, but Disney’s denial-of-service attacking us in the courtroom. They’re also getting all this destruction dealt to us by the cops.”

“You know how you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Let’s break this down into small component pieces and work on solutions to them, then call up the troops and let them know what’s going on. I’ll get a conference call set up while we chat.”

She was still moving slowly and weakly, and he tried to get her to put down her laptop and rest, but she wasn’t having any of it.

And so they worked, dividing the problem up into manageable pieces: incorporating a nonprofit co-op, writing the by-laws, getting the word out through the press, re-opening the rides, putting together scrapbooks of the carnage wrought.

It all seemed do-able once it was reduced to its component parts. Perry put it all online and then conferenced Tjan and Kettlewell in.

“Perry, do you think it’s a good idea to tell our enemies how we plan to respond to them?”

Hilda shook her head and put a hand on Perry’s good arm to calm him down before he answered Kettlewell. “That’s how we do it over on our side. Their side is all about secrecy. Our side trades the advantage of surprise for the advantage of openness. You watch—by tonight we’ll have by-laws drafted, press-releases, exhaustive documentation. You watch.”

On the screen, Lester’s face suddenly hove into view, fish-eye distorted by his proximity to the lens. Hilda gave an amused squeak and pulled back.

“So that’s Yoko, huh?” Lester said, grinning. “Cute! Listen guys, don’t let these suits talk you out of what you’re doing. This is the right thing. I’m on all the message boards and stuff and they’re all champing to do something for real.”

“Yoko?” Hilda said. She raised an adorable eyebrow.

“Just a figure of speech,” Lester said. “I’m Lester. You must be Hilda. Perry’s told us practically nothing about you, which is probably a sign of something or other.”

Hilda regarded Perry with mock coolness. “Oh really?”

“Lester,” Perry said. “I love you like a brother. Shut the fuck up already.”

Lester made a little whipping motion. Suddenly he was gone from the picture, and they saw Suzanne pulling him away by one ear. Hilda snorted. “I like her,” she said. Suzanne gave them a wave and Tjan and Kettlewell came back into frame.

They made their goodbyes and hung up. Now Hilda and Perry were alone, together, in her bedroom, laptops shut, day done—though it was hardly gone noon—and the silence stretched.

“Thanks for coming, Perry,” she said.

“I—” He broke off. He didn’t know what to say. They had only known each other for a day, only had a one-night stand. She probably thought that he was a giant creep. “I was worried.” he said. “Um. You should probably rest up some more, right?”

He got up and headed for the door.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she said.

“Figured I’d let you rest,” he said with a half-shrug.

“Get in this bed this instant, young man,” she said, slapping the bed beside her. “And get those stinky clothes off before you do—I won’t have you getting my sheets all covered in your travel-grime.”

He felt the foolish grin spread across his face and he skinned out of his clothes as fast as he could with his cast on.

They didn’t leave the house until suppertime, freshly showered (she’d been a delightful help in scrubbing those spots where the cast impeded access) and changed. Perry took a painkiller after the shower, which kicked in as they went out the door, and the autumn evening was crisp and sharp.

They got as far as the corner before the man approached them. “Perry Gibbons, isn’t it?” He had an English accent, and a little pot-belly, and a big white bubble-jacket and a scarf wound round his throat.

“That’s right,” Perry said. He looked at the guy. “Do I know you?”

“No, I don’t think so. But I’ve followed you in the press. Quite remarkable.”

“Thanks,” Perry said. Being recognized—how weird was that. Cool that it happened in front of Hilda. “This is Hilda,” he said. She took the man’s hand, and he grinned, showing two long rat-like front teeth.

“Fred,” he said. “What an absolute delight running into you out here of all places. What are you doing in town?”

“Just visiting with friends,” Perry said.

“Wasn’t there some kind of dust-up at your place in Florida? I saw what they did to the ride here, what a bloody mess.”

“Yeah,” Perry said. He pointed at his casted arm. “Seemed like a good time to get out of Dodge.”

Hilda said, “We’re getting some dinner, if you’d like to come along.”

“I wouldn’t want to intrude.”

“No, it’s no sweat, we’ve got a whole bunch of people associated with the ride meeting us. You’d be more than welcome.”

“Goodness, that is hospitable of you. How can I refuse?”

Luke and Ernie were there with their girlfriends, and there were more kids, midwestern and healthy even if they weren’t necessarily all Scandic, some Vietnamese kids, some Hmong, some desis descended from the H1B diaspora. They had a gigantic meal in a student place that was heavy on the potatoes and beers the size of your head, which Perry resisted for a couple hours until he figured that he’d metabolized most of the painkiller and then started in, getting just short of roaring drunk. He told them war stories, told them about Death Waits, told them about the co-op and the plan to fight back.

“That just doesn’t sound right to me,” said a friend of Luke’s, a law-school grad student who had been bending Perry’s ear all night with stories from his law-clinic work defending university students from music-industry lawsuits. “I mean, sure, go after the cops because they roughed you guys up, but how much money do the cops have? You gotta target some fat cash, and for that you want to go after Disney. Abuse of trademark, abuse of process, something like that. The standard’s pretty high, but if you can get a judgement, the money is incredible. You could take them to the cleaners.”

Perry looked blearily at him. He was young, like all of them, but he had a good rhetorical style that Perry recognized as something born of real confidence. He knew his stuff, or thought he did. He had a strawberry mark on his high forehead that looked like a map of a distant island, and Perry thought that the mark probably threw off the kid’s opponents. “So we sue Disney and five years from now we cash in—how does that help us now?”

The kid nodded. “I hoped you’d ask me that. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Here’s what you need to do, dude, here’s the fucking thing.” The room had grown silent. Everyone leaned closer. Fred poured Perry another beer from the pitcher in the middle of the table. “Here’s how you do it. You raise investment capital for it. There’s a ton of money in this, a ton. Disney’s got deep pockets and you’ve got a great case.

“But like you say, it’ll take ten, fifteen years to get the money out of them. And it’ll cost a mil in legal fees on the way. So what you do is, you create an investment syndicate. You can maybe get thirty million out of Disney, plus whatever the jury awards in punitives, and if you keep half of it, you can deliver a fifteen-x return on investment. So go find a millionaire and borrow sixteen million, and turn the defense over to him.”

Perry was dumbstruck. “You’re joking. How can that possibly work?”

“It’s how patent lawsuits work! Some dickhead engineer gets a bogus patent for his doomed startup, and as they’re sinking into the mud, some venture capitalist comes and buys the company up just so it can go around and threaten other companies with real businesses for violating the patent. They ask for sums just below what it would cost to get the US Patent and Trademark Office to invalidate the patent, and everyone ponies up. Venture capitalism is the major source of funding for commercial lawsuits these days.”

Fred laughed and clapped. “Brilliant! Perry, that’s just brilliant. Are you going to do it?”

Perry looked at the table, doodling in the puddles of beer with a fingertip. “I just want to get back to making stuff, you know. This is nuts. Devoting ten years of my life to suing someone?”

“You don’t have to do the suing. That’s the point. You outsource that. You get the money; someone else does the business stuff.” Hilda put her arm around his shoulders. “Give the suits something to occupy themselves with—otherwise they get antsy and stir up trouble.”

Perry and Hilda laughed like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. Fred and the others joined in, and Perry scrawled a drunken note to Tjan and Kettlewell with the info. The party broke up not long after, amid much chortling and snorting, and they staggered home. Fred gave Perry a warm handshake and treated Hilda to a lingering, sloppy hug until she pushed him off, laughing even harder.

“All right then,” Perry said, “home again home again.”

Hilda gave his groin a friendly honk and then made a dash for it, and he gave chase.

PHOTO: A Drunken Perry Gibbons Gets a How’s Your Father From Ride-Bride Hilda Hammersen

MADISON, WI: Say you managed to inspire some kind of “movement” of techno-utopians who built a network of amusement park rides that guide their visitors through an illustrated history of the last dotcom bubble.

Say that your merry band of unwashed polyamorous info-hippies was overtaken by jackbooted thugs from one of the dinosauric media empires of yesteryear, whose legal machinations resulted in nationwide raids, beatings, gassings, and the total shutdown of your “movement.”

What would you do? Sue? Call a press-conference? Bail your loyal followers out of the slam?

Get laid, get shitfaced, and let a bunch of students spitball bullshit ideas for fighting back?

If you picked the latter, you’re in good company. Last night, Perry Gibbons, soi-disant “founder” of the rideafarian religious cult, was spotted out for drinks and cuddles with a group of twentysomething students in the backwater town of Madison, WI, a place better known for its cheddar than its activism.

While Gibbons regaled the impressionable post-adolescents with tales of his derring-do, he avidly noted their strategic suggestions for solving his legal, paramilitary, and technical problems.

One suggestion that drew Gibbons’s attention and admiration was to approach venture capitalists and beg them for the capital to sue Disney and then use the settlements from the suits to pay back the VCs.

This mind-croggling Ponzi scheme is the closest thing to a business model we’ve yet heard of from the chip-addled techno-hippies of the New Work and its post-boom incarnation.

One can only imagine how our Ms Church will cover this in her fan-blog: breathless admiration for Mr Gibbons’s cunning in soliciting yet more “way out of the box” thinking from the Junior Guevaras of the Great Midwest, no doubt.

Perhaps Gibbons can be afforded a little sympathy, though. His latest encounter with Florida law left him with a broken arm and it may be that the pain medication is primarily responsible for Gibbons’s fancy thinking. If that’s the case, we can only hope that his young, blond Scandie nursie will carefully minister him back to health (while his comrades rot in gaol around the country).

This organization needs to die before it gets someone killed.

Comments? Write to Freddy at [email protected]

Lester interrupted Suzanne’s phone-call to break in and announce that he’d run Rat-Toothed Freddy to ground: the reporter had caught the first flight from Madison to Chicago and then gone west to San Jose. The TSA had flagged him as a person-of-interest and were watching his movements, and a little digging on its website could cause it to disclose Freddy’s every airborne movement.

Suzanne relayed this to Perry.

“Don’t you go there,” she said. “He’s gunning for the San Francisco crew, and he’s hoping for a confrontation or a denunciation so that he can print it. He gets idees fixes that he worries at like a terrier, going for more bile.”

“Is he a psycho? What the hell is his beef with me?”

“I think that he thinks that technology hasn’t lived up to its promise and that we should all be demanding better of our tech. So for him, that means that anyone who actually likes technology is the enemy, the worst villain, undermining the case for bringing tech up to its true potential.”

“Fuck, that is so twisted.”

“And given the kind of vile crap he writes, the only readers he has are nut-cases who get off on seeing people who are actually creating stuff flayed alive for their failures. They egg him on—ever see one of his letters columns? If he changed to actual reportage, telling the balanced stories of what was going on in the world, they’d jump ship for some other hate-monger. He’s a lightning-rod for assholes—he’s the king of the trolls.”

Perry looked away. “What do I do?”

“You could try to starve him. If you don’t show your head, he can’t report on you, except by making stuff up—and made-up stuff gets boring, even for the kinds of losers who read his stuff.”

“But I’ve got work to do.”

“Yeah, yeah you do. Maybe you’ve just got to take your lumps. Every complex ecosystem has parasites after all. Maybe you just call up San Francisco and brief them on what to expect from this guy and take it from there.”

Once they were off the line, Lester came up behind her and hugged her at the waist, squeezing the little love-handles there, reminding her of how long it had been since she’d made it to yoga.

“You think that’ll work?”

“Maybe. I’ve been talking to the New Journalism Review about writing a piece on moral responsibility and paid journalism, and if I can bang it out this aft, I bet they’ll publish it tomorrow.”

“What’s that going to do?”

“Well, it’ll distract him from Perry, maybe. It might get his employer to take a hard look at what he’s writing—I mean that piece is just lies, mischaracterizations, and editorial masquerading as reportage.” She put her lid down and paced around the condo, looking at the leaves floating in the pool. “It’ll give me some satisfaction.”

Lester gave her a hug, and it smelled of the old days and the old Lester, the giant, barrel-chested pre-fatkins Lester. It took her back to a simpler time, when they’d had to worry about commercial competition, not police raids.

She hugged him back. He was all hard muscle and zero body-fat underneath his tight shirt. She’d never dated anyone that fit, not even back in high-school. It was a little disorienting, and it made her feel especially old and saggy sometimes, though he never seemed to notice.

Speaking of which, she felt his erection pressing against her midriff, and tried to hide her grin. “Gimme a couple hours, all right?”

She dialed the NJR editor’s number as she slid into her chair and pulled up a text-editor. She knew what she planned on writing, but it would help to be able to share an outline with the NJR if she was going to get this out in good time. Working with editors was a pain after years of writing for the blog, but sometimes you wanted someone else’s imprimatur on your work.

Five hours later, the copy was filed. She rocked back in her chair and stretched her arms high over her head, listening to the crackle of her spine. She’d been half-frozen by the air conditioning, so she’d turned it off and opened a window, and now the condo was hot and muggy. She stripped down to her underwear and headed for the shower, but before she could make it, she was intercepted by Lester.

He fell on her like a dog on dinner, and hours slipped by as they made the apartment even muggier. Lester’s athleticism in the sack was flattering, but sometimes boundless to the point of irritation. She was rescued from it this time by the doorbell.

Lester put on a bathrobe and answered the door, and she heard the sounds of the family Kettlewell spilling in, the kids’ little footfalls pounding up and down the corridors. Hurriedly, Suzanne threw on a robe and ducked across the corridor into the bathroom, but not before catching sight of Eva and Landon. Eva’s expression was grimly satisfied; Landon looked stricken. Fuck it, anyway. She’d never given him any reason to hope, and he had no business hoping.

Halfway through her shower, she heard someone moving around in the bathroom, and thinking it was Lester, she stuck her head around the curtain, only to find Ada on the pot, little jeans around her ankles. “I hadda make,” Ada said, with a shrug.

Christ. What was she doing back here, anyway? She’d missed it all so much from Petersburg. But she hadn’t really bargained for this. It was only a matter of time until Tjan showed up too, surely they’d be wanting a council of war after Freddy’s opening salvo.

She waited for the little girl to flush (ouch! hot water!) and got dressed as discreetly as possible.

By the time she got to the balcony where the council of war was under way, the two little girls, Lyenitchka and Ada, had gotten Pascal up on the sofa and were playing dress up with him, hot-gluing Barbie heads to his cheeks and arms and chubby knees, like vacantly staring warts.

“Do you like him?”

“I think he looks wonderful, girls. Is that glue OK for him, though?”

Ada nodded vigorously. “I’ve been gluing things to my brother with that stuff forever. Dad says it’s OK so long as I don’t put it in his eyes.”

“Your dad’s a smart man.”

“He’s in love with you,” Lyenitchka said, and giggled. Ada slugged her in the arm.

“That’s supposed to be a secret, stupid,” Ada said.

Flustered, Suzanne ducked out onto the patio and shut the door behind her. Eva and Tjan and Kettlewell all turned to look at her.

“Suzanne!” Tjan said. “Nice article.”

“Is it up already?”

“Yeah, just a couple minutes ago.” Tjan held up his phone. “I’ve got a watch-list for anything to do with Freddy that gets a lot of link-love in a short period. Your piece rang the cherries.”

She took the phone from him and looked at the list of links that had been found to the NJR piece. Three of the diggdots had picked up the story, since they loved to report on anything that made fun of Freddy—he was a frequent savager of their readers’ cherished beliefs, after all—and thence it had wormed its way all around the net. In the time she’d needed to take a shower, her story had been read by about three million people. She felt a twinge of regret for not publishing it on her blog—that would have been some serious advertising coin.

“Well, there you have it.”

“What do you suppose he’ll come back with?” Kettlewell said, then looked uncomfortably at Eva. She pretended not to notice, and continued to stare at the grimy Hollywood palms, swimming pools and freeways.

“Something nasty and full of lies, no doubt.”

Nerd Groupie Church Finds Fatkins Love with Ride Sidekick

Sources close to the Hollywood, Florida ride-cult have revealed that Suzanne Church, the celebrity blogger who helped inflate the New Work stock bubble, is in the midst of a romantic entanglement with one of the cult’s co-founders.

Church recently came out of retirement in St Petersburg, where she has been producing PR^H^H journalistic accounts of the new generation of Russian experimental plastic surgery butchers.

Church was lured back by the promise of a story about the ride-network that was founded by her old pals from the New Work pump-and-dump, Lester Banks and Perry Gibbons. Now on the scene are more familiar faces: Landon Kettlewell, the disgraced former CEO of Kodacell, and Tjan Tang, the former business manager of the Banks/Gibbons scam.

But not long after arriving on the scene, Church fell in with Banks, an early fatkins and stalwart of the New Work movement, a technologist who entranced his fellow engineers with his accounts of the New Work’s many “inventions”—prompting one message-board commenter to characterize him as “a cross between Steve Wozniak and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.”

Now, eyewitness accounts have them going at it like shagging marmots, as the bio-enhanced Banks falls on Church’s wrinkly carcass half a dozen times a day, apparently consummating a romance that blossomed while Banks was, to put it bluntly, a giant fat bastard. It seems that radical weight-loss has put Banks into the category of “blokes that Suzanne Church is willing to play hide the sausage with.”

All this would be mere sordid gossip but for the fact that Church is once again glowingly chronicling the adventures of the Florida cultists, playing journalist, without a shred of impartiality or disclosure.

One can only imagine when the other, financial shoe will drop. For wherever Church goes, money isn’t far behind: surely there’s a financial aspect to this business with the ride.

UPDATE:

Indeed there is: further anonymous tipsterism reveals that papers have been filed to create a “co-operative” structured like a classic Ponzi scheme, in which franchise operators of the ride are expected to pay membership dues further up the ladder. All the romance of Church’s accounts will certainly find a fresh batch of suckers—if there’s one thing we know about Suzanne Church, it’s that she knows how to separate a mark from his money.

Lester ran the ride basically on his own that week, missing his workshop and his tinkering, thinking of Suzanne, wishing that Perry was back already. He wasn’t exactly a people person, and there were a lot of people.

“I brought some stuff,” the goth kid said as he paid for his ticket, hefting two huge duffel bags. “That’s still OK, right?”

Was it? Damned if Lester knew. The kid had a huge bruise covering half of his face, and Lester thought he recognized him from the showdown—Death Waits, that’s what Perry had said.

“Sure, it’s fine.”

“You’re Lester, right?”

Christ, another one.

“Yes, that’s me.”

“Honest Fred is full of shit. I’ve been reading your posts since forever. That guy is just jealous because your girlfriend outed him for being such a lying asshole.”

“Yeah.” Death Waits wasn’t the first one to say words to this effect—Suzanne had had that honor—and he wouldn’t be the last. But Lester wanted to forget it. He’d liked the moments of fame he’d gained from Suzanne’s writing, from his work on the message boards. He’d even had a couple of fanboys show up to do a little interview for their podcast about his mechanical computer. That had been nice. But “blokes that Suzanne Church is willing to play hide the sausage with”—ugh.

Suzanne was holding it together as far as he could tell. But she didn’t seem as willing to stick her neck out to broker little peaces between Tjan and Kettlewell anymore, and those two were going at it hammer and tongs now, each convinced that he was in charge. Tjan reasoned that since he actually ran one of the most-developed rides in the network that he should be the executive, with Kettlewell as a trusted adviser. Kettlewell clearly felt that he deserved the crown because he’d actually run global businesses, as opposed to Tjan, who was little more than a middle manager.

Neither had said exactly that, but that was only because whenever they headed down that path, Suzanne interposed herself and distracted them.

No one asked Lester or Perry, even though they were the ones who’d invented it all. It was all so fucked up. Why couldn’t he just make stuff and do stuff? Why did it always have to turn into a plan for world domination? In Lester’s experience, most world-domination plans went sour, while a hefty proportion of modest plans to Make Something Cool actually worked out pretty well, paid the bills, and put food on the table.

The goth kid looked expectantly at him. “I’m a huge fan, you know. I used to work for Disney, and I was always watching what you did to get ideas for new stuff we should do. That’s why it’s so totally suckballs that they’re accusing you of ripping them off—we rip you off all the time.”

Lester felt like he was expected to do something with that information—maybe deliver it to some lawyer or whatever. But would it make a difference? He couldn’t get any spit in his mouth over legal fights. Christ—legal fights!

“Thanks. You’re Death Waits, right? Perry told me about you.”

The kid visibly swelled. “Yeah. I could help around here if you wanted, you know. I know a lot about ride-operating. I used to train the ride-runners at Disney, and I could work any position. If you wanted.”

“We’re not really hiring—” Lester began.

“I’m not looking for a job. I could just, you know, help. I don’t have a job or anything right now.”

Lester needed to pee. And he was sick of sitting here taking people’s money. And he wanted to go play with his mechanical computer, anyway.

“Lester? Who’s the kid taking ticket money?” Suzanne’s hug was sweaty and smelled good.

“Look at this,” Lester said. He flipped up his magnifying goggles and handed her the soda can. He’d cut away a panel covering the whole front of the can, and inside he’d painstakingly assembled sixty-four flip-flops. He turned the crank on the back of the can slowly, and the correct combination of rods extended from the back of the can, indicating the values represented on the flip-flops within. “It’s a sixty-four bit register. We could build a shitkicking Pentium out of a couple million of these.”

He turned the crank again. The can smelled of solder and it had a pleasant weight in his hand. The mill beside him hummed, and on his screen, the parts he’d CADded up rotated in wireframe. Suzanne was at his side and he’d just built something completely teh awesome. He’d taken his shirt off somewhere along the afternoon’s lazy, warm way and his skin prickled with a breeze.

He turned to take Suzanne in his arms. God he loved her. He’d been in love with her for years now and she was his.

“Look at how cool this thing is, just look.” He used a tweezer to change the registers again and gave it a little crank. “I got the idea from the old Princeton Institute Electronic Computer Project. All these comp sci geniuses, von Neumann and Dyson and Godel, they brought in their kids for the summer to wind all the cores they’d need for their RAM. Millions of these things, wound by the kids of the smartest people in the universe. What a cool way to spend your summer.

“So I thought I’d prototype the next generation of these, a 64-bit version that you could build out of garbage. Get a couple hundred of the local kids in for the summer and get them working. Get them to understand just how these things work—that’s the problem with integrated circuits, you can’t take them apart and see how they work. How are we going to get another generation of tinkerers unless we get kids interested in how stuff works?”

“Who’s the kid taking ticket money?”

“He’s a fan, that kid that Perry met in jail. Death Waits. The one who brought in the Disney stuff.”

He gradually became aware that Suzanne was rigid and shaking in his arms.

“What’s wrong?”

Her face was purple now, her hands clenched into fists. “What’s wrong? Lester, what’s wrong? You’ve left a total stranger, who, by his own admission, is a recently terminated employee of a company that is trying to bankrupt you and put you in jail. You’ve left him in charge of an expensive, important capital investment, and given him the authority to collect money on your behalf. Do you really need to ask me what’s wrong?”

He tried to smile. “It’s OK, it’s OK, he’s only—”

“Only what? Only your possible doom? Christ, Perry, you don’t even have fucking insurance on that business.”

Did she just call him Perry? He carefully set down the Coke can and looked at her.

“I’m down here busting my ass for you two, fighting cops, letting that shit Freddy smear my name all over the net, and what the hell are you doing to save yourself? You’re in here playing with Coke cans!” She picked it up and shook it. He heard the works inside rattling and flinched towards it. She jerked it out of his reach and threw it, threw it hard at the wall. Hundreds of little gears and ratchets and rods spilled out of it.

“Fine, Lester, fine. You go on being an emotional ten-year-old. But stop roping other people into this. You’ve got people all over the country depending on you and you are just abdicating your responsibility to them. I won’t be a part of it.” She was crying now. Lester had no idea what to say now.

“It’s not enough that Perry’s off chasing pussy, you’ve got to pick this moment to take French leave to play with your toys. Christ, the whole bunch of you deserve each other.”

Lester knew that he was on the verge of shouting at her, really tearing into her, saying unforgivable things. He’d been there before with other friends, and no good ever came of it. He wanted to tell her that he’d never asked for the responsibility, that he’d lived up to it anyway, that no one had asked her to put her neck on the line and it wasn’t fair to blame him for the shit that Freddy was putting her through. He wanted to tell her that if she was in love with Perry, she should be sleeping with Perry, and not him. He wanted to tell her that she had no business reaming him out for doing what he’d always done: sit in his workshop.

He wanted to tell her that she had never once seen him as a sexual being when he was big and fat, but that he had no trouble seeing her as one now that she was getting old and a little saggy, and so where did she get off criticizing his emotional maturity?

He wanted to say all of this, and he wanted to take back his 64-bit register and nurse it back to health. He’d been in a luminous creative fog when he’d built that can, and who knew if he’d be able to reconstruct it?

He wanted to cry, to blubber at her for the monumental unfairness of it all. He stood stiffly up from his workbench and turned on his heel and walked out. He expected Suzanne to call out to him, but she didn’t. He didn’t care, or at least he didn’t want to.

Sammy skipped three consecutive Theme-Leaders’ meetings, despite increasingly desperate requests for his presence. The legal team was eating every spare moment he had, and he hadn’t been able to get audience research to get busy on his fatkins project. Now he was behind schedule—not surprising, given that he’d pulled his schedule out of his ass to shut up Wiener and co—and dealing with lawyers was making him crazy.

And to top it all off, the goddamned rides were back up and running.

So the last thing he wanted was a visit from Wiener.

“They’re suing us, you know. They raised venture capital to sue us, because we have such deep pockets. You know that, Sammy?”

“I know it, Wiener. People sue us all the time. Venture capitalists have deep pockets, too, you know—when we win, we’ll take them to the cleaners. Christ, why am I having this conversation with you? Don’t you have something productive to do? Is Tomorrowland so fucking perfect that you’ve come around to help me with my little projects?”

“Someone’s a little touchy today,” Wiener said, wagging a finger. “I just wanted to see if you wanted some help coming up with a strategy for getting out of this catastrophe, but since you mention it, I do have work I could be doing. I’ll see you at the next Theme-Leaders’ meeting, Sam. Missing three is grounds for disciplinary action, you know.”

Sammy sat back in his chair and looked coolly at Wiener. Threats now. Disciplinary action. He kept on his best poker face, looking past Wiener’s shoulder (a favorite trick for staring down adversaries—just don’t meet their eyes). In his peripheral vision, he saw Wiener wilt, look away and then turn and leave the room.

He waited until the door had shut, then slumped in his seat and put his face in his hands. God, and shit, and damn. How did it all go so crapola? How did he end up with a theme-area that was half-shut, record absenteeism, and even a goddamned union organizer just the day before, whom he’d had to have security remove. Florida laws being what they were, it was a rare organizer brave enough to try to come on an employer’s actual premises to do his dirty work, no one wanted a two-year rap without parole for criminal trespass and interference with trade. The kid had been young, about the same age as Death Waits and the castmembers, and had clearly been desperate to collect his bounty from SEIU. He’d gone hard, struggling and kicking, shouting slogans at the wide-eyed castmembers and few guests who watched him go away.

Having him taken away had given Sammy a sick feeling. They hadn’t had one of those vultures on the premises in three years, and never on Sammy’s turf.

What next, what next? How much worse could it get?

“Hi, Sammy.” Hackelberg wasn’t the head of the legal department, but he was as high up in the shadowy organization as Sammy ever hoped to meet. He was old and leathery, the way that natives to the Sunbelt could be. He loved to affect ice-cream suits and had even been known to carry a cane. When he was in casual conversation, he talked “normal”—like a Yankee newscaster. But the more serious he got, the deeper and thicker his drawl got. Sammy never once believed that this was accidental. Hackelberg was as premeditated as they came.

“I was just about to come over and see you,” Sammy lied. Whatever problem had brought Hackelberg down to his office, it would be better to seem as though he was already on top of it.

“I expect you were.” Were came out Wuh—when the drawl got that far into the swamps that quickly, disaster was on the horizon. Hackelberg let the phrase hang there.

Sammy sweated. He was good at this game, but Hackelberg was better. Entertainment lawyers were like fucking vampires, evil embodied. He looked down at his desk.

“Sammy. They’re coming back after us—” They-ah comin’ back aft-ah us. “Those ride people. They did what we thought they’d do, incorporating into a single entity that we can sue once and kill for good, but then they did something else. Do you know what they did, Sammy?”

Sammy nodded. “They’re countersuing. We knew they’d do that, right?”

“We didn’t expect they’d raise a war-chest like the one they’ve pulled together. They have a business-plan built around suing us for the next fifteen years, Sammy. They’re practically ready to float an IPO. Have you seen this?” He handed Sammy a hardcopy of a chic little investment newsletter that was so expensive to subscribe to that he’d suspected until now that it might just be a rumor.

HOW DO YOU GET RID(E) OF A BILLION?

The Kodacell experiment recognized one fundamental truth: it’s easy to turn ten thousand into two hundred thousand, but much harder to turn ten million into two hundred million. Scaling an investment up to gigascale is so hard, it’s nearly impossible.

But a new paradigm in investment that’s unfolding around us that might actually solve the problem: venture-financed litigation. Twenty or thirty million sunk into litigation can bankrupt a twenty billion-dollar firm, transferring to the investors whatever assets remain after legal fees.

It sounds crazy, and only time will tell whether it proves to be sustainable. But the founder of the strategy, Landon Kettlewell, has struck gold for his investors more than once—witness the legendary rise and fall of Kodacell, the entity that emerged from the merger of Kodak and Duracell. Investors in the first two rounds and the IPO on Kodacell brought home 30X returns in three years (of course, investors who stayed in too long came away with nothing).

Meanwhile, Kettlewell’s bid to take down Disney Parks looks good—the legal analysis of the vexatious litigation and unfair competition charges have legal scholars arguing and adding up the zeros. Most damning is the number of former Disney Parks employees (or “castmembers” in the treacly dialect of the Magic Kingdom) who’ve posted information about the company’s long-term plan to sabotage Kettlewell’s clients.

Likewise fascinating is the question of whether the jury will be able to distinguish between Disney Parks, whose corporate citizenship is actually pretty good, from Disney Products, whose record has been tainted by a string of disastrous child-labor, safety, and design flaws (astute readers will be thinking of the “flammable pajamas” flap of last year, and CEO Robert Montague’s memorable words, “Parents who can’t keep their kids away from matches have no business complaining about our irresponsibility”). Punitive jury awards are a wild-card in this kind of litigation, but given the trends in recent years, things look bad for Disney Parks.

Bottom line: should your portfolio include a litigation-investment component? Yes, unequivocally. While risky and slow to mature, litigation-investments promise a staggering return on investment not seen in decades. A million or two carefully placed with the right litigation fund could pay off enough to make it all worthwhile. This is creative destruction at its finest: the old dinosaurs like Disney Parks are like rich seams of locked-away capital begging to be liquidated and put to work at nimbler firms.

How can you tell if you’ve got the right fund? Come back next week, when we’ll have a Q&A with a litigation specialist at Credit Suisse/First Boston.

“There’s litigation specialists at Credit Suisse?”

He was big, Hackelberg, though he often gave the impression of being smaller through his habitual slouch. But when he pulled himself up, it was like a string in the center of the top of his head was holding him erect, like he was hovering off the ground, like he was about to leap across the desk and go for your throat. His lower jaw rocked from side to side.

“They do now, Sammy. Every investment bank has one, including the one that the chairman of our board is a majority shareholder in.”

Sammy swallowed. “But they’ve got just as deep pockets as we do—can’t we just fight these battles out and take the money off of them when we win?”

“If we win.”

Sammy saw his opportunity to shift the blame. “If we’ve been acting on good legal advice, why wouldn’t we win?”

Hackelberg inhaled slowly, his chest filling and filling until his ice-cream suit looked like it might pop. His jaw clicked from side to side. But he didn’t say anything. Sammy tried to meet that cool gaze, but he couldn’t out-stare the man. The silence stretched. Sammy got the message: this was not a problem that originated in the legal department. This was a problem that originated with him.

He looked away. “How do we solve this?”

“We need to raise the cost of litigation, Samuel. The only reason this is viable is that it’s cost-effective to sue us. When we raise the cost of litigation, we reduce its profitability.”

“How do we raise the cost of litigation?”

“You have a fertile imagination, Sammy. I have no doubt that you will be able to conceive of innumerable means of accomplishing this goal.”

“I see.”

“I hope you do. I really hope you do. Because we have an alternative to raising the cost of litigation.”

“Yes?”

“We could sacrifice an employee or two.”

Sammy picked up his water-glass and discovered that it was empty. He turned away from his desk to refill it from his filter and when he turned back, the lawyer had gone. His mouth was dry as cotton and his hands were shaking.

Raise the cost of litigation, huh?

He grabbed his laptop. There were ways to establish anonymous email accounts, but he didn’t know them. Figuring that out would take up the rest of the afternoon, he realized, as he called up a couple of FAQs.

In the course of a career as varied and ambitious as Sammy’s, it was often the case that you ran across an email address for someone you never planned on contacting, but you never knew, and a wise planner makes space for lots of outlier contingencies.

Sammy hadn’t written down these email addresses. He’d committed them to memory.

Death Waits was living the dream. He took people’s money and directed them to the ride’s entrance, making them feel welcome, talking ride trivia. Some of his pals spotted him at the desk and enviously demanded to know how he came to be sitting on the other side of the wicket, and he told them the incredible story of the fatkins who’d simply handed over the reins.

This, this was how you ran a ride. None of that artificial gloopy sweetness that defined the Disney experience: instead, you got a personal, informal, human-scale experience. Chat people up, find out their hopes and dreams, make admiring noises at the artifacts they’d brought to add to the ride, kibbitz about where they might place them….

Around him, the bark of the vendors. One of them, an old lady in a blinding white sun-dress, came by to ask him if he wanted anything from the coffee-cart.

There had been a time, those first days when they’d rebuilt Fantasyland, when he’d really felt like he was part of the magic. No, The Magic, with capital letters. Something about the shared experience of going to a place with people and having an experience with them, that was special. It must be why people went to church. Not that Disney had been a religion for him, exactly. But when he watched the park he’d grown up attending take on the trappings that adorned his favorite clubs, his favorite movies and games—man, it had been a piece of magic.

And to be a part of it. To be an altar boy, if not a priest, in that magical cathedral they’d all built together in Orlando!

But it hadn’t been real. He could see that now.

At Disney, Death Waits had been a customer, and then an employee (“castmember”—he corrected himself reflexively). What he wanted, though, was to be a citizen. A citizen of The Magic—which wasn’t a Magic Kingdom, since kingdoms didn’t have citizens, they had subjects.

He started to worry about whether he was going to get a lunch break by about two, and by three he was starving. Luckily that’s when Lester came back. He thanked Death profusely, which was nice, but he didn’t ask Death to come back the next day.

“Um, when can I come back and do this some more?”

“You want to do this?”

“I told you that this morning—I love it. I’m good at it, too.”

Lester appeared to think it over. “I don’t know, man. I kind of put you in the hot-seat today, but I don’t really have the authority to do it. I could get into trouble—”

Death waved him off. “Don’t sweat it, then,” he said with as much chirp as he could muster, which was precious fucking little. He felt like his heart was breaking. It was worse than when he’d finally asked out a co-worker who’d worked the Pinocchio Village Haus and she had her looked so horrified that he’d made a joke out of it, worried about a sexual harassment complaint.

Lester clearly caught some of that, for he thought some more and then waved his hands. “Screw her anyway. Meet me here at ten tomorrow. You’re in.”

Death wasn’t sure he’d heard him right. “You’re kidding.”

“No man, you want it, you got it. You’re good at it, like you said.”

“Holy—thanks. Thank you so much. I mean it. Thank you!” He made himself stop blithering. “Nice to meet you,” he said finally. “Have a great evening!” Yowch. He was speaking castmemberese. Nice one, Darren.

He’d saved enough out of his wages from his first year at Disney to buy a little Shell electric two-seater, and then he’d gone way into debt buying kits to mod it to look like a Big Daddy Roth coffin-dragster. The car sat alone at the edge of the lot. Around him, a slow procession of stall-operators, with their arms full, headed for the freeway and across to the shantytown.

Meanwhile, he nursed his embarrassment and tried to take comfort in the attention that his gleaming, modded car evinced. He loved the decorative spoilers, the huge rear tires, the shining muffler-pipes running alongside the bulging running-boards. He stepped in and gripped the bat-shaped gearshift, adjusted the headstone-shaped headrest, and got rolling. It was a long drive back home to Melbourne, and he was reeling from the day’s events. He wished he’d gotten someone to snap a pic of him at the counter. Shit.

He pulled off at a filling station after a couple hours. He needed a piss and something with guarana if he was going to make it the rest of the way home. It was all shut down, but the automat was still open. He stood before the giant, wall-sized glassed-in refrigerator and dithered over the energy-drinks. There were chocolate ones, salty ones, colas and cream sodas, but a friend had texted him a picture of a semi-legal yogurt smoothie with taurine and modafinil that sounded really good.

He spotted it and reached to tap on the glass and order it just as the fat guy came up beside him. Fat guys were rare in the era of fatkins, it was practically a fashion-statement to be chunky, but this guy wasn’t fashionable. He had onion-breath that Death could smell even before he opened his mouth, and he was wearing a greasy windbreaker and baggy jeans. He had a comb-over and needed a shave.

“What the hell are you supposed to be?”

“I’m not anything,” Death Waits said. He was used to shit-kickers and tourists gawping at his shock of black hair with its viridian green highlights, his white face-paint and eyeliner, his contact lenses that made his whole eyes into zombie-white cue-balls. You just had to ignore them.

“You don’t look like nothing to me. You look like something. Something you’d dress up a six year old as for Halloween. I mean, what the fuck?” He was talking quietly and without rancor, but he had a vibe like a basher. He must have arrived at the deserted rest-stop while Death Waits was having a piss.

Death Waits looked around for a security cam. These rest-stops always had a license-plate cam at the entrance and a couple of anti-stickup cams around the cashier. He spotted the camera. Someone had hung a baseball hat over its lens.

He felt his balls draw up toward his abdomen and his breathing quicken. This guy was going to fucking mug him. Shit shit shit. Maybe take his car.

“OK,” Death said, “nice talking to you.” He tried to step around the guy, but he side-stepped to block Death’s path, then put a hand on Death’s shoulder—it was strong. Death had been mugged once before, but the guy hadn’t touched him; he’d just told him, fast and mean, to hand over his wallet and phone and then had split.

“I’m not done,” the guy said.

“Look, take my wallet, I don’t want any trouble.” Apart from two glorious sucker-punches at Sammy, Death had never thrown a punch, not since he’d flunked out of karate lessons at the local strip-mall when he was twelve. He liked to dance and he could run a couple miles without getting winded, but he’d seen enough real fights to know that it was better to get away than to try to strike out if you didn’t know what you were doing.

“You don’t want any trouble, huh?”

Death held out his wallet. He could cancel the cards. Losing the cash would hurt now that he didn’t have a day-job, but it was better than losing his teeth.

The guy smiled. His onion breath was terrible.

I want trouble.” Without any pre-amble or wind-up, the guy took hold of the earring that Death wore in his tragus, the little knob of cartilage on the inside of his ear, and briskly tore it out of Death’s head.

It was so sudden, the pain didn’t come at once. What came first was a numb feeling, the blood draining out of his cheeks and the color draining out of the world, and his brain double- and triple-checking what had just happened. Did someone just tear a piece out of my ear? Tear? Ear?

Then the pain roared in, all of his senses leaping to keen awareness before maxing out completely. He heard a crashing sound like the surf, smelled something burning, a light appeared before his eyes, an acrid taste flooded his mouth and his ear felt like there was a hot coal nestled in it, charring the flesh.

With pain came the plan: get the fuck out of there. He took a step back and turned to run, but there was something tangled in his feet—the guy had bridged the distance between them quickly, very quickly, and had hooked a foot around his ankle. He was going to fall over. He landed in a runner’s crouch and tried to start running, but a boot caught him in the butt, like an old-timey comedy moment, and he went sprawling, his chin smacking into the pavement, his teeth clacking together with a sound that echoed in his head.

“Get the fuck up,” the guy said. He was panting a little, sounding excited. That sound was the scariest thing so far. This guy wanted to kill him. He could hear that. He was some kind of truck-stop murderer.

Death’s fingers were encrusted in heavy silver rings—stylized skulls, a staring eyeball, a coffin-shaped poisoner’s ring that he sometimes kept artificial sweetener in, an ankh, an alien head with insectile eyes—and he balled his hands into fists, thinking of everything he’d ever read about throwing a punch without breaking your knuckles. Get close. Keep your fist tight, thumb outside. Don’t wind up or he’ll see it coming.

He slowly turned over. The guy’s eyes were in shadow. His belly heaved with each excited pant. From this angle, Death could see the guy had a gigantic boner. The thought of what that might bode sent him into overdrive. He couldn’t afford to let this guy beat him up.

He backed up to the rail that lined the walkway and pulled himself upright. He cowered in on himself as much as he could, hoping that the guy would close with him, so he could get in one good punch. He muttered indistinctly, softly, hoping to make the man lean in. His ring-encrusted hands gripped the railings.

The guy took a step toward him. His lips were wet, his eyes shone. He had a hand in his pocket and Death realized that getting his attacker close in wouldn’t be smart if he had a knife.

The hand came out. It was pudgy and stub-fingered, and the fingernails were all gnawed down to the quick. Death looked at it. Spray-can. Pepper-spray? Mace? He didn’t wait to find out. He launched himself off the railing at the fat man, going for his wet, whistling cave of a mouth.

He punched Death in the mouth in a vastly superior rendition of Death’s sole brave blow, a punch so hard Death’s neck made a crackling sound as his head rocked away, slamming off the car’s frame, ringing like a gong. Death began to slide down the car’s door, and only managed to turn his face slightly when the man sprayed him with his little aerosol can.

Mace. Death’s breath stopped in his lungs and his face felt as if he’d plunged it into boiling oil. His eyes felt worse, like dirty fingers were sandpapering over his eyeballs. He choked and fell over and heard the man laugh.

Then a boot caught him in the stomach and while he was doubled over, it came down again on his skinny shin. The sound of the bone breaking was loud enough to be heard over the roaring of the blood in his ears. He managed to suck in a lungful of air and scream it out, and the boot connected with his mouth, kicking him hard and making him bite his tongue. Blood filled his mouth.

A rough hand seized him by the hair and the rasping breath was in his ears.

“You should just shut the fuck up about Disney on the fucking Internet, you know that, kid?”

The man slammed his head against the pavement.

“Just. Shut. The. Fuck. Up.” Bang, bang, bang. Death thought he’d lose consciousness soon—he’d had no idea that pain could be this intense. But he didn’t lose consciousness for a long, long time. And the pain could be a lot more intense, as it turned out.

Sammy didn’t want the writer meeting him at his office. His organization had lots of people who’d been loyal to the old gothy park and even to Death Waits. They plotted against him. They wrote about him on the fucking Internet, reporting on what he’d eaten for lunch and who’d shouted at him in his office and how the numbers were declining and how none of the design crews wanted to work on his new rides.

The writer couldn’t come to the office—couldn’t come within miles of the park. In fact, if Sammy had had his way, they would have done this all by phone, but when he’d emailed the writer, he’d said that he was in Florida already and would be happy to come and meet up.

Of course he was in Florida—he was covering the ride.

The trick was to find a place where no one, but no one, from work would go. That meant going as touristy as possible—something overpriced and kitschy.

Camelot was just the place. It had once been a demolition derby stadium, and then had done turns as a skate-park, a dance-club and a discount wicker furniture outlet. Now it was Orlando’s number two Arthurian-themed dining experience, catering to package-holiday consolidators who needed somewhere to fill the gullets of their busloads of tourists. Watching men in armor joust at low speed on glue-factory nags took care of an evening’s worth of entertainment, too.

Sammy parked between two giant air-conditioned tour coaches, then made his way to the entrance. He’d told the guy what he looked like, and the guy had responded with an obvious publicity shot that made him look like Puck from a boys’-school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—unruly hair, mischievous grin.

When he turned up, though, he was ten years older, a cigarette jammed in the yellowing crooked stumps of his teeth. He needed a shower and there was egg on the front of his denim jacket.

“I’m Sammy,” Sammy said. “You must be Freddy.”

Freddy spat the cigarette to one side and shook with him. The writer’s palms were clammy and wet.

“Pleasure to meet you,” Freddy said. “Camelot, huh?”

“Taste of home for you, I expect,” Sammy said. “Tally ho. Pip pip.”

Freddy scrunched his face up in an elaborate sneer. “You are joking, right?”

“I’m joking. If I wanted to give you a taste of home, I’d have invited you to the Rose and Crown Pub in Epcot: ’Have a jolly ol’ good time at the Rose and Crown!’”

“Still joking, I trust?”

“Still joking,” Sammy said. “This place does a decent roast beef, and it’s private enough.”

“Private in the sense of full of screaming stupid tourists stuffing their faces?”

“Exactly.” Sammy took a step toward the automatic doors.

“Before we go in, though,” Freddy said. “Before we go in. Why are you talking to me at all, Mr Disney Parks Executive?”

He was ready for this one. “I figured that sooner or later you’d want to know more about this end of the story that you’ve been covering. I figured it was in my employer’s best interest to see to it that you got my version.”

The reporter’s grin was wet and mean. “I thought it was something like that. You understand that I’m going to write this the way I see it, not the way you spin it, right?”

Sammy put a hand on his heart. “Of course. I never would have asked anything less of you.”

The reporter nodded and stepped inside the air-conditioned, horsey-smelling depths of Camelot. The greeter had acne and a pair of tights that showed off his skinny knock-knees. He took off his great peaked cap with its long plume and made a stiff little bow. “Greetings, milords, to Camelot. Yon feast awaits, and our brave knights stand ready to do battle for their honor and your amusement.”

Freddy rolled his eyes at Sammy, but Sammy made a little scooting gesture and handed the greeter their tickets, which were ringside. If he was going to go to a place like Camelot, he could at least get the best seats in the house.

They settled in and let the serving wench—whose fancy contact lenses, piercings, and electric blue pony-tails were seriously off-theme—take their roast beef orders and serve them gigantic pewter tankards of “ale”; Bud Light, and the logo was stamped into the sides of the tankards.

“Tell me your story, then,” Freddy said. The tourists around them were noisy and already a little drunk, their conversation loud to be heard over the looping soundtrack of ren faire polka music.

“Well, I don’t know how much you know about the new Disney Parks organization. A lot of people think of us as being just another subsidiary of the Mouse, like back in the old days. But since the IPO, we’re our own company. We license some trademarks from Disney and operate rides based on them, but we also aggressively license from other parties—Warners, Universal, Nintendo. Even the French comic-book publisher responsible for Asterix. That means that we get a lot of people coming in and out of the organization, contractors or consultants working on designing a single ride or show.

“That creates a lot of opportunities for corporate espionage. Knowing what properties we’re considering licensing gives the competition a chance to get there ahead of us, to land an exclusive deal that sets us back on square one. It’s ugly stuff—they call it ’competitive intelligence’ but it’s just spying, plain old spying.

“All of our employees have been contacted, one time or another, by someone with an offer—get me a uniform, or a pic of the design roughs, or a recording of the soundtrack, or a copy of the contracts, and I’ll make it worth your while. From street-sweepers to senior execs, the money is just sitting there, waiting for us to pick it up.”

The wench brought them their gigantic pewter plates of roast-beef, Yorkshire pudding, parsnips, and a mountain of french fries, presumably to appease the middle-American appetites of the more unadventurous diners.

Freddy sliced off a throat-plugging lump of beef and skewered it on his fork.

“You’re going to tell me that the temptation overwhelmed one of your employees, yes?” He shoved the entire lump into his mouth and began to masticate it, cheeks pouched out, looking like a kid with a mouthful of bubble-gum.

“Precisely. Our competitors don’t want to compete with us on a level playing field. They are, more than anything, imitators. They take the stuff that we carefully build, based on extensive research, design and testing, and they clone it for parking-lot amusement rides. There’s no attention to detail. There’s no attention to safety! It’s all cowboys and gypsies.”

Freddy kept chewing, but he dug in the pockets of his sports-coat and came up with a small stubby notebook and a ball-point. He jotted some notes, shielding the pad with his body.

“And these crass imitators enter into our story how?” Freddy asked around his beef.

“You know about these New Work people—they call themselves ’re-mixers’ but that’s just a smokescreen. They like to cloak themselves in some post-modern, ’Creative Commons’ legitimacy, but when it comes down to it, they made their fortune off the intellectual property of others, uncompensated use of designs and technologies that others had invested in and created.

“So when they made a ride, it wasn’t much of much. Like some kind of dusty Commie museum, old trophies from their last campaign. But somewhere along the way, they hooked up with one of these brokers who specializes in sneaking our secrets out of the park and into the hands of our competitors and quick as that, they were profitable—nationally franchised, even.” He stopped to quaff his Bud Light and surreptitiously checked out the journalist to see how much of this he was buying. Impossible to say. He was still masticating a cheekful of rare roast, juice overflowing the corners of his mouth. But his hand moved over his pad and he made an impatient go-on gesture with his head, swallowing some of his payload.

“We fired some of the people responsible for the breeches, but there will be more. With 50,000 castmembers—” The writer snorted a laugh at the Disney-speak and choked a little, washing down the last of his mouthful with a chug of beer. “—50,000 employees it’s inevitable that they’ll find more. These ex-employees, meanwhile, have moved to the last refuge of the scoundrel: Internet message boards, petulant tweets, and whiny blogs, where they’re busily running us down. We can’t win, but at least we can stanch the bleeding. That’s why we’ve brought our lawsuits, and why we’ll bring the next round.”

The journalist’s hand moved some more, then he turned a fresh page. “I see, I see. Yes, all fascinating, really. But what about these countersuits?”

“More posturing. Pirates love to put on aggrieved airs. These guys ripped us off and got caught at it, and now they want to sue us for their trouble. You know how counter-suits work: they’re just a bid to get a fast settlement: ’Well, I did something bad but so did you, why don’t we shake hands and call it a day?’”

“Uh huh. So you’re telling me that these intellectual property pirates made a fortune knocking off your rides and that they’re only counter-suing you to get a settlement out of you, huh?”

“That’s it in a nutshell. I wanted to sit down with you, on background, and just give you our side of things, the story you won’t get from the press-releases. I know you’re the only one trying to really get at the story behind the story with these people.”

Freddy had finished his entire roast and was working his way through the fries and limp Yorkshire pudding. He waved vigorously at their serving wench and hollered, “More here, love!” and quaffed his beer.

Sammy dug into his cold dinner and speared up a forkful, waiting for Freddy to finish swallowing.

“Well, that’s a very neat little story, Mr Disney Executive off the record on background.” Sammy felt a vivid twinge of anxiety. Freddy’s eyes glittered in the torchlight. “Very neat indeed.

“Let me tell you one of my own. When I was a young man, before I took up the pen, I worked a series of completely rubbish jobs. I cleaned toilets, I drove a taxi, I stocked grocery shelves. You may ask how this qualified me to write about the technology industry. Lots of people have, in fact, asked that.

“I’ll tell you why it qualifies me. It qualifies me because unlike all the ivory-tower bloggers, rich and comfortable geeks whose masturbatory rants about Apple not honoring their warranties are what passes for corporate criticism online, I’ve been there. I’m not from a rich family, I didn’t get to go to the best schools, no one put a PC in my bedroom when I was six. I worked for an honest living before I gave up honest work to write.

“As much as the Internet circle-jerk disgusts me, it’s not a patch on the businesses themselves. You Disney people with your minimum wage and all the sexual harassment you can eat labor policies in your nice right-to-work state, you get away with murder. Anyone who criticizes you does so on your own terms: Is Disney exploiting its workers too much? Is it being too aggressive in policing its intellectual property? Should it be nicer about it?

“I’m the writer who doesn’t watch your corporations on your own terms. I don’t care if another business is unfairly competing with your business. I care that your business is unfair to the world. That it aggressively exploits children to get their parents to spend money they don’t have on junk they don’t need. I care that your workers can’t unionize, make shit wages, and get fired when they complain or when you need to flex your power a little.

“I grew up without any power at all. When I was working for a living, I had no say at all in my destiny. It didn’t matter how much shit a boss wanted to shovel on me, all I could do was stand and take it. Now I’ve got some power, and I plan on using it to setting things to rights.”

Sammy chewed his roast long past the point that it was ready to swallow. The fact that he’d made an error was readily apparent from the start of Freddy’s little speech, but with each passing minute, the depth of his error grew. He’d really fucked up. He felt like throwing up. This guy was going to fuck him, he could tell.

Freddy smiled and quaffed and wiped at his beard with the embroidered napkin. “Oh, look—the jousting’s about to start,” he said. Knights in armor on horseback circled the arena, lances held high. The crowd applauded and an announcer came on the PA to tell them each knight’s name, referring them to a program printed on their placemats. Sammy pretended to be interested while Freddy cheered them on, that same look of unholy glee plain on his face.

The knights formed up around the ring and their pimply squires came out of the gate and tended to them. There was a squire and knight right in front of them, and the squire tipped his hat to them. Freddy handed the kid a ten-dollar bill. Sammy never tipped live performers; he hated buskers and panhandlers. It all reminded him of stuffing a stripper’s G-string. He liked his media a little more impersonal than that. But Freddy was looking at him, so with a weak little smile, he handed the squire the smallest thing in his wallet—a twenty.

The jousting began. It was terrible. The “knights” couldn’t ride worth a damn, their “lances” missed one another by farcical margins, and their “falls” were so obviously staged that even the chubby ten year old beside him was clearly unimpressed.

“Got to go to the bathroom,” he said into Freddy’s ear. In leaning over, he contrived to get a look at the reporter’s notebook. It was covered in obscene doodles of Mickey Mouse with a huge erection, Minnie dangling from a noose. There wasn’t a single word written on it. What little blood was left in Sammy’s head drained into his feet, which were leaden and uncoordinated on the long trip to the filthy toilets.

He splashed cold water on his face in the sink, and then headed back toward his seat. He never made it. From the top of the stairs leading down to ringside, he saw Freddy quaffing more ale and flirting with the wench. The thunder of horse-hooves and the soundtrack of cinematic music drowned out all sounds, but nothing masked the stink of the manure falling from the horses, half of which were panicking (the other half appeared to be drugged).

This was a mistake. He thought Freddy was a gossip reporter who liked juicy stories. Turned out he was also one of those tedious anti-corporate types who would happily hang Sammy out to dry. Time to cut his losses.

He turned on his heel and headed for the door. The doorman was having a cigarette with a guy in a sports-coat who was wearing a manager badge on his lapel.

“Leaving so soon? The show’s only just getting started!” The manager was sweating under his sports-coat. He had a thin mustache and badly died chestnut hair cut like a Lego character’s.

“Not interested,” Sammy said. “All the off-theme stuff distracted me. Nose-rings. Blue hair. Cigarettes.” The doorman guiltily flicked his cigarette into the parking lot. Sammy felt a little better.

“I’m sorry to hear that, sir,” the manager said. He was prematurely grey under the dye-job, for he couldn’t have been more than thirty-five. Thirty-five years old and working a dead-end job like this—Sammy was thirty-five. This is where he might end up if his screw-ups came back to haunt him. “Would you like a comment-card?”

“No,” Sammy said. “Any outfit that can’t figure out clean toilets and decent theming on its own can’t benefit from my advice.” The doorman flushed and looked away, but the manager’s smile stayed fixed and calm. Maybe he was drugged, like the horses. It bothered Sammy. “Christ, how long until this place gets turned into a roller-derby again?”

“Would you like a refund, sir?” the manager asked. He looked out at the parking lot. Sammy followed his gaze, looking above the cars, and realized, suddenly, that he was standing in a cool tropical evening. The sky had gone the color of a ripe plum, with proud palms silhouetted against it. The wind made them sway. A few clouds scudded across the moon’s luminous face, and the smell of citrus and the hum of insects and the calls of night birds were vivid on the evening air.

He’d been about to say something cutting to the manager, one last attempt to make the man miserable, but he couldn’t be bothered. He had a nice screened-in porch behind his house, with a hammock. He’d sat in it on nights like this, years ago. Now all he wanted to do was sit in it again.

“Good night,” he said, and headed for his car.

Perry’s cast stank. It had started to go a little skunky on the second day, but after a week it was like he had a dead animal stuck to his shoulder. A rotting dead animal. A rotting, itchy dead animal.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to be doing this on your own,” Hilda said, as he sawed awkwardly at it with the utility knife. It was made of something a lot tougher than the fiberglass one he’d had when he broke his leg falling off the roof as a kid (he’d been up there scouting out glider possibilities).

“So you do it,” he said, handing her the knife. He couldn’t stand the smell for one second longer.

“Uh-uh, not me, pal. No way that thing is supposed to come off anytime soon. If you’re going to cripple yourself, you’re going to have to do it on your own.”

He made a rude sound. “Fuck hospitals, fuck doctors, and fuck this fucking cast. My arm barely hurts these days. We can splint it once I get this off, that’ll immobilize it. They told me I’d need this for six weeks. I can’t wear this for six weeks. I’ll go nuts.”

“You’ll go lame if you take it off. Your poor mother, you must have driven her nuts.”

He slipped and cut himself and winced, but tried not to let her know, because that’s exactly what she’d predicted would happen. After a couple days together, she’d become an expert at predicting exactly which of his escapades would end in disaster. It was a little spooky.

Blood oozed out from under the cast and slicked his hand.

“Right, off to the hospital. I told you you’d get this thing wet if you got in the shower. I told you that it would stink and rot and itch if you did. I told you to let me give you a sponge bath.”

“I’m not insured.”

“We’ll go to the free clinic.”

Defeated, he let her lead him to her car.

She helped him buckle in, wrinkling her nose. “What’s wrong, baby?” she said, looking at his face. “What are you moping about?”

“It’s just the cast,” he said, looking away.

She grabbed him by the chin and turned him to face her. “Look, don’t do that. Do not do that. If something’s bothering you, we’re going to talk about it. I didn’t sign up to fall in love with the strong silent type. You’ve been sulking all day, now what’s it about?”

He smiled in spite of himself. “All right, I give in. I miss home. They’re all in the middle of it, running the ride and stuff, and I’m here.” He felt a moment’s worry that she’d be offended. “Not that I don’t love being here with you, but I’m feeling guilty—”

“OK, I get it. Of course you feel guilty. It’s your project, it’s in trouble, and you’re not taking care of it. Christ, Perry, is that all? I would have been disappointed if this wasn’t worrying you. Let’s go to Florida then.”

“What?”

She kissed the tip of his nose. “Take me to Florida, let’s meet your friends.”

“But…” Were they moving in together or something? He was totally smitten with this girl, but that was fast. Even for Perry. “Don’t you need to be here?”

“They can live without me. It’s not like I’m proposing to move in with you. I’ll come back here after a while. But I’m only doing two classes this term and they’re both offered by distance-ed. Let’s just go.”

“When?”

“After the hospital. You need a new cast, stinkmeister. Roll down your window a little, OK? Whew!”

The doctors warned him to let the new cast set overnight before subjecting it to the rigors of a TSA examination, so they spent one more night at Hilda’s place. Perry spent it going over the mailing list traffic and blog posts, confirming the plane tickets, ordering a car to meet them at the Miami airport. He finally managed to collapse into bed at 3AM, and Hilda grabbed him, dragged him to her, and spooned him tightly.

“Don’t worry, baby. Your friends and I will get along great.”

He hadn’t realized that he’d been worrying about this, but once she pointed it out, it was obvious. “You’re not worried?”

She ran her hands over his furry chest and tummy. “No, of course not. Your friends will love me or I’ll have them killed. More to the point, they’ll love me because you love me and I love you and they love you, too.”

“What does Ernie think of me?” he said, thinking of her brother for the first time since they’d hooked up all those months ago.

“Oh, hum,” she said. He stiffened. “No, it’s OK,” she said, rubbing his tummy some more. It tickled. “He’s glad I’m with someone I care about, and he loves the ride. He’s just, you know. Protective of his big sister.”

“What’s he worried about?”

“Just what you’d expect. We live thousands of miles apart. You’re ten years older than me. You’ve been getting into the kind of trouble that attracts armed cops. Wouldn’t you be protective if you were my bro?”

“I was an only child, but sure, OK, I see that.”

“It’s nothing,” she said. “Really. Bring him a nice souvenir from Florida when we come back to Madison, take him out for a couple beers and it’ll all be great.”

“So we’re cool? All the families are in agreement? All the stars are in alignment? Everything is hunky and/or dory?”

“Perry Gibbons, I love you dearly. You love me. We’ve got a cause to fight for, and it’s a just one with many brave comrades fighting alongside of us. What could possibly go wrong?”

“What could possibly go wrong?” Perry said. He drew in a breath to start talking.

“It was rhetorical, goofball. It’s also three in the morning. Sleep, for tomorrow we fly.”

Lester didn’t want to open the ride, but someone had to. Someone had to, and it wasn’t Perry, who was off with his midwestern honey. Lester would have loved to sleep in and spend the day in his workshop rebuilding his 64-bit registers—he’d had some good ideas for improving on the initial design, and he still had the CAD files, which were the hard part anyway.

He walked slowly across the parking lot, the sunrise in his eyes, a cup of coffee steaming in his hand. He’d almost gone to the fatkins bars the night before—he’d almost gone ten, fifteen times, every time he thought of Suzanne storming out of his lab, but he’d stayed home with the TV and waited for her to turn up or call or post something to her blog or turn up on IM, and when none of those things had happened by 4AM, he tumbled into bed and slept for three hours until his alarm went off again.

Blearily, he sat himself down behind the counter, greeted some of the hawkers coming across the road, and readied his ticket-roll.

The first customers arrived just before nine—an East Indian family driving a car with Texas plates. Dad wore khaki board-shorts and a tank-top and leather sandals, Mom was in a beautiful silk sari, and the kids looked like mall-bangbangers in designer versions of the stuff the wild kids in the shantytown went around in.

They came out of the ride ten minutes later and asked for their money back.

“There’s nothing in there,” the dad said, almost apologetically. “It’s empty. I don’t think it’s supposed to be empty, is it?”

Lester put the roll of tickets into his pocket and stepped into the Wal-Mart. His eyes took a second to adjust to the dark after the brightness of the rising Florida sun. When they were fully adjusted, though, he could see that the tourist was right. Busy robots had torn down all the exhibits and scenes, leaving nothing behind but swarming crowds of bots on the floor, dragging things offstage. The smell of the printers was hot and thick.

Lester gave the man his money back.

“Sorry, man, I don’t know what’s going on. This kind of thing should be impossible. It was all there last night.”

The man patted him on the shoulder. “It’s all right. I’m an engineer—I know all about crashes. It just needs some debugging, I’m sure.”

Lester got out a computer and started picking through the logs. This kind of failure really should be impossible. Without manual oversight, the bots weren’t supposed to change more than five percent of the ride in response to another ride’s changes. If all the other rides had torn themselves down, it might have happened, but they hadn’t, had they?

No, they hadn’t. A quick check of the logs showed that none of the changes had come from Madison, or San Francisco, or Boston, or Westchester, or any of the other ride-sites.

Either his robots had crashed or someone had hacked the system. He rebooted the system and rolled it back to the state from the night before and watched the robots begin to bring the props back from offstage.

How the hell could it have happened? He dumped the logs and began to sift through them. He kept getting interrupted by riders who wanted to know when the ride would come back up, but he didn’t know, the robots’ estimates were oscillating wildly between ten minutes and ten hours. He finally broke off to write up a little quarter-page flier about it and printed out a couple hundred of them on some neon yellow paper stock he had lying around, along with a jumbo version that he taped over the price-list.

It wasn’t enough. Belligerent riders who’d traveled for hours to see the ride wanted a human explanation, and they pestered him ceaselessly. All the hawkers felt like they deserved more information than the rubes, and they pestered him even more. All he wanted to do was write some regexps that would help him figure out what was wrong so he could fix it.

He wished that Death kid would show up already. He was supposed to be helping out from now on and he seemed like the kind of person who would happily jaw with the marks until the end of time.

Eventually he gave up. He set the sign explaining what had happened (or rather, not explaining, since he didn’t fucking know yet) down in the middle of the counter, bolted it down with a couple of lock-bolts, and retreated to the ride’s interior and locked the smoked-glass doors behind him.

Once he had some peace and quiet, it took only him a few minutes to see where the changes had originated. He verified the info three times, not because he wasn’t sure, but because he couldn’t tell if this was good news or bad news. He read some blogs and discovered lots of other ride-operators were chasing this down but none of them had figured it out yet.

Grinning hugely, he composed a hasty post and CCed it to a bunch of mailing lists, then went out to find Kettlebelly and Tjan.

He found them in the guesthouse, sitting down to a working breakfast, with Eva and the kids at the end of the table. Tjan’s little girl was trying to feed Pascal, but not doing a great job of it; Tjan’s son sat on his lap, picking at his clown-face pancakes.

“Morning guys!”

Suzanne narrowed her eyes and looked away. The table fell quiet—even the kids sensed that something was up. “Who’s watching the ride, Lester?” Tjan asked, quietly.

“It’s shut,” he said cheerfully.

Shut?” Tjan spoke loudly enough that everyone jumped a little. Lyenitchka accidentally stabbed Pascal with the spoon and he started to wail. Suzanne stood up from the table and walked quickly out of the guesthouse, holding on to her phone as a kind of thin pretense of having to take a call. Lester chose to ignore her.

Lester held his hands out placatingly. “It’s OK—it’s just down for a couple hours. I had to reset it after what happened last night.”

Lester waited.

“All right,” Eva said, “I’ll bite. What happened last night?”

“Brazil came online!” Lester said. “Like twenty rides opened there. But they got their protocol implementation a little wrong so when I showed up, the whole ride had been zeroed out. I’m sure I can help them get it right; in the meantime I’ve got the ride resetting itself and I’ve blackholed their changes temporarily.” He grinned sunnily. “How fucking cool is that? Brazil!”

They smiled weakly back. “I don’t think I understand, Lester,” Kettlewell said. “Brazil? We don’t have any agreements with anyone in Brazil.”

“We have agreements with everyone in Brazil!” Lester said. “We’ve got an open protocol and a server that anyone can connect to. That’s an agreement, that’s all a protocol is.”

Kettlewell shook his head. “You’re saying that all anyone needed to do to reprogram our ride—”

“—was to connect to it and send some changes. Trust is assumed in the system.”

“Trust is assumed? You haven’t changed this?”

Lester took a step back. “No, I haven’t changed it. The whole system is open—that’s the point. We can’t just start requiring logins to get on the network. The whole thing would collapse—it’d be like putting locks on the bathroom and then taking the only key for yourself. We just can’t do it.”

Kettlewell looked like he was going to explode. Tjan put a hand on his arm. Slowly, Kettlewell sat back down. Tjan took a sip of his coffee.

“Lester, can you walk me through this one more time?”

Lester rocked back and forth a little. They were all watching him now, except for Suzanne, who was fuming somewhere or getting ready to go home to Russia, or something.

“We have a published protocol for describing changes to the ride—it’s built on Git3D’s system for marking up and syncing three-dee models of objects; it’s what we used all through the Kodacell days for collaboration. The way you get a ride online is to sync up with our version-server and then instantiate a copy. Then any changes you make get synced back and we instantiate them. Everyone stays in sync, give or take a couple hours.”

“But you had passwords on the Subversion server for objects, right?”

“Yeah, but we didn’t design this one to take passwords. It’s a lot more ad-hoc—we wanted to be sure that people we didn’t know could get in and play.”

Kettlewell put his face in his hands and groaned.

Tjan rolled his eyes. “I think what Kettlewell’s trying to say is that things have changed since those carefree days—we’re in a spot now where if Disney or someone else who hated us wanted to attack us, this would be a prime way of doing it.”

Lester nodded. “Yeah, I figured that. Openness always costs something. But we get a lot of benefits out of openness too. The way it works now is that no one ride can change more than five percent of the status quo within 24 hours without a manual approval. The problem was that the Brazilians opened, like, fifty rides at the same time, and each of them zeroed out and tried to sync that and between them they did way more than 100 percent. It’d be pretty easy to set things up so that no more than five percent can be changed, period, within a 24-hour period, without manual approval.”

“If you can do that, why not set every change to require approval?” Kettlewell said.

“Well, for starters because we’d end up spending all our time clicking OK for five-centimeter adjustments to prop-positioning. But more importantly, it’s because the system is all about community—we’re not in charge, we’re just part of the network.”

Kettlewell made a sour face and muttered something. Tjan patted his arm again. “You guys are in charge, as much as you’d like not to be. You’re the ones facing the legal hassles, you’re the ones who invented it.”

“We didn’t, really,” Lester said. “This was a real standing on the shoulders of giants project. We made use of a bunch of stuff that was on the shelf already, put it together, and then other people helped us refine it and get it working well. We’re just part of the group, like I keep saying.” He had a thought. “Besides, if we were in charge, Brazil wouldn’t have been able to zero us out.

“You guys are being really weird and suit-y about this, you know? I’ve fixed the problem: no one can take us down like this again. It just won’t happen. I’ve put the fix on the version-server for the codebase, so everyone else can deploy it if they want to. The problem’s solved. We’ll be shut for an hour or two, but who cares? You’re missing the big picture: Brazil opened fifty rides yesterday! I mean, it sucks that we didn’t notice until it screwed us up, but Brazil’s got it all online. Who’s next? China? India?”

“Russia?” Kettlewell said, looking at the door that Suzanne had left by. He was clearly trying to needle Lester.

Lester ignored him. “I’d love to go to Brazil and check out how they’ve done it. I speak a little Portuguese even—enough to say, ’Are you 18 yet?’ anyway.”

“You’re weird,” Lyenitchka said. Ada giggled and said, “Weird!”

Eva shook her head. “The kids have got a point,” she said. “You people are all a little weird. Why are you fighting? Tjan, Landon, you came here to manage the business side of things, and that’s what you’re doing. Lester, you’re in charge of the creative and technical stuff and that’s what you’re doing. Without Lester, you two wouldn’t have any business to run. Without these guys, you’d be in jail or something by now. Make peace, because you’re on the same side. I’ve got enough children to look after here.”

Kettlewell snapped a nod at her. “Right as ever, darling. OK, I apologize, all right?”

“Me too,” Lester said. “I was kidding about going to Brazil—at least while Perry’s still away.”

“He’s coming home,” Tjan said. “He called me this morning. He’s bringing the girl, too.”

“Yoko!” Lester said, and grinned. “OK, someone should get online and find out how all the other rides are coping with this. I’m sure they’re going nutso out there.”

“You do that,” Kettlewell said. “We’ve got another call with the lawyers in ten minutes.”

“How’s all that going?”

“Let me put it this way,” Kettlewell said, and for a second he was back in his glory days, slick and formidable, a shark. “I liquidated my shares in Disney this morning. They’re down fifty points since the NYSE opened. You wait until Tokyo wakes up, they’re going to bail and bail and bail.”

Lester smiled back. “OK, well that’s good, then.”

He hunkered down with a laptop and got his homebrew wireless rig up and running—a card would have been cheaper, but his rig gave him lots of robustness against malicious interference, multi-path and plain old attenuation—and got his headline reader running.

He set to reading the posts and dispelling the popups that tried to call his attention to this or that. His filters had lots to tell him about, and the areas of his screen designated for different interests were starting to pinken as they accumulated greater urgency.

He waved them away and concentrated on getting through to all the ride-maintainers who had questions about his patches. But there was one pink area that wouldn’t go. It was his serendipity zone, where things that didn’t match his filters but had lots of interestingness—comments and reposts from people he paid attention to—and some confluence with his keywords turned up.

Impatiently, he waved it up, and a page made of bits of LiveJournals and news reports and photo-streams assembled itself.

His eye fell first on the photos. But for the shock of black and neon green hair, he wouldn’t have recognized the kid in the pictures as Death Waits. His face was a ruin. His nose was a bloody rose, his eyes were both swollen shut. One ear was ruined—apparently he’d been dragged some distance with that side of his head on the ground. His cheeks were pulpy and bruised. Then he clicked through to the photos from where they’d found Death, before they’d cleaned him up in the ambulance, and he had to turn his head away and breathe deeply. Both legs and both arms were clearly broken, with at least one compound fracture. His crotch—Jesus. Lester looked away again, then quickly closed the window.

He switched to text accounts from Death’s friends who’d been to see him in the hospital. He would live, but he might not walk again. He was lucid, and he was telling stories about the man who’d beaten him—

You should just shut the fuck up about Disney on the fucking Internet, you know that, kid?

Lester got up and went to find Kettlewell and Tjan and Suzanne—oh, especially Suzanne—again. He didn’t think for one second that Death would have invented that. In fact, it was just the sort of brave thing that the gutsy little kid might have had the balls to report on.

Every step he took, he saw that ruin of a face, the compound fracture, the luminous blood around his groin. He made it halfway to the guesthouse before he found himself leaning against a shanty, throwing up. Tears and bile streaming down his face, chest heaving, Lester decided that this wasn’t about fun anymore. Lester came to understand what it meant to be responsible for people’s lives. When he stood up and wiped his face on the tail of his tight, glittering shirt, he was a different person.

Sweating in the suffocating afternoon heat, his re-casted arm on fire, Hilda had shown him the article about Death Waits while they were being screened for their connection at O’Hare. The TSA guy was swabbing his cast with a black-powder residue detector, and as Perry read it, he let out an involuntary yelp and a jump that sent him back for a full round of tertiary screening. No date with Dr. Jellyfinger, though it was a close thing.

Hilda was deep in her own phone, probing ferociously at it, occasionally picking it up and talking into it, then poking at it some more. Neither of them looked out the windows much, though in his mind, Perry had rehearsed this homecoming as a kind of tour of his territory, picking out which absurd landmarks he’d point out, which funny stories he’d tell, pausing to nuzzle Hilda’s throat.

But by the time he’d absorbed the mailing-list traffic and done a couple phoners with the people back in Madison—particularly Ernie, who was freaking about Death Waits and calling for tight physical security for all their people—they were pulling in at the ride. The cabbie, a Turk, wasn’t very cool about the neighborhood, and he kept slowing down on the side of the road and offering to let them out there, and Perry kept insisting that he take them all the way.

“No, you can’t just drop me here, man. For the tenth time, I’ve got a fucking cast on my broken arm. I’m not carrying my suitcase a mile from here. I live there. It’s safe. God, it’s not like I’m asking you to take me to a war-zone.”

He didn’t want to tip the guy, but he did. The cabbie was just trying to play it safe. Lots of people tried to play it safe. It didn’t make them assholes, even if it did make them ineffectual and useless.

While Perry tipped him, Hilda pulled the suitcase out of the cab’s trunk and she’d barely had time to shut the lid when the driver roared off like he was trying to outrun a sniper.

Perry grimaced. This was supposed to be a triumphant homecoming. He was supposed to be showing off his toys, all he’d wrought, to this girl. The town was all around them and they were about to charge in without even pausing to consider its Dr Seuss wonderment.

“Wait a sec,” Perry said. He took her hand. “See that? That was the first shanty they built. Five stories now.” The building was made of prefab concrete for the first couple stories, then successively lighter materials, with the roof-shack made of bamboo. “The designs are experimental, from the Army Corps of Engineers mostly, but they say they’ll stand a force-five hurricane.” He grimaced again. “Probably not the bamboo one, of course.”

“Of course,” Hilda said. “What’s that one?” She’d picked up on his mood, she knew he wanted to show her around before they ended up embroiled in ride-politics and work again.”

“You’ve got a good eye, my dear. That’s the finest BBQ on the continent. See how the walls are a little sooty looking? That’s carbonized ambrosia, a mix of fat and spice and hickory that you could scrape off and bottle as perfume.”

“Eww.”

“You haven’t tried Lemarr’s ribs yet,” he said, and goosed her. She squeaked and punched him in the shoulder. He showed her the tuck-shops, the kids playing, the tutor’s place, the day-care center, the workshops, taking her on a grand-circle tour of this place he’d help conjure into existence.

“Now there’s someone I haven’t seen in far too long,” Francis said. He’d aged something fierce in the last year, booze making his face subside into a mess of wrinkles and pouches and broken blood-vessels. He gave Perry a hard hug that smelled of booze, and it wasn’t even lunchtime.

“Francis, meet Hilda Hammersen; Hilda, meet Francis Clammer: aerospace engineer and gentleman of leisure.”

He took her hand and feinted a kiss at it, and Hilda good-naturedly rolled her eyes at this.

“What do you think of our lovely little settlement, then, Ms Hammersen?”

“It’s like something out of a fairy-tale,” she said. “You hear stories about Christiania and how good and peaceful it all was, but whenever you see squatters on TV, it’s always crack houses and drive-bys. You’ve really got something here.”

Francis nodded. “We get a bad rap, but we’re no different really from any other place where people take pride in what they own. I built my place, with my two hands. If Jimmy Carter had been there with Habitat for Humanity, we would have gotten no end of good press. Because we did it without a dead ex-president on the scene, we’re crooks. Perry tell you about what the law does around here?’

Perry nodded. “Yeah. She knows.”

Francis patted his cast. “Nice hardware, buddy. So when some Bible-thumping do-gooder gives you a leg up, you’re a folk-hero. Help yourself, you’re a CHUD. It’s the same with you people and your ride. If you had the backing of a giant corporation with claws sunk deep into kids’ brains, you’d be every package-tour operator’s wet dream. Build it yourself in the guts of a dead shopping center, and you’re some kind of slimy underclass.”

“Maybe that’s true,” said Hilda. “But it’s not necessarily true. Back in Madison, the locals love us, they think we do great stuff. After the law came after us, they came by with food and money and helped us rebuild. Scrappy activists get a lot of love in this country, too. Not everyone wants a big corporation to spoon-feed them.”

“Off in hippie college-towns you’ll always find people with enough brains to realize that their neighbors aren’t the boogieman. But there ain’t so many hippie college towns these days. I wish you two luck, but I think you’d be nuts to walk out the door in the morning expecting anything better than a kick in the teeth.”

That made Perry think of Death Waits, and the sense of urgency came back to him. “OK, we have to go now,” he said. “Thanks, Francis.”

“Nice to meet you, young woman,” he said, and when he smiled, it was a painful thing, all pouches and wrinkles and sags, and he gimped away with his limp more pronounced than ever.

They tracked down the crew at the tea-house’s big table. Everyone roared greetings at them when they came through the door, a proper homecoming, but when Perry counted heads, he realized that there was no one watching the ride.

“Guys, who’s running the ride?”

They told him about Brazil then, and Hilda listened with her head cocked, her face animated with surprise, dismay, then delight. “You say there are fifty rides open?”

“All at once,” Lester said. “All in one go.”

“Holy mother of poo,” Hilda breathed. Perry couldn’t even bring himself to say anything. He couldn’t even imagine Brazil in his head—jungles? beaches? He knew nothing about the country. They’d built fifty rides, without even making contact with him. He and Lester had designed the protocol to be open because they thought it would make it easier for others to copy what they’d done, but he’d never thought—

It was like vertigo, that feeling.

“So you’re Yoko, huh?” Lester said finally. It made everyone smile, but the tension was still there. Something big had just happened, bigger than any of them, bigger than the beating that had been laid on Death Waits, bigger than anything Perry had ever done. From his mind to a nation on another continent—

“You’re the sidekick, huh?” Hilda said.

Lester laughed. “Touche. It’s very nice to meet you and thank you for bringing him back home. We were starting to miss him, though God alone knows why.”

“I plan on keeping him,” she said, giving his bicep a squeeze. It brought Perry back to them. The little girls were staring at Hilda with saucer eyes. It made him realize that except for Suzanne and Eva, their whole little band was boys, all boys.

“Well, I’m home now,” he said. He knelt down and showed the girls his cast. “I got a new one,” he said. “They had to throw the old one out. So I need your help decorating this. Do you think you could do the job?”

Lyenitchka looked critically at the surface. “I think we could do the gig,” she said. “What do you think, partner?”

Tjan snorted out his nose, but she was so solemn that the rest kept quiet. Ada matched Lyenitchka’s critical posture and then nodded authoritatively. “Sure thing, partner.”

“It’s a date,” Perry said. “We’re gonna head home and put down our suitcases and come back and open the ride if it’s ready. It’s time Lester got some time off. I’m sure Suzanne will appreciate having him back again.”

Another silence fell over the group, tense as a piano wire. Perry looked from Lester to Suzanne and saw in a second what was up. He had time to notice that his first emotional response was to be intrigued, not sorry or scared. Only after a moment did he have the reaction he thought he should have—a mixture of sadness for his friend and irritation that they had yet another thing to deal with in the middle of a hundred other crises.

Hilda broke the tension—“It was great to meet you all. Dinner tonight, right?”

“Absolutely,” Kettlewell said, seizing on this. “Leave it to us—we’ll book someplace just great and have a great dinner to welcome you guys back.”

Eva took his arm. “That’s right,” she said. “I’ll get the girls to pick it out.” The little girls jumped up and down with excitement at this, and the baby brothers caught their excitement and made happy kid-screeches that got everyone smiling again.

Perry gave Lester a solemn, supportive hug, kissed Suzanne and Eva on the cheeks (Suzanne smelled good, something like sandalwood), shook hands with Tjan and Kettlewell and tousled all four kids before lighting out for the ride, gasping out a breath as they stepped into the open air.

Death Waits regained consciousness several times over the next week, aware each time that he was waking up in a hospital bed on a crowded ward, that he’d woken here before, and that he hurt and couldn’t remember much after the beating had started.

But after a week or so, he found himself awake and aware—he still hurt all over, a dull and distant stoned ache that he could tell was being kept at bay by powerful painkillers. There was someone waiting for him.

“Hello, Darren,” the man said. “I’m an attorney working for your friends at the ride. My name is Tom Levine. We’re suing Disney and we wanted to gather some evidence from you.”

Death didn’t like being called Darren, and he didn’t want to talk to this dork. He’d woken up with a profound sense of anger, remembering the dead-eyed guy shouting about Disney while bouncing his head off the ground, knowing that Sammy had done this, wanting nothing more than to get ahold of Sammy and, and… That’s where he ran out of imagination. He was perfectly happy drawing medieval-style torture chambers and vampires in his sketch book, but he didn’t actually have much stomach for, you know, violence.

Per se.

“Can we do this some other time?” His mouth hurt. He’d lost four teeth and had bitten his tongue hard enough to need stitches. He could barely understand his own words.

“I wish we could, but time is of the essence here. You’ve heard that we’re bringing a suit against Disney, right?”

“No,” Death said.

“Must have come up while you were out. Anyway, we are, for unfair competition. We’ve got a shot at cleaning them out, taking them for every cent. We’re going through the pre-trial motions now and there’s been a motion to summarily exclude any evidence related to your beating from the proceedings. We think that’s BS. It’s clear from what you’ve told your friends that they wanted to shut you up because you were making them look bad. So what we need is more information from you about what this guy said to you, and what you’d posted before, and anything anyone at Disney said to you while you were working there.”

“You know that that guy said he was beating me up because I talked about this stuff in the first place?”

The lawyer waved a hand. “There’s no way they’ll come after you now. They look like total assholes for doing this. They’re scared stupid. Now, I’m going to want to formally depose you later, but this is a pre-deposition interview just to get clear on everything.”

The guy leaned forward and suddenly Death Waits had a bone-deep conviction that the guy was about to punch him. He gave a little squeak and shrank away, then cried out again as every inch of his body awoke in hot agony, a feeling like grating bones beneath his skin.

“Woah, take it easy there, champ,” the lawyer said.

Death Waits held back tears. The guy wasn’t going to hit him, but just the movement in his direction had scared him like he’d leapt out holding an axe. The magnitude of his own brokenness began to sink in and now he could barely hold back the tears.

“Look, the guys who run the ride have told me that I have to get this from you as soon as I can. If we’re going to keep the ride safe and nail the bastards who did this to you, I need to do this. If I had my way, I wouldn’t bug you, but I’ve got my orders, OK?”

Death snuffled back the tears. The back of his throat felt like it had been sanded with a rusty file. “Water,” he croaked.

The lawyer shook his head. “Sorry buddy, just the IV, I’m afraid. The nurses were very specific. Let’s start, OK, and then we’ll be done before you know it.”

Defeated, Death closed his eyes. “Start,” he said, his voice like something made from soft tar left too long in the sun.

Sammy knew he was a dead man. The only thing keeping him alive was legal’s reluctance to read the net. Hackelberg had a couple of juniors who kept watch-lists running on hot subjects, but they liked to print them out and mark them up, and that meant that they lagged a day or two behind the blogosphere.

The Death Waits thing was a freaking disaster. The guy was just supposed to put a scare into him, not cripple him for life. Every time Sammy thought about what would happen when the Death Waits thing percolated up to him, he got gooseflesh.

Damn that idiot thug anyway. Sammy had been very clear. The guy who knew the guy who knew the guy had been reassuring on the phone when Sammy put in the order—sure, sure, nothing too rough, just a little shoving around.

And what’s worse is the idiot kid hadn’t gotten the hint. Sammy didn’t get it. If a stranger beat him half to death and told him to stop hanging out in message-boards, well, the message-boards would go. Damned right they would.

And with Freddy, there was a shoe waiting to drop. Freddy wouldn’t report on their interview, he was pretty sure of that. “Off the record” means something, even to “journalists” like Honest Freddy. But Freddy wasn’t going to be nice to him in follow-ups, that much was sure. And if—when! — Freddy got wind of the Death Waits situation…

He began to hyperventilate.

“I’m going to go check on the construction,” he said to his personal assistant, a new girl they’d sent up when his last one had defected to work for Wiener (Wiener!) after Sammy’d shouted at her for putting through a press-call from some blogger who wanted to know when Fantasyland would be re-opening.

It had been a mistake to shut down Fantasyland just to get the other managers off his back. Sure the rides were sick dogs, but there had been life in them still. Construction sites don’t bring in visitors, and the numbers for the park were down and everyone was looking at him. Never mind that the only reason the numbers had been as high as they were was that Sammy had saved everyone’s ass when he’d done the goth rehab. Never mind that the real reason that numbers were down was that no one else in management had the guts to keep the park moving and improving.

He slowed his step on Main Street, USA, and forced himself to pay attention to his surroundings. The stores on Main Street had been co-opted into helping him dump all the superfluous goth merchandise, and it was in their windows and visible through their doors. The fatkins pizza-stands and ice-cream wagons were doing a brisk trade around the castle roundabout. The crowd was predominantly veering to the left, toward Adventureland and Frontierland and Liberty Square, while the right side of the plaza, which held the gateways to Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, was conspicuously sparse. He’d known that his numbers were down, but standing in the crowd’s flow, he could feel it.

He cleared the castle and stood for a moment at the brink of Fantasyland. It should be impossible to stand here at one in the afternoon—there should be busy rushes of people pushing past to get on the rides and to eat and to buy stuff, but now there were just a few kids in eyeliner puffing cloves in smokeless hookahs and a wasteland of hoardings painted a shade Imagineering called “go-away green” for its ability to make the eye slide right past it.

He’d left the two big coasters open, and they had decent queues, but that was it. No one was in the stores, and no one was bothering with the zombie maze. Clouds of dust and loud destruction noises rose over the hoardings, and he slipped into a staff door and threaded his way onto one of the sites, pausing to pick up a safety helmet with mouse-ears.

At least these crews were efficient. He’d long ago impressed on the department that hired construction contractors the necessity of decommissioning old rides with extreme care so as to preserve as much of the collectible value of the finishings and trim as possible. It was a little weird—Disney customers howled like stuck pigs when you shut down their rides, then fought for the chance to spend fortunes buying up the dismembered corpses of their favored amusements.

He watched some Cuban kids carefully melting the hot glue that had held the skull trim-elements to the pillar of the Dia de los Muertos facade, setting them atop a large pile of other trim—scythes, hooded figures, tombstones—with a layer of aerogel beneath to keep the garriture from scratching. The whole area behind the hoardings was like this—rides in pieces, towers of fiberglass detritus sandwiched between layers of aerogel.

They’d done this before, when he’d taken Fantasyland down, and he’d fretted every moment about how long the tear-down was taking. There were exciting new plans lurking in the wings then, waiting to leap onstage and take shape. He’d had some of the ride components fabricated by a contractor in Kissimmee, but large chunks of the construction had to take place onsite. The advantage had been his: cheap fabricators, new materials, easy collaboration between remote contractors and his people on-site. No one had ever executed new rides as fast and as well as he had. The things had basically built themselves.

Now the competition was using the same tech and it was a fucking disaster for him. Worse and worse: he had no plans for what was to come afterward. He’d thought that he’d just grab some of the audience research people, throw together a fatkins focus group or two, and give Imagineering two weeks to come up with some designs they could put up fast. He knew from past experience that design expanded to fill the time available to it, and that the best stuff usually emerged in the first ten days anyway, and after that it was all committee group-think.

But no one from audience research wanted to return his calls, no one from Imagineering was willing to work for him, and no one wanted to visit a section of the park that was dominated by construction hoardings and demolition dust.

What the hell was happening at the Miami ride, anyway? He could follow it online, run the three-dee flythroughs of the ride as it stood, even download and print his own versions of the ride objects, but none of that told him what it felt like to get on the ride, to be in its clanking bowels, surrounded by other riders, pointing and marveling and laughing at the scenes and motion.

Rides were things that you had to ride to understand. Describing a ride was like talking about a movie—so abstract and remote. Like talking about sex versus having sex.

Sammy loved rides. Or he used to, anyway. So much more than films, so much more than books—so immersive and human, and the whole crowd thing, all the other people waiting to ride it or just getting off it. It had started with coasters—doesn’t every kid love coasters? — but he’d ended up a connoisseur, a gourmand who loved every species of ride, from thrill-rides to monorails, carousels to dark-rides.

There’d been a time when he’d ridden every ride in the park once a week, and every ride in every nearby park once a month. That had been years before. Now he sat in an office and made important decisions and he was lucky if he made it onto a ride once a week.

Not that it mattered anymore. He’d screwed up so bad that it was only a matter of time until he ended up on the bread-line. Or in jail.

He realized he was staring glumly at the demolition, and pulled himself upright, sucked in a few breaths, mentally kicked himself in the ass and told himself to stop feeling sorry for himself.

A young woman pried loose another resin skull finial and added it to the pile, placed another sheet of aerogel on top of it.

People loved these little tchotchkes. They had a relationship with Disney Parks that made them want to come again and again, to own a piece of the place. They came for visits and then they visited in their hearts and they came back to bring their hearts home. It was an extremely profitable dynamic.

That’s what those ride people up in the Wal-Mart were making their hay on—anyone could replicate the ride in their back-yard. You didn’t have to fly from Madison to Orlando to have a little refresher experience. It was right there, at the end of the road.

If only there was some way to put his rides, his park, right there in the riders’ homes, in their literal back-yards. Being able to look at the webcams and take a three-dee fly-through was one thing, but it wasn’t the physical, visceral experience of being there.

The maintenance crew had finished all the trim and now they were going after the props and animatronics. They never used to sell these off, because manufacturing the guts of a robot was too finicky to do any more than you had to—it was far better to repurpose them, like the America Sings geese that had all their skin removed and found a new home as smart-talking robots in the pre-show for the old Star Tours.

But now it all could be printed to order, fabbed and shipped in. They weren’t even doing their own machining at Imagineering anymore—that was all mail-order fulfillment. Just email a three-dee drawing to a shop and you’d have as many as you wanted the next day, FedEx guaranteed. Sammy’s lips drew back from his teeth as he considered the possibility that the Wal-Mart ride people had ordered their parts from the same suppliers. Christ on a bike, what a mess.

And there, in the pit of despair, at the bottom of his downward arc, Sammy was hit by a bolt of inspiration:

Put Disney into people’s living rooms! Put printers into their homes that decorated a corner of their rooms with a replica of a different ride every day. You could put it on a coffee table, or scale it up to fill your basement rumpus-room. You could have a magic room that was a piece of the park, a souvenir that never let go of Disney, there in your home. The people who were willing to spend a fortune on printed skull finials would cream for this! It would be like actually living there, in the park. It would be Imagineering Eye for the Fan Guy.

He could think of a hundred ways to turn this into money. Give away the printers and sell subscriptions to the refresh. Sell the printers and give away the refreshes. Charge sponsors to modify the plans and target different product placements to different users. The possibilities were endless. Best of all, it would extend the reach of Disney Parks further than the stupid ride could ever go—it would be there, on the coffee table, in the rumpus room, in your school gym or at your summer place.

He loved it. Loved it! He actually laughed aloud. What a great idea! Sure he was in trouble—big trouble. But if he could get this thing going—and it would go, fast—then Hackelberg would get his back. The lawyer didn’t give a shit if Sammy lived or died, but he would do anything to protect the company’s interests.

Sure, no one from Imagineering had been willing to help him design new rides. They all had all the new ride design projects they could use. Audience research too. But this was new, new new, not old new, and new was always appealing to a certain kind of novelty junkie in Imagineering. He’d find help for this, and then he’d pull together a business-plan, and a timeline, and a critical path, and he’d start executing. He wanted a prototype out the door in a week. Christ, it couldn’t be that hard—those Wal-Mart ride assholes had published the full schematics for their toys already. He could just rip them off. Turnabout is fair play, after all.

Hilda left Perry after a couple hours working the ticket-booth together. She wanted to go for a shower and a bit of an explore, and it was a secret relief to both of them to get some time apart after all that time living in each others’ pockets. They were intimate strangers still, not yet attuned to each others’ moods and needs for privacy, and a little separation was welcome.

Welcome, too, was Perry’s old post there at the ticket counter, like Lucy’s lemonade stand in Peanuts. The riders came on thick, a surprising number of them knew his name and wanted to know how his arm was. They were all watching the drama unfold online. They knew about the Brazilian rides coming online and the patch Lester had run. They all felt a proprietary interest in this thing. It made him feel good, but a little weird. He could deal with having friends, and customers, but fans?

When he got off work, he wandered over to the shantytown with a bunch of the vendors, to have a customary after-work beer and plate of ribs. He was about to get his phone out and find Hilda when he spotted her, gnawing on a greasy bone with Suzanne and Eva.

“Well, hello!” he said, delighted, skipping around the barbecue pit to collect a greasy kiss from Hilda, and more chaste but equally greasy pecks on the cheek from Suzanne and Eva. “Looks like you’ve found the best place in town!”

“We thought we’d show her around,” Suzanne said. She and Eva had positioned each other on either side of Hilda, using her as a buffer, but it was great to see that they were on something like speaking terms. Perry had no doubt that Suzanne hadn’t led Kettlewell on (they all had crushes on her, he knew it), but that didn’t mean that Eva wouldn’t resent her anyway. If their positions were reversed, he would have had a hard time controlling his jealousy.

“They’ve been wonderful,” Hilda said, offering him a rib. He introduced her to the market-stall sellers who’d come over with him and there was more greasy handshaking and hugging, and the proprietor of the joint started handing around more ribs, more beers, and someone brought out a set of speakers and suction-cupped their induction-surfaces to a nearby wall, and Perry dropped one of his earbuds into them and set it to shuffle and they had music.

Kids ran past them in shrieking hordes, playing some kind of big game that they’d all been obsessed with. Perry saw that Ada and Lyenitchka were with them, clutching brightly colored mobiles and trying to read their screens while running away from another gang of kids who were clearly “it,” taking exaggerated care not to run into invisible obstacles indicated on the screens.

“It was great to get back into the saddle,” Perry said, digging into some ribs, getting sauce on his fingers. “I had no idea how much I’d been missing it.”

Hilda nodded. “I could tell, anyway. You’re a junkie for it. You’re like the ones who show up all googly-eyed about the ’story’ that’s supposedly in there. You act like that’s a holy box.”

Suzanne nodded solemnly. “She’s right. The two of you, you and Lester, you’re so into that thing, you’re the biggest fanboys in the world. You know what they call it, the fans, when they get together to chat about the stuff they love? Drooling. As in, ’Did you see the drool I posted this morning about the new girl’s bedroom scene?’ You drool like no one’s business when you talk about that thing. It’s a holy thing for you.”

“You guys sound like you’ve been comparing notes,” Perry said, making his funny eyebrow dance.

Eva arched one of her fine, high eyebrows in response. In some ways, she was the most beautiful of all of them, the most self-assured and poised. “Of course we were, sonny. Your young lady here needed to know that you aren’t an axe-murderer.” The women’s camaraderie was almost palpable. Suzanne and Eva had clearly patched up whatever differences they’d had, which was probably bad news for Kettlewell.

“Where is Lester, anyway?” He hadn’t planned on asking, but Suzanne’s mention of his name led him to believe he could probably get away with it.

“He’s talking to Brazil,” Suzanne said. “It’s all he’s done, all day long.”

Talking to Brazil. Wow. Perry’d thought of Brazil as a kind of abstract thing, fifty rogue nodes on the network that had necessitated a hurried software patch. Not as a bunch of people. But of course, there they were, in Brazil, real people by the dozens, maybe even hundreds, building rides.

“He doesn’t speak Spanish, though,” Perry said.

“Neither do they, dork,” Hilda said, giving him an elbow in the ribs. “Portuguese.”

“They all speak some English and he’s using automated translation stuff for the hard concepts.”

“Does that work? I mean, any time I’ve tried to translate a web-page in Japanese or Hebrew, it’s kind of read like noun noun noun noun verb noun random.”

Suzanne shook her head. “That’s how most of the world experiences most of the net, Perry. Anglos are just about the only people on earth who don’t read the net in languages other than their own.”

“Well, good for Lester then,” he said.

Suzanne made a sour face that let him know that whatever peace prevailed between her and Lester, it was fragile. “Good for him,” she said.

“Where are the boys?”

“Landon and Tjan have them,” Eva said. “They’ve been holed up with your lawyers going over strategy with them. When I walked out, they were trying to get the firm’s partners to take shares in the corporation that owns the settlement in lieu of cash up front.”

“Man that’s all too weird for me,” Perry said. “I wish we could just run this thing like a business: make stuff people want to give us money for, collect the money, and spend it.”

“You are such a nerd fatalist,” Suzanne said. “Getting involved in the more abstract elements of commerce doesn’t make you into a suit. If you don’t participate and take an interest, you’ll always be out-competed by those who do.”

“Bull,” Perry said. “They can get a court to order us to make pi equal to three, or to ensure that other people don’t make Mickey heads in their rides, or that our riders don’t think of Disney when they get into one of our chairs, but they’ll never be able to enforce it.”

Suzanne suddenly whirled on him. “Perry Gibbons, you aren’t that stupid, so stop acting like you are.” She touched his cast. “Look at this thing on your arm. Your superior technology can not make inferior laws irrelevant. You’re assuming that the machinery of state is unwilling to completely shut you down in order to make you comply with some minor law. You’re totally wrong. They’ll come after you and break your head.”

Perry rocked back on his heels. He was suddenly furious, even if somewhere in his heart of hearts he knew that she was right and he was mostly angry at being shown up in front of Hilda. “I’ve been hearing that all my life, Suzanne. I don’t buy it. Look, it just keeps getting cheaper and easier to make something like what we’ve built. To get a printer, to get goop, to make stuff, to download stuff, to message and IM with people who’ll help you make stuff. To learn how to make it. Look, the world is getting better because we’re getting better at routing around the bullies. We can play their game, or we can invent a new game.

“I refuse to be sucked into playing their game. If we play their game, we end up just like them.”

Suzanne shook her head sadly. “It’s a good thing you’ve got Tjan and Kettlewell around then, to do the dirty work. I just hope you can spare them a little pity from atop your moral high-ground.”

She took Eva by the arm and led her away, leaving Perry, shaking, with Hilda.

“Bitch,” he said, kicking the ground. He balled his hands into fists and then quickly relaxed them as his broken arm ground and twinged from the sudden tensing.

Hilda took him by the arm. “You two clearly have a lot of history.”

He took a couple deep breaths. “She was so out of line there. What the hell, anyway? Why should I have to—” He stopped. He could tell when he was repeating himself.

“I don’t think that she would be telling you that stuff if she didn’t think you needed to hear it.”

“You sound like you’re on her side. I thought you were a fiery young revolutionary. You think we should all put on suits and incorporate?”

“I think that if you’ve got skilled people willing to help you, you owe it to them to value their contribution. I’ve heard you complain about ’suits’ twenty times in the past week. Two of those suits are on your side. They’re putting themselves on the line, just like you. Hell, they’re doing the shit-work while you get to do all the inventing and fly around the country and get laid by hot groupies.”

She kissed his cheek, trying to make a joke of it, but she’d really hurt his feelings. He felt like weeping. It was all out of his control. His destiny was not his to master.

“OK, let’s go apologize to Kettlewell and Tjan.”

She laughed, but he’d only been halfway kidding. What he really wanted to do was have a big old dinner at home with Lester, just the two of them in front of the TV, eating Lester’s fatkins cuisine, planning a new invention. He was tired of all these people. Even Suzanne was an outsider. It had just been him and Lester in the old days, and those had been the best days.

Hilda put her arm around his shoulders and nuzzled his neck. “Poor Perry,” she said. “Everyone picks on him.”

He smiled in spite of himself.

“Come on, sulkypants, let’s go find Lester and he can call me ’Yoko’ some more. That always cheers you up.”

It was two weeks before Death Waits could sit up and prod at a keyboard with his broken hands. Some of his pals brought a laptop around and they commandeered a spare dining tray to keep it on—Death’s lap was in no shape to support anything heavy with sharp corners.

The first day, he was reduced to tears of frustration within minutes of starting. He couldn’t use the shift key, couldn’t really use the mouse—and the meds made it hard to concentrate and remember what he’d done.

But there were people on the other end of that computer, human friends whom he could communicate with if only he could re-learn to use this tool that he’d lived with since he was old enough to sit up on his own.

So laboriously, peck by peck, key by key, he learned to use it again. The machine had a mode for disabled people, for cripples, and once he hit on this, it went faster. The mode tried to learn from him, learn his tremors and mis-keys, his errors and cursing, and so emerge something that was uniquely his interface. It was a kind of a game to watch the computer try to guess what was meant by his mashed keystrokes and spastic pointer-movements—he turned on the webcam and aimed it at his eye, and switched it to retinal scanner mode, giving it control of the pointer, then watched in amusement as the wild leaping of the cursor every time a needle or a broken bone shifted inside his body was becalmed into a graceful, normalized curve.

It was humiliating to be a high-tech cripple and the better the technology worked, the more prone it was to reducing him to tears. He might be like this for the rest of his life. He might never walk without a limp again. Might never dance. Might never be able to reach for and lift objects again. He’d never find a woman, never have a family, never have grandkids.

But this was offset by the real people with their real chatter. He obsessively flew through the Brazilian mode, strange and wonderful but nowhere near what he loved from “his” variation on the ride. He could roll through all the different changes he’d made with his friends to the ride in Florida, and he became subtly attuned to which elements were wrong and which were right.

It was on one of these flythroughs that he encountered The Story, leaping out of the ride so vividly that he yelped like he’d flexed his IV into a nerve again.

There it was—irrefutable and indefinable. When you rode through there was an escalating tension, a sense of people who belonged to these exhibits going through hard changes, growing up and out.

Once he’d seen it, he couldn’t un-see it. When he and his pals had started to add their own stuff to the ride, the story people had been giant pains in the ass, accusing them of something they called “narricide”—destroying the fragile story that humanity had laid bare there.

Now that he’d seen it too, he wanted to protect it. But he could see by skimming forward and back through the change-log and trying different flythroughs that the story wasn’t being undermined by the goth stuff they were bringing in; it was being enhanced. It was telling the story he knew, of growing up with an indefinable need to be different, to reject the mainstream and to embrace this subculture and aesthetic.

It was the story of his tribe and sub-species and it got realer the more he played it. God, how could he have missed it? It made him want to cry, though that might have been the meds. Some of it made him want to laugh, too.

He tried, laboriously, to compose a message-board post that expressed what he was feeling, but every attempt came out sounding like those story mystics he’d battled. He understood now why they’d sounded so hippy-trippy.

So he rode the ride, virtually, again and again, spotting the grace-notes and the sly wit and the wrenching emotion that the collective intelligence of all those riders had created. Discovered? It was like the story was there all along, lurking like the statue inside a block of marble.

Oh, it was wonderful. He was ruined, maybe forever, but it was wonderful. And he’d been a part of it.

He went back to writing that message-board post. He’d be laid in that bed for a long time yet. He had time to rewrite.

IF YOU CAN’T BEAT THEM, RIP THEM OFF

A new initiative from the troubled Disney Parks corporation shows how a little imagination can catapult an ambitious exec to the top of the corporate ladder.

Word has it that Samuel R.D. Page, the Vice President for Fantasyland (I assure you, I am NOT making that up) has been kicked upstairs to Senior Vice President for Remote Delivery of Park Experience (I’m not making that up, either). Insiders in the company tell us that “Remote Delivery of Park Experience” is a plan to convince us to give The Mouse a piece of our homes which will be constantly refreshed via a robot three-dimensional printer with miniatures of the Disney park.

If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s a pale imitation of the no-less-ridiculous (if slightly less evil) “rides” movement pioneered by Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks, previously the anti-heroes of the New Work pump-and-dump scandal.

Imitation is meant to be the sincerest form of flattery, and if so, Gibbons and his cultists must be blushing fire-engine red.

This is cheap irony, Disney-style. After all, it’s only been a month since the company launched ten separate lawsuits against various incarnations of the ride for trademark violation, and it’s now trying to duck the punishing countersuits that have risen up in their wake.

Most ironic of all, word has it that Page was responsible for both ends of this: the lawsuits against the ride and the decision to turn his company into purveyors of cheap knockoffs of the ride.

Page is best known among Park aficionados for having had the “foresight” to gut the children’s “Fantasyland” district in Walt Disney World and replace it with a jumped up version of Hot Topic, a goth-themed area that drew down the nation’s eyeliner supply to dangerously low levels.

It was apparently that sort of “way-out-of-the-box” “genius” that led Page to his latest round of disasters: the lawsuits, an abortive rebuilding of Fantasyland, and now this “Remote Delivery” scam.

What’s next? The Mouse has already shipped Disney Dollars, an abortive home-wares line, a disastrous fine-art chain, and oversaw the collapse of the collectible cel-art market. With “visionaries” like Page at the helm, the company can’t help but notch up more “successes.”

Death was deep into the story now. The Brazilians had forked off their own ride—they’d had their own New Work culture, too, centered in the favelas, so they had different stories to tell. Some of the ride operators imported a few of their scenes, tentatively, and some of the ride fans were recreating the Brazil scenes on their own passes through the ride.

It was all in there, if you knew where to look for it, and the best part was, no one had written it. It had written itself. The collective judgement of people who rode through had turned chaos into coherence.

Or had it? The message-boards were rife with speculation that The Story had been planted by someone—maybe the ride’s creators, maybe some clan of riders—who’d inserted it deliberately. These discussions bordered on the metaphysical: what was an “organic” ride decision? It made Death Waits’s head swim.

The thing that was really doing his head in, though, was the Disney stuff. Sammy—he couldn’t even think of Sammy without a sick feeling in his stomach, crashing waves of nausea that transcended even his narcotic haze—Sammy was making these grotesque parodies of the ride. He was pushing them out to the world’s living rooms. Even the deleted rides from the glory days of the goth Fantasyland, in time-limited miniature. If he’d still been at Disney Parks, he would have loved this idea. It was just what he loved, the knowledge that he was sharing experience with his people around the world, part of a tribe even if he couldn’t see them.

Now, in the era of the ride, he could see how dumb this was. How thin and shallow and commercial. Why should they have to pay some giant evil corporation to convene their community?

He kept trying to write about The Story, kept failing. It wouldn’t come. But Sammy—he knew what he wanted to say about Sammy. He typed until they sedated him, and then typed some more when he woke up. He had old emails to refer to. He pasted them in.

After three days of doing this, the lawyer came back. Tom Levine was dressed in a stern suit with narrow lapels and a tie pierced with some kind of frat pin. He wasn’t much older than Death, but he made Death feel like a little kid.

“I need to talk to you about your Internet activity,” he said, sitting down beside him. He’d brought along a salt-water taffy assortment bought from the roadside, cut into double-helix molecules and other odd biological forms—an amoeba, a skeleton.

“OK?” Death said. They’d switched him to something new for the pain that day, and given him a rocker-switch he could use to drizzle it into his IV when it got bad. He’d hit it just before the lawyer came to see him and now he couldn’t concentrate much. Plus he wasn’t used to talking. Writing online was better. He could write something, save it, go back and re-read it later and clean it up if it turned out he’d gone off on a stoned ramble.

“You know we’re engaged in some very high-stakes litigation here, right, Darren?”

He hated it when people called him Darren.

“Death,” he said. His toothless lisp was pathetic, like an old wino’s.

“Death, OK. This high-stakes litigation needs a maximum of caution and control. This is a fifteen-year journey that ends when we’ve broken the back of the company that did this to you. It ends when we take them for every cent, bankrupt their executives, take their summer homes, freeze their accounts. You understand that?”

Death hadn’t really understood that. It sounded pretty tiring. Exhausting. Fifteen years. He was only nineteen now. He’d be thirty-four, and that was only if the lawyer was estimating correctly.

“Oh,” he said.

“Well, not that you’re going to have to take part in fifteen years’ worth of this. It’s likely we’ll be done with your part in a year, tops. But the point is that when you go online and post material that’s potentially harmful to this case—”

Death closed his eyes. He’d posted the wrong thing. This had been a major deal when he was at Disney, what he was and wasn’t allowed to post about—though in practice, he’d posted about everything, sticking the private stuff in private discussions.

“Look, you can’t write about the case, or anything involved with it, that’s what it comes down to. If you write about that stuff and you say the wrong thing, you could blow this whole suit. They’d get away clean.”

Death shook his head. Not write about it at all?

“No,” he said. “No.”

“I’m not asking you, Death. I can get a court order if I have to. This is serious—it’s not some funny little game. There are billions on the line here. One wrong word, one wrong post and pfft, it’s all over. And nothing in email, either—it’s likely everything you write is going to go through discovery. Don’t write anything personal in any of your mail—nothing you wouldn’t want in a court record.”

“I can’t do that,” Death said. He sounded like a fucking retard, between talking through his mashed mouth and talking through the tears. “I can’t. I live in email.”

“Well, now you’ll have a reason to go outside. This isn’t up for negotiation. When I was here last, I thought I made the seriousness of this case clear to you. I’m frankly amazed that you were immature and irresponsible enough to write what I’ve read.”

“I can’t—” Death said.

The lawyer purpled. He didn’t look like a happy-go-lucky tanned preppie anymore. He looked Dad-scary, like one of those fathers in Disney who was about to seriously lose his shit and haul off and smack a whiny kid. Death’s own Pawpaw, who’d stood in for his father, had gone red like that whenever he “mouthed off,” a sin that could be committed even without opening his mouth. He had an instinctive curl-up-and-hide reaction to it, and the lawyer seemed to sense this, looming over him. He felt like he was about to be eaten.

“You listen to me, Darren—this is not the kind of thing you fuck up. This isn’t something I’m going to fuck up. I win my cases and you’re not going to change that. There’s too much at stake here for you to blow it all with your childish, selfish—”

He seemed to catch himself then, and he snorted a hot breath through his nose that blew over Death’s face. “Listen, there’s a lot on the line here. More money than you or I are worth. I’m trying to help you out here. Whatever you write, whatever you say, it’s going to be very closely scrutinized. From now on, you should treat every piece of information that emanates from your fingertips as likely to be covered on the evening news and repeated to everyone you’ve ever met. No matter how private you think you’re being, it’ll come out. It’s not pretty, and I know you didn’t ask for it, but you’re here, and there’s nothing you can do to change that.

He left then, embarrassed at losing his temper, embarrassed at Death’s meek silence. Death poked at his laptop some. He thought about writing down more notes, but that was probably in the same category.

He closed his eyes and now, now he felt the extent of his injuries, felt them truly for the first time since he’d woken up in this hospital. There were deep, grinding pains in his legs—both knees broken, fracture in the left thigh. His ribs hurt every time he breathed. His face was a ruin, his mouth felt like he had twisted lumps of hamburger glued to his torn lips. His dick—well, they’d catheterized him, but that didn’t account for the feelings down there. He’d been kicked repeatedly and viciously, and they told him that the reconstructive surgeries—surgeries, plural—would take some time, and nothing was certain until they were done.

He’d managed to pretend that his body wasn’t there for so long as he was able to poke at the computer. Now it came back to him. He had the painkiller rocker-switch and the pain wasn’t any worse than what passed for normal, but he had an idea that if he hit it enough times, he’d be able to get away from his body for a while again.

He tried it.

Hilda and Lester sat uncomfortably on the sofa next to each other. Perry had hoped they’d hit it off, but it was clear after Lester tried his Yoko joke again that the chemistry wasn’t there. Now they were having a rare moment of all-look-same-screen, the TV switched on like in an old comedy, no one looking at their own laptop.

The tension was thick, and Perry was sick of it.

He reached for his computer and asked it to find him the baseball gloves. Two of the drawers on the living-room walls glowed pink. He fetched the gloves down, tossed one to Lester, and picked up his ball.

“Come on,” he said. “TV is historically accurate, but it’s not very social.”

Lester got up from the sofa, a slow smile spreading on his face, and Hilda followed a minute later. Outside, by the cracked pool, it was coming on slow twilight and that magic, tropical blood-orange sky like a swirl of sorbet.

Lester and Perry each put on their gloves. Perry’d worn his now and again, but had never had a real game of catch with it. Lester lobbed an easy toss to him and when it smacked his glove, it felt so right, the sound and the vibration and the fine cloud of dust that rose up from the mitt’s pocket, Christ, it was like a sacrament.

He couldn’t lob the ball back, because of his busted wing, so he handed the ball to Hilda. “You’re my designated right arm,” he said. She smiled and chucked the ball back to Lester.

They played until the twilight deepened to velvety warm dark and humming bugs and starlight. Each time he caught a ball, something left Perry, some pain long held in his chest, evanesced into the night air. His catching arm, stiff from being twisted by the weight of the cast on his other hand, unlimbered and became fluid. His mind was becalmed.

None of them talked, though they sometimes laughed when a ball went wild, and both Perry and Lester went “ooh,” when Lester made a jump-catch that nearly tumbled him into the dry pool.

Perry hadn’t played a game of catch since he was a kid. Catch wasn’t his dad’s strong suit, and he and his friends had liked video-games better than tossing a ball, which was pretty dull by comparison.

But that night it was magic, and when it got to full dark and they could barely see the ball except as a second moon hurtling white through the air, they kept tossing it a few more times before Perry dropped it into the pocket of his baggy shorts. “Let’s get a drink,” he said.

Lester came over and gave him a big, bearish hug. Then Hilda joined them. “You stink,” Lester said, “Seriously, dude. Like the ass of a dead bear.”

That broke them up and set them to laughing together, a giggling fit that left them gasping, Lester on all fours. Perry’s arm forgot to hurt and he moved to kiss Hilda on the cheek and instead she turned her head to kiss him full on the lips, a real juicy, steamy one that made his ear-wax melt.

“Drinks,” Hilda said, breaking the kiss.

They went upstairs, holding the mitts, and had a beer together on the patio, talking softly about nothing in particular, and then Lester hugged them good night and then they all went to bed, and Perry put his face into the hair at the back of Hilda’s neck and told her he loved her, and Hilda snuggled up to him and they fell asleep.

A GAME OF CATCH

Pop-quiz: Your empire is crumbling around your ears. Your supporters are hospitalized by jackboot thugs for sticking up for you.

The lawsuits are mounting and fly-by-night MBAs have determined to use your non-profit, info-hippie ride project to get right by embarking on 20 years of litigation.

What do you do?

Well, if you’re like Perry Gibbons, Lester Banks and Hilda Hammersen, you go out into the backyard and throw a ball around for a while, then you have a big cuddle and head inside.

The pictures shown here were captured by a neighbor of the cult leaders last night, at their palatial condos in Hollywood, Florida.

The three are ring-leaders of the loose-knit organization that manages the “rides” that dot ten cities in America and are present in fifty cities in Brazil. Their project came to national attention when Disney brought suit against them, securing injunctions against the rides that resulted in riots and bloodshed.

One supporter of the group, the outspoken “Death Waits,” a former Disney employee, has been hospitalized for over a week following a savage beating that he claims resulted from his Internet posting about the unhealthy obsession Disney executive Samuel R.D. Page (see previous coverage) bore for the ride.

Everyone needs to unwind now and then, but sources at the hospital where Death Waits lies abed say that he has had no visits from the cult leaders since he took his beating in their service.

No doubt these three have more important things to do—like play catch.

Suzanne said, “Look, you can’t let crazy people set your agenda. If you want to visit this Death kid, you should. If you don’t, you shouldn’t. But don’t let Freddy psy-ops you into doing something you don’t want to do. Maybe he does have a rat in your building. Maybe he’s got a rat at the hospital. Maybe, though, he just scored some stills off a flickr stream, maybe he’s watching new photos with some face-recognition stuff.”

Perry looked up from his screen, still scowling. “People do that?”

“Sure—stalkerware! I use it myself, just to see what photos of me are showing up online. I scour every photo-feed published for anything that appears to be a photo of me. Most of it’s from blogjects, CCTV cameras and crap like that. You should see what it’s like on days I go to London—you can get photographed 800 times a day there without trying. So yeah, if I was Freddy and I wanted to screw with you, I’d be watching every image feed for your pic, and mine, and Lester’s. We just need to assume that that’s going on. But look at what he actually reported on: you went out and played catch and then hugged after your game. It’s not like he caught you cornholing gators while smoking spliffs rolled in C-notes.”

“What does that guy have against us, anyway?”

Suzanne sighed. “Well, at first I think it was that I liked you, and that you were trying to do something consistent with what he thought everyone should be doing. After all, if anyone were to follow his exhortations, they’d have to be dumb enough to be taking him seriously, and for that they deserve all possible disapprobation.

“These days, though, he hates you for two reasons. The first is that you failed, which means that you’ve got to have some kind of moral deficiency. The second is that we keep pulling his pants down in public, which makes him even angrier, since pulling down people’s pants is his job.

“I know it’s armchair psychology, but I think that Freddy just doesn’t like himself very much. At the end of the day, people who are secure and happy don’t act like this.”

Perry’s scowl deepened. “I’d like to kick him in the fucking balls,” he said. “Why can’t he just let us be? We’ve got enough frigging problems.”

“I just want to go and visit this kid,” Lester said, and they were back where they started.

“But we know that this Freddy guy has an informant in the hospital, he about says as much in this article. If we go there, he wins,” Perry said.

Hilda and Lester just looked at him. Finally he smiled and relented. “OK, Freddy isn’t going to run my life. If it’s the right thing to visit this kid, it’s the right thing. Let’s do it.”

“We’ll go after the ride shuts tonight,” Lester said. “All of us. I’ll buy him a fruit basket and bring him a mini.” The minis were Lester’s latest mechanical computers, built inside of sardine cans, made of miniaturized, printed, high-impact alloys. They could add and subtract numbers up to ten, using a hand crank on the side, registering their output on a binary display of little windows that were covered and uncovered by tiny shutters. He’d built his first the day before, using designs supplied by some of his people in Brazil and tweaking them to his liking.

The day was as close to a normal day on the ride as Perry could imagine. The crowd was heavy from the moment he opened, and he had to go back into the depths and kick things back into shape a couple times, and one of the chairs shut down, and two of the merchants had a dispute that degenerated into a brawl. Just another day running a roadside attraction in Florida.

Lester spelled him off for the end of the day, then they counted the take and said good night to the merchants and all piled into one of Lester’s cars and headed for the hospital.

“You liking Florida?” Lester called over the seat as they inched forward in the commuter traffic on the way into Melbourne.

“It’s hot; I like that,” Hilda said.

“You didn’t mention the awesome aesthetics,” Lester said.

Suzanne rolled her eyes. “Ticky-tacky chic,” she said.

“I love it here,” Lester said. “That contrast between crass, overdeveloped, cheap, nasty strip-malls and unspoiled tropical beauty. It’s gorgeous and it tickles my funny bone.”

Hilda squinted out the window as though she were trying to see what Lester saw, like someone staring at a random-dot stereogram in a mall-store, trying to make the three-dee image pop out.

“If you say so,” she said. “I don’t find much attractive about human settlement, though. If it needs to be there, it should just be invisible as possible. We fundamentally live in ugly boxes, and efforts to make them pretty never do anything for me except call attention to how ugly they are. I kinda wish that everything was built to disappear as much as possible so we could concentrate on the loveliness of the world.”

“You get that in Madison?” Lester said.

“Nope,” she said. “I’ve never seen any place designed the way I’d design one. Maybe I’ll do that someday.”

Perry loved her just then, for that. The casual “oh, yeah, the world isn’t arranged to my satisfaction, maybe I’ll rearrange it someday.”

The duty-nurse was a bored Eastern European who gave them a half-hearted hard time about having too many people visit Death Waits all at once, but who melted when Suzanne gave her a little talk in Russian.

“What was that all about?” Perry whispered to her as they made their way along the sour-smelling ward.

“Told her we would keep it down—and complimented her on her manicure.”

Lester shook his head. “I haven’t been in a place like this in so long. The fatkins places are nothing like it.”

Hilda snorted. “More upscale, I take it?” Lester and Hilda hadn’t really talked about the fatkins thing, but Perry suddenly remembered the vehemence with which Hilda had denounced the kids who were talked into fatkins treatments in their teens and wondered if she and Lester should be clearing the air.

“Not really—but more functional. More about, I don’t know, pursuing your hobby. Less about showing up in an emergency.”

Hilda snorted again and they were at Death’s room. They walked past his roommates, an old lady with her teeth out, sleeping with her jaw sagging down, and a man in a body-cast hammering on a video-game controller and staring fixedly at the screen at the foot of his bed.

Then they came upon Death Waits. Perry had only seen him briefly, and in bad shape even then, but now he was a wreck, something from a horror movie or an atrocity photo. Perry swallowed hard as he took in the boy’s wracked, skinny body, the casts, the sunken eyes, the shaved head, the caved-in face and torn ears.

He was fixedly watching TV, which seemed to be showing a golf show. His thumb was poised over a rocker-switch connected to the IV in his arm.

Death looked at them with dull eyes at first, not recognizing them for a moment. Then he did, and his eyes welled up with tears. They streamed down his face and his chin and lip quivered, and then he opened his mouth and started to bawl like a baby.

Perry was paralyzed—transfixed by this crying wreck. Lester, too, and Suzanne. They all took a minute step backward, but Hilda pushed past them and took his hand and stroked his hair and went shhh, shhh. His bawling become more uncontrolled, louder, and his two roommates complained, calling to him to shut up, and Suzanne moved back and drew the curtains around each of their beds. Strangely, this silenced them.

Gradually, Death’s cries became softer, and then he snuffled and snorted and Hilda gave him a kleenex from her purse. He wiped his face and blew his nose and squeezed the kleenex tight in his hand. He opened his mouth, shut it, opened and shut it.

Then, in a whisper, he told them his story. The man in the parking-lot and his erection. The hospital. Posting on the message boards.

The lawyer.

What?” Perry said, loud enough that they all jumped and Death Waits flinched pathetically in his hospital bed. Hilda squeezed his arm hard. “Sorry, sorry,” Perry muttered. “But this lawyer, what did he say to you?”

Perry listened for a time. Death Waits spoke in a low monotone, pausing frequently to draw in shuddering breaths that were almost sobs.

“Fucking bastards,” Perry said. “Evil, corporate, immoral, sleazy—”

Hilda squeezed his arm again. “Shh,” she said. “Take it easy. You’re upsetting him.”

Perry was so angry he could barely see, barely think. He was trembling, and they were all staring at him, but he couldn’t stop. Death had shrunk back into himself, squeezed his eyes shut.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” Perry said. He felt like he was suffocating. He walked out of the room so fast it was practically a jog, then pounded on the elevator buttons, waited ten seconds and gave up and ran down ten flights of stairs. He got outside into the coolness of the hazy night and sucked in huge lungsful of wet air, his heart hammering in his chest.

He had his phone in his hand and he had scrolled to Kettlewell’s number, but he kept himself from dialing it. He was in no shape to discuss this with Kettlewell. He wanted witnesses there when he did it, to keep him from doing something stupid.

He went back inside. The security guards watched him closely, but he forced himself to smile and act calm and they didn’t stop him from boarding the elevator.

“I’m sorry,” he said to all of them. “I’m sorry,” he said to Death Waits. “Let me make something very, very clear: you are free to use the Internet as much as you want. You are free to tell your story to anyone you want to tell it to. Even if it screws up my case, you’re free to do that. You’ve given up enough for me already.”

Death looked at him with watery eyes. “Really?” he said. It came out in a hoarse whisper.

Perry moved the breakfast tray that covered Death’s laptop, then opened the laptop and positioned it where Death could reach it. “It’s all yours, buddy. Whatever you want to say, say it. Let your freak flag fly.”

Death cried again then, silent tears slipping down his hollow cheeks. Perry got him some kleenex from the bathroom and he blew his nose and wiped his face and grinned at them all, a toothless, wet, ruined smile that made Perry’s heart lurch. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. What the hell was he doing? This kid—he would never get the life he’d had back.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Death said.

“Please don’t be grateful to me,” Perry said. “We owe you the thanks around here. Remember that. We haven’t done you any favors. All the favors around here have come from you.

“Any lawyer shows up here again representing me, I want you to email me.”

In the car back, no one said anything until they were within sight of the shantytown. “Kettlewell isn’t going to like this,” Suzanne said.

“Yeah, I expect not,” Perry said. “He can go fuck himself.”

Imagineering sent the prototype up to Sammy as soon as it was ready, the actual engineers who’d been working on it shlepping it into his office.

He’d been careful to cultivate their friendship through the weeks of production, taking them out for beers and delicately letting them know that they were just the sort of people who really understood what Disney Parks was about, not like those philistines who comprised the rest of the management layer at Disney. He learned their kids’ names and forwarded jokes to them by email. He dropped by their break-room and let them beat him at pinball on their gigantic, bizarre, multi-board homebrew machine, letting them know just how cool said machine was.

Now it was paying off. Judging from the device he was looking at, a breadbox-sized, go-away-green round-shouldered smooth box that it took two of them to carry in.

“Watch this,” one of them said. He knocked a complicated pattern on the box’s top and a hidden hatch opened out of the side, yawning out and forming a miniature staircase from halfway down the box’s surface to the ground. There was soft music playing inside the box: a jazzy, uptempo futuristic version of When You Wish upon a Star.

A little man appeared in the doorway. He looked like he was made of pipe-cleaners and he took the stairs in three wobbling strides. He ignored them as he lurched around the box’s perimeter until he came to a far corner, then another hatch slid away and the little man reached inside and tugged out the plug and the end of the power-cord. He hugged the plug to his chest and began to wander around Sammy’s desk, clearly looking for an electrical outlet.

“It’s a random-walk search algorithm,” one of the Imagineers said. “Watch this.” After a couple of circuits of Sammy’s desk the little robot went to the edge and jumped, hanging on to the power-cable, which unspooled slowly from the box like a belay-line, gently lowering the man to the ground. A few minutes later, he had found the electrical outlet and plugged in the box.

The music inside stilled and a fanfare began. The trumpeting reached a joyous peak—“It’s found a network connection”—and then subsided into marching-band music. There was a smell like Saran-Wrap in the microwave. A moment later, another pipe-cleaner man emerged from the box, lugging a chunk of plastic that looked like the base of a rocket in an old-timey science fiction movie.

The first pipe-cleaner man was shinnying up the power cable. He crested the desktop and joined his brother in ferrying out more parts. Each one snapped into the previous one with a Lego-like click. Taking shape on the desktop in slow stages, the original, 1955 Tomorrowland, complete with the rocket to the moon, the Clock of the World and—

“Dairy Farmers of America Present the Cow of Tomorrow?” Sammy said, peering at the little brass plaque on the matchbox-sized diorama, which showed a cow with an IV in her hock, watching a video of a pasture. “You’re kidding me.”

“No!” one Imagineer said. “It’s all for real—the archives have all these tight, high-rez three-dee models of all the rides the Park’s ever seen. This is totally historically accurate.”

The Kaiser Aluminum Hall of Fame. The Monsanto Hall of Chemistry. Thimble Drome Flight Circle, with tiny flying miniature airplanes.

“Holy crap,” Sammy said. “People paid to see these things?”

“Go on,” the other Imagineer said. “Take the roof off the Hall of Chemistry.”

Sammy did, and was treated to a tiny, incredibly detailed three-dee model of the Hall’s interior exhibits, complete with tiny people in 1950s garb marveling at the truly crappy exhibits.

“We print to 1200 dpi with these. We can put pupils on the eyeballs at that rez.”

The pieces were still trundling out. Sammy picked up the Monsanto Hall of Chemistry and turned it over and over in his hands, looking at the minute detail, admiring the way all the pieces snapped together.

“It’s kind of brittle,” the first Imagineer said. He took it from Sammy and gave it a squeeze and it cracked with a noise like an office chair rolling over a sheet of bubble-wrap. The pieces fell to the desk.

A pipe-cleaner man happened upon a shard after a moment and hugged it to his chest, then toddled back into the box with it.

“There’s a little optical scanner in there—it’ll figure out which bit this piece came from and print another one. Total construction of this model takes about two hours.”

“You built this entire thing from scratch in three weeks?”

The Imagineers laughed. “No, no—no way! No, almost all the code and designs came off the net. Most of this stuff was developed by New Work startups back in the day, or by those ride weirdos down in Hollywood. We just shoved it all into this box and added the models for some of our old rides from the archives. This was easy, man—easy!”

Sammy’s head swam. Easy! This thing was undeniably super-cool. He wanted one. Everyone was going to want one!

“You can print these as big as you want, too—if we gave it enough time, space and feedstock, it’d run these buildings at full size.”

The miniature Tomorrowland was nearly done. It was all brave, sad white curves, like the set of a remake of Rollerball, and featured tiny people in 1950s clothes, sun-dresses and salaryman hats, black-rimmed glasses and scout uniforms for the boys.

Sammy goggled at it. He moved the little people around, lifted off the lids.

“Man, I’d seen the three-dee models and flythroughs, but they’re nothing compared to actually seeing it, owning it. People will want libraries of these things. Whole rooms devoted to them.”

“Umm,” one of the Imagineers said. Sammy knew his name, but he’d forgotten it. He had a whole complicated scheme for remembering people’s names by making up stories about them, but it was a lot of work. “Well, about that. This feedstock is very fast-setting, but it doesn’t really weather well. Even if you stored it in a dark, humidity-controlled room, it’d start to delaminate and fall to pieces within a month or two. Leave it in the living room in direct sunlight and it’ll crumble within a couple days.”

Sammy pursed his lips and thought for a while. “Please, please tell me that there’s something proprietary we can require in the feedstock that can make us into the sole supplier of consumables for this thing.”

“Maybe? We could certainly tag the goop with something proprietary and hunt for it when we do the build, refuse to run on anyone else’s goop. Of course, that won’t be hard to defeat—”

“We’ll sue anyone who tries it,” Sammy said. “Oh, boys, you’ve outdone yourselves. Seriously. If I could give you a raise, I would. As it is, take something home from the architectural salvage lot and sell it on eBay. It’s as close to a bonus as this fucking company’s going to pay any of us.”

They looked at him quizzically, with some alarm and he smiled and spread his hands. “Ha ha, only serious boys. Really—take some stuff home. You’ve earned it. Try and grab something from the ride-system itself, that’s got the highest book-value.”

They left behind a slim folder with production notes and estimates, suppliers who would be likely to bid on a job like this. He’d need a marketing plan, too—but this was farther than he ever thought he’d get. He could show this to legal and to the board, and yes, to Wiener and the rest of the useless committee. He could get everyone lined up behind this and working on it. Hell, if he spun it right they’d all be fighting to have their pet projects instantiated with it.

He fiddled with a couple of overnight shippers’ sites for a while, trying to figure out what it would cost to sell these in the Park and have them waiting on the marks’ doorsteps when they got back home. There were lots of little details like that, but ultimately, this was good and clean—it would extend the Parks’ reach right into the living rooms of their customers, giving them a new reason to think of the Park every day.

Kettlewell and Tjan looked up when Perry banged through the door of the tea-house they’d turned into their de facto headquarters.

Perry had gone through mad and back to calm on the ride home, but as he drew closer to the tea-house, passing the people in the streets, the people living their lives without lawyers or bullshit, his anger came back. He’d even stopped outside the tea-house and breathed deeply, but his heart was pounding and his hands kept balling into fists and sometimes, man, sometimes you’ve just got to go for it.

He got to the table and grabbed the papers there and tossed them over his shoulder.

“You’re fired,” he said. “Pack up and go, I want you out by morning. You’re done here. You don’t represent the ride and you never will. Get lost.” He didn’t know he was going to say it until he said it, but it felt right. This was what he was feeling—his project had been stolen and bad things were being done in his name and it was going to stop, right now.

Tjan and Kettlewell got to their feet and looked at him, faces blank with shock. Kettlewell recovered first. “Perry, let’s sit down and do an exit interview, all right? That’s traditional.”

Perry was shaking with anger now. These two friends of his, they’d fucking screwed him—committed their dirty work in his name. But Kettlewell was holding a chair out to him and the others in the tea-house were staring and he thought about Eva and the kids and the baseball gloves, and he sat down.

He squeezed his thighs hard with his clenching hands, drew in a deep breath, and recited what Death Waits had told him in an even, wooden voice.

“So that’s it. I don’t know if you instructed the lawyers to do this or only just distanced yourself enough from them to let them do this on their own. The point is that the way you’re running this campaign is victimizing people who believe in us, making life worse for people who already got a shitty, shitty deal on our account. I won’t have it.”

Kettlewell and Tjan looked at each other. They’d both stayed poker-faced through Perry’s accusation, and now Kettlewell made a little go-ahead gesture at Tjan.

“There’s no excuse for what that lawyer did. We didn’t authorize it, we didn’t know it had happened, and we wouldn’t have permitted it if we had. In a suit like this, there are a lot of moving parts and there’s no way to keep track of all of them all of the time. You don’t know what every ride operator in the world is up to, you don’t even know where all the rides in the world are. That’s in the nature of a decentralized business.

“But here’s the thing: the lawyer was at least partly right. Everything that kid blogs, emails, and says will potentially end up in the public record. Like it or not, that kid can no longer consider himself to have a private life, not until the court case is up. Neither can you or I, for that matter. That’s in the nature of a lawsuit—and it’s not something any of us can change at this point.”

Perry heard him as from a great distance, through the whooshing of the blood in his ears. He couldn’t think of anything to say to that.

Tjan and Kettlewell looked at each other.

“So even if we’re ’fired’—” Tjan said at last, making sarcastic finger-quotes, “this problem won’t go away. We’ve floated the syndicate and given control of the legal case to them. If you try to ditch it, you’re going to have to contend with their lawsuits, too.”

“I didn’t—” Perry started. But he had, he’d signed all kinds of papers: first, papers that incorporated the ride-runners’ co-op; and, second, papers that gave legal representation over to the syndicate.

“Perry, I’m the chairman of the Boston ride collective. I’m their rep on the co-op’s board. You can’t fire me. You didn’t hire me. They did. So stop breathing through your nose like a locomotive and calm down. None of us wanted that lawyer to go after that kid.”

He knew they were making sense but he didn’t want to care. He’d ended up in this place because these supposed pals of his had screwed up.

He knew that he was going to end up making up with them, going to end up getting deeper into this. He knew that this was how good people did shitty things: one tiny rotten compromise at a time. Well, he wasn’t going to go there.

“Tomorrow morning,” he said. “Gone. We can figure out by email how to have a smooth transition, but no more of this. Not on my head. Not on my account.”

He stalked away, which is what he should have done in the first place. Fuck being reasonable. Reasonable sucked.

Death found out about the Disney-in-a-Box printers seconds after they were announced. He’d been tuning his feed-watchers to give him news about the Disney Parks for nearly a decade, and this little PR item on the Disney Parks newswire rang all the cherries on his filters, flagging the item red and rocketing it to the top of his news playlist, making all the icons in the sides of his screen bounce with delight.

The announcement made him want to throw up. They were totally ripping off the rides, and he knew for a fact that most of the three-d meshes of the old yesterland rides and even the contemporary ones were fan-made, so those’d be ripped off, too.

And the worst part was, he could feel himself getting excited. This was just the kind of thing that would have given him major fanboy drool as recently as a month ago.

He just stared angrily at his screen. Being angry made the painkillers wear off, so the madder he got the more he hurt. He could nail the rocker-switch and dose himself with more of whatever the painkiller plugged into his IV was today, but since Perry and Lester and their girlfriends (had that other one been Suzanne Church? It sure looked like her) had told him he could use his laptop again, he’d stayed off the juice as much as possible. The computer could make him forget he hurt.

He looked at the clock. It was 4AM. The blinds on the ward were shut most of the time, and he kept to his own schedule, napping and then surfing, then nodding off and then surfing some more. The hospital staff just left his food on the table beside him if he was asleep when it arrived, though they woke him for his sponge baths and to stick fresh needles in his arms, which were filled with bruisey collapsed veins.

There was no one he could tell about this. Sure, there were chat-rooms with 24/7 chatter from Disney freaks, but he didn’t much want to chat with them. Some of his friends would still be up and tweaking, but Christ, who wanted to IM with a speed freak at four in the morning? His typing was down to less than 30 wpm, and he couldn’t keep it up for long. What he really wanted was to talk to someone about this.

He really wanted to talk to Perry about this. He should send him an email, but he had the inkling of an idea and he didn’t want to put it in writing, because it was a deliciously naughty idea.

It was dumb to even think about phoning him, he barely knew him, and no one liked to get calls at four am. Besides—he’d checked—Perry’s number was unlisted.

From: [email protected] To: [email protected] Subject: What’s your phone number?

Perry, I know that it’s presumptuous, but I’d really like to talk to you v2v about something important that I’d prefer not to put in writing. I don’t have any right to impose on you, especially not after you’ve already done me the kindness of coming to see me in the hospital, but I hope you’ll send me your number anyway. Alternatively, please call me on my enum—1800DEATHWAITS-GGFSAH.

Your admirer,

Death Waits

It was five minutes later when his laptop rang. It was unnaturally loud on the ward, and he heard his roommates stir when the tone played. He didn’t have a headset—Christ, he was an idiot. Wait, there was one, dangling from the TV. No mic, but at least he could pair it with his laptop for sound. He stabbed at the mute button and reached for the headset and slipped it on. Then he held the computer close to his face and whispered “Hello?” into its little mic. His voice was a croak, his ruined mouth distorting the word. Why had he decided to call this guy? He was such an idiot.

“This is Perry Gibbons. Is that Death Waits?”

“Yes, sorry, I don’t have a mic. Can you hear me OK?”

“If I turn the volume all the way up I can.”

There was an awkward silence. Death tried to think of how to begin.

“What’s on your mind, Death?”

“I didn’t expect you to be awake at this hour.”

“I had a rough night,” Perry said. It occurred to Death that he was talking to one of his heros, a man who had come to visit him in the hospital that day. He grew even more tongue-tied.

“What happened?”

“Nothing important,” Perry said and swallowed, and Death suddenly understood that Perry had had a rough night because of him, because of what he’d told Perry. It made him want to cry.

“I’m sorry,” Death said.

“What’s on your mind, Death?” Perry said again.

Death told him what he’d found, about the Disney printers. He read Perry the URLs so he could look them up.

“OK, that’s interesting,” Perry said. Death could tell he didn’t really think it was that interesting.

“I haven’t told you my idea yet.” He groped for the words. His mouth had gone dry. “OK, so Disney’s going to ship these things to tons of people’s houses, they’ll sell them cheap at the parks and mail them as freebies to Magic Kingdom Club gold-card holders. So in a week or two, there’s going to be just, you know, tons of these across the country.”

“Right.”

“So here’s my idea: what if you could get them to build non-Disney stuff? What if you could send them plans for stuff from the rides? What if you could just download your friends’ designs? What if this was opened wide.”

Perry chuckled on the other end of the line, then laughed, full-throated and full of merriment. “I like the way you think, kid,” he said, once he’d caught his breath.

And then this amazing thing happened. Perry Gibbons brainstormed with him about the kinds of designs they could push out to these things. It was like some kind of awesome dream come true. Perry was treating him like a peer, loving his ideas, keying off of them.

Then a dismal thought struck him. “Wait though, wait. They’re using their own goop for the printers. Every design we print makes them richer.”

Perry laughed again, really merry. “Oh, that kind of thing never works. They’ve been trying to tie feedstock to printers since the inkjet days. We go through that like wet kleenex.”

“Isn’t that illegal?”

“Who the fuck knows? It shouldn’t be. I don’t care about illegal anymore. Legal gets you lawyers. Come on, dude—what’s the point of being all into some anti-authoritarian subculture if you spend all your time sucking up to the authorities?”

Death laughed, which actually hurt quite a bit. It was the first laugh he’d had since he’d ended up in the hospital, maybe the first one since he’d been fired from Disney World, and as much as it hurt, it felt good, too, like a band being loosened from around his broken ribs.

His roommates stirred and one of them must have pushed the nurse call button, because shortly thereafter, the formidable Ukrainian nurse came in and savagely told him off for disturbing the ward at five in the morning. Perry heard and said his goodbyes, like they were old pals who’d chatted too long, and Death Waits rang off and fell into a light doze, grinning like a maniac.

Hilda eyed Perry curiously. “That sounded like an interesting conversation,” she said. She was wearing a long t-shirt of his that didn’t really cover much, and she looked delicious in it. It was all he could do to keep from grabbing her and tossing her on the bed—of course, the cast meant that he couldn’t really do that. And Hilda wasn’t exactly smiling, either.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you up,” he said.

“It wasn’t the talking that did it, it was you not being there in the first place. Gave me the toss-and-turns.”

She came over to him then, the lean muscles in her legs flexing as she crossed the living room. She took his laptop away and set it down on the coffee-table, then took off his headset. He was wearing nothing but boxers, and she reached down and gave his dick a companionable honk before sitting down next to him and giving him a kiss on the cheek, the throat and the lips.

“So, Perry,” she said, looking into his eyes. “What the fuck are you doing sitting in the living room at 5 am talking to your computer? And why didn’t you come to bed last night? I’m not going to be hanging out in Florida for the rest of my life. I woulda thought you’d want to maximize your Hilda-time while you’ve got the chance.”

She smiled to let him know she was kidding around, but she was right, of course.

“I’m an idiot, Hilda. I fired Tjan and Kettlewell, told them to get lost.”

“I don’t know why you think that’s such a bad idea. You need business-people, probably, but it doesn’t need to be those guys. Sometimes you can have too much history with someone to work with him. Besides, anything can be un-said. You can change your mind in a week or a month. Those guys aren’t doing anything special. They’d come back to you if you asked ’em. You’re Perry motherfuckin’ Gibbons. You rule, dude.”

“You’re a very nice person, Hilda Hammersen. But those guys are running our legal defense, which we’re going to need, because I’m about to do something semi-illegal that’s bound to get us sued again by the same pack of assholes as last time.”

“Disney?” She snorted. “Have you ever read up on the history of the Disney Company? The old one, the one Walt founded? Walt Disney wasn’t just a racist creep, he was also a mad inventor. He kept coming up with these cool high-tech ways of making cartoons—sticking real people in them, putting them in color, adding sync-sound. People loved it all, but it drove him out of business. It was all too expensive.

“So he recruited his brother, Roy Disney, who was just a banker, to run the business. Roy turned the business around, watching the income and the outgo. But all this came at a price: Roy wanted to tell Walt how to run the business. More to the point, he wanted to tell Walt that he couldn’t just spend millions from the company coffers on weird-ass R&D projects, especially not when the company was still figuring out how to exploit the last R&D project Walt had chased. But it was Walt’s company, and he’d overrule Roy, and Roy would promise that it was going to put them in the poorhouse and then he’d figure out how to make another million off of Walt’s vision, because that’s what the money guy is supposed to do.

“Then after the war, Walt went to Roy and said, ’Give me $17 million, I’m going to build a theme-park. And Roy said, ’You can’t have it and what’s a theme-park?’ Walt threatened to fire Roy, the way he always had, and Roy pointed out that Disney was now a public company with shareholders who weren’t going to let Walt cowboy around and piss away their money on his toys.”

“So how’d he get Disneyland built?”

“He quit. He started his own company, WED, for Walter Elias Disney. He poached all the geniuses away from the studios and turned them into his ’Imagineers’ and cashed in his life-insurance policy and raised his own dough and built the park, and then made Roy buy the company back from him. I’m guessing that that felt pretty good.”

“It sounds like it must’ve,” Perry said. He was feeling thoughtful, and buzzed from the sleepless night, and jazzed from his conversation with Death Waits. He had an idea that they could push designs out to the printers that were like the Disney designs, but weird and kinky and subversive and a little disturbing.

“I can understand why you’d be nervous about ditching your suits, but they’re just that, suits. At some level, they’re all interchangeable, mercenary parts. You want someone to watch the bottom line, but not someone who’ll run the show. If that’s not these guys, hey, that’s cool. Find a couple more suits and run them.”

“Jesus, you really are Yoko, aren’t you?” Lester was wearing his boxers and a bleary grin, standing in the living room’s doorway where Hilda had stood a minute before. It was past 6AM now, and there were waking up sounds through the whole condo, toilets flushing, a car starting down in the parking lot.

“Good morning, Lester,” Hilda said. She smiled when she said it, no offense taken, all good, all good.

“You fired who now, Perry?” Lester dug a pint of chocolate ice-cream out of the freezer and attacked it with a self-heating ceramic spoon that he’d designed specifically for this purpose.

“I got rid of Kettlewell and Tjan,” Perry said. He was blushing. “I would have talked to you about it, but you were with Suzanne. I had to do it, though. I had to.”

“I hate what happened to Death Waits. I hate that we’ve got some of the blame for it. But, Perry, Tjan and Kettlewell are part of our outfit. It’s their show, too. You can’t just go shit-canning them. Not just morally, either. Legally. Those guys own a piece of this thing and they’re keeping the lawyers at bay too. They’re managing all the evil shit so we don’t have to. I don’t want to be in charge of the evil, and neither do you, and hiring a new suit isn’t going to be easy. They’re all predatory, they all have delusions of grandeur.”

“You two have the acumen to hire better representation than those two,” Hilda said. “You’re experienced now, and you’ve founded a movement that plenty of people would kill to be a part of. You just need better management structure: an executive you can overrule whenever you need to. A lackey, not a boss.”

Lester acted as though he hadn’t heard her. “I’m being pretty mellow about this, buddy. I’m not making a big deal out of the fact that you did this without consulting me, because I know how rough it must have been to discover that this wickedness had gone down in our name, and I might have done the same. But it’s the cold light of day now and it’s time to go over there together and have a chat with Tjan and Kettlewell and talk this over and sort it out. We can’t afford to burn all this to the ground and start over now.”

Perry knew it was reasonable, but screw reasonable. Reasonable was how good people ended up doing wrong. Sometimes you had to be unreasonable.

“Lester, they violated our trust. It was their responsibility to do this thing and do it right. They didn’t do that. They didn’t look closely at this thing so that they wouldn’t have to put the brakes on if it turned out to be dirty. Which do you think those two would rather have happen: we run a cool project that everyone loves, or we run a lawsuit that makes ten billion dollars for their investors? They’re playing a different game from us and their victory condition isn’t ours. I don’t want to be reasonable. I want to do the right thing. You and me could have sold out a thousand times over the years and made money instead of doing good, but we didn’t. We didn’t because it’s better to be right than to be reasonable and rich. You say we can’t afford to get rid of those two. I say we can’t afford not to.”

“You need to get a good night’s sleep, buddy,” Lester said. He was blowing through his nose, a sure sign that he was angry. It made Perry’s hackles go up—he and Lester didn’t fight much but when they did, hoo-boy. “You need to mellow out and see that what you’re talking about is abandoning our friends, Kettlewell and Tjan, to make our own egos feel a little better. You need to see that we’re risking everything, risking spending our lives in court and losing everything we’ve ever built.”

A Zen-like calm descended on Perry. Hilda was right. Suits were everywhere, and you could choose your own. You didn’t need to let the Roy Disneys of the world call the shots.

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Lester. I hear everything you’re saying, but you know what, it’s going to be my way. I understand that what I want to do is risky, but there’s no way I can go on doing what I’m doing and letting things get worse and worse. Making a little compromise here and there is how you end up selling out everything that’s important. We’re going to find other business-managers and we’re going to work with them to make a smooth transition. Maybe we’ll all come out of this friends later on. They want to do something different from what I want to do is all.”

This wasn’t calming Lester down at all. “Perry, this isn’t your project to do what you want with. This belongs to a lot of us. I did most of the work in there.”

“You did, buddy. I get that. If you want to stick with them, that’s how it’ll go. No hard feelings. I’ll go off and do my own thing, run my own ride. People who want to connect to my network, no sweat, they can do it. That’s cool. We’ll still be friends. You can work with Kettlewell and Tjan.” Perry could hardly believe these words were coming out of his mouth. They’d been buddies forever, inseparable.

Hilda took his hand silently.

Lester looked at him with increasing incredulity. “You don’t mean that.”

“Lester, if we split, it would break my heart. There wouldn’t be a day that went by from now to the end of time that I didn’t regret it. But if we keep going down this path, it’s going to cost me my soul. I’d rather be broke than evil.” Oh, it felt so good to be saying this. To finally affirm through deed and word that he was a good person who would put ethics before greed, before comfort even.

Lester looked at Hilda for a moment. “Hilda, this is probably something that Perry and I should talk about alone, if you don’t mind.”

I mind, Lester. There’s nothing you can’t say in front of her.”

Lester apparently had nothing to say to that, and the silence made Perry uncomfortable. Lester had tears in his eyes, and that hit Perry in the chest like a spear. His friend didn’t cry often.

He crossed the room and hugged Lester. Lester was wooden and unyielding.

“Please, Lester. Please. I hate to make you choose, but you have to choose. We’re on the same side. We’ve always been on the same side. Neither of us are the kind of people who send lawyers after kids in hospital. Never. I want to make it good again. We can have the kind of gig where we do the right thing and the cool thing. Come on, Lester. Please.”

He let go of Lester. Lester turned on his heel and walked back into his bedroom. Perry knew that that meant he’d won. He smiled at Hilda and hugged her. She was a lot more fun to hug than Lester.

Sammy was at his desk looking over the production prototype for the Disney-in-a-Box (R) units that Imagineering had dropped off that morning when his phone rang. Not his desk phone—his cellular phone, with the call-return number blocked.

“Hello?” he said. Not many people had this number—he didn’t like getting interrupted by the phone. People who needed to talk to him could talk to his secretary first.

“Hi, Sammy. Have I caught you at a bad time?” He could hear the sneer in the voice and then he could see the face that went with the sneer: Freddy. Shit. He’d given the reporter his number back when they were arranging their disastrous face-to-face.

“It’s not a good time, Freddy,” he said. “If you call my secretary—”

“I just need a moment of your time, sir. For a quote. For a story about the ride response to your printers—your Disney-in-a-Box Circle-R, Tee-Em, Circle-C.”

Sammy felt his guts tense up. Of course those ride assholes would have known about the printers. That’s what press-releases were for. Somewhere on their message-boards he was sure that there was some discussion of them. He hadn’t had time to look for it, though, and he didn’t want to use the Disney Parks competitive intel people on this stuff, because after the Death Waits debacle (debacle on debacle, ack, he could be such a fuck-up) he didn’t want to have any train of intel-gathering on the group pointing back to him.

“I’m not familiar with any response,” Sammy said. “I’m afraid I can’t comment—”

“Oh, it’ll only take a moment to explain it,” Freddy said and then launched into a high-speed explanation before Sammy could object. They were delivering their own three-dee models for the printers, and had even gotten hold of one of the test units Disney had passed out last week. They claimed to have reverse-engineered the goop that it ran on, so that anyone’s goop could print to it.

“So, what I’m looking for is a quote from Disney on this. Do you condone this? Did you anticipate it? What if someone prints an AK-47 with it?”

“No one’s going to print a working AK-47 with this,” Sammy said. “It’s too brittle. AK-47 manufacturing is already sadly in great profusion across our inner cities, anyway. As to the rest of it—” He closed his eyes and took a couple of deep breaths. “As to the rest of it, that would be something you’d have to speak to one of my legal colleagues about. Would you like me to put you through to them?”

Freddy laughed. “Oh come on, Sammy. A little something on background, no attribution? You going to sue them? Have them beaten up?”

Sammy felt his face go white. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about—”

“Word has it that the Death Waits kid came up with this. He used to be your protege, no? And I hear that Kettlewell and Tjan have been kicked out of the organization—no one around to call the lawyers out on their behalf. Seems like a golden opportunity to strike.”

Sammy seethed. He’d been concentrating on making new stuff, great stuff. Competitive stuff, to be sure, but in the end, the reason for making the Disney-in-a-Box devices had been to make them, make them as cool as he could imagine. To plus them and re-plus them, in the old slang of Walt Disney, making the thing because the thing could be made and the world would be a more fun place once it was.

Now here was this troll egging him on to go to war again with those ride shit-heads, to spend his energies destroying instead of creating. The worst part? It was all his fault. He’d brought his own destruction: the reporter, Death Waits, even the lawsuit. All the result of his bad planning and dumb decisions. God, he was a total fuck-up.

Disney-in-a-Box sat on his desk, humming faintly—not humming like a fridge hums, but actually humming in a baritone hum, humming a medley of magic-users’ songs from Disney movies, like a living thing. Every once in a while it would clear its throat and mutter and even snore a little. There would be happy rustles and whispered conversations from within the guts of the thing. It was plussed all the way to hell and back. It had been easy, as more and more Imagineers had come up with cool features to add to the firmware, contributing them to the versioning system, and he’d been able to choose from among them and pick the best of the lot, making a device that rivaled Walt’s 1955 Disneyland itself for originality, excitement, and cool.

“I’ll just say you declined to comment, then?”

Asshole.

“You write whatever you need to write, Freddy,” he said. A hatch opened a tiny bit on the top of the cube and a pair of eyes peered out, then it slammed shut and there was a round of convincing giggles and scurrying from within the box. This could be huge, if Sammy didn’t fuck it up by worrying too much about what someone else was up to.

“Oh, and one other thing: it looks like the Death Waits kid is going to be discharged from the hospital this week.”

He wasn’t ready to leave the hospital. For starters, he couldn’t walk yet, and there were still times when he could barely remember where he was, and there was the problem of the catheter. But the insurance company and the hospital had concurred that he’d had all the treatment he needed—even if his doctor hadn’t been able to look him in the eye when this was explained—and it was time for him to go home. Go away. Go anywhere.

He’d put it all in his LJ, the conversation as best as he could remember it, the way it made him feel. The conversation he’d had with Perry and the idea he’d had for pwning Disney-in-a-Box. He didn’t even know if his apartment was still there—he hadn’t been back in weeks and the rent was overdue.

And the comments came flooding in. First a couple dozen from his friends, then hundreds, then thousands. Raging fights—some people accused him of being a fakester sock-puppet aimed at gathering sympathy or donations (!)—side-conversations, philosophical arguments.

Buried in there, offers from real world and online friends to meet him at the hospital, to get him home, to take care of him. It was unbelievable. There was a small fortune—half-a-year’s wages at his old job—waiting in his paypal, and if this was all to be believed, there was a cadre of people waiting just outside that door to meet him.

The nurse who came to get him looked rattled. “Your friends are here,” she said in her Boris-and-Natasha accent, and gave him a disapproving look as she disconnected his hoses and pipes so swiftly he didn’t have time to register the pain he felt. She pulled on a pair of Salvation Army underpants—the first pair he’d worn in weeks—and a pair of new, dark blue-jeans and a Rotary picnic t-shirt dated three years before. The shirt was a small and it still hung from him like a tent.

“You will use canes?” she asked. He’d had some physiotherapy that week and he could take one or two doddering steps on crutches, but canes? No way.

“I can’t,” he said, picturing himself sprawled on the polished concrete floor, with what was left of his face bashed in from the fall.

“Wheelchair,” she said to someone in the hall, and an orderly came in pushing a chair with a squeaky wheel—though the chair itself was a pretty good one, at least as good as the ones they rented at Disney, which were nearly indestructible. He let the nurse transfer him to it with her strong hands in his armpits and under his knees. A bag containing his laptop and a few cards and things that had shown up at the hospital was dumped into his lap and he clutched it to himself as he was wheeled to the end of the corridor and around the corner, where the nurse’s station, the elevators, the common area and his fans were.

They weren’t just his pals, though there were a few of them there, but also a big crowd of people he’d never met, didn’t recognize. There were goths, skinny and pale and draped in black, but they were outnumbered by the subculture civilians, normal-looking, slightly hippieish, old and young. When he hove into sight, they burst into a wild cheer. The orderly stopped pushing his chair and the nurse rushed forward to shush them sternly, but it barely dampened the calls. There were wolf whistles, cheers, calls, disorganized chants, and then two very pretty girls—he hadn’t thought about “pretty” anything in a long, long time—unfurled a banner that said DEATH WAITS in glittery hand-drawn letters, with a little skull dotting the I in WAITS.

The nurse read the banner and reached to tear it out of their hands, but they folded it back. She came to him and hissed in his ear, something about getting security to get rid of these people if they were bothering him, and he realized that she thought DEATH WAITS was a threat and that made him laugh so hard he choked, and she flounced off in a deeply Slavic huff.

And then he was among his welcoming party, and it was a party—there were cake and clove cigarettes in smoke-savers and cans of licorice coffee, and everyone wanted to talk with him and take their pictures with him, and the two pretty girls took turns making up his face, highlighting his scars to make him fit for a Bela Lugosi role. The were called Lacey and Tracey, and they were sisters who went to the ride every day, they said breathlessly, and they’d seen the story he’d described, seen it with their own eyes, and it was something that was as personal as the twin language they’d developed to communicate with one another when they were little girls.

His old friends surrounded him: guys who marveled at his recovery, girls who kissed his cheek and messed up Tracey and Lacey’s makeup. Some of them had new tattoos to show him—one girl had gotten a full-leg piece showing scenes from the ride, and she slyly pulled her skirt all the way up, all the way up, to show him where it all started.

Security showed up and threw them all out into the street, where the heat was oppressive and wet, but the air was fresh and full of smells that weren’t sickness or medicine, which made Death Waits feel like he could get up and dance. Effervescent citrus and biodiesel fumes, moist vegetation and the hum of lazy high noon bugs.

“Now, it’s all arranged,” one of the straight-looking ones told him. He’d figured out that these were the pure story people, who’d read his descriptions and concluded that he’d seen something more than anyone else. They all wanted a chance to talk to him, but didn’t seem too put out that he was spending most of his time with his old mates. “Don’t worry about a thing.” Car after car appeared, taking away more of the party. “Here you go.”

Another car pulled up, an all-electric kneeling number with a huge cargo space. They wheeled the chair right into it, and then two of the story-hippies helped him transfer into the seat. “My mom was in a wheelchair for ten years before she passed,” a hippie told him. He was older and looked like an English teacher Death Waits had quite liked in grade ten. He strapped Death Waits in like a pro and off they went.

They were ten minutes into Melbourne traffic—Death marveling at buildings, signs, people, in every color, without the oppressive white-and-gore colors of everything in the hospital—when the English teacher dude looked shyly at Death.

“You think it’s real—the Story, I mean—don’t you?”

Death thought about this for a second. He’d been very focused on the Park-in-a-Box printers for the past week, which felt like an eternity to him, but he remembered his obsession with the story fondly. It required a kind of floaty non-concentration to really see it, a meditative state he’d found easy to attain with all the painkillers.

“It’s real,” he said.

The English teacher and two of his friends seemed to relax a little. “We think so too.”

They pulled up to his condo—how’d they know where he lived? — and parked right next to his car! He could see where the tow had kind of fucked-up the rear bumper, but other than that, it was just as he remembered it, and it looked like someone had given it a wash, too. The English teacher put his car in park and came around to open his door just as the rest of the welcoming party came out of his building, pushing—

A stair-climbing wheelchair, the same kind that they used in the ride. Death laughed aloud with delight when he saw it rolling toward him, handling the curb easily, hardly a bump, and the two pretty girls, Tracey and Lacey, transferred him into it, and both contrived to brush their breasts and jasmine-scented hair across his cheeks as they did so, and he felt the first stirrings in his ruined groin that he’d felt since before his beating.

He laughed like a wild-man, and they all laughed with him and someone put a clove cigarette between his lips and he drew on it, coughed a little, and then had another drag before he rolled into the elevator.

The girls put him to bed hours later. His apartment had been spotless and he had every confidence that it would be spotless again come night-time. The party had spent the rest of the day and most of the night talking about the story that they’d seen in the ride, where they’d seen it, what it meant. There was a lot of debate about whether they had any business rating things now that the story had shown itself to them. The story was the product of unconscious effort, and it should be left to unconscious effort.

But the counter-argument was that they had a duty to garden the story, or possibly to sharpen its telling, or to protect it from people who couldn’t see it or wouldn’t see it.

At first Death didn’t know what to make of all this talk. At first he found it funny and more than a little weird to be taking the story this seriously. It was beautiful, but it was an accidental beauty. The ride was the important thing, the story was its effect.

But these people convinced him that they were right, that the story had to be important. After all, it had inspired all of them, hadn’t it? The ride was just technology—the story was what the ride was for.

His head swam with it.

“We’ve got to protect it,” he said finally, after listening to the argument, after eating the food with which they’d filled his fridge, after talking intensely with Tracey (or possibly Lacey) about their parents’ unthinking blandness, after letting the English teacher guy (whose name was Jim) take him to the toilet, after letting his old goth pals play some music some mutual friends had just mixed.

“We’ve got to protect it and sharpen it. The story wants to get out and there will be those who can’t see it.” He didn’t care that his speech was mangled by his fucked-up face. He’d seen his face in the mirror and Tracey and Lacey had done a nice job in making it up—he looked like a latter-day Marilyn Manson, his twisted mouth a ghoulish smear. The doctors had talked about giving him another series of surgeries to fix his lip, a set of implanted dentures to replace the missing teeth, had even mentioned that there were specialist clinics where he could get a new set budded and grown right out of his own gums. That had been back when the mysterious forces of the lawsuit and the ride were paying his bills.

Now he contemplated his face in the mirror and told himself he’d get used to this, he’d come to like it, it would be a trademark. It would make him gothier than goth, for life, always an outsider, always one of the weird ones, like the old-timers who’d come to Disney with their teenaged, eye-rolling kids. Goths’ kids were never goths, it seemed—more like bang-bangers or jocky-looking peak-performance types, or hippies or gippies or dippies or tippies or whatever. But their parents were still proudly flying their freak-flags, weird to the grave.

“We’ll let everyone know about it,” he said, thinking not of everyone but of all the cool subculture kids he’d grown up with and worshipped and been rejected by and dated and loved and hated—“and we’ll make it part of everyone’s story. We’ll protect it, guys. Of course we’ll protect it.”

That settled the argument. Death hadn’t expected that. Since when did he get the last word on any subject? Since now. They were following his lead.

And then the girls put him to bed, shyly helping him undress, each of them leaning over him to kiss him good night. Tracey’s kiss was sisterly, on the cheek, her spicy perfume and her jet-black hair caressing him. Lacey’s kiss was anything but sisterly. She mashed her breasts to his chest and thrust her tongue into his mouth, keeping her silver eyes open and staring deep into his, her fingers working busily in his hair.

She broke the kiss off with a gasp and a giggle. She traced the ruin of his mouth with a fingertip, breathing heavily, and let it slide lower, down his chest. He found himself actually hard, the first pleasurable sensation he’d had in his dick since that fateful night. From the corridor came an impatient cough—Tracey, waiting for Lacey to get going.

Lacey rolled her eyes and giggled again and then slid her hand the rest of the way down, briefly holding his dick and then encircling his balls with her fingers before kissing him again on the twist of his lips and backing out of the room, whispering, “Sleep well, see you in the morning.”

Death lay awake and staring at the ceiling for a long time after they had gone. The English teacher dude had left him with a bedpan for the night and many of them had promised to return in rotations indefinitely during the days, helping him out with dressing and shopping and getting him in and out of his marvelous chair.

He stared and stared at that ceiling, and then he reached for his laptop, there beside the bed, the same place it had lived when he was in the hospital. He fired it up and went straight to today’s fly-throughs of the ride and ran through them from different angles—facing backward and sideways, looking down and looking up, noting all the elements that felt like story and all the ones that didn’t, wishing he had his plus-one/minus-one joystick with him to carve out the story he was seeing.

Lester wouldn’t work the ride anymore, so Perry took it on his own. Hilda was in town buying groceries—his chest-freezer of gourmet surplus food had blown its compressor and the contents had spoiled in a mess of venison and sour blueberry sauce and duck pancakes—and he stood alone. Normally he loved this, being the carnival barker at the middle of the three-ring circus of fans, tourists and hawkers, but today his cast itched, he hadn’t slept enough, and there were lawyers chasing him. Lots of lawyers.

A caravan of cars pulled into the lot like a Tim Burton version of a funeral, a long train of funnycar hearses with jacked-up rear wheels and leaning chimney-pots, gargoyles and black bunting with super-bright black-light LEDs giving them a commercially eldritch glow. Mixed in were some straight cars, and they came and came and came, car on car. The hawkers got out more stuff, spread it out further, and waited while the caravan maneuvered itself into parking spots, spilling out into the street.

Riders got out of the cars, mostly super-skinny goths—a line of special low-calorie vegan versions of Victorian organ-meat delicacies had turned a mom-and-pop cafe in Portland, Oregon, into a Fortune 500 company a few years before—in elaborate DIY costumery. It shimmered darkly, petticoats and toppers, bodices and big stompy boots and trousers cut off in ribbons at the knees.

The riders converged on one of the straight cars, a beige mini-van, and crowded around it. A moment later, they were moving toward Perry’s ticket-taking stand. The crowd parted as they approached and in Perry saw whom they’d been clustered around. It was a skinny goth kid in a wheelchair like the ones they kept in the ride—they’d get that every now and again, a guest in his own chair, just needing a little wireless +1/-1 box. His hair was shaggy and black with green highlights, stuck out like an anime cosplayer’s. He was white as Wonder Bread, with something funny about his mouth. His legs were in casts that had been wrapped with black gauze, and a pair of black pointy shoes had been slid over his toes, tipped with elaborate silver curlicues.

The chair zipped forward and Perry recognized him in a flash: Death Waits! He felt his mouth drop open and he shut it and came around the stand.

“No way!” he said, and grabbed Death’s hand, encrusted in chunky silver jewelry, a different stylized animal skull on each finger. Death’s ruined mouth pulled up in a kind of smile.

“Nice to see you,” he said, limply squeezing Perry’s hand. “It was very kind of you to visit me in the hospital.”

Perry thought of all the things that had happened since then and wondered how much of it, if any, Death had a right to know about. He leaned in close, conscious of all the observers. “I’m out of the lawsuit. We are. Me and Lester. Fired those guys.” Behind his reflective contacts, Death’s eyes widened a touch.

He slumped a little. “Because of me?”

Perry thought some. “Not exactly. But in a way. It wasn’t us.”

Death smiled. “Thank you.”

Perry straightened up. “Looks like you brought down a good crowd,” he said. “Lots of friends!”

Death nodded. “Lots of friends these days,” he said. An attractive young woman came over and squeezed his shoulder.

They were such a funny bunch in their DIY goth-frocks, micro-manufactured customized boots, their elaborate tattoos and implants and piercings, but for all that, cuddly and earnest with the shadows visible of the geeks they’d been. Perry felt he was smiling so broadly it almost hurt.

“Rides are on me, gang,” he said. “In you go. Your money’s no good here. Any friend of Death Waits rides for free today.”

They cheered and patted him on the back as they went through, and Death Waits looked like he’d grown three inches in his wheelchair, and the pretty girl kissed Perry’s cheek as she went by, and Death Waits had a smile so big you could hardly tell there was anything wrong with his mouth.

They rode it through six times in a row, and as they came back around for another go and another, they talked intently about the story, the story, the story. Perry knew about the story, he’d seen it, and he and Lester had talked it over now and again, but he was still constantly amazed by its ability to inspire riders.

Paying customers slipped in and out, too, and seemed to catch some of the infectious intensity of the story group. They went away in pairs, talking about the story, and shopped the market stalls for a while before coming back to ride again, to look for more story.

They’d never named the ride. It had always been “the ride.” Not even a capital “R.” For a second, Perry wondered if they’d end up calling it “The Story” in the end.

Perry got his Disney-in-a-Box through a circuitous route, getting one of the hawkers’ brothers to order it to a PO box in Miami, to which Perry would drive down to pick it up and take it back.

Lester roused himself from the apartment when Perry told him it had arrived. Lester and Suzanne had been AWOL for days, sleeping in until Perry left, coming back after Perry came back, until it felt like they were just travelers staying in the same hotel.

He hadn’t heard a peep from Kettlewell or Tjan, either. He guessed that they were off figuring things out with their money people. The network of ride operators had taken the news with equanimity—Hilda had helped him write the message so that it kind of implied that everything was under control and moving along nicely.

But when Perry emailed Lester to say he was going to drive down to the PO box the next morning before opening the ride, Lester emailed back in minutes volunteering to come with him.

He had coffee ready by the time Perry got out of the shower. It was still o-dark-hundred outside, the sun not yet risen, and they hardly spoke as they got into the car, but soon they were on the open road.

“Kettlewell and Tjan aren’t going to sue you,” Lester said. There it was, all in a short sentence: I’ve been talking to them. I’ve been figuring out if I’m with you or with them. I’ve been saving your ass. I’ve been deciding to be on your side.

“Good news,” Perry said. “That would have really sucked.”

Perry waited for the rest of the drive for Lester to say something, but he didn’t. It was a long drive.

The whole way back, Lester talked about the Disney-in-a-Box. There’d been some alien autopsy videos of them posted online already, engineers taking them to bits, making guesses about and what they did and how. Lester had watched the videos avidly and he held his own opinions, and he was eager to get at the box and find answers for himself. It was the size of an ice-chest, too big to fit on his lap, but he kept looking over his shoulder at it.

The box-art, a glossy pic of two children staring goggle-eyed at a box from which Disneoid marvels were erupting, looked a little like the Make Your Own Monster toy Perry’d had as a boy. It actually made his heart skip a beat the way that that old toy had. Really, wasn’t that every kid’s dream? A machine that created wonders from dull feedstock?

They got back to the ride long before it was due to open and Perry asked Lester if he wanted to get a second breakfast in the tea-room in the shanty-town, but Lester begged off, heading for his workshop to get to grips with the Box.

So Perry alone waited for the ride to open, standing at his familiar spot behind the counter. The hawkers came and nodded hello to him. A customer showed up. Another. Perry took their money.

The ticket-counter smelled of sticky beverages spilled and left to bake in the heat, a sour-sweet smell like bile. His chair was an uncomfortable bar-stool he’d gotten from a kitchen-surplus place, happy for the bargain. He’d logged a lot of hours in that chair. It had wreaked havoc on his lower spine and tenderized his ass.

He and Lester had started this as a lark, but now it was a movement, and not one that was good for his mental health. He didn’t want to be sitting on that stool. He might as well be working in a liquor store—the skill-set was the same.

Hilda broke his reverie by calling his phone. “Hey, gorgeous,” she said. She bounded out of bed fully formed, without any intervening stages of pre-coffee, invertebrate, pre-shower, and Homo erectus. He could hear that she was ready to catch the world by the ankle and chew her way up its leg.

“Hey,” he said.

“Uh oh. Mr Badvibes is back. You and Lester fight in the car?”

“Naw,” he said. “That was fine. Just…” He told her about the smell and the stool and working at a liquor store.

“Get one of those home-slices running the market stalls to take over the counter, and take me to the beach, then. It’s been weeks and I still haven’t seen the ocean. I’m beginning to think it’s an urban legend.”

So that’s what he did. Hilda drove up in a bikini that made his jaw drop, and bought a pair of polarizing contacts from Jason, and Perry turned the till over to one of the more trustworthy vendors, and they hit the road.

Hilda nuzzled him and prodded him all the way to the beach, kissing him at the red lights. The sky was blue and clear as far as the eye could see in all directions, and they bought a bag of oranges, a newspaper, beach-blankets, sun-block, a picnic lunch, and a book of replica vintage luggage stickers from hawkers at various stop-points.

They unpacked the trunk in the parking garage and stepped out into the bright day, and that’s when they noticed the wind. It was blowing so hard it took Hilda’s sarong off as soon as she stepped out onto the street. Perry barely had time to snatch the cloth out of the air. The wind howled.

They looked up and saw the palm-trees bending like drawn bows, the hot-dog vendors and shave-ice carts and the jewelry hawkers hurriedly piling everything into their cars.

“Guess the beach is cancelled,” Hilda said, pointing out over the ocean. There, on the horizon, was a wall of black cloud, scudding rapidly toward them in the raging wind. “Shoulda checked the weather.”

The wind whipped up stinging clouds of sand and debris. It gusted hard and actually blew Hilda into Perry. He caught her and they both laughed nervously.

“Is this a hurricane?” she asked, joking, not joking, tension in her voice.

“Probably not.” He was thinking of Hurricane Wilma, though, the year he’d moved to Florida. No one had predicted Wilma, which had been a tropical storm miles off the coast until it wasn’t, until it was smashing a 50km-wide path of destruction from Key West to Kissimmee. He’d been working a straight job as a structural engineer for a condo developer, and he’d seen what a good blow could do to the condos of Florida, which were built mostly from dreams, promises, spit, and kleenex.

Wilma had left cars stuck in trees, trees stuck in houses, and it had blown just like this when it hit. There was a crackle in the air, and the sighing of the wind turned to groans, seeming to come from everywhere at once—the buildings were moaning in their bones as the winds buffeted them.

“We have to get out of here,” Perry said. “Now.”

They got up to the second storey of the parking garage when the whole building moaned and shuddered beneath them, like a tremor. They froze on the stairwell. Somewhere in the garage, something crashed into something else with a sound like thunder, and then it was echoed with an actual thunder-crack, a sound like a hundred rifles fired in unison.

Hilda looked at him. “No way. Not further up. Not in this building.”

He agreed. They pelted down the street and into the first sleeting showers coming out of a sky that was now dirty grey and low. A sandwich board advertising energy beverages spun through the air like a razor-edged frisbee, trailing a length of clothesline that had tethered it to the front of some beach-side cafe. On the beach across the road, beachcomber robots burrowed into the sand, trying to get safe from the wind, but were foiled again and again, rolled around like potato bugs into the street, into the sea, into the buildings. They seizured like dying things. Perry felt an irrational urge to rescue them.

“High ground,” Hilda said, pointing away from the beach. “High ground and find a basement. Just like a twister.”

A sheet of water lifted off the surface of the sea and swept across the road at them, soaking them to the skin, followed by a sheet of sand that coated them from head to toe. It was all the encouragement they needed. They ran.

They ran, but the streets were running with rain now and more debris was rolling past them. They got up one block and sloshed across the road. They made it halfway up the next block, past a coffee shop and a surf-shop in low-slung buildings, and the wind literally lifted them off their feet and slammed them to the ground. Perry grabbed Hilda and dragged her into an alley behind the surf-shop. There were dumpsters there, and a recessed doorway, and they squeezed past the dumpster and into the doorway.

Now in the lee, they realized how loud the storm had been. Their ears rang with it, and rang again with another thunderclap. Their chests heaved and they shivered, grabbing each other. The doorway stank of piss and the crackling ozone around them.

“This place, holy fuck, it’s about to lift off and fly away,” Hilda said, panting. Perry’s unbroken arm throbbed and he looked down to see a ragged cut running the length of his forearm. From the Dumpster?

“It’s a big storm,” Perry said. “They come through now and again. Sometimes they blow away.”

“What do they blow away? Trailers? Apartment buildings?” They were both spitting sand and Perry’s arm oozed blood.

“Sometimes!” Perry said. They huddled together and listened to the wind lashing at the buildings around them. The Dumpster blocking their doorway groaned, and then it actually slid a few inches. Water coursed down the alley before them, with debris caught in it: branches, trash, then an electric motorcycle, scratching against the road as it rattled through the river.

They watched it pass without speaking, then both of them screamed and scrambled back as a hissing, soaked house-cat scrambled over the dumpster, landing practically in their laps, clawing at them with hysterical viciousness.

“Fuck!” Hilda said as it caught hold of her thumb with its teeth. She pushed at its face ineffectually, hissing with pain, and Perry finally worked a thumb into the hinge of its jaw and forced it open. The cat sprang away, clawing up his face, leaping back onto the Dumpster.

Hilda’s thumb was punctured many times, already running free with blood. “I’m going to need rabies shots,” she said. “But I’ll live.”

They cuddled, in the blood and the mud, and watched the river swell and run with more odd debris: clothes and coolers, beer bottles and a laptop, cartons of milk and someone’s purse. A small palm-tree. A mailbox. Finally, the river began to wane, the rain to falter.

“Was that it?” Hilda said.

“Maybe,” Perry said. He breathed in the moist air. His arms throbbed—one broken, the other torn open. The rain was petering out fast now, and looking up, he could see blue sky peeking through the dirty, heavy clouds, which were scudding away as fast as they’d rolled in.

“Next time, we check the weather before we go to the beach,” he said.

She laughed and leaned against him and he yelped as she came into contact with his hurt arm. “We got to get you to a hospital,” she said. “Get that looked at.”

“You too,” he said, pointing at her thumb. It was all so weird and remote now, as they walked through the Miami streets, back toward the garage. Other shocked people wandered the streets, weirdly friendly, smiling at them like they all shared a secret.

The beach-front was in shambles, covered in blown trash and mud, uprooted trees and fallen leaves, broken glass and rolled cars. Perry hit the car radio before they pulled out of the garage. An announcer reported that Tropical Storm Henry had gone about three miles inland before petering out to a mere sun-shower, along with news about the freeways and hospitals being equally jammed.

“Huh,” Perry said. “Well, what do we do now?”

“Let’s find a hotel room,” Hilda said. “Have showers, get something to eat.”

It was a weird and funny idea, and Perry liked it. He’d never played tourist in Florida, but what better place to do so? They gathered their snacks from the back of the car and used the first aid kit in the trunk to tape themselves up.

They tried to reach Lester but no one answered. “He’s probably at the ride,” Perry said. “Or balls-deep in reverse-engineering the Disney Box thing. OK, let’s find a hotel room.”

Everything on the beach was fully booked, but as they continued inland for a couple blocks, they came upon coffin hotels stacked four or five capsules high, painted gay Miami deco pastels, installed in rows in old storefronts or stuck in street-parking spots, their silvered windows looking out over the deserted boulevards.

“Should we?” Perry said, gesturing at them.

“If we can get an empty one? Damn right—these things are going to be in serious demand in pretty short order.”

Stepping into the coffin hotel transported Perry back to his days on the road, his days staying at coffin hotel after coffin hotel, to his first night with Hilda, in Madison. One look at Hilda told him she felt the same. They washed each other slowly, as though they were underwater, cleaning out one-another’s wounds, sluicing away the caked on mud and grime blown deep into their ears and the creases of their skin, nestled against their scalps.

They lay down in bed, naked, together, spooned against one another. “You’re a good man, Perry Gibbons,” Hilda said, snuggling against him, hand moving in slow circles on his tummy.

They slept that way and got back on the road long past dark, driving the blasted freeway slowly, moving around the broken glass and blown out tires that remained.

The path of the hurricane followed the coast straight to Hollywood, a line of smashed trees and car wrecks and blown-off roofs that made the nighttime drive even more disorienting.

They went straight back to the condo, but Lester wasn’t there. Worry nagged at Perry. “Take me to the ride?” he said, after he’d paced the apartment a few times.

Hilda looked up from the sofa, where she had collapsed the instant they came through the door, arm flung over her face. “You’re shitting me,” she said. “It’s nearly midnight, and we’ve been in a hurricane.”

Perry squirmed. “I’ve got a bad feeling, OK? And I can’t drive myself.” He flapped his busted arm at her.

Hilda looked at him, her eyes narrowed. “Look, don’t be a jerk, OK? Lester’s a big boy. He’s probably just out with Suzanne. He’d have called you if there’d been a problem.”

He looked at her, bewildered by the ferocity of her response. “OK, I’ll call a cab,” he said, trying for a middle ground.

She jumped up from the couch. “Whatever. Fine. Let me get my keys. Jesus.”

He had no idea how he’d angered her, but it was clear that he had, and the last thing he wanted was to get into a car with her, but he couldn’t think of a way of saying that without escalating things.

So they drove in white-lipped silence to the ride, Hilda tense with anger, Perry tense with worry, both of them touchy as cats, neither saying a word.

But when they pulled up to the ride, they both let out a gasp. It was lit with rigged floodlights and car headlights, and it was swarming with people. As they drew closer, they saw that the market stalls were strewn across the parking lot, in smashed pieces. As they drew closer still, they saw that the ride itself was staring eyeless at them, window-glass smashed.

Perry was out of the car even before it stopped rolling, Hilda shouting something after him. Lester was just on the other side of the ride-entrance, wearing a paper mask and rubber boots, wading in three-inch deep, scummy water.

Perry splashed to a halt. “Holy shit,” he breathed. The ride was lit with glow-sticks, waterproof lamps, and LED torches, and the lights reflected crazily from the still water that filled it as far as the eye could see, way out into the gloom.

Lester looked up at him. His face was lined and exhausted, and it gleamed with sweat. “Storm broke out all the windows and trashed the roof, then flooded us out. It did a real number on the market, too.” His voice was dead.

Perry was wordless. Bits of the ride-exhibits floated in the water, along with the corpses of the robots.

“No drainage,” Lester said. “The code says drainage, but there’s none here. I never noticed it before. I’m going to rig a pump, but my workshop’s pretty much toast.” Lester’s workshop had been in the old garden-center at the side of the ride. It was all glass. “We had some pretty amazing winds.”

Perry felt like he should be showing off his wound to prove that he hadn’t been fucking off while the disaster was underway, but he couldn’t bring himself to do so. “We got caught in it in Miami,” he said.

“Wondered where you were. The kid who was minding the shop just cut and run when the storm rolled in.”

“He did? Christ, what an irresponsible asshole. I’ll break his neck.”

A slimy raft of kitchen gnomes—their second business venture—floated past silently in the harsh watery light. The smell was almost unbearable.

“It wasn’t his job—” Lester’s voice cracked on job, and he breathed deeply. “It wasn’t his job, Perry. It was your job. You’re running around, having a good time with your girlfriend, firing lawyers—” He stopped and breathed again. “You know that they’re going to sue us, right? They’re going to turn us into a smoking ruin because you fired them, and what the fuck are you going to do about that? Whose job is that?”

“I thought you said they weren’t going to sue,” Perry said. It came out in an embarrassed mumble. Lester had never talked to him like this. Never.

“Kettlewell and Tjan aren’t going to sue,” Lester said. “The lawyers you fired, the venture capitalists who backed them? They’re going to turn us into paste.”

“What would you have preferred?” Hilda said. She’d was standing in the doorway, away from the flood, watching them intently. Her eyes were raccoon-bagged, but she was rigid with anger. Perry could hardly look at her. “Would you have preferred to have those fuckers go around destroying the lives of your supporters in order to enrich a few pig assholes?”

Lester just looked at her.

“Well?”

“Shut up, Yoko,” he said. “We’re having a private conversation here.”

Perry’s jaw dropped, and Hilda was already in motion, sloshing into the water in her sandals. She smacked Lester across the cheek, a crack that echoed back over the water and walls.

Lester brought his hand up to his reddening face. “Are you done?” he said, his voice hard.

Hilda looked at Perry. Lester looked at Perry. Perry looked at the water.

“I’ll meet you by the car,” Perry said. It came out in a mumble. They held for a moment, the three of them, then Hilda walked out again, leaving Lester and Perry looking at one another.

“I’m sorry,” Perry said.

“About Hilda? About the lawsuits? About skipping out?”

“About everything,” he said. “Let’s fix this up, OK?”

“The ride? I don’t even know if I want to. Why bother? It’ll cost a fortune to get it online, and they’ll only shut it down again with the lawsuit. Why bother.”

“So we won’t fix the ride. Let’s fix us.”

“Why bother,” Lester said, and it came out in the same mumble.

The watery sounds of the room and the smell and the harsh reflected rippling light made Perry want to leave. “Lester—” he began.

Lester shook his head. “There’s nothing more we can do tonight, anyway. I’ll rent a pump in the morning.”

“I’ll do it,” Perry said. “You work on the Disney-in-a-Box thing.”

Lester laughed, a bitter sound. “Yeah, OK, buddy. Sure.”

Out in the parking-lot, the hawkers were putting their stalls back together as best they could. The shantytown was lit up and Perry wondered how it had held together. Pretty good, is what he guessed—they met and exceeded county code on all of those plans.

Hilda honked the horn at him. She was fuming behind the wheel and they drove in silence. He felt numb and wrung out and he didn’t know what to say to her. He lay awake in bed that night waiting to hear Lester come home, but he didn’t.

Sammy loved his morning meetings. They all came to his office, all the different park execs, creatives, and emissaries from the old partner companies that had spun off to make movies and merch and educational materials. They all came each day to talk to him about the next day’s Disney-in-a-Box build. They all came to beg him to think about adding in something from their franchises and cantons to the next installment.

There were over a million DiaBs in the field now, and they weren’t even trying to keep up with orders anymore. Sammy loved looking at the online auction sites to see what the boxes were going for—he knew that some of his people had siphoned off a carload or two of the things to e-tail out the back door. He loved that. Nothing was a better barometer of your success tha having made something other people cared enough about to steal.

He loved his morning meetings, and he conducted them with the flair of a benevolent emperor. He’d gotten a bigger office—technically it was a board-room for DiaB strategy, but Sammy was the DiaB strategy. He’d outfitted it with fan-photos of their DiaB shrines in their homes, with kids watching enthralled as the day’s model was assembled before their eyes. The hypnotic fascination in their eyes was unmistakable. Disney was the focus of their daily lives, and all they wanted was more, more, more. He could push out five models a day, ten, and they’d go nuts for them.

But he wouldn’t. He was too cunning. One model a day was all. Leave them wanting more. Never breathe a hint of what the next day’s model would be—oh, how he loved to watch the blogs and the chatter as the models self-assembled, the heated, time-bound fights over what the day’s model was going to be.

“Good morning, Ron,” he said. Wiener had been lobbying to get a Main Street build into the models for weeks now, and Sammy was taking great pleasure in denying it to him without shutting down all hope. Getting Ron Wiener to grovel before him every morning was better than a cup of coffee.

“I’ve been thinking about what you said, and you’re right,” Wiener said. He always started the meeting by telling Sammy how right he was to reject his last idea. “The flag-pole and marching-band scene would have too many pieces. House cats would knock it over. We need something more unitary, more visually striking. So here’s what I’ve been thinking: what about the fire-engine?”

Sammy raised an indulgent eyebrow.

“Kids love fire trucks. All the colors are in the printer’s gamut—I checked. We could create a Mickey-and-Friends fire-crew to position around it, a little barn for it.”

“The only thing I liked about firetrucks when I was a kid was that the word started with ’f’ and ended with ’uck’—” Sammy smiled when he said it, and waited for Wiener to fake hilarity, too. The others in the room—other park execs, some of their licensing partners, a few advertisers—laughed too. Officially, this was a “brainstorming session,” but everyone knew that it was all about getting the nod from Sammy.

Wiener laughed dutifully and slunk away. More supplicants came forward.

“How about this?” She was very cute—dressed in smart, dark clothes that were more Lower East Side than Orlando. She smelled good, too—one of the new colognes that hinted at free monomers, like hot plastic or a new-bought tire. Cat-slanted green eyes completed the package.

“What you got there?” She was from an ad agency, someone Disney Parks had done business with at some point. Agencies had been sending their people to these meetings too, trying to get a co-branding coup for one of their clients.

“It’s a series of three, telling a little story. Beginning, middle and end. The first one is a family sitting down to breakfast, and you can see, it’s the same old crap, boring microwave omelets and breakfast puddings. Mom’s bored, dad’s more bored, and sis and brother here are secretly dumping theirs onto mom’s and dad’s plates. All this stuff is run using the same printers, so it looks very realistic.”

It did indeed. Sammy hadn’t thought about it, but he supposed it was only natural that the omelets were printed—how else could General Mills get that uniformity? He should talk to some of the people in food services about getting some of that tech to work at the parks.

“So in part two, they’re setting up the kitchen around this mystery box—one part Easy-Bake lightbulb oven, one part Tardis. You know what that is?”

Sammy grinned. “Why yes, I believe I do.” Their eyes met in a fierce look of mutual recognition. “It’s a breakfast printer, isn’t it?” The other supplicants in the room sucked in a collective breath. Some chuckled nervously.

“It’s about moving the apparatus to the edge. Bridging the last mile. Why not? This one will do waffles, breakfast cereals, bagels and baked goods, small cakes. New designs every day—something for mom and dad, something for the kids, something for the sullen teens. We’re already doing this at the regional plants and distributorships, on much larger scales. But getting our stuff into consumers’ homes, getting them subscribed to our food—”

Sammy held up a hand. “I see,” he said. “And our people are already primed for home-printing experiences. They’re right in your sweet spot.”

“Part three, Junior and little sis are going cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, but these things are shaped like them, with their portraits on each sugar-lump. Mom and dad are eating tres sophistique croissants and delicate cakes. Look at Rover here, with his own cat-shaped dog-biscuit. See how happy they all are?”

Sammy nodded. “Shouldn’t this all be under nondisclosure?” he said.

“Probably, but what are you gonna do? You guys are pretty good at keeping secrets, and if you decide to shaft us by selling out to one of our competitors, we’re probably dead, anyway. I’ll be able to ship out half a million units in the first week, then we can ramp production if need be—lots of little parts-and-assembly subcontractors will take the work if we offer.”

Sammy liked the way she talked. Like someone who didn’t need to spend a lot of time screwing around, planning, like someone who could just make it happen.

“You’re launching when?”

“Three days after you start running this campaign,” she said, without batting an eyelash.

“My name’s Sammy,” he said. “How’s Thursday?”

“Launch on Sunday?” She shook her head. “It’s tricky, Sunday launches. Gotta pay everyone scale-and-a-half.” She gave him a wink. “What the hell, it’s not my money.” She stuck out her hand. She was wearing a couple of nice chunky obsidian rings in abstract curvy shapes, looking a little porny in their suggestion of breasts and thighs. He shook her hand and it was warm and dry and strong.

“Well, that’s this week taken care of,” Sammy said, and pointedly cleared the white-board surface running the length of the table. The others groaned and got up and filed out. The woman stayed behind.

“Dinah,” she said. She handed him a card and he noted the agency. Dallas-based, not New York, but he could tell she was a transplant.

“You got any breakfast plans?” It was hardly gone 9AM—Sammy liked to get these meetings started early. “I normally get something sent in, but your little prototypes there…”

She laughed. It was a pretty laugh. She was a couple years older than him, and she wore it well. “Do I have breakfast plans? Sammy my boy, I’m nothing but breakfast plans! I have a launch on Sunday, remember?”

“Heh. Oh yeah.”

“I’m on the next flight to DFW,” she said. “I’ve got a cab waiting to take me to the airport.”

“I wonder if you and I need to talk over some details,” Sammy said.

“Only if you want to do it in the taxi.”

“I was thinking we could do it on the plane,” he said.

“You’re going to buy a ticket?”

“On my plane,” he said. They’d given him use of one of the company jets when he started really ramping production on the DiaBs.

“Oh yes, I think that can be arranged,” she said. “It’s Sammy, right?”

“Right,” he said. They left the building and had an altogether lovely flight to Dallas. Very productive.

Lester hadn’t left Suzanne’s apartment in days. She’d rented a place in the shantytown—bemused at the idea of paying rent to a squatter, but pleased to have a place of her own now that Lester and Perry’s apartment had become so tense.

Technically, he was working on the Disney printers, which she found interesting in an abstract way. They had a working one and a couple of disassembled ones, and watching the working one do its thing was fascinating for a day or two, but then it was just a three-dee TV with one channel, broadcasting one frame per day.

She dutifully wrote about it, though, and about Perry’s ongoing efforts to re-open the ride. She got the sense from him that he was heading for flat-ass broke. Lester and he had always been casual about money, but buying all new robots, more printers, replacement windows, fixing the roof—none of it was cheap. And with the market in pieces, he wasn’t getting any rent.

She looked over Lester’s shoulder for the fiftieth time. “How’s it going?”

“Don’t write about this, OK?”

He’d never said that to her.

“I’ll embargo it until you ship.”

He grunted. “Fine, I guess. OK, well, I’ve got it running on generic goop, that part was easy. I can also load my own designs, but that requires physical access to the thing, in order to load new firmware. They don’t make it easy, which is weird. It’s like they don’t plan on updating it once it’s in the field—maybe they just plan on replacing them at regular intervals.”

“Why’s the firmware matter to you?”

“Well, that’s where it stores information about where to get the day’s designs. If we’re going to push our own designs to it, we need to give people an easy way to tell it to tune in to our feed, and the best way to do that is to change the firmware. The alternative would be, oh, I don’t know, putting another machine upstream of it to trick it into thinking that it’s accessing their site when it’s really going to ours. That means getting people to configure another machine—no one but a few hardcore geeks will want to do that.”

Suzanne nodded. She wondered if “a few hardcore geeks” summed up the total audience for this project in any event. She didn’t mention it, though. Lester’s brow was so furrowed you could lose a dime in the crease above his nose.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll get it,” she said.

“Yeah. It’s just a matter of getting at the boot-loader. I could totally do this if I could get at the boot-loader.”

Suzanne knew what a boot-loader was, just barely. The thing that chose which OS to load when you turned it on. She wondered if every daring, sexy technology project started like this, a cranky hacker muttering angrily about boot-loaders.

Suzanne missed Russia. She’d had a good life there, covering the biotech scene. Those hackers were a lot scarier than Lester and Perry, but they were still lovable and fascinating in their own way. Better than the Ford and GM execs she used to have to cozy up to.

She’d liked the manic hustle of Russia, the glamour and the squalor. She’d bought a time-share dacha that she could spend weekends at, and the ex-pats in Petersburg had rollicking parties and dinners where they took apart the day’s experiences on Planet Petrograd.

“I’m going out, Lester,” she said. Lester looked up from the DiaB and blinked a few times, then seemed to rewind the conversation.

“Hey,” he said. “Oh, hey. Sorry, Suzanne. I’m just—I’m trying to work instead of think these days. Thinking just makes me angry. I don’t know what to do—” He broke off and thumped the side of the printer.

“How’s Perry getting on with rebuilding?”

“He’s getting on,” Lester said. “As far as I know. I read that the Death Waits kid and his people had come by to help. Whatever that means.”

“He freaks me out,” Suzanne said. “I mean, I feel terrible for him, and he seemed nice enough in the hospital. But all those people—the way they follow him around. It’s just weird. Like the charismatic cults back home.” She realized she’d just called Russia “home” and it made her frown. Just how long was she going to stay here with these people, anyway?

Lester hadn’t noticed. “I guess they all feel sorry for him. And they like what he has to say about stories. I just can’t get a lot of spit in my mouth over the ride these days, though. It feels like something we did and completed and should move on from.”

Suzanne didn’t have anything to say, and Lester wasn’t particularly expecting anything, he was giving off a palpable let-me-work vibe, so she let herself out of the apartment—her apartment! — and headed out into the shantytown. On the way to the ride, she passed the little tea-house where Kettlewell and Tjan had done their scheming and she suddenly felt very, very old. The only grownup on-site.

She was about to cross the freeway to the ride when her phone rang. She looked at the face and then nearly dropped it. Freddy was calling her.

“Hello, Suzanne,” he said. The gloat in his voice was unmistakable. He had something really slimy up his sleeve.

“How can I help you?”

“I’m calling for comment on a story,” he said. “It’s my understanding that your lad, Perry, pitched a tantie and fired the business-managers of the ride, and has told the lawyers representing him against Disney that he intends to drop the suit.”

“Is there a question in there?”

“Oh, there are many questions in there, my darling. For starters, I wondered how it could possibly be true if you haven’t written about it on your little ’blog’—” even over the phone, she could hear the sarcastic quotes. “—You seem to be quite comprehensive in documenting the undertakings of your friends down there in Florida.”

“Are you asking me to comment on why I haven’t commented?”

“For starters.”

“Have you approached Perry for a comment?”

“I’m afraid he was rather abrupt. And I couldn’t reach his Valkyrie of the Midwest, either. So I’m left calling on you, Suzanne. Any comment?”

Suzanne stared across the road at the ride. She’d been gassed there, chased by armed men, watched a war there.

“The ride doesn’t have much formal decision-making process,” she said finally. “That means that words like ’fired’ don’t really apply here. The boys might have a disagreement about the best way to proceed, but if that’s the case, you’ll have to talk to them about it.”

“Are you saying that you don’t know if your boyfriend’s best friend is fighting with his business partners? Don’t you all live together?”

“I’m saying that if you want to find out what Lester and Perry are doing, you’ll have to ask Lester and Perry.”

“And the living together thing?”

“We don’t live together,” she said. It was technically true.

“Really?” Freddy said.

“Do we have a bad connection?”

“You don’t live together?”

“No.”

“Where do you live then?”

“My place,” she said. “Have your informants been misinforming you? I hope you haven’t been paying for your information, Freddy. I suppose you don’t, though. I suppose there’s no end of cranks who really enjoy spiteful gossip and are more than happy to email you whatever fantasies they concoct.”

Freddy tsked. “And you don’t know what’s happened to Kettlewell and Tjan?”

“Have you asked them?”

“I will,” he said. “But since you’re the ranking reporter on the scene.”

“I’m just a blogger, Freddy. A busy blogger. Good afternoon.”

The call left her shaking, though she was proud of how calm she’d kept her voice. What a goddamned troll. And she was going to have to write about this now.

There were ladders leaned up against the edge of the ride, and a motley crew of roofers and glaziers on them and on the roof, working to replace the gaping holes the storm had left. The workers mostly wore black and had dyed hair and lots of metal flashing from their ears and faces as they worked. A couple had stripped to the waist, revealing full-back tattoos or even more piercings and subcutaneous implants, like armor running over their spines and shoulder-blades. A couple of boom-boxes blasted out grinding, incoherent music with a lot of electronic screams.

Around the ride, the market-stalls were coming back, rebuilt from a tower of fresh-sawed lumber stacked in the parking-lot. This was a lot more efficient, with gangs of vendors quickly sawing the lumber to standard sizes, slapping each one with a positional sensor, then watching the sensor’s lights to tell them when it was properly lined up with its mates, and then slipping on corner-clips that held it all together. Suzanne watched as a whole market stall came together this way, in the space of five minutes, before the vendors moved on to their next stall. It was like a high-tech version of an Amish barn-raising, performed by bandanna-clad sketchy hawkers instead of bearded technophobes.

She found Perry inside, leaning over a printer, tinkering with its guts, LED torches clipped to the temples of his glasses. He was hampered by having only one good arm, and he pressed her into service passing him tools for a good fifteen minutes before he straightened up and really looked at her.

“You come down to help out?”

“To write about it, actually.”

The room was a hive of activity. A lot of goth kids of various ages and degrees of freakiness, a few of the squatter kids, some people she recognized from the second coming of Death Waits. She couldn’t see Death Waits, though.

“Well, that’s good.” He powered up the printer and the air filled with the familiar smell of Saran-Wrap-in-a-microwave. She had an eerie flashback to her first visit to this place, when they’d showed her how they could print mutated, Warhol-ized Barbie heads. “How’s Lester getting on with cracking that printer?”

Why don’t you ask him yourself? She didn’t say it. She didn’t know why Lester had come to her place after the flood instead of going home, why he stiffened up and sniffed when she mentioned Perry’s name, why he looked away when she mentioned Hilda.

“Something about firmware.”

He straightened his back more, making it pop and gave her his devilish grin, the one where his wonky eyebrow went up and down. “It’s always firmware,” he said, and laughed a little. Maybe they were both remembering those old days, the Boogie Woogie Elmos.

“Looks like you’ve got a lot of help,” Suzanne said, getting out a little steno pad and a pen.

Perry nodded at it, and she was struck by how many times they’d stood like this, a few feet apart, her pen poised over her pad. She’d chronicled so much of this man’s life.

“They’re good people, these folks. Some of them have some carpentry or electronics experience, the rest are willing to learn. It’s going faster than I thought it would. Lots of support from out in the world, too—people sending in cash to help with replacement parts.”

“Have you heard from Kettlewell or Tjan?”

The light went out of his face. “No,” he said.

“How about from the lawyers?”

“No comment,” he said. It didn’t sound like a joke.

“Come on, Perry. People are starting to ask questions. Someone’s going to write about this. Do you want your side told or not?”

“Not,” he said, and disappeared back into the guts of the printer.

She stared at his back for a long while before turning on her heel, muttering, “Fuck,” and walking back out into the sunshine. There’d been a musty smell in the ride, but out here it was the Florida smell of citrus and car-fumes, and sweat from the people around her, working hard, trying to wrest a living from the world.

She walked back across the freeway to the shantytown and ran into Hilda coming the other way. The younger woman gave her a cool look and then looked away, and crossed.

That was just about enough, Suzanne thought. Enough playtime with the kids. Time to go find some grownups. She wasn’t here for her health. If Lester didn’t want to hang out with her, if Perry had had enough of her, it was time to go do something else.

She went back to her room, where Lester was still working on his DiaB project. She took out her suitcase and packed with the efficiency of long experience. Lester didn’t notice, not even when she took the blouse she’d hand-washed and hung to dry on the back of his chair, folded it and put it in her suitcase and zipped it shut.

She looked at his back working over the bench for a long time. He had a six-pack of chocolate pudding beside him, and a wastebasket overflowing with food wrappers and boxes. He shifted in his seat and let out a soft fart.

She left. She paid the landlady through the end of the week. She could send Lester an email later.

The cab took her to Miami. It wasn’t until she got to the airport that she realized she had no idea where she was going. Boston? San Francisco? Petersburg? She opened her laptop and began to price out last minute tickets. The rush of travelers moved around her and she was jostled many times.

The standby sites gave her a thousand options—Miami to JFK to Heathrow to Petersburg, Miami to Frankfurt to Moscow to Petersburg, Miami to Dallas to San Francisco…. The permutations were overwhelming, especially since she wasn’t sure where she wanted to be.

Then she heard something homey and familiar: a large group of Russian tourists walking past, talking loudly in Russian, complaining about the long flight, the bad food, and the incompetence of their tour operator. She smiled to see the old men with their high-waisted pants and the old women with their bouffant hair.

She couldn’t help but eavesdrop—at their volume, she would have been hard-pressed not to listen in. A little boy and girl tore ass around the airport, under the disapproving glares from DHS goons, and they screamed as they ran, “Disney World! Disney World! Disney World!”

She’d never been—she’d been to a couple of the kitschy Gulag parks in Russia, and she’d grown up with Six Flags coaster parks and Ontario Place and the CNE in Toronto, not far from Detroit. But she’d never been to The Big One, the place that even now managed to dominate the world’s consciousness of theme-parks.

She asked her standby sites to find her a room in a Disney hotel instead, looking for an inclusive rate that would get her onto the rides and pay for her meals. These were advertised at roadside kiosks at 100-yard intervals on every freeway in Florida, so she suspected they were the best deal going.

A moment of browsing showed her that she’d guessed wrong. A week in Disney cost a heart-stopping sum of money—the equivalent of six month’s rent in Petersburg. How did all these Russians afford this trip? What the hell compelled people to part with these sums?

She was going to have to find out. It was research. Plus she needed a vacation.

She booked in, bought a bullet-train ticket, and grabbed the handle of her suitcase. She examined her welcome package as she waited for the train. She was staying at something called the Polynesian Resort hotel, and the brochure showed a ticky-tacky tiki-themed set of longhouses set on an ersatz white-sand beach, with a crew of Mexican and Cuban domestic workers in leis, Hawai’ian shirts, and lava-lavas waving and smiling. Her package included a complimentary luau—the pictures made it clear this was nothing like the tourist luaus she’d attended in Maui. On top of that, she was entitled to a “character breakfast” with a wage-slave in an overheated plush costume, and an hour with a “resort counsellor” who’d help her plan her trip for maximal fun.

The bullet train came and took on the passengers, families bouncing with anticipation, joking and laughing in every language spoken. These people had just come through a US Customs checkpoint and they were acting like the world was a fine place. She decided there must be something to this Disney business.

Death Waits waited, and waited and waited for the ride to come back online. He split his days between hanging out at home, writing about the story, running the fly-throughs from the other rides, watching what was happening in Brazil, answering his fan-mail; the rest of the time he spent with his new friends down at the site of the ride, encouraging them to pitch in and help Perry and Lester to get the thing back up and running. Fast, please. It was driving him bonkers not to be able to ride any longer. After everything he’d been through, he deserved a ride.

His friends were wonderful. Wonderful! Lacey especially. She was a nurse and a goddess of mercy. The money that flooded into his paypals whenever his friends let it be known that he needed more, covered all his expenses. He never wanted for companionship, conversation, helpmeets, or respect. It was a wonderful life.

If only the ride would come online.

He woke next to Lacey, she asleep still, her hair spread out across the pillow in a fall of shiny black with blue highlights—she’d given him a matching dye-job a few days before and they looked like a matched set now. He let his hands lazily trace her soft skin, the outlines of her tattoos, her implants and piercings. He felt a stirring between his legs.

Lacey yawned and woke and kissed him. “Good morning, my handsome man,” she said.

“Good morning, my beautiful woman. What’s the plan for today?”

“Whatever you want,” she said.

“Breakfast, then down to the ride,” he said. “I’ll do my email and writing there today.”

“Something before breakfast?” she asked, with a lopsided smile that was adorable.

“Oh yes, please,” he said, his voice breathy.

The smell at the Wal-Mart was overpowering. It was one part sharp mold, one part industrial disinfectant, a citrus smell that made your eyes water and your sinuses burn.

“I’ve rented some big blowers,” Perry said. “They’ll help air the place out. If that doesn’t work, I might have to resurface the floor, which would be rough—it could take a week to get that done properly.”

“A week?” Death said. Jesus. No way. Not another week. He didn’t know it for sure, but he had a feeling that a lot of these people would stop showing up eventually if there was no ride for them to geek out over. He sure would.

“You smell that? We can’t close the doors and the windows and leave it like this.”

Death’s people, standing around them, listening in, nodded. It was true. You’d melt people’s lungs if you shut them up with these fumes.

“How can I help?” Death said. It was his constant mantra with Perry. Sometimes he didn’t think Perry liked him very much, and it was good to keep on reminding him that Death and his buddies were here to be part of the solution. That Perry needed them.

“The roof is just about done, the robots are back online. The dividers should be done today. I’ve got the chairs stripped down for routine maintenance, I could use a couple people for that.”

“What’s Lester working on?” Death said.

“You’d have to ask him.”

Death hadn’t seen Lester in days, which was weird. He hoped Lester didn’t dislike him. He worried a lot about whether people liked him these days. He’d thought that Sammy liked him, after all.

“Where is he?”

“Don’t know.”

Perry put dark glasses on.

Death Waits took the hint. “Come on,” he said to Lacey, who patted him on the hand as he lifted up in his chair and rolled out to the van. “Let’s just call him.”

“Lo?”

“It’s Death Waits. We’re down at the ride, but there’s not much to do around here. I thought maybe we could help you with whatever you were working on?”

“What do you know about what I’m working on?” Lester said.

“Um. Nothing.”

“So how do you know you want to help?”

Death Waits closed his eyes. He wanted to help these two. They’d made something important, didn’t they know that?

“What are you working on?”

“Nothing,” Lester said.

“Come on,” Death said. “Come on. We just want to pitch in. I love you guys. You changed my life. Let me contribute.”

Lester snorted. “Cross the road, go straight for two hundred yards, turn left at the house with the Cesar Chavez mural, and I’ll meet you there.”

“You mean go into the—” Death didn’t know what it was called. He always tried not to look at it when he came to the ride. That slum across the road. He knew it was somehow connected with the ride, but in the same way that the administrative buildings at Disney were connected with the parks. The big difference was that Disney’s extraneous buildings were shielded from view by berms and painted go-away green. The weird town across the road was right there.

“Yeah, across the road into the shantytown.”

“OK,” Death said. “See you soon.” He hung up and patted Lacey’s hand. “We’re going over there,” he said, pointing into the shantytown.

“Is it safe?”

He shrugged. “I guess so.” He loved his chair, loved how tall it made him, loved how it turned him into a half-ton cyborg who could raise up on his rear wheels and rock back and forth like a triffid. Now he felt very vulnerable—a crippled cyborg whose apparatus cost a small fortune, about to go into a neighborhood full of people who were technically homeless.

“Should we drive?”

“I think we can make it across,” he said. Traffic was light, though the cars that bombed past were doing 90 or more. He started to gather up a few more of his people, but reconsidered. It was a little scary to be going into the town, but he couldn’t afford to freak out Lester by showing up with an entourage.

The guardrail shielding the town had been bent down and flattened and the chair wheeled over it easily, with hardly a bump. As they crossed this border, they crossed over to another world. There were cooking smells—barbecue and Cuban spices—and a little hint of septic tank or compost heap. The buildings didn’t make any sense to Death’s eye, they curved or sloped or twisted or leaned and seemed to be made of equal parts pre-fab cement and aluminum and scrap lumber, laundry lines, power lines, and graffiti.

Death was used to drawing stares, even before he became a cyborg with a beautiful woman beside him, but this was different. There were eyes everywhere. Little kids playing in the street—hadn’t these people heard of stranger danger—stopped to stare at him with big shoe-button eyes. Faces peered out of windows from the ground on up to the third storey. Voices whispered and called.

Lacey gave them her sunniest smile and even waved at the little kids, and Death tried nodding at some of the homeys staring at him from the window of what looked like a little diner.

Death hadn’t known what to expect from this little town, but he certainly hadn’t pictured so many little shops. He realized that he thought of shops as being somehow civilized—tax paying, license-bearing entities with commercial relationships with suppliers, with cash-registers and employees. Not lawless and wild.

But every ground-floor seemed to have at least a small shop, advertised with bright OLED pixel-boards that showed rotating enticements—Productos de Dominica, Beautiful for Ladies, OFERTA!!! Fantasy Nails. He passed twenty different shops in as many steps, some of them seemingly nothing more than a counter recessed into the wall with a young man sitting behind it, grinning at them.

Lacey stopped at one and bought them cans of coffee and small Mexican pastries dusted with cinnamon. He watched a hundred pairs of eyes watch Lacey as she drew out her purse and paid. At first he thought of the danger, but then he realized that if anyone was to mug them, it would be in full sight of all these people.

It was a funny thought. He’d grown up in sparse suburbs where you’d never see anyone walking or standing on the sidewalks or their porches. Even though it was a “nice” neighborhood, there were muggings and even killings at regular, horrific intervals. Walking there felt like taking your life into your hands.

Here, in this crowded place with a human density like a Disney park, it felt somehow safer. Weird.

They came to what had to be the Cesar Chavez mural—a Mexican in a cowboy hat standing like a preacher on the tailgate of a truck, surrounded by more Mexicans, farmer-types in cotton shirts and blue-jeans and cowboy hats. They turned left and rounded a corner into a little cul-de-sac with a confusion of hopscotches chalked onto the ground, ringed by parked bicycles and scooters. Lester stood among them, eating a churro in a piece of wax-paper.

“You seem to be recovering quickly,” he said, sizing up Death in his chair. “Good to see it.” He seemed a little distant, which Death chalked up to being interrupted.

“It’s great to see you again,” Death said. “My friends and I have been coming by the ride every day, helping out however we can, but we never see you there, so I thought I’d call you.”

“You’d call me.”

“To see if we could help,” Death said. “With whatever you’re doing.”

“Come in,” Lester said. He gestured behind him and Death noticed for the first time the small sign that said HOTEL ROTHSCHILD, with a stately peacock behind it.

The door was a little narrow for his rolling chair, but he managed to get it in with a little back-and-forth, but once inside, he was stymied by the narrow staircase leading up to the upper floors. The lobby—such as it was—was completely filled by him, Lacey and Lester, and even if the chair could have squeezed up the stairs, it couldn’t have cornered to get there.

Lester looked embarrassed. “Sorry, I didn’t think of that. Um. OK, I could rig a winch and hoist the chair up if you want. We’d have to belt you in, but it’s do-able. There are masts for pulleys on the top floor—it’s how they get the beds into the upper stories.”

“I can get up on canes,” Death Waits said. “Is it safe to leave my chair outside, though?”

Lester’s eyebrows went up. “Well of course—sure it is.” Death felt weird for having asked. He backed the chair out and locked the transmission, feeling silly. Who was going to hot-wire a wheelchair? He was such a dork. Lacey handed him his canes and he stood gingerly. He’d been making his way to the bathroom and back on canes all week, but he hadn’t tried stairs yet. He hoped Lester wasn’t too many floors up.

Lester turned out to be on the third floor, and by the time they reached it, Death Waits was dripping sweat and his eyeliner had run into his eyes. Lacey dabbed at him with her gauzy scarf and fussed over him. Death caught Lester looking at the two of them with a little smirk, so he pushed Lacey away and steadied his breathing with an effort.

“OK,” he said. “All done.”

“Great,” Lester said. “This is what I’m working on. You talked to Perry about it before, right? The Disney-in-a-Box printers. Well, I’ve cracked it. We can load our own firmware onto it—just stick it on a network with a PC, and the PC will find it and update it. Then it becomes an open box—it’ll accept anyone’s goop. You can send it your own plans.”

Death hadn’t seen a DiaB in person yet. Beholding it and knowing that he was the reason that Lester and Perry were experimenting with it in the first place made him feel a sense of excitement he hadn’t felt since the goth rehab of Fantasyland began.

“So how does this tie in to the ride?” Death asked. “I was thinking of building rides in miniature, but at that scale, will it really impress people? No, I don’t think so.

“So instead I was thinking that we could just push out details from the ride, little tabletop-sized miniatures showing a piece every day. Maybe whatever was newest. And you could have multiple feeds, you know, like an experimental trunk for objects that people in one region liked—”

Lester was shaking his head and holding up his hands. “Woah, wait a second. No, no, no—” Death was used to having his friends hang on his every word when he was talking about ideas for the ride and the story, so this brought him up short. He reminded himself who he was talking to.

“Sorry,” he said. “Got ahead of myself.”

“Look,” Lester said, prodding at the printer. “This thing is its own thing. We’re about more than the ride here. I know you really like it, and that’s very cool, but there’s no way that everything I do from now on is going to be about that fucking thing. It was a lark, it’s cool, it’s got its own momentum. But these boxes are going to be their own thing. I want to show people how to take control of the stuff in their living rooms, not advertise my little commercial project to them.”

Death couldn’t make sense out of this. It sounded like Lester didn’t like the ride. How was that possible? “I don’t get it,” he said at last. Lester was making him look like an idiot in front of Lacey, too. He didn’t like how this was going at all.

Lester picked up a screwdriver. “You see this? It’s a tool. You can pick it up and you can unscrew stuff or screw stuff in. You can use the handle for a hammer. You can use the blade to open paint cans. You can throw it away, loan it out, or paint it purple and frame it.” He thumped the printer. “This thing is a tool, too, but it’s not your tool. It belongs to someone else—Disney. It isn’t interested in listening to you or obeying you. It doesn’t want to give you more control over your life.

“This thing reminds me of life before fatkins. It was my very own personal body, but it wasn’t under my control. What’s the word the academics use? ‘Agency.’ I didn’t have any agency. It didn’t matter what I did, I was just this fat thing that my brain had to lug around behind it, listening to its never-ending complaints and aches and pains.

“If you don’t control your life, you’re miserable. Think of the people who don’t get to run their own lives: prisoners, reform-school kids, mental patients. There’s something inherently awful about living like that. Autonomy makes us happy.”

He thumped the top of the printer again. “So here’s this stupid thing, which Disney gives you for free. It looks like a tool, like a thing that you use to better your life, but in reality, it’s a tool that Disney uses to control your life. You can’t program it. You can’t change the channel. It doesn’t even have an off switch. That’s what gets me exercised. I want to redesign this thing so it gets converted from something that controls to something that gives you control.”

Lester’s eyes shone. Death hurt from head to toe, from the climb and the aftermath of the beating, and the life he’d lived. Lester was telling him that the ride wasn’t important to him anymore, that he’d be doing this other thing with the printer next, and then something else, and then something else. He felt a great, unexpected upwelling of bitterness at the thought.

“So what about the ride?”

“The ride? I told you. I’m done with it. It’s time to do the next thing. You said you wanted to help out, right?”

“With the ride,” Death said patiently, with the manner of someone talking to a child.

Lester turned his back on Death.

“I’m done with the ride,” Lester said. “I don’t want to waste your time.” It was clear he meant, You’re wasting my time. He bent over the printer.

Lacey looked daggers at his shoulders, then turned to help Death down the stairs. His canes clattered on the narrow staircase, and it was all he could do to keep from crying.

Suzanne rode the bullet-train from Miami airport in air-conditioned amusement, watching the Mickey-shaped hang-straps rock back and forth. She’d bought herself a Mickey waffle and a bucket-sized Diet Coke in the dining car and fended off the offers of plush animatronic toys that were clearly descended from Boogie-Woogie Elmo.

Now she watched the kids tear ass up and down the train, or sit mesmerized by the videos and interactives set up at the ends of the cars. The train was really slick, and judging from the brochure she found in the seat-pocket, there was another one from the Orlando airport. These things were like chutes leading from the luggage carousel straight into the parks. Disney had figured out how to make sure that every penny spent by its tourists went straight into its coffers.

The voice-over announcements as they pulled into the station were in English, Chinese, Spanish, Farsi and Russian—in that order—and displayed on the porters’ red coats with brass buttons were name-badges with the flags of many nations, denoting the languages they spoke. They wore mouse-ears, and Suzanne—a veteran of innumerable hotels—could not dissuade one from taking her suitcase.

He brought her to a coach-station and saw her aboard a bus marked for the Polynesian, decorated with tiki-lamps, bamboo, and palm-fronds (she touched one and discovered that it was vinyl). He refused her tip as they saw her aboard, and then stood and waved her off with his white gloves and giant white smile. She had to chuckle as she pulled away, amazed at how effective these little touches were. She felt her muscles loosening, little involuntary chuckles rising in her throat. The coach was full of parents and children from all over the world, grinning and laughing and hugging and talking excitedly about the day ahead of them.

The coach let them off to a group of Hawai’ian-shirt-clad staff who shouted “Aloha!” at them as they debarked, and picked up their luggage with swift, cheerful, relentless efficiency. Her check-in was so painless she wasn’t sure it was over until a nice young lady who looked Chechen picked up her bag for her and urged her out to the grounds, which were green and lush, like nothing she’d seen since landing in Florida. She was surrounded by the hotel structures, long-houses decorated with Polynesian masks and stalked by leggy ibises and chirping tropical birds. Before her was a white-sand beach fronting onto an artificial lake ringed with other luxury hotels: a gigantic 1970s Soviet A-frame building and a gingerbread-choked Victorian hotel. The lake was ringed with a monorail track and plied by handsome paddle-wheeler ferry-boats.

She stared gape-jawed at this until the bellhop gently tugged at her elbow, giving her a dazzling smile.

Her room was the kind of thing you’d see Lucy and Ricky checking into on honeymoon in an old I Love Lucy episode—wicker ceiling fans, bamboo furniture, a huge hot-tub shaped like a seashell. Outside, a little terrace looking over the lake, with a pair of cockatoos looking quizzically at her. The bellhop waved at them and they cawed at her and flew off. Suzanne must have made a disappointed noise, because the bellhop patted her on the arm and said, “Don’t worry, we feed them here, they come back all the time. Greedy birdies!”

She tipped the bellhop five bucks once she’d been given the grand tour of the room—a tame Internet connection that was “kid-friendly” and a likewise censored video-on-demand service, delivery pizza or sushi, information on park hours, including the dazzling array of extras she could purchase. It turned out that resort guests were eligible to purchase priority passes for boarding rides ahead of the plebes, and for entering parks early and staying late. This made Suzanne feel right at home—it was very Russian in its approach: the more you spent, the better your time was.

She bought it all: all the fast-passes and priority cards, all of it loaded into a grinning Mickey on a lanyard, a wireless pendant that would take care of her everywhere she went in the park, letting her spend money like water.

Thus girded, she consulted with her bellhop some more and laid out an itinerary. Once she’d showered she found she didn’t want to wear any of her European tailored shorts and blouses. She wanted to disappear into the Great American Mass. The hotel gift shop provided her with a barkcloth Hawai’ian shirt decorated with tessellated Disney trademarks and a big pair of loose shorts, and once she donned them, she saw that she could be anyone now, any tourist in the park. A pair of cheap sunglasses completed the look and she paid for it all by waving her Mickey necklace at the register, spending money like water.

She passed the rest of the day at the Magic Kingdom, taking a ferry from the hotel’s pier to the Victorian wrought-iron docks on the other side of the little artificial lake. As she cleared the turnstiles into Main Street, USA, her heart quickened. Kids rushed past her, chased by their parents’ laughing calls to slow down. Balloon sellers and old-fashioned popcorn machines jostled for space in the crowd, and a brass band was marching down the street in straw boaters and red striped jackets, playing a Sousa march.

She ambled up the road, peering in the adorable little shop windows, like the shops in a fancy casino, all themed artificial facades that were, in back, all one shop, linked through the length of the street.

She reached the castle before she realized it, and saw that it was shorter than it had appeared. Turning around and looking back down Main Street, she saw that the trees lining the sides of the street had been trimmed so they got progressively larger from the gates to the castle, creating a kind of false perspective line. She laughed now, amused by the accomplishment of the little trompe l’oeil.

She squeezed past the hordes of Asian tourists taking precisely the same picture of the castle, one after another, a phenomenon she’d observed at other famous landmarks. For some Japanese shutterbugs, the holiday photo experience was as formal as the Stations of the Cross, with each picture of each landmark rigidly prescribed by custom and unwritten law.

Now she was under the castle and headed for what her map assured her was Fantasyland. Just as she cleared the archway, she remembered her conversations with that Death Waits kid about Fantasyland: this was the part that had been made over as a goth area, and then remade as the Happiest Construction Site on Earth.

And so it was. The contrast was stark. From fairy castle to green-painted construction sidings. From smiling, well-turned out “castmembers” to construction workers with butt-crack-itis and grouchy expressions. Fantasyland was like an ugly scar on the blemish-free face of a Barbie doll.

She liked it.

Something about all that artifice, all that cunning work to cover up all the bodies a company like Disney would have buried under its manicured Main Street—it had given her a low-level, tooth-grinding headache, a kind of anger at the falseness of it all. Here, she could see the bodies as they buried them.

Out came her camera and she went on the prowl, photographing and photographing, seeking high ground from which to catch snaps over the siding. She’d look at the satellite pics of this spot later.

Now she knew what her next project would be: she would document this scar. She’d dig up the bodies.

Just for completeness’ sake, she went on some of the rides. Her super-fancy pass let her sail past the long lines of bored kids, angry dads, exhausted moms. She captured their expressions with her camera.

The rides were all right. She was sick of rides, truth be told. As an art-form, they were wildly overrated. Some of them made her sick and some of them were like mildly interesting trips through someone’s collection of action-figures in a dark room. The Disney rides didn’t even let you drive, like Lester’s ride did, and you didn’t get to vote on them.

By the time the sun had gone down, she was ready to go back to the room and start writing. She wanted to get all this down, the beauty and the terror, the commerce lurking underneath the friendly facade. As the day lengthened into night, there were more and more screaming children, more angry parents. She caught parents smacking kids, once, twice, got her camera out, caught three more.

They sent a big pupu platter up to her room with a dish of poi and a hollow pineapple filled with rum. She took her computer out onto her lanai and looked out over the lake. An ibis came by and demanded some of her dinner scraps. She obliged it and it gave her a cold look, as if determining whether she’d be good for dessert, then flew off.

She began to write.

Something had changed between Kettlewell and Eva since they’d left Florida with the kids. It wasn’t just the legal hassles, though there were plenty of those. They’d gone to Florida with a second chance—a chance for him to be a mover again, a chance for her to have a husband who was happy with his life again.

Now he found himself sneaking past her when she was in the living room and they slept back to back in bed with as much room between them as possible.

Ada missed Lyenitchka and spent all her time in her bedroom IMing her friend or going questing with her in their favorite game, which involved Barbies, balrogs, and buying outfits. Pascal missed all the attention he had received as the designated mascot of the two little girls.

It was not a high point in the history of the Kettlewell clan.

“Hello?”

“Landon Kettlewell?”

“Hello, Freddy,” he said.

“My fame precedes me,” the journalist said. Kettlewell could hear the grin in his voice. That voice was unmistakable—Kettlewell had heard it in the occassional harassing voicemail that Suzanne forwarded on.

“How are you?”

“Oh, I’m very well sir, and kind of you to ask, yes indeed. I hear you’re not doing so well, though?”

“I can’t complain.”

“I wish you would, though.” You could tell, Freddy thought he was a funny son of a bitch. “Seriously, Mr Kettlewell. I’m calling to follow up on the story of the litigation that Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks are facing for unilaterally canceling the arrangement you’d made to finance their litigation. I’m hoping that you’ll give me a quote that might put this into perspective. Is the defense off? Will Gibbons and Banks be sued? Are you a party to the suit?”

“Freddy?”

“Yes, Mr Kettlewell.”

“I am not a child, nor am I a fool, nor am I a sucker. I’m also not a hothead. You can’t goad me into saying something. You can’t trick me into saying something. I haven’t hung up on you yet, but I will unless you can give me a single good reason to believe that any good could possibly come out of talking to you.”

“I’m going to write this story and publish it today. I can either write that you declined to comment or I can write down whatever comment you might have on the matter. You tell me which is fairer?”

“Goodbye, Freddy.”

“Wait, wait! Just wait.”

Kettlewell liked the pleading note in Freddy’s voice.

“What is it, Freddy?”

“Can I get you to comment on the general idea of litigation investment? A lot of people followed your lead in seeking out litigation investment opportunities. There’s lots of money tied up in it these days. Do incidents like the one in Florida mean that litigation investment is a dead strategy?”

“Of course not,” Kettlewell snapped. He shouldn’t be talking to this man, but the question drove him bonkers. He’d invented litigation investment. “Those big old companies have two common characteristics: they’ve accumulated more assets than they know what to do with, and they’ve got poisonous, monopolistic cultures that reward executives who break the law to help the company turn a buck. None of that’s changed, and so long as that’s all true, there will be little companies with legit gripes against big companies that can be used as investment vehicles for unlocking all that dead Fortune 100 capital and putting it to work.”

“But aren’t Fortune 100 companies investing in litigation funds?”

Kettlewell suppressed a nasty laugh. “Yeah, so what?”

“Well, if this is about destroying Fortune 100 companies—”

“It’s about wringing positive social value out of the courts and out of investment. The way it used to work, there were only two possible outcomes when a big company did something rotten: either they’d get away scot-free or they’d make some lawyers very, very rich. Litigation funds fix that. They socialize the cost of bringing big companies to heel, and they free up the capital that these big companies have accumulated.”

“But when a big company invests in destroying another big company—”

“Sometimes you get a forest where a few trees end up winning, they form a canopy that keeps all the sunlight from reaching the floor. Now, this is stable for forests, but stability is the last thing you want in a market. Just look at what happens when one of those big trees falls over: whoosh! A million kinds of life are spawned on the floor, fighting for the light that tree had hogged for itself. In a market, when you topple a company that’s come to complacently control some part of the ecosystem, you free up that niche for new innovators.”

“And why is that better than stability? Don’t the workers at these companies deserve the security that comes from their employers’ survival?”

“Oh come on, Freddy. Stop beating that drum. If you’re an employee and you want to get a good deal out of an employer, you’re better off if you’ve got fifty companies you could work for than just one.”

“So you’re saying that if you destroy Disney with your lawsuit, the fifty thousand people who work at Walt Disney World will be able to, what, work for those little rides like your friends have built?”

“They’ll find lots of work, Freddy. If we make it possible for anyone to open an innovative little ride without worrying about getting clobbered by a big old monopolist. You like big corporations so much?”

“Yes, but it’s not little innovative startups that invest in these funds, is it?”

“It’s they who benefit once the fund takes up their cause.”

“And how’s that working out for the ride people you’re meant to be helping out? They rejected you, didn’t they?”

Kettlewell really hated Freddy, he realized. Not just a little—he had a deep and genuine loathing. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. You don’t like little companies. You don’t like big companies. You don’t like workers’ co-ops. What do you want us to do, Freddy? You want us to just curl up under a rock and die? You sit there and make up your funny names for things; you make your snarky little commentaries, but how much good have you done for the world, you complaining, sniping little troll?”

The line got very quiet. “Can I quote you?”

“You certainly can,” Kettlewell huffed. In for a penny, in for a pound. “You can print that, and you can kiss my ass.”

“Thank you, Mr Kettlewell,” Freddy said. “I’ll certainly take the suggestion under advisement.”

Kettlewell stood in his home office and stared at the four walls. Upstairs, Pascal was crying. He did that a lot lately. Kettlewell breathed deeply and tried to chill out.

Someone was knocking at his door, though. He answered it tentatively. The kid he found there was well-scrubbed, black, in his twenties, and smiling amiably.

“Landon Kettlewell?”

“Who’s suing me?” Kettlewell could spot a process server a mile away.

The guy shrugged and made a little you-got-me smile. “Couldn’t say, sir,” he said, and handed Kettlewell the envelope, holding it so that the header was clearly visible to the camera set into the lapel of his shirt.

“You want me to sign something?” Kettlewell said.

“It’s all right, sir,” the kid said and pointed at the camera. “It’s all caught on video.”

“Oh, right,” Kettlewell said. “Want a cup of water? Coffee?”

“I expect you’re going to be too busy to entertain, sir,” the kid said, and ticked a little salute off his forehead. “But you seem like a nice guy. Good luck with it all.”

Kettlewell watched him go, then closed the door and walked back to his office, opening the envelope and scanning it. No surprises there—the shareholders in the investment syndicate that had backed Lester and Perry were suing him for making false representations about his ability to speak for them.

Tjan called him a minute later.

“They got you too, huh?” Kettlewell said.

“Just left. Wish I could say it was unexpected.”

“Wish I could say I blamed them,” Kettlewell said.

“Hey, you should see what the ride’s been doing this week since Florida went down,” Tjan said. “It’s totally mutated. I think it’s mostly coming from the Midwest, though those Brazilians seem to keep on logging in somehow too.”

“How many rides are there in South America, anyways?”

“Brazilians of them!” Tjan said with a mirthless chuckle. “Impossible to say. They’ve got some kind of variant on the protocol that lets a bunch of them share one network address. I think some of them aren’t even physical rides, just virtual flythroughs. Some are directly linked, some do a kind of mash-up between their current norms and other rides’ current norms. It’s pretty weird.”

Kettlewell paced. “Well, at least someone’s having a good time.”

“They’re going to nail us to the wall,” Tjan said. “Both of us. Probably the individual ride-operators, too. They’re out for blood.”

“It’s not like they even lost much money.”

“They didn’t need to—they feel like they lost the money they might have won from Disney.”

“But that was twenty years away, and highly speculative.”

Tjan sighed heavily on the other end of the phone. “Landon, you’re a very, very good finance person. The best I’ve ever met, but you really need to understand that even the most speculative investor is mostly speculating about how he’s going to spend all the money you’re about to make him. If investors didn’t count their chickens before they hatched, you’d never raise a cent.”

“Yeah,” Kettlewell said. He knew it, but he couldn’t soak it in. He’d won and lost so many fortunes—his own and others’—that he’d learned to take it all in stride. Not everyone else was so sanguine.

“So what do we do about it? I don’t much want to lose everything.”

“You could always go back to Russia,” Kettlewell said, suddenly feeling short-tempered. Why did he always have to come up with the plan? “Sorry. You know what the lawyers are going to tell us.”

“Yeah. Sue Perry and Lester.”

“And we told Lester we wouldn’t do that. It was probably a mistake to do this at all, you know.”

“No, don’t say that. The idea was a really good one. You might have saved their asses if they’d played along.”

“And if I’d kept the lawyers on a shorter leash.”

They both sat in glum silence.

“How about if we defend ourselves by producing evidence that they reneged on a deal we’d made in good faith. Then the bastards can sue Perry and Lester and we’ll still be keeping our promise.”

Kettlewell tried to picture Perry in a courtroom. He’d never been the most even-keeled dude and since he’d been shot and had his arm broken and been gassed, he was almost pathological.

“I’ve got a better idea,” he said, growing excited as it unfolded in his mind. He had that burning sensation he got sometimes when he knew he was having a real doozy. “How about if we approach each of the individual ride co-ops and see if they’ll join the lawsuit separately from the umbrella org? Play it right and we’ll have the lawsuit back on, without having to get our asses handed to us and without having to destroy Perry and Lester!”

Tjan laughed. “That’s—that’s… Wow! Genius. Yeah, OK, right! The Boston group is in, I’ll tell you that much. I’m sure we can get half a dozen more in, too. Especially if we can get Perry to agree not to block it, which I’m sure he’ll do after I have a little talk with him. This’ll work!”

“Sometimes the threat of total legal destruction can have a wonderful, clarifying effect on one’s mind,” Kettlewell said drily. “How’re the kids?”

“Lyenitchka is in a sulk. She wants to go back to Florida and she wants to see Ada some more. Plus she’s upset that we never made it to Disney World.”

Kettlewell flopped down on his couch. “Have you seen Suzanne’s blog lately?”

Tjan laughed. “Yeah. Man, she’s giving it to them with both barrels. Makes me feel sorry for ’em.”

“Um, you do know that we’re suing them for everything they’ve got, right?”

“Well, yes. But that’s just money. Suzanne’s going to take their balls.”

They exchanged some more niceties and promised that they’d get together face-to-face real soon and Kettlewell hung up. From behind him, he heard someone fidgeting.

“Kids, you know you aren’t supposed to come into my office.”

“Sounds like things have gotten started up again.” It wasn’t the kids, it was Eva. He sat up. She was standing with her arms folded in the doorway of his office, staring at him.

“Yeah,” he said, mumbling a little. She was really beautiful, his wife, and she put up with a hell of a lot. He felt obscurely ashamed of the way that he’d treated her. He wished he could stand up and give her a warm hug. He couldn’t.

Instead, she sat beside him. “Sounds like you’ll be busy.”

“Oh, I just need to get all the individual co-ops on board, talk to the lawyers, get the investors off my back. Have a shareholders’ meeting. It’ll be fine.”

Her smile was little and sad. “I’m going, Landon,” she said.

The blood drained from his face. She’d left him plenty, over the years. He’d deserved it. But it had always been white-hot, in the middle of a fight, and it had always ended with some kind of reconciliation. This time, it had the feeling of something planned and executed in cold blood.

He sat up and folded his hands in his lap. He didn’t know what else to do.

Her smile wilted. “It’s not going to work, you and me. I can’t live like this, lurching from crisis to crisis. I love you too much to watch that happen. I hate what it turns me into. You’re only happy when you’re miserable, you know that? I can’t do that forever. We’ll be part of each others’ lives forever, but I can’t be Mrs Stressbunny forever.”

None of this was new. She’d shouted variations on this at him at many times in their relationship. The difference was that now she wasn’t shouting. She was calm, assured, sad but not crying. Behind her in the hallway, he saw that she’d packed her suitcase, and the little suitcases the kids used when they travelled together.

“Where will you go?”

“I’m going to stay with Lucy, from college. She’s living down the peninsula in Mountain View. She’s got room for the kids.”

He felt like raging at her, promising her a bitter divorce and custody suit, but he couldn’t do it. She was completely right, after all. Even though his first impulse was to argue, he couldn’t do it just then.

So she left, and Kettlewell was alone in his nice apartment with his phone and his computer and his lawsuits and his mind fizzing with ideas.

The last thing Sammy wanted was a fight. Dinah’s promo was making major bank for the company—and he was taking more and more meetings in Texas with Dinah, which was a hell of a perk. They’d shipped two million of the DiaBs, and were projecting ten million in the first quarter. Park admission was soaring and the revenue from the advertising was going to cover the entire cost of the next rev of the DiaBs, which would be better, faster, smaller and cheaper.

That business with Death Waits and the new Fantasyland and the ride—what did it matter now? He’d been so focused on the details that he’d lost track of the big picture. Walt Disney had made his empire by figuring out how to do the next thing, not wasting his energy on how to protect the last thing. It had all been a mistake, a dumb mistake, and now he was back on track. From all appearances, the lawsuits were on the verge of blowing away, anyway. Fantasyland—he’d turned that over to Wiener, of all people, and he was actually doing some good stuff there. Really running with the idea of restoring it as a nostalgia site aimed squarely at fatkins, with lots of food and romantic kiddie rides that no kid would want to ride in the age of the break-neck coaster.

The last thing he wanted was a fight. What he wanted was to make assloads of money for the company, remake himself as a power in the organization.

But he was about to have a fight.

Hackelberg came into his office unannounced. Sammy had some of the Imagineers in, showing him prototypes of the next model, which was being designed for more reliable shipping and easier packing. Hackelberg was carrying his cane today, wearing his ice-cream suit, and was flushed a deep, angry red that seemed to boil up from his collar.

One look from his blazing eyes was enough to send the Imagineers scurrying. They didn’t even take their prototype with them. Hackelberg closed the door behind them.

“Hello, Samuel,” he said.

“Nice to see you. Can I offer you a glass of water? Iced tea?”

Hackelberg waved the offers away. “They’re using your boxes to print their own designs,” he said.

“What?”

“Those freaks with their home-made ride. They’ve just published a system for printing their own objects on your boxes.”

Sammy rewound the conversations he’d had with the infosec people in Imagineering about what countermeasures they’d come up with, what they were proof against. He was pissed that he was finding out about this from Hackelberg. If Lester and Perry were hacking the DiaBs, they would be talking about it nonstop, running their mouths on the Internet. Back when he was his own competitive intelligence specialist, he would have known about this project the second it began. Now he was trying to find a competitive intelligence person who knew his ass from his elbow, so far without success.

“Well, that’s regrettable, obviously, but so long as we’re still selling the consumables…” The goop was a huge profit-maker for the company. They bought it in bulk, added a proprietary, precisely mixed chemical that the printer could check for in its hoppers, and sold it to the DiaB users for a two thousand percent markup. If you tried to substitute a competitor’s goop, the machine would reject it. They shipped out new DiaBs with only half a load of goop, so that the first purchase would come fast. It was making more money, week-on-week, than popcorn.

“The crack they’re distributing also disables the checking for the watermark. You can use any generic goop in them.”

Sammy shook his head and restrained himself from thumping his hand down on the desk. He wanted to scream.

“We’re not suing them, are we?”

“Do you think that’s wise, Samuel?”

“I’m no legal expert. You tell me. Maybe we can take stronger countermeasures with the next generation—” He gestured at the prototype on his desk.

“And abandon the two million units we’ve shipped to date?”

Sammy thought about it. Those families might hang on to their original two million forever, or until they wore out. Maybe he should be building them to fall apart after six months of use, to force updates.

“It’s just so unfair. They’re ripping us off. We spent the money on those units so that we could send our message out. What the hell is wrong with those people? Are they compulsive? Do they have to destroy every money-making business?”

Hackelberg sat back. “Samuel, I think it’s time we dealt with them.”

Sammy’s mind was still off on the strategies for keeping Lester and Perry at bay, though. Sure, a six-month obsolescence curve would do it. Or they could just charge money for the DiaBs now that people were starting to understand what they were for. Hell, they could just make the most compelling stuff for a DiaB to print and maybe that would be enough.

Hackelberg tapped the tip of his cane once, sharply. Sammy came back to the conversation. “So that’s settled. Filing suit today. We’re going to do a discovery on them that’ll split them open from asshole to throat. No more of this chickenshit police stuff—we’re going to figure out every source of income these bastards have, we’re going to take away their computers, we’re going down to their ISPs and getting their emails and instant messages.

“And as we’ve seen, they’re going to retaliate. That’s fine. We’re not treating these people as a couple of punk pirates who go down at the first sign of trouble. Not anymore. We know that these people are the competition. We’re going to make an example of them. They’re the first ones to attack on this front, but they won’t be the last. We’re vulnerable, Samuel, but we can contain that vulnerability with enough deterrent.”

Hackelberg seemed to be expecting something of Sammy, but Sammy was damned if he knew what it was. “OK,” he said lamely.

Hackelberg’s smile was like a jack o’lantern’s. “That means that we’ve got to be prepared for their discovery on us. I need to know every single detail of this DiaB project, including the things I’d find if I went through your phone records and your email. Because they will be going through them. They’ll be putting you and your operation under the microscope.”

Sammy restrained his groan. “I’ll have it for you,” he said. “Give me a day or two.”

He saw Hackelberg out of his office as quickly as he could, then shut the door. Hackelberg wanted everything, and that meant everything, including his playmates from the advertising industry—everything. He was becoming the kind of executive who emitted strategic intelligence, rather than the kind who gathered it. That wouldn’t do. That wasn’t the natural order of things.

He sat down at his computer. Someone had to do the competitive intelligence work around here and it looked like it would have to be him.

What the World Can Learn from Disney

Suzanne Church

It’s easy to dismiss Disney. They make more lawsuits than rides these days. They have a reputation for Polyannaish chirpiness. Their corporate communications veer from Corporate Passive Voice Third Person to a syrupy, condescending kiddee-speak that’s calculated to drive children into a frenzy of parent-nagging screeches.

But if you haven’t been to a Disney Park in a while, you don’t know what you’re missing. I’ve been in Walt Disney World for a week now, and I’m here to tell you, it’s pretty good. No, it’s better than that—it’s amazing.

You’ve probably heard about the attention to detail: the roofline over Fantasyland features sagging, Georgian tiles, crazy chimneys, and subtly animated gargoyles (left over from a previous, goth-ier incarnation of this part of the park). You don’t see this unless you raise your eyes above the busy, intriguing facades that front the rides, above the masterfully painted signage, and higher still. In other words, unless you’re someone like me, looking for details, you won’t spot them. They’re there as pure gold-plating, they’re there because someone who took pride in his work put them there.

It tells you something about the people behind the scenes here. People who care about their jobs work here. It’s easy to forget that when you’re thinking about Disney, a company whose reputation these days has more to do with whom they sue than with what they make.

But oh, what they make. There’s a safari park here, something like a zoo but without that stuff that makes you feel like you’re participating in some terrible exercise that strips noble animals of their dignity for our amusement. Instead, the animals here roam free, near their hairless monkey cousins, separated from them by water features, camouflaged ditches, simulated ancient ruins [more details].

That’s just one of six parks, each subdivided into six or seven “lands,” each land with its own unique charm, culture, and customs. That’s not counting the outlying areas: two new towns, golf courses, a velodrome, a preserved marshland that you can tour in a skiff with a local naturist. In these days of cheap fabrication, it’s easy to forget what you can do with several billion dollars and the kind of hubris that leads you to dredge lakes, erect papier mache mountains, and create your own toy mass-transit system.

Of course, Disney Parks are no strangers to small scale fabrication. See their tiny, clever Disney-in-a-Box devices, which I have chronicled here from the other side. On the one hand, these things are networked volumetric printers, but on the other, they are superb category-busters that have achieved an entirely justifiable—yet still staggering—market penetration in just a few months.

I came here ready to be bored and disgusted and fleeced of every nickel. I am disappointed. The parks are tremendous at separating people from money, it’s true. They’ve structured each promenade and stroll so that even a walk to the bathroom can create a Mommy-Daddy-Want-It-NOW situation. For such a happy place, there certainly are a lot of weepy children and frustrated parents.

But it’s hard to fault Disney for being a business that makes a lot of money. That’s the point, after all. And it can’t be cheap to keep the tens of thousands of “castmembers” (yes, they really do call them that, even when they’re earning minimum wage and work jobs with all the glamour of a bathroom attendant) hanging around, picking up litter and confronting every new “guest” with eerily convincing cheer.

As for “bored” and “disgusted”—not yet. Bored—it’s impossible to imagine such a thing. For starters, the world’s middle classes have converged here in a sort of bourgeois UN, and you can get a lot of pleasure out of watching a Chinese “little emperor” with doting parents in tow making friends with a tiny perfect Russian mafiyeh princess whose parents flick nervously at their nicotine inhalers and scout the building facades for hidden cameras.

Of course, if people-watching isn’t your thing, there are the rides themselves, which make art out of the shoebox diorama. There are luaus, indoor scuba diving with live sharks, and an island of genuinely sleazy nightclubs where you can get propositioned for some improbable acts that are hardly family friendly. These last appear to be largely populated by the “castmembers” seeking a little after-work action.

Disgusted? I think if I were a parent, there’d be parts of the experience that drove me nuts. But once you get to know the rhythm of the place, you start to see that there are navigable pathways that don’t lead through any commercial areas—fantastic adventure playgrounds, nature hikes, petting zoos, horseback rides, sports training. And for every kid who’s having a blood-sugar meltdown after consuming half a quart of high-fructose lube slathered on a cinnamon bun, there’s another who is standing open-mouthed with complete bodily wonder, at some stupendous spectacle, clearly forming neuronal connections of a sort that will create the permanent predisposition to an appreciation of spectacle, wonder, and beauty.

This is the kind of place where you have to love the sin and hate the sinner. The company may sue and resort to dirty tricks, but it’s also chock full of real artists making real art.

If you haven’t been for a visit, you should. Honestly. Oh, by all means, also go somewhere unspoiled (if you can find it). Go camping. Go to one of the rides I’ve written so much about. But if you want to see the bright side of what billions can do—the stuff you never get from outside the walls of this fortress of fun—buy a ticket.

The barman at Suzanne’s hotel started building her a Lapu-Lapu as she came up the stairs. The drink involved a hollow pineapple, overproof rum, and an umbrella, and she’d concluded that it contained the perfect dosage of liquid CNS depressant to unwind her after a day of battle at the parks. That day she’d spent following around the troupes of role-playing actors at Disney’s Hollwood Studios: a cast of a hundred costumed players who acted out a series of interlocking comedies set in the black-and-white days of Hollywood. They were fearlessly cheeky, grabbing audience members and conscripting them in their plays.

Now she was footsore and there was still a nighttime at Epcot in her future. The barman passed her the pineapple and she thumped her lanyard against the bar twice—once to pay for the drink and once to give him a generous tip. He was gay as a goose, but fun to look at, and he flirted with her for kicks.

“Gentleman caller for you, Suzanne,” he said, tilting his head. “You temptress.”

She looked in the direction indicated and took in the man sitting on the bar-stool. He didn’t have the look of a harried dad and he was too old to be a love-flushed honeymooner. In sensible tropical-weight slacks and a western shirt, he was impossible to place. He smiled and gave her a little wave.

“What?”

“He came in an hour ago and asked for you.”

She looked back at the man. “What’s your take on him?”

“I think he works here. He didn’t pay with an employee card, but he acted like it.”

“OK,” she said, “send out a search party if I’m not back in an hour.”

“Go get him, tiger,” the barman said, giving her hand a squeeze.

She carried her pineapple with her and drifted down the bar.

“Hello there,” she said.

“Ms Church,” the man said. He had a disarming, confident smile. “My name is Sammy Page.”

She knew the name, of course. The face, too, now that she thought about it. He offered her his hand. She didn’t take it. He put it down, then wiped it on his trouser-leg.

“Are you having a good time?”

“A lovely time, thank you.” She sipped her drink and wished it was a little more serious and intimidating. It’s hard to do frosty when you’re holding a rum-filled pineapple with a paper parasol.

His smile faltered. “I read your article. I can’t believe I missed it. I mean, you’ve been here for six days and I just figured it out today? I’m a pretty incompetent villain.”

She let a little smile slip out at that. “Well, it’s a big Internet.”

“But I love your stuff. I’ve been reading it since, well, back when I lived in the Valley. I used to get the Merc actually delivered on paper.”

“You are a walking fossil, aren’t you?”

He bobbed his head. “So it comes down to this. I’ve been very distracted with making things besides lawsuits lately, as you know. I’ve been putting my energy into doing stuff, not preventing stuff. It’s been refreshing.”

She grubbed in her pocket and came up with a little steno book and a pencil. “Do you mind if I take notes?”

He gulped. “Can this all be on background?”

She hefted her notebook. “No,” she said finally. “If there’s anything that needs publishing, I’m going to have to publish it. I can respect the fact that you’re speaking to me with candor, but frankly, Mr Page, you haven’t earned the privilege of speaking on background.”

He sipped at his drink—a more grown-up highball, with a lone ice-cube in it, maybe a Scotch and soda. “OK, right. Well, then, on the record, but candorously. I loved your article. I love your work in general. I’m really glad to have you here, because I think we make great stuff and we’re making more of it than ever. Your latest post was right on the money—we care about our work here. That’s how we got to where we are.”

“But you devote a lot of your resources to other projects here, don’t you? I’ve heard about you, Mr Page. I’ve interviewed Death Waits.” He winced and she scribbled a note, leaving him on tenterhooks while she wrote. Something cold and angry had hold of her writing arm. “I’ve interviewed him and heard what he has to say about this place, what you have done.”

“My hands aren’t the cleanest,” he said. “But I’m trying to atone.” He swallowed. The barman was looking at them. “Look, can I take you for a walk, maybe? Someplace more private?”

She thought about it. “Let me get changed,” she said. “Meet you in the lobby in ten.”

She swapped her tennis shoes for walking sandals and put on a clean shirt and long slacks, then draped a scarf over her shoulders like a shawl. Outside, the sunset was painting the lagoon bloody. She was just about to rush back down to the lobby when she stopped and called Lester, her fingers moving of their own volition.

“Hey, you,” he said. “Still having fun in Mauschwitz?”

“It keeps getting weirder here, let me tell you,” she said. She told him about Sammy showing up, wanting to talk with her.

“Ooh, I’m jealous,” Lester said. “He’s my arch-rival, after all.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way. He is kind of cute—”

“Hey!”

“In a slimy, sharky way. Don’t worry, Lester. I miss you, you know?”

“Really?”

“Really. I think I’m about done here. I’m going to come home soon.”

There was a long pause, then a snuffling sound. She realized he was crying. He slurped. “Sorry. That’s great, babe. I missed you.”

“I–I missed you too. Listen, I’ve got to go meet this guy.”

“Go, go. Call me after dinner and tell me how it goes. Meanwhile, I’m going to go violate the DiaB some more.”

“Channel it, that’s right.”

“Right on.”

Sammy met her in the lobby. “I thought we could go for a walk around the lake,” he said. “There’s a trail that goes all the way around. It’s pretty private.”

She looked at the lake. At twelve o’clock, the main gates of the Magic Kingdom; at three, the retro A-frame Contemporary hotel, at nine, the wedding-cake Grand Floridian Resort.

“Lead on,” she said. He led her out onto the artificial white-sand beach and around, and a moment later they were on a pathway paved with octagonal tiles, each engraved with the name of a family and a year.

“I really liked your article.”

“You said that.”

They walked a while longer. “It reminded me of why I came here. I worked for startups, and they were fun, but they were ephemeral. No one expected something on the Web to last for half a century. Maybe the brand survives, but who knows? I mean, who remembers Yahoo! anymore? But for sure, anything you built then would be gone in a year or two, a decade tops.

“But here…” He waved his hands. They were coming around the bend for the Contemporary now, and she could see it in all its absurd glory. It had been kept up so that it looked like it might have been erected yesterday, but the towering white A-frame structure with the monorail running through its midriff was clearly of another era. It was like a museum piece, or a bit of artillery on the field at a civil war reenactment.

“I see.”

“It’s about the grandiosity, the permanence. The belief in doing something—anything—that will endure.”

“You didn’t need to bring me someplace private to tell me that.”

“No, I didn’t.” He swallowed. “It’s hard because I want to tell you something that will compromise me if I say it.”

“And I won’t let you off the hook by promising to keep it confidential.”

“Exactly.”

“Well, you’re on the horns of a dilemma then, aren’t you?” The sun was nearly set now, and stones at their feet glittered from beneath, sprinkled with twinkling lights. It made the evening, scented with tropical flowers and the clean smell of the lake, even more lovely. A cool breeze fluffed her hair.

He groaned. She had to admit it, she was enjoying this. Was it any less than this man deserved?

“Let me try this again. I have some information that, if I pass it on to you, could save your friends down in Hollywood from terrible harm. I can only give you this information on the condition that you take great pains to keep me from being identified as the source.”

They’d come to the Magic Kingdom now. Behind them, the main gates loomed, and a pufferbelly choo-choo train blew its whistle as it pulled out of the station. Happy, exhausted children ran across the plaza, heading for the ferry docks and the monorail ramps. The stones beneath her feet glittered with rainbow light, and tropical birds called to each other from the Pirates of the Caribbean Adventure Island in the middle of the lake.

“Hum,” she said. The families laughed and jostled each other. “Hum. OK, one time only. This one is off the record.”

Sammy looked around nervously. “Keep walking,” he said. “Let’s get past here and back into the private spots.”

But it’s the crowds that put me in a generous mood. She didn’t say it. She’d give him this one. What harm could it do? If it was something she had to publish, she could get it from another source.

“They’re going to sue your friends.”

“So what else is new?”

“No, personally. They’re going to the mattresses. Every trumped up charge they can think of. But the point here isn’t to get the cops to raid them, it’s to serve discovery on every single communication, every document, every file. Open up everything. Root through every email until they find something to hang them with.”

“You say ’they’—aren’t you ’they’?”

It was too dark to see his face now, but she could tell the question made him uncomfortable.

“No. Not anymore.” He swallowed and looked out at the lake. “Look, I’m doing something now—something… amazing. The DiaB, it’s breaking new ground. We’re putting three-dee printers into every house in America. What your friend Lester is doing, it’s actually helping us. We’re inventing a whole new—”

“Business?”

“No, not just a business. A world. It’s what the New Work was missing—a three-dee printer in every living room. A killer app. There were personal computers and geeks for years before the spreadsheet came along. Then there was a reason to put one in every house. Then we got the Internet, the whole software industry. A new world. That’s where we’re headed. It’s all I want to do. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life suing people. I want to do stuff.”

He kicked at the rushes that grew beside the trail. “I want to be remembered for that. I want that to be my place in the history books—not a bunch of lawsuits.”

Suzanne walked along beside him in silence for a time. “OK, so what do you want me to do about it?”

“I thought that if—” He shut up. “Look, I tried this once before. I told that Freddy bastard everything in the hopes that he’d come onto my side and help me out. He screwed me. I’m not saying you’re Freddy, but—”

Suzanne stopped walking. “What do you want from me, sir? You have hardly been a friend to me and mine. It’s true that you’ve made something very fine, but it’s also true that you helped sabotage something every bit as fine. You’re painting yourself as the victim of some mysterious ‘them.’ But as near as I can work out, the only difference between you and ’them’ is that you’re having a little disagreement with them. I don’t like to be used as part of your corporate head-games and power-struggles.”

“Fine,” he said. “Fine. I deserve that. I deserve no better. Fine. Well, I tried.”

Suzanne refused to soften. Grown men sulking did not inspire any sympathy in her. Whatever he wanted to tell her, it wasn’t worth going into his debt.

He gave a shuddering sigh. “Well, I’ve taken you away from your evening of fun. Can I make it up to you? Would you like to come with me on some of my favorite rides?”

This surprised her a little, but when she thought about it, she couldn’t see why not. “Sure,” she said.

Taking a guest around Disney World was like programming a playlist for a date or a car-trip. Sammy had done it three or four times for people he was trying to win over (mostly women he was trying to screw) and he refined his technique every time.

So he took her to the Carousel of Progress. It was the oldest untouched ride in the park, a replica of the one that Walt himself had built for GE at the 1964 World’s Fair. There had been attempts to update it over the years, but they’d all been ripped out and the show restored to its mid-sixties glory.

It was a revolving theater where robots danced and sang and talked through the American Century, from the last days of the coal stove up to the dawn of the space age. It had a goofy, catchy song, cornball jokes, and he relished playing guide and telling his charges about the time that the revolving theater had trapped a careless castmember in its carousel and crushed her to death. That juxtaposition of sunny, goofy American corporate optimism and the macabre realities of operating a park where a gang of half-literate minimum-wage workers spent their days shovelling the world’s rich children into modified threshing machines—it was delicious.

Suzanne’s body language told him the whole story from the second she sat down, arms folded, a barely contained smirk on her lips. The lights played over the GE logo, which had acquired an even more anachronistic luster since the last time he’d been. Now that GE had been de-listed from the NYSE, it was only a matter of time before they yanked the sponsorship, but for now, it made the ride seem like it was part time-machine. Transported back to the corporate Pleistocene, when giant dinocorps thundered over the plains.

The theater rotated to the first batch of singing, wise-cracking robots. Her eyebrows shot up and she shook her head bemusedly. Out came the second batch, the third—now they were in the fabulous forties and the Andrews Sisters played while grandma and grandpa robot watched a bulging fish-eye TV and sister got vibrated by an electric slimming belt. The jokes got worse, the catchy jingle—“There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every daaaaay!”—got repeated with more vigor.

“It’s like an American robot performance of Triumph of the Will” she whispered to him, and he cracked up. They were the only two in the theater. It was never full, and he himself had taken part in spitball exercises brainstorming replacements, but institutionally, Disney Parks couldn’t bring itself to shut it down. There was always some excuse—rabid fans, historical interest, competing priorities—but it came down to the fact that no one wanted to bring the axe down on the robot family.

The final segment now, the whole family enjoying a futuristic Christmas with a high-tech kitchen whose voice-activated stove went haywire. All the robots were on stage for the segment, and they exhorted the audience to sing and clap along. Sammy gave in and clapped, and a second later, Suzanne did, too, laughing at the silliness of it all. When the house lights came up and the bored—but unsquashed—castmember spieled them out of the ride, Sammy had a bounce in his step and the song in his head.

“That was terrible!” Suzanne said.

“Isn’t it great?”

“God, I’ll never get that song out of my head.” They moved through the flashing lights of Tomorrowland.

“Look at that—no line on Space Mountain,” Sammy said, pointing.

So they rode Space Mountain—twice. Then they caught the fireworks. Then Sammy took her over to Tom Sawyer Island on a maintenance boat and they sat up in the tree house and watched as the park heaved and thronged, danced and ran, laughed and chattered.

“Hear the rustling?”

“Yeah, what is that, rabbits or something?”

“Giant rats.” Sammy grinned in the dark. “Giant, feral rats.”

“Come on, you’re joking.”

“Cross my heart. We drain the lake every now and then and they migrate to the island. No predators. Lots of dropped french fries—it’s ratopia here. They get as big as cats. Bold little fuckers too. No one likes to be here alone at night.”

“What about us?”

“We’re together.”

The rustling grew louder and they held their breath. A bold rat like a raccoon picked its way across the path below them. Then two more. Suzanne shivered and Sammy did, too. They were huge, feral, menacing.

“Want to go?”

“Hell yes,” she said. She fumbled in her purse and came out with a bright little torch that shone like a beacon. You weren’t supposed to use bright lights on the island after hours while the rest of the park was open, but Sammy was glad of it.

Back on the mainland, they rode Big Thunder Mountain and moseyed over to the new, half-rebuilt Fantasyland. The zombie maze was still open, and they got lost in it amid the groans, animatronic shamblers, and giggling kids running through the hedges.

Something happened in the maze. Between entering it and leaving it, they lost their cares. Instead of talking about the park and Hackelberg, they talked about ways of getting out of the maze, talked about which zombie was coming next, about the best zombie movies they’d ever seen, about memorable Halloweens. As they neared the exit, they started to strategize about the best ride to go on next. Suzanne had done the Haunted Mansion twice when she first arrived and now—

“Come on, it’s such a cliche,” Sammy said. “Anyone can be a Haunted Mansion fan. It’s like being a Mickey fan. It takes real character to be a Goofy fan.”

“You’re a Goofy fan, I take it?”

“Indeed. And I’m also a Jungle Cruise man.”

“More corny jokes?”

“’We’ve been dying to have you’—talk about cornball humor.”

They rode both. The park was closing, and all around them, people were streaming away from the rides. No lines at all, not even in front of the rollercoasters, not even in front of Dumbo, not even in front of the ultra-violent fly-over of the world of the zombies (nee Peter Pan’s Flight, and a perennial favorite).

“You know, I haven’t just enjoyed the park like this in years.” He was wearing a huge foam Goofy hat that danced and bobbed on his head, trying to do little pas-de-deux with the other Goofy hats in the vicinity. It also let out the occassional chuckle and snatch of song.

“Shut up,” Suzanne said. “Don’t talk about magic. Live magic.”

They closed the park, letting themselves get herded off of Main Street along with the last stragglers. He looked over his shoulder as they moved through the arches under the train-station. The night crew was moving through the empty Main Street, hosing down the streets, sweeping, scrubbing. As he watched, the work lights came on, throwing the whole thing into near-daylight illumination, making it seem less like an enchanted wonderland and more like a movie set, an artifice. A sham.

It was one in the morning and he was exhausted. And Hackelberg was going to sue.

“Sammy, what do you want me to do, blackmail him?”

“I don’t know—sure. Why not? You could call him and say, ’I hear you’re working on this lawsuit, but don’t you think it’s hypocritical when you’ve been doing all this bad stuff—’”

“I don’t blackmail people.”

“Fine. Tell your friends, then. Tell some lawyers. That could work.”

“Sammy, I think we’re going to have to fight this suit on its merits, not on the basis of some sneaky intel. I appreciate the risk you’re putting yourself to—”

“We ripped off some of Lester’s code for the DiaB.” He blurted it out, not believing he was hearing himself say it. “I didn’t know it at the time. The libraries were on the net and my guys were in a hurry, and they just imported it into the build and left it there—they rewrote it with the second shipment, but we put out a million units running a library Lester wrote for volumetric imaging. It was under some crazy viral open source license and we were supposed to publish all our modifications, and we never did.”

Suzanne threw her head back and laughed, long and hard. Sammy found himself laughing along with her.

“OK,” she said. “OK. That’s a good one. I’ll tell Lester about it. Maybe he’ll want to use it. Maybe he’ll want to sue.”

Sammy wanted to ask her if she’d keep his name out of it, but he couldn’t ask. He’d gone to Hackelberg with the info as soon as he’d found out and they’d agreed to keep it quiet. The Imagineers responsible had had a very firm talking to, and had privately admitted to a curious and aghast Sammy over beers that everyone everywhere did this all the time, that it was so normal as to be completely unremarkable. He was pretty sure that a judge wouldn’t see it that way.

Suzanne surprised him by giving him a strong, warm hug. “You’re not the worst guy in the world, Sammy Page,” she said. “Thanks for showing me around your park.”

Kettlewell had been almost pathetic in his interest in helping Lester out. Lester got the impression that he’d been sitting around his apartment, moping, ever since Eva had taken the kids and gone. As Lester unspooled the story for him—Suzanne wouldn’t tell him how she’d found this out, and he knew better than to ask—Kettlewell grew more and more excited. By the time Lester was through, he was practically slobbering into the phone.

“Oh, oh, oh, this is going to be a fun phoner,” he said.

“You’ll do it, then? Even after everything?”

“Does Perry know you’ve called me?”

Lester swallowed. “No,” he said. “I don’t talk to Perry much these days.”

Kettlewell sighed. “What the hell am I going to do with you two?”

“I’m sorry,” Lester said.

“Don’t be sorry. Be happy. Someone should be happy around here.”

Herve Guignol chaired the executive committee. Sammy had known him for years. They’d come east together from San Jose, where Guignol had run the entertainment side of eBay. They’d been recruited by Disney Parks at the same time, during the hostile takeover and breakup, and they’d had their share of nights out, golf games, and stupid movies together.

But when Guignol was wearing his chairman’s hat, it was like he was a different person. The boardroom was filled with huge, ergonomic chairs, the center of the table lined with bottles of imported water and trays of fanciful canapes in the shapes of Disney characters. Sammy sat to Guignol’s left and Hackelberg sat to his right.

Guignol brought the meeting to order and the rest of the committee stopped chatting and checking email and looked expectant. At the touch of a button, the door swung shut with an authoritative clunk and shutters slid down over the window.

“Welcome, and thank you for attending on such short notice. You know Augustus Hackelberg; he has something to present to you.”

Hackelberg climbed to his feet and looked out at them. He didn’t look good.

“An issue has arisen—” Sammy loved the third person passive voice that dominated corporate meetings. Like the issue had arisen all on its own, spontaneously. “A decision that was taken has come back to bite us.” He explained about the DiaBs and the code, laying it out more or less as it happened, though of course he downplayed his involvement in advising Sammy to go ahead and ship.

The committee asked a few intense questions, none directed at Sammy, who kept quiet, though he instinctively wanted to defend his record. They took a break after an hour, and Sammy found himself in a corner with Guignol.

“What do you think?” Sammy asked him.

Guignol grimaced. “I think we’re pretty screwed. Someone is going to have to take a fall for this, you know. It’s going to cost us a fortune.”

Sammy nodded. “Well, unless we just settle with them,” he said. “You know—we drop the suit we just filed and they drop theirs….” He had hoped that this would come out on its own, but it was clear that Hackelberg wasn’t going to offer it up himself. He was too in love with the idea of getting his hands on Perry and Lester.

Guignol rocked his head from side to side. “You think they’d go for it?”

Sammy dropped his voice to a whisper and turned away from the rest of the room to confound any lip-readers. “I think they’ve offered to do that.”

Guignol cut his eyes over to Hackelberg and Sammy nodded, imperceptibly.

Guignol moved away, leaving Sammy to eat a Mickey head built from chunks of salmon and hamachi. Guignol moved among the committee, talking to a few members. Sammy recognized the behavior—consolidating power. Hard to remember that this was the guy he’d played savage, high-stakes games of putt-putt golf with.

The meeting reconvened. No one looked at Sammy. They all looked at Hackelberg.

“What about trying to settle the suit?” Guignol said.

Hackelberg flushed. “I don’t know if that’s possible—”

“What about if we offer to settle in exchange for dropping the suit we’ve just filed?”

Hackelberg’s hands squeezed the side of the table. “I don’t think that that would be a wise course of action. This is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for—the chance to crack them wide open and see what’s going on inside. Discover just what they’ve taken from us and how. Out them for all their bad acts.”

Guignol nodded. “OK, that’s true. Now, as I understand it, every DiaB we shipped with this Banks person’s code on it is a separate act of infringement. We shipped a million of them. What’s the potential liability per unit?”

“Courts usually award—”

Guignol knocked quietly on the table. “What’s the potential liability—what’s the size of the bill a court could hand down, if a jury was involved? If, say, this became part of someone’s litigation portfolio.”

Hackelberg looked away. “It’s up to five hundred thousand per separate act of infringement.”

Guignol nodded. “So, we’re looking at a ceiling on the liability at $500 billion, then?”

“Technically, yes. But—”

“I propose that we offer a settlement, quid-pro-quo with this Banks person. We drop our suit if he indemnifies us from damages for his.”

“Seconded,” said someone at the table. Things were picking up steam. Sammy bit the inside of his cheek to keep his smile in check.

“Wait,” Hackelberg said. “Gentlemen and lady, please. While it’s true that damages can technically run to $500,000 per infringement, that simply isn’t done. Not to entities like this firm. Listen, we wrote that law so we could sue people who took from us. It won’t be used against us. We will face, at worst, a few hundred dollars per act of infringement. Still a sizable sum of money, but in the final analysis—”

“Thank you,” Guignol said. “All in favor of offering a settlement?”

It was unanimous—except for Hackelberg.

Sammy got his rematch with Hackelberg when the quarterly financials came out. It was all that black ink, making him giddy.

“I don’t want to be disrespectful,” he said, knowing that in Hackelberg’s books, there could be nothing more disrespectful than challenging him. “But we need to confront some business realities here.”

Hackelberg’s office was nothing like Sammy had expected—not a southern gentleman’s study lined with hunting trophies and framed ancestral photos. It was as spare as the office of a temp, almost empty save for a highly functional desk, built-in bookcases lined with law-books, and a straight-backed chair. It was ascetic, severe, and it was more intimidating than any dark-wood den could hope to be.

Hackelberg’s heavy eyelids drooped a little, the corners of his eyes going down with them. It was like staring down a gator. Sammy resisted the urge to look away.

“The numbers don’t lie. DiaB is making us a fortune, and most of it’s coming from the platform, not the goop and not the increased visitor numbers. We’re making money because other people are figuring out ways to use our stuff. It’s our fastest-growing revenue source and if it continues, we’re going to end up being a DiaB company with a side-business in theme-parks.

“That’s the good news. The bad news is that these characters in the ghost mall have us in their crosshairs. They’re prying us open faster than we can lock ourselves down. But here’s another way of looking at it: every time they add another feature to the DiaB, they make owning a DiaB more attractive, which makes it easier for us to sell access to the platform to advertisers.”

Hackelberg held up his hands. “Samuel, I think I’ve heard enough. Your job is to figure out new businesses for us to diversify into. My job is to contain our liability and protect our brand and investors. It sounds a lot to me like you’re saying that you want me to leave off doing my job so that you can do yours.”

Sammy squirmed. “No, that’s not it at all. We both want to protect the business. I’m not saying that you need to give these guys a free ride. What I’m saying is, suing these guys is not good for our business. It costs us money, goodwill—it distracts us from doing our jobs.”

Hackelberg leaned back and looked coolly into Sammy’s eyes. “What are you proposing as an alternative, then?”

The idea had come to Sammy in the shower one morning, as he mentally calculated the size of his coming quarterly bonus. A great idea. Out of the box thinking. The right answer to the question that no one had thought to ask. It had seemed so perfect then. Now, though—

“I think we should buy them out.”

Hackelberg’s thin, mirthless grin made his balls shrivel up.

Sammy held up his hands. “Here, look at this. I drew up some figures. What they’re earning. What we earn from them. Growth estimates over the next five quarters. It’s not just some random idea I had in the shower. This makes sense.” He passed over a sheaf of papers, replete with pie-charts.

Hackelberg set it down in the center of his desk, perfectly square to the corners. He flipped through the first five pages, then squared the stack up again.

“You’ve done a lot of work here, Samuel. I can really see that.”

He got up from his straight-backed chair, lifted Sammy’s papers between his thumb and forefinger, and crossed to the wall. There was a shredder there, its maw a wide rectangle, the kind of thing that you can stick entire hardcover books (or hard drives) into. Calmly, Hackelberg fed Sammy’s paper into the shredder, fastidiously holding the paper-clipped corner between thumb and forefinger, then dropping the corner in once the rest had been digested.

“I won’t ask you for your computer,” he said, settling back into his chair. “But I expect that you will back up your other data and then send the hard-drive to IT to be permanently erased. I don’t want any record of this, period. I want this done by the end of business today.”

Sammy’s mouth hung open. He shut it. Then he opened it again.

Abruptly, Hackelberg stood, knocking his chair to the ground behind him.

“Not one word, do you understand me? Not one solitary word, you goddamned idiot! We’re in the middle of being sued by these people. I know you know this, since it’s your fault that it’s happening. I know that you know that the stakes are the entire company. Now, say a jury were to discover that we were considering buying these assholes out? Say a jury were to decide that our litigation was a base stratagem to lower the asking price for their, their company—” The word dripped with sarcasm—“what do you suppose would happen? If you had the sense of a five year old, you’d have known better than to do this. Good Christ, Page, I should have security escort you to the gate.

“Turn on your heel and go weep in the corridor. Don’t stand in my office for one more second. Get your computer to IT by 2PM. I will check. That goes for anyone you worked with on this, anyone who has a copy of this information. Now, leave.” Sammy stood rooted in place. “LEAVE, you ridiculous little dog’s-pizzle, get out of my sight!”

Sammy drew in a deep breath. He thought about saying something like, You can’t talk to me like that, but it was very likely that Hackelberg could talk to him just like that. He felt light-headed and a little sick, and he backed slowly out of the office.

Standing in the corridor, he began to shake. He pounded the elevator button, and felt the eyes of Hackelberg’s severe secretary burning into his back. Abruptly, he turned away and yanked open the staircase door so hard it smashed into the wall with a loud bang. He took the stairs in a rush of desperate claustrophobia, wanting more than anything to get outside, to breathe in the fresh air.

He stumbled on the way down, falling a couple of steps and smashing into the wall on the landing. He stood, pressed against the wall, the cold cinder block on his cheek, which felt like it might be bruised. The pain was enough to bring him back to his senses.

This is ridiculous. He had the right answer. Hackelberg was wrong. Hackelberg didn’t run the company. Yes, it was hard to get anything done without his sign-off, but it wasn’t impossible. Going behind Hackelberg’s back to the executive committee could cost him his job, of course.

Of course.

Sammy realized that he didn’t actually care if he lost his job. Oh, the thought made his chest constrict and thoughts of living in a refrigerator box materialize in his mind’s eye, but beyond that, he really didn’t care. It was such a goddamned roller-coaster ride—Sammy smiled grimly at the metaphor. You guess right, you end up on top. You guess wrong, you bottom out. He spent half his career lording it over the poor guessers and the other half panicking about a bad guess he’d made. He thought of Perry and Lester, thought of that night in Boston. He’d killed their ride and the party had gone on all the same. They had something, in that crazy shantytown, something pure and happy, some camaraderie that he’d always assumed he’d get someday, but that had never materialized.

If this was his dream job, how much worse would unemployment really be?

He would go to the executive committee. He would not erase his numbers. He set off for his office, moving quickly, purposefully, head up. A last stand, how exciting, why not?

He piloted the little golf-cart down the back road and was nearly at his building’s door when he spotted the security detail. Three of them, in lightweight Disney cop uniforms, wearing ranger hats and looking around alertly. Hackelberg must have sent them there to make sure that he followed through with deleting his data.

He stopped the golf cart abruptly and reversed out of the driveway before the guards spotted him. He needed to get his files somewhere that Hackelberg wouldn’t be able to retrieve them. He zipped down the service roads, thinking furiously.

The answer occurred to him in the form of a road-sign for the Polynesian hotel. He turned up its drive and parked the golf-cart. As he stepped out, he removed his employee badge and untucked his shirt. Now he was just another sweaty fresh-arrived tourist, Dad coming in to rendezvous with Mom and the kids, back from some banal meeting that delayed his arrival, hasn’t even had time to change into a t-shirt.

He headed straight for the sundries store and bought a postage-paid Walt Disney World postcard with a little magnetic patch mounted on one corner. You filled up the memory with a couple hours’ worth of video and as many photos as you wanted and mailed it off. The pixelated display on the front played a slide show of the images—at least once a year, some honeymoon couple would miss this fact and throw a couple racy bedroom shots in the mix, to the perennial delight of the mail room.

He hastily wrote some banalities about the great time he and the kids were having in Disney World, then he opened his computer and looked up the address that the Church woman had checked in under. He addressed it, simply, to “Suzanne,” to further throw off the scent, then he slipped it into a mail-slot with a prayer to the gods of journalist shield laws.

He walked as calmly as he could back to his golf-cart, clipping on his employee badge and tucking his shirt back in. Then he motored calmly to his office building. The Disney cops were sweating under the mid-day sun.

“Mr Page?”

“Yes,” he said.

“I’m to take your computer to IT, sir.”

“I don’t think so,” Sammy said, with perfect calm. “I think we’ll GO up to my office and call a meeting of the executive committee instead.”

The security guard was young, Latino, and skinny. His short back-and-sides left his scalp exposed to the sun. He took his hat off and mopped his forehead with a handkerchief, exposing a line of acne where his hat-band irritated the skin. It made Sammy feel sorry for the kid—especially considering that Sammy earned more than 20 times the kid’s salary.

“This really isn’t your job, I know,” Sammy said, wondering where all this sympathy for the laboring classes had come from, anyway? “I don’t want to make it hard for you. We’ll go inside. You can hang on to the computer. We’ll talk to some people. If they tell you to go ahead, you go ahead. Otherwise, we go see them, all right?”

He held his computer out to the kid, who took it.

“Let’s go up to my office now,” he said.

The kid shook his head. “I’m supposed to take this—”

“I know, I know. But we have a deal.” The kid looked like he would head out anyway. “And there are backups in my office, so you need to come and get those, too.”

That did it. The kid looked a little grateful as they went inside, where the air conditioning was blowing icy cold.

“You should have waited in the lobby, Luis,” Sammy said, reading the kid’s name off his badge. “You must be boiled.”

“I had instructions,” Luis said.

Sammy made a face. “They don’t sound like very reasonable instructions. All the more reason to sort this out, right?”

Sammy had his secretary get Luis a bottle of cold water and a little plate of grapes and berries out of the stash he kept for his visitors, then he called Guignol from his desk phone.

“It’s Sammy. I need to call an emergency meeting of the exec committee,” he said without preamble.

“This is about Hackelberg, isn’t it?”

“He’s already called you?”

“He was very persuasive.”

“I can be persuasive, too. Give me a chance.”

“You know what will happen if you push this?”

“I might save the company.”

“You might,” Guignol said. “And you might—”

“I know,” Sammy said. “What the hell, it’s only a career.”

“You can’t keep your data—Hackelberg is right about that.”

“I can send all the backups and my computer to your office right now.”

“I was under the impression that they were all on their way to IT for disposal.”

“Not yet. There’s a security castmember in my office with me named Luis. If you want to call dispatch and have them direct him to bring this stuff to you instead—”

“Sammy, do you understand what you’re doing here?”

Sammy suppressed a mad giggle. “I do,” he said. “I understand exactly what I’m doing. I want to help you all understand that, too.”

“I’m calling security dispatch now.”

A moment later, Luis’s phone rang and the kid listened intently, nodding unconsciously. Once he’d hung up, Sammy passed him his backups, hardcopy and computer. “Let’s go,” he said.

“Right,” Luis said, and led the way.

It was a short ride to the casting office building, where Guignol had his office. The wind felt terrific on his face, drying his sweat. It had been a long day.

When they pulled up, Sammy let Luis lead the way again, badging in behind him, following him up to the seventh-floor board-room. at the end of the Gold Coast where the most senior offices were.

Guignol met them at the door and took the materials from Luis, then ushered Sammy in. Sammy caught Luis’s eye, and Luis surprised him by winking and slipping him a surreptitious thumbs-up, making Sammy feel like they shared a secret.

There were eight on the executive committee, but they travelled a lot. Sammy had expected to see no more than four. There were two. And Hackelberg, of course. The lawyer was the picture of saurian calm.

Sammy sat down at the table and helped himself to a glass of water, watching a ring pool on the table’s polished and waxed wooden surface.

“Samuel,” Hackelberg said, shaking his head. “I hoped it wouldn’t come to this.”

Sammy took a deep breath, looking for that don’t-give-a-shit calm that had suffused him before. It was there still, not as potent, but there. He drew upon it.

“Let’s put this to the committee, shall we? I mean, we already know how we feel.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Hackelberg said. “The committee has already voted on this.”

Sammy closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He looked at Hackelberg, who was smiling grimly, a mean grin that went all the way to the corners of his eyes.

Sammy looked around at Guignol and the committee members. They wouldn’t meet his eye. Guignol gestured Luis into the room and handed him Sammy’s computer, papers, and backups. He leaned in and spoke quietly to him. Luis turned and left.

Guignol cleared his throat. “There’s nothing else to discuss, then,” he said. “Thank you all for coming.”

In his heart, Sammy had known this was coming. Hackelberg would beat him to the committee—never let him present his side. Watching the lawyer get up stiffly and leave with slow, dignified steps, Sammy had a moment’s intuition about what it must be like to be that man—possessed of a kind of cold, furious power that came from telling everyone that not obeying you to the letter would put them in terrible danger. He knew that line of reasoning: It was the same one he got from the TSA at the airport before they bent him over and greased him up. You can’t understand the grave danger we all face. You must obey me, for only I can keep it at bay.

He waited for the rest of the committee to file out. None of them would meet his eye. Then it was just him and Guignol. Sammy raised his eyebrows and spread out his hands, miming What happens now?

“You won’t be able to get anything productive done until IT gets through with your computer. Take some time off. Call up Dinah and see if she wants to grab some holiday time.”

“We split,” Sammy said. He drank his water and stood up. “I’ve just got one question before I go.”

Guignol winced but stood his ground. “Go ahead,” he said.

“Don’t you want to know what the numbers looked like?”

“It’s not my job to overrule legal—”

“We’ll get to that in a second. It’s not the question. The question is, don’t you want to know?”

Guignol sighed. “You know I want to know. Of course I want to know. This isn’t about me and what I want, though. It’s about making sure we don’t endanger the shareholders—”

“So ignoring this path, sticking our heads in the sand, that’s good for the shareholders?”

“No, of course it’s not good for the shareholders. But it’s better than endangering the whole company—”

Sammy nodded. “Well, how about if we both take some time off and drive down to Hollywood. It’d do us some good.”

“Sammy, I’ve got a job to do—”

“Yeah, but without your computer…”

Guignol looked at him. “What did you do?”

“It’s not what I did. It’s what I might have done. I’m going to be a good boy and give Hackelberg a list of everyone I might have emailed about this. All those people are losing their computers to the big magnet at IT.”

“But you never emailed me about this—”

“You sure? I might have. It’s the kind of thing I might have done. Maybe your spam-filter ate it. You never know. That’s what IT’s for.”

Guignol looked angry for a moment, then laughed. “You are such a shithead. Fuck that lawyer asshole anyway. What are you driving these days?”

“Just bought a new Dell Luminux,” Sammy said, grinning back. “Rag-top.”

“When do we leave?”

“I’ll pick you up at 6AM tomorrow. Beat the morning traffic.”

Suzanne was getting sick of breakfast in bed. It was hard to imagine that such a thing was possible, but there it was. Lester stole out from between the covers before 7AM every day, and then, half an hour later, he was back with a laden tray, something new every day. She’d had steaks, burritos, waffles, home-made granola, fruit-salad with Greek yogurt, and today there were eggs Benedict with fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice. The tray always came with a French press of fresh-ground Kona coffee, a cloth napkin, and her computer, so she could read the news.

In theory, this was a warm ritual that ensured that they had quality time together every day, no matter what. In practice, Lester was so anxious about the food and whether she was enjoying it that she couldn’t really enjoy it. Plus, she wasn’t a fatkins, so three thousand calorie breakfasts weren’t good for her.

Most of all, it was the pressure to be a happy couple, to have cemented over the old hurts and started anew. She felt it every moment, when Lester climbed into the shower with her and soaped her back, when he brought home flowers, and when he climbed into bed with her in the morning to eat breakfast with her.

She picked at her caviar and blini glumly and poked at her computer. Beside her, Lester hoovered up three thousand calories’ worth of fried dough and clattered one-handed on his machine.

“This is delicious, babe, thanks,” she said, with as much sincerity as she could muster. It was really generous and nice of him to do this. She was just a bitter old woman who couldn’t be happy no matter what was going on in her life.

There was voicemail on her computer, which was unusual. Most people sent her email. This originated from a pay phone on the Florida Turnpike.

“Ms Church, this is—ah, this is a person whom you recently had the acquaintance of, while on your holidays. I have a confidential matter to discuss with you. I’m travelling to your location with a colleague today and should arrive mid-morning. I hope you can make some time to meet with me.”

She listened to it twice. Lester leaned over.

“What’s that all about?”

“You’re not going to believe it. I think it’s that Disney guy, the guy I told you about. The one Death used to work for.”

“He’s coming here?”

“Apparently.”

“Woah. Don’t tell Perry.”

“You think?”

“He’d tear that guy’s throat out with his teeth.” Lester took a bite of blini. “I might help.”

Suzanne thought about Sammy. He hadn’t been the sort of person she could be friends with, but she’d known plenty of his kind in her day, and he was hardly the worst of the lot. He barely rated above average on the corporate psychopath meter. Somewhere in there, there was a real personality. She’d seen it.

“Well, then I guess I’d better meet with him alone.”

“It sounds like he wants a doctor-patient meeting anyway.”

“Or confessor-penitent.”

“You think he’ll leak you something.”

“That’s a pretty good working theory when it comes to this kind of call.”

Lester ate thoughtfully, then reached over and hit a key on her computer, replaying the call.

“He sounds, what, giddy?”

“That’s right, he does, doesn’t he. Maybe it’s good news.”

Lester laughed and took away her dishes, and when he came back in, he was naked, stripped and ready for the shower. He was a very handsome man, and he had a devilish grin as he whisked the blanket off of her.

He stopped at the foot of the bed and stared at her, his grin quirking in a way she recognized instantly. She didn’t have to look down to know that he was getting hard. In the mirror of his eyes, she was beautiful. She could see it plainly. When she looked into the real mirror at the foot of the bed, draped with gauzy sun-scarves and crusted around the edges with kitschy tourist magnets Lester brought home, she saw a saggy, middle-aged woman with cottage-cheese cellulite and saddle-bags.

Lester had slept with more fatkins girls than she could count, women made into doll-like mannequins by surgery and chemical enhancements, women who read sex manuals in public places and boasted about their Kegel weight-lifting scores.

But when he looked at her like that, she knew that she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever loved, that he would do anything for her. That he loved her as much as he could ever love anyone.

What the hell was I complaining about? she thought as he fell on her like a starving man.

She met Sammy in their favorite tea-room, the one perched up on a crow’s nest four storeys up a corkscrew building whose supplies came up on a series of dumbwaiters and winches that shrouded its balconies like vines.

She staked out the best table, the one with the panoramic view of the whole shantytown, and ordered a plate of the tiny shortbread cakes that were the house specialty, along with a gigantic mug of nonfat decaf cappuccino.

Sammy came up the steps red-faced and sweaty, wearing a Hawai’ian shirt and Bermuda shorts, like some kind of tourist. Or like he was on holidays? Behind him came a younger man, with severe little designer glasses, dressed in the conventional polo-shirt and slacks uniform of the corporate exec on a non-suit day.

Suzanne sprinkled an ironic wave at them and gestured to the mismatched school-room chairs at her table. The waitress—Shayna—came over with two glasses of water and a paper napkin dispenser. The men thanked her and mopped their faces and drank their water.

“Good drive?”

Sammy nodded. His friend looked nervous, like he was wondering what might have been swimming in his water glass. “This is some place.”

“We like it here.”

“Is there, you know, a bathroom?” the companion asked.

“Through there.” Suzanne pointed.

“How do you deal with the sewage around here?”

“Sewage? Mr Page, sewage is solved. We feed it into our generators and the waste heat runs our condenser purifiers. There was talk of building one big one for the whole town, but that required way too much coordination and anyway, Perry was convinced that having central points of failure would be begging for a disaster. I wrote a series on it. If you’d like I can send you the links.”

The Disney exec made some noises and ate some shortbread, peered at the chalk-board menu and ordered some Thai iced tea.

“Look, Ms Church—Suzanne—thank you for seeing me. I would have understood completely if you’d told me to go fuck myself.”

Suzanne smiled and made a go-on gesture.

“Before my friend comes back from the bathroom, before we meet up with anyone from your side, I just want you to know this. What you’ve done, it’s changed the world. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for you.”

He had every appearance of being completely sincere. He was a little road-crazed and windblown today, not like she remembered him from Orlando. What the hell had happened to him? What was he here for?

His friend came back and Sammy said, “I ordered you a Thai iced tea. This is Suzanne Church, the writer. Ms Church, this is Herve Guignol, co-director of the Florida regional division of Disney Parks.”

Guignol was more put-together and stand-offish than Sammy. He shook her hand and made executive sounding grunts at her. He was young, and clearly into playing the role of exec. He reminded Suzanne of fresh Silicon Valley millionaires who could go from pizza-slinging hackers to suit-wearing biz-droids who bullshitted knowledgeably about EBITDA overnight.

What the hell are you two here for?

“Mr Page—”

“Sammy, call me Sammy, please. Did you get my postcard?”

“That was from you?” She’d not been able to make heads or tails of it when it arrived in the mail the day before and she’d chucked it out as part of some viral marketing campaign she didn’t want to get infected by.

“You got it?”

“I threw it out.”

Sammy went slightly green.

“But it’ll still be in the trash,” she said. “Lester never takes it out, and I haven’t.”

“Um, can we go and get it now, all the same?”

“What’s on it?”

Sammy and Guignol exchanged a long look. “Let’s pretend that I gave you a long run-up to this. Let’s pretend that we spent a lot of time with me impressing on you that this is confidential, and not for publication. Let’s pretend that I charmed you and made sure you understood how much respect I have for you and your friends here—”

“I get it,” Suzanne said, trying not to laugh. Not for publication—really!

“OK, let’s pretend all that. Now I’ll tell you: what’s on that postcard is the financials for a Disney Parks buyout of your friends’ entire operation here. DiaBolical, the ride, all of it.”

Suzanne had been expecting a lot of things, but this wasn’t one of them. It was loopy. Daffy. Not just weird, but inconceivable. As though he’d said, “I sent you our plans to carve your portrait on the moon’s surface with a green laser.” But she was a pro. She kept her face still and neutral, and calmly swallowed her cappuccino.

“I see.”

“And there are—there are people at Disney who feel like this idea is so dangerous that it doesn’t even warrant discussion. That it should be suppressed.”

Guignol cleared his throat. “That’s the consensus,” he said.

“And normally, I’d say, hey, sure, the consensus. That’s great. But I’ll tell you, I drew up these numbers because I was curious, I’m a curious guy. I like to think laterally, try stuff that might seem silly at first. See where it goes. I’ve had pretty good instincts.”

Guignol and Suzanne snorted at the same time.

“And an imperfect record,” Sammy said. Suzanne didn’t want to like him, but there was something forthright about him that she couldn’t help warming to. There was no subtlety or scheming in this guy. Whatever he wanted, you could see it right on his face. Maybe he was a psycho, but he wasn’t a sneak.

“So I ran these numbers for my own amusement, to see what they would look like. Assume that your boys want, say, 30 times gross annual revenue for a buyout. Say that this settles our lawsuit—not theirs, just ours, so we don’t have to pay for the trademark suit to go forward. Assume that they generate one DiaBolical-scale idea every six months—” Suzanne found herself nodding along, especially at this last one. “Well, you make those assumptions and you know what comes out of it?”

Suzanne let the numbers dance behind her own eyelids. She’d followed all the relevant financials closely for years, so closely that they were as familiar as her monthly take-home and mortgage payments had been, back when she had a straight job and a straight life.

“Well, you’d make Lester and Perry very wealthy,” she said. “After they vested out, they’d be able to live off the interest alone.”

Sammy nodded judiciously. His sidekick looked alarmed. “Yup. And for us?”

“Well, assuming your last quarterly statement was accurate—”

“We were a little conservative,” Sammy said. The other man nodded reflexively.

You were very conservative, she thought. DiaB’s making you a fortune and you didn’t want to advertise that to the competition.

“Assuming that, well, you guys earn back your investment in, what, 18 months?”

“I figure a year. But 18 months would be good.”

“If you vest the guys out over three years, that means—”

“100 percent ROI, plus or minus 200 percent,” Sammy said. “For less money than we’ll end up spending on our end of the lawsuit.”

Guignol was goggling at them both. Sammy drank his Thai iced-tea, slurping noisily. He signalled for another one.

“And you sent me these financials on a postcard?”

“There was some question about whether they’d be erased before I could show them to anyone, and I knew there was no way I’d be given the chance to re-create them independently. It seemed prudent to have a backup copy.”

“A backup copy in my hands?”

“Well, at least I knew you wouldn’t give it up without a fight.” Sammy shrugged and offered her a sunny smile.

“We’d better go rescue that postcard from the basket before Lester develops a domestic instinct and takes out the trash, then,” Suzanne said, pushing away from the table. Shayna brought the bill and Sammy paid it, overtipping by a factor of ten, which endeared him further to Suzanne. She couldn’t abide rich people who stiffed on the tip.

Suzanne walked them through the shantytown, watching their reactions closely. She liked to take new people here. She’d witnessed its birth and growth, then gone away during its adolescence, and now she got to enjoy its maturity. Crowds of kids ran screeching and playing through the streets, adults nodded at them from their windows, wires and plumbing and antennas crowded the skies above them. The walls shimmered with murals and graffiti and mosaics.

Sammy treated it like he had his theme park, seeming to take in every detail with a connoisseur’s eye; Guignol was more nervous, clearly feeling unsafe amid the cheerful lawlessness. They came upon Francis and a gang of his kids, building bicycles out of stiffened fabric and strong monofilament recycled from packing crates.

“Ms Church,” Francis said gravely. He’d given up drinking, maybe for good, and he was clear-eyed and charming in his engineer’s coveralls. The kids—boys and girls, Suzanne noted approvingly—continued to work over the bikes, but they were clearly watching what Francis was up to.

“Francis, please meet Sammy and his colleague, Herve. They’re here for a story I’m working on. Gentlemen, Francis is the closest thing we have to a mayor around here.”

Francis shook hands all around, but Sammy’s attention was riveted on the bicycles.

Francis picked one up with two fingers and handed it to him. “Like it? We got the design from a shop in Liberia, but we made our own local improvements. The trick is getting the stiffener to stay liquid long enough to get the fabric stretched out in the right proportion.”

Sammy took the frame from him and spun it in one hand like a baton. “And the wheels?”

“Mostly we do solids, which stay in true longer. We use the carbon stiffener on a pre-cut round of canvas or denim, then fit a standard tire. They go out of true after a while. You just apply some solvent to them and they go soft again and you re-true them with a compass and a pair of tailor’s shears, then re-stiffen them. You get maybe five years of hard riding out of a wheel that way.”

Sammy’s eyes were round as saucers. He took one of the proffered wheels and spun it between opposing fingertips. Then, grinning, he picked up another wheel and the bike-frame and began to juggle them, one-two-three, hoop-la! Francis looked amused, rather than pissed—giving up drink had softened his temper. His kids stopped working and laughed. Sammy laughed too. He transferred the wheels to his left hand, then tossed the frame high the air, spun around and caught it and then handed it all back to Francis. The kids clapped and he took a bow.

“I didn’t know you had it in you,” Guignol said, patting him on the shoulder.

Sammy, sweating and grinning like a fool, said, “Yeah, it’s not something I get a lot of chances to do around the office. But did you see that? It was light enough to juggle! I mean, how exciting is all this?” He swept his arm around his head. “Between the sewage and the manufacturing and all these kids—” He broke off. “What do you do about education, Suzanne?”

“Lots of kids bus into the local schools, or ride. But lots more home-school these days. We don’t get a very high caliber of public school around here.”

“Might that have something to do with all the residents who don’t pay property tax?” Guignol said pointedly.

Suzanne nodded. “I’m sure it does,” she said. “But it has more to do with the overall quality of public education in this state. 47th in the nation for funding.”

They were at her and Lester’s place now. She led them through the front door and picked up the trash-can next to the little table where she sorted the mail after picking it up from her PO box at a little strip mall down the road.

There was the postcard. She handed it silently to Sammy, who held it for a moment, then reluctantly passed it to Guignol. “You’d better hang on to it,” he said, and she sensed that there was something bigger going on there.

“Now we go see Lester,” Suzanne said.

He was behind the building in his little workshop, hacking DiaBolical. There were five different DiaBs running around him, chugging and humming. The smell of goop and fuser and heat filled the room, and an air-conditioner like a jet-engine labored to keep things cool. Still, it was a few degrees warmer inside than out.

“Lester,” Suzanne shouted over the air-conditioner din, “we have visitors.”

Lester straightened up from his keyboard and wiped his palms and turned to face them. He knew who they were based on his earlier conversation with Suzanne, but he also clearly recognized Sammy.

“You!” he said. “You work for Disney?”

Sammy blushed and looked away.

Lester turned to Suzanne. “This guy used to come up, what, twice, three times a week.”

Sammy nodded and mumbled something. Lester reached out and snapped off the AC, filling the room with eerie silence and stifling heat. “What was that?”

“I’m a great believer in competitive intelligence.”

“You work for Disney?”

“They both work for Disney, Lester,” Suzanne said. “This is Sammy and Herve.” Herve doesn’t do much talking, she mentally added, but he seems to be in charge.

“That’s right,” Sammy said, seeming to come to himself at last. “And it’s an honor to formally meet you at last. I run the DiaB program. I see you’re a fan. I’ve read quite a bit about you, of course, thanks to Ms Church here.”

Lester’s hands closed and opened, closed and opened. “You were, what, you were sneaking around here?”

“Have I mentioned that I’m a great fan of your work? Not just the ride, either. This DiaBolical, well, it’s—”

“What are you doing here?”

Suzanne had expected something like this. Lester wasn’t like Perry, he wouldn’t go off the deep-end with this guy, but he wasn’t going to be his best buddy, either. Still, someone needed to intervene before this melted down altogether.

“Lester,” she said, putting her hand on his warm shoulder. “Do you want to show these guys what you’re working on?”

He blew air through his nose a couple times, then settled down. He even smiled.

“This one,” he said, pointing to a DiaBolical, “I’ve got it running an experimental firmware that lets it print out hollow components. They’re a lot lighter and they don’t last as long. But they’re also way less consumptive on goop. You get about ten times as much printing out of them.”

Suzanne noted that this bit of news turned both of the Disney execs a little green. They made a lot of money selling goop, she knew.

“This one,” Lester continued, patting a DiaB that was open to the elements, its imps lounging in its guts, “we mix some serious epoxy in with it, some carbon fibers. The printouts are practically indestructible. There are some kids around here who’ve been using it to print parts for bicycles—”

“Those were printed on this?” Sammy said.

“We ran into Francis and his gang,” Suzanne explained.

Lester nodded. “Yeah, it’s not perfect, though. The epoxy clogs up the works and the imps really don’t like it. I only get two or three days out of a printer after I convert it. I’m working on changing the mix to fix that, though.”

“After all,” Guignol noted sourly, “it’s not as if you have to pay for new DiaBs when you break one.”

Lester smiled nastily at him. “Exactly,” he said. “We’ve got a great research subsidy around here.”

Guignol looked away, lips pursed.

“This one,” Lester said, choosing not to notice, “this one is the realization of an age-old project.” He pointed to the table next to it, where its imps were carefully fitting together some very fine parts.

Sammy leaned in close, inspecting their work. After a second, he hissed like a teakettle, then slapped his knee.

Now Lester’s smile was more genuine. He loved it when people appreciated his work. “You figured it out?”

“You’re printing DiaBs!”

“Not the whole thing,” Lester said. “A lot of the logic needs an FPGA burner. And we can’t do some of the conductive elements, either. But yeah, about 90 percent of the DiaB can be printed in a DiaB.”

Suzanne hadn’t heard about this one, though she remembered earlier attempts, back in the golden New Work days, the dream of self-replicating machines. Now she looked close, leaning in next to Sammy, so close she could feel his warm breath. There was something, well, spooky about the imps building a machine using another one of the machines.

“It’s, what, it’s like it’s alive, and reproducing itself,” Sammy said.

“Don’t tell me this never occurred to you,” Lester said.

“Honestly? No. It never did. Mr Banks, you have a uniquely twisted, fucked up imagination, and I say that with the warmest admiration.”

Guignol leaned in, too, staring at it.

“It’s so obvious now that I see it,” he said.

“Yeah, all the really great ideas are like that,” Lester said.

Sammy straightened up and shook Lester’s hand. “Thank you for the tour, Lester. You have managed to simultaneously impress and depress me. You are one sharp motherfucker.”

Lester preened and Suzanne suppressed a giggle.

Sammy held his hand up like he was being sworn in. “I’m dead serious, man. This is amazing. I mean, we manage some pretty out-of-the-box thinking at Disney, right? We may not be as nimble as some little whacked out co-op, but for who we are—I think we do a good job.

“But you, man, you blow us out of the water. This stuff is just crazy, like it came down from Mars. Like it’s from the future.” He shook his head. “It’s humbling, you know.”

Guignol looked more thoughtful than he had to this point. He and Lester stared at Sammy, wearing similar expressions of bemusement.

“Let’s go into the apartment,” Suzanne said. “We can sit down and have a chat.”

They trooped up the stairs together. Guignol expressed admiration for the weird junk-sculptures that adorned each landing, made by a local craftswoman and installed by the landlord. They sat around the living room and Lester poured iced coffee out of a pitcher in the fridge, dropping in ice-cubes molded to look like legos.

They rattled their drinks and looked uncomfortably at one another. Suzanne longed to whip out her computer and take notes, or at least a pad, or a camera, but she restrained himself. Guignol looked significantly at Sammy.

“Lester, I’m just going to say it. Would you sell your business to us? The ride, DiaBolical, all of it? We could make you a very, very rich man. You and Perry. You would have the freedom to go on doing what you’re doing, but we’d put it in our production chain, mass-market the hell out of it, get it into places you’ve never seen. At its peak, New Work—which you were only a small part of, remember—touched 20 percent of Americans. 90 percent of Americans have been to a Disney park. We’re a bigger tourist draw than all of Great Britain. We can give your ideas legs.”

Lester began to chuckle, then laugh, then he was doubled over, thumping his thighs. Suzanne shook her head. In just a few short moments, she’d gotten used to the idea, and it was growing on her.

Guignol looked grim. “It’s not a firm offer—it’s a chance to open a dialogue, a negotiation. Talk the possibility over. A good negotiation is one where we both start by saying what we want and work it over until we get to the point where we’re left with what we both need.”

Lester wiped tears from his eyes. “I don’t think that you grasp the absurdity of this situation, fellas. For starters, Perry will never go for it. I mean never.” Suzanne wondered about that. And wondered whether it mattered. The two had hardly said a word to each other in months.

“What’s more, the rest of the rides will never, never, never go in for it. That’s also for sure.

“Finally, what the fuck are you talking about? Me go to work for you? Us go to work for you? What will you do, stick Mickey in the ride? He’s already in the ride, every now and again, as you well know. You going to move me up to Orlando?”

Sammy waggled his head from side to side. “I have a deep appreciation for how weird this is, Lester. To tell you the truth, I haven’t thought much about your ride or this little town. As far as I’m concerned, we could just buy it and then turn around and sell it back to the residents for one dollar—we wouldn’t want to own or operate any of this stuff, the liability is too huge. Likewise the other rides. We don’t care about what you did yesterday—we care about what you’re going to do tomorrow.

“Listen, you’re a smart guy. You make stuff that we can’t dream of, that we lack the institutional imagination to dream of. We need that. What the hell is the point of fighting you, suing you, when we can put you on the payroll? And you know what? Even if we throw an idiotic sum of money at you, even if you never make anything for us, we’re still ahead of the game if you stop making stuff against us.

“I’m putting my cards on the table here. I know your partner is going to be even harder to convince, too. None of this is going to be easy. I don’t care about easy. I care about what’s right. I’m sick of being in charge of sabotaging people who make awesome stuff. Aren’t you sick of being sabotaged? Wouldn’t you like to come work some place where we’ll shovel money and resources at your projects and keep the wolves at bay?”

Suzanne was impressed. This wasn’t the same guy whom Rat-Toothed Freddy had savaged. It wasn’t the same guy that Death Waits had described. He had come a long way. Even Guignol—whom, she suspected, needed to be sold on the idea almost as much as Lester—was nodding along by the end of it.

Lester wasn’t though: “You’re wasting your time, mister. That’s all there is to it. I am not going to go and work for—” a giggle escaped his lips “—Disney. It’s just—”

Sammy held his hands up in partial surrender. “OK, OK. I won’t push you today. Think about it. Talk it over with your buddy. I’m a patient guy.” Guignol snorted. “I don’t want to lean on you here.”

They took their leave, though Suzanne found out later that they’d taken a spin around the ride before leaving. Everyone went on the ride.

Lester shook his head at the door behind them.

“Can you believe that?”

Suzanne smiled and squeezed his hand. “You’re funny about this, you know that? Normally, when you encounter a new idea, you like to play with it, think it through, see what you can make of it. With this, you’re not even willing to noodle with it.”

“You can’t seriously think that this is a good idea—”

“I don’t know. It’s not the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. Become a millionaire, get to do whatever you want? It’ll sure make an interesting story.”

He goggled at her.

“Kidding,” she said, thinking, It would indeed make an interesting story, though. “But where are you going from here? Are you going to stay here forever?”

“Perry would never go for it—” Lester said, then stopped.

“You and Perry, Lester, how long do you think that’s going to last.”

“Don’t you go all Yoko on me, Suzanne. We’ve got one of those around here already—”

“I don’t like this Yoko joke, Lester. I never did. Hilda doesn’t want to drive Perry away from you. She wants to make the rides work. And it sounds like that’s what Perry wants, too. What’s wrong with them doing that? Especially if you can get them a ton of money to support it?”

Lester stared at her, open-mouthed. “Honey—”

“Think about it, Lester. Your most important virtue is your expansive imagination. Use it.”

She watched this sink in. It did sink in. Lester listened to her, which surprised her every now and again. Most relationships seemed to be negotiations or possibly competitions. With Lester it was a conversation.

She gave him a hug that seemed to go on forever.

Sammy was glad he was driving. The mood Guignol was in, he’d have wrecked the car. “That was not the plan, Sammy,” he said. “The plan was to get the data, talk it over—”

“The first casualty of any battle is the battle-plan,” Sammy said, threading them through the press of tourist busses and commuter cars.

“I thought the first casualty was the truth.”

They’d spent too long at the ride, then gotten stuck in the afternoon rush hour out of Miami. “That too. Look, I’m proposing to spend a tenth of the profits from the DiaB on this venture. In any other circumstance, I would do it with a purchase order. The only reason it’s a big deal is—”

“That it carries enough legal liability to destroy the company. Sammy, didn’t you listen to Hackelberg?”

“The reason I still work at Disney is that it’s the kind of company where the lawyers don’t always set the agenda.”

Guignol drummed his hands on the dashboard. Sammy pulled over and gassed up. At the next pump was a minivan with Kansas plates. Dad was a dumpy Korean guy, Mom was a dumpy white midwesterner with a country-and-western denim jacket, and the back seat was filled with vibrating children, two girls and a boy. The kids were screaming and fighting, the girls trying to draw on the boy’s face with candy-flavored lipstick and kiddie mascara, the boy squirming mightily and lashing out at them with his gameboy.

Dad and Mom were having their own heated discussion as Dad gassed up, Sammy eavesdropped enough to hear that they were fighting over Dad’s choice of taking the toll roads instead of the cheaper, slower alternative route. The kids were shouting so loud, though—

“You keep that up and we’re not going to Disney World!”

It was the magic sentence, the litmus test for Disney’s currency. As it rose and fell, so did the efficacy of the threat. If Sammy could, he’d take a video of the result every time this was uttered.

The kids looked at Dad and shrugged. “Who cares?” the eldest sister said, and grabbed the boy again.

Sammy turned to Guignol and waggled his eyebrows. Once he was back in the car, he said, “You know, it’s risky doing anything. But riskiest of all is doing nothing.”

Guignol shook his head and pulled out his computer.

He spent a lot of time looking at the numbers while Sammy fought traffic. Finally he closed his computer, put his head back and shut his eyes. Sammy drove on.

“You think this’ll work?” Guignol said.

“Which part?

“You think if you buy these guys out—”

“Oh, that part. Sure, yeah, slam dunk. They’re cheap. Like I say, we could make back the whole nut just by settling the lawsuit. The hard part is going to be convincing them to sell.”

“And Hackelberg.”

“That’s your job, not mine.”

Guignol slid the seat back so it was flat as a bed. “Wake me when we hit Orlando.”

It took IT three days to get Sammy his computer back. His secretary managed as best as she could, but he wasn’t able to do much without it.

When he got it back at last, he eagerly downloaded his backlog of mail. It beggared the imagination. Even after auto-filtering it, there were hundreds of new messages, things he had to pay real attention to. When he was dealing with this stuff in little spurts every few minutes all day long, it didn’t seem like much, but it sure piled up.

He enlisted his secretary to help him with sorting and responding. After an hour she forwarded one back to him with a bold red flag.

It was from Freddy. He got an instant headache, the feeling halfway between a migraine and the feeling after you bang your head against the corner of a table.

:: Sammy, I’m disappointed in you. I thought we were friends. Why do I have to learn about your bizarre plan to buy out Gibbons and Banks from strangers. I do hope you’ll give me a comment on the story?

He’d left the financials with Guignol, who had been discreetly showing them around to the rest of the executive committee in closed door, off-site meetings. One of them must have blabbed, though—or maybe it was a leak at Lester’s end.

He tasted his lunch and bile as his stomach twisted. It wasn’t fair. He had a real chance of making this happen—and it would be a source of genuine good for all concerned.

He got halfway through calling Guignol’s number, then put the phone down. He didn’t know who to call. He’d put himself in an unwinnable position. As he contemplated the article that Freddy would probably write, he realized that he would almost certainly lose his job over this, too. Maybe end up on the wrong end of a lawsuit. Man, that seemed to be his natural state at Disney. Maybe he was in the wrong job.

He groaned and thumped himself on the forehead. All he wanted to do was have good ideas and make them happen.

Basically, he wanted to be Lester.

Then he knew who he had to call.

“Ms Church?”

“We’re back to that, huh? That’s probably not a good sign.”

“Suzanne then.”

“Sammy, you sound like you’re about to pop a testicle. Spit it out.”

“Do you think I could get a job with Lester?”

“You’re not joking, are you?”

“Freddy found out about the buyout offer.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“So I’m gonna be in search of employment. All I ever wanted to do was come up with cool ideas and execute them—”

“Shush now. Freddy found out about this, huh? Not surprising. He’s got a knack for it. It’s just about his only virtue.”

“Urgh.”

“However, it’s also his greatest failing. I’ve given this a lot of thought, since my last run in with Rat-Toothed Freddy.”

“You call him that to his face?”

“Not yet. But I look forward to it. Tell you what, give me an hour to talk to some people here, and I’ll get back to you.”

An hour? “An hour?”

“He’ll keep you squirming for at least that long. He loves to make people squirm. It’s good journalism—shakes loose some new developments.”

“An hour?”

“Have you got a choice?”

“An hour, then.”

Suzanne didn’t knock on Lester’s door. Lester would fall into place, once Perry was in.

She found him working the ride, Hilda back in the maintenance bay, tweaking some of the robots. His arm was out of the cast, but it was noticeably thinner than his good left arm, weak and pale and flabby.

“Hello, Suzanne.” He was formal, like he always was these days, and it saddened her, but she pressed on.

“Perry, we need to shut down for a while, it’s urgent.”

“Suzanne, this is a busy time, we just can’t shut down—”

She thumped her hand on his lemonade-stand counter. “Cut it out, Perry. I have never been an alarmist, you know that. I understand intimately what it means to shut this place down. Look, I know that things haven’t been so good between us, between any of us, for a long time. But I am your dear friend, and you are mine, no matter what’s going on at this second, and I’m telling you that you need to shut this down and we need to talk. Do it, Perry.”

He gave her a long, considering look.

“Please?”

He looked at the little queue of four or five people, pretending not to eavesdrop, waiting their turn.

“Sorry, folks, you heard the lady. Family emergency. Um, here—” He rummaged under the counter, came up with scraps of paper. “Mrs Torrence’s tearoom across the street—they make the best cappuccino in the hood, and the pastries are all baked fresh. On me, OK?”

“Come on,” Suzanne said. “Time’s short.”

She accompanied him to the maintenance bay and they pulled the doors shut behind them. Hilda looked up from her robot, wiping her hands on her shorts. She was really lovely, and the look on her face when she saw Perry was pure adoration. Suzanne’s heart welled up for the two of them, such a perfect picture of young love.

Then Hilda saw Suzanne, and her expression grew guarded, tense. Perry took Hilda’s hand.

“What’s this about, Suzanne?” he said.

“Let me give this to you in one shot, OK?” They nodded. She ran it down for them. Sammy and Guignol, the postcard and the funny circumstances of their visit—the phone call.

“So here’s the thing. He wants to buy you guys out. He doesn’t want the ride or the town. He just wants—I don’t know—the creativity. The PR win. He wants peace. And the real news is, he’s over a barrel. Freddy’s forcing his hand. If we can make that problem go away, we can ask for anything.”

Hilda’s jaw hung slack. “You have to be kidding—”

Perry shushed her. “Suzanne, why are you here? Why aren’t you talking to Lester about this? Why hasn’t Lester talked to me about this. I mean, just what the fuck is going on?”

She winced. “I didn’t talk to Lester because I thought he’d be easier to sell on this than you are. This is a golden opportunity and I thought that you would be conflicted as hell about it and I thought if I talked to you first, we could get past that. I don’t really have a dog in this fight, except that I want all parties to end up not hating each other. That’s where you’re headed now—you’re melting down in slow motion. How long since you and Lester had a conversation together, let alone a real meal? How long since we all sat around and laughed? Every good thing comes to some kind of end, and then the really good things come to a beginning again.

“You two were the New Work. Lots of people got blisteringly rich off of New Work, but not you. Here’s a chance for you to get what you deserve for a change. You solve this—and you can solve it, and not just for you, but for that Death kid, you can get him justice that the courts will take fifteen years to deliver.”

Perry scowled. “I don’t care about money—”

“Yes, that’s admirable. I have one other thing; I’ve been saving it for last, waiting to see if you’d come up with it on your own.”

“What?”

“Why is time of the essence?”

“Because Freddy’s going to out this dirtball—”

“And how do we solve that?”

Hilda grinned. “Oh, this part I like.”

Suzanne laughed. “Yeah.”

“What?” Perry said.

“Freddy’s good at intelligence gathering, but he’s not so good at distinguishing truth from fiction. In my view, this presents a fascinating opportunity. Depending on what we leak to him and how, we can turn him into—”

“A laughing stock?”

“A puddle of deliquesced organ meat.”

Perry began to laugh. “You’re saying that you think that we should do this deal for spite?”

“Yeah, that’s the size of it,” Suzanne said.

“I love it,” he said.

Hilda laughed too. Suzanne extended her hand to Perry and he shook it. Then she shook with Hilda.

“Let’s go find Lester.”

By the time the call came, Sammy was ready to explode. He got in a golf cart and headed to the Animal Kingdom Lodge, which backed onto the safari park portion of the Animal Kingdom. He snuck himself onto the roof of the grand hotel, which had a commanding view of the artificial savanna. He watched a family of giraffes graze, using the zoom on his phone to resolve the hypnotic patterns of the little calf. It calmed him. But the sound of his phone ringing startled him so much he nearly did a half-gainer off the roof. Heart hammering, he answered it.

“Is this Sammy?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Landon Kettlewell,” the voice on the other side said. Sammy knew the name, of course. But he hadn’t been expecting a call from him.

“Hello, Mr Kettlewell.”

“The boys have asked me to negotiate this deal for them. It makes sense—it’ll be hard to make this happen without my contributions. I hope you agree.”

“It does make sense,” Sammy said noncommittally. This wasn’t the best day of his life. The giraffes were moving off, but a flock of cranes was wheeling overhead in quiet splendor.

“I’ll tell you where we’re at. We’re going to do a deal with you, a fair one. But a condition of the deal is that we are going to destroy Freddy.”

“What?”

“We’re going to leak him bad intel on the deal. Lots of it. Give him a whole story. Wait until he publishes it, and then—”

Sammy sat down on the roof. This was going to be a long conversation.

Perry ground his teeth and squeezed his beer. The idea of doing this in a big group had seemed like a good idea. Dirty Max’s was certainly full of camaraderie, the smell of roasting meat and the chatter of nearly a hundred voices. He heard Hilda laughing at something Lester said to her, and there were Kettlewell and his kids, fingers and faces sticky with sauce.

Lester had set up the projector and they’d hung sheets over one of the murals for a screen, and brought out a bunch of wireless speakers that they’d scattered around the courtyard. It looked, smelled, sounded, and tasted like a carnival.

But Perry couldn’t meet anyone’s eye. He just wanted to go home and get under the covers. They were about to destroy Freddy, which had also seemed like a hell of a lark at the time, but now—

“Perry.” It was Sammy, up from Orlando, wearing the classic Mickey-gives-the-finger bootleg tee.

“Can you get fired for that?” Perry pointed.

Sammy shook his head. “Actually, it’s official. I had them produced last year—they’re a big seller. If you can’t beat ’em… Here—” He dug in the backpack he carried and pulled out another. “You look like a large, right?”

Perry took it from him, held it up. Shrugging, he put down his beer and skinned his tee, then pulled on the Mickey-flips-the-bird. He looked down at his chest. “It’s a statement.”

“Have you and Lester given any thought to where you’re going to relocate, after?”

Perry drew in a deep breath. “I think Lester wants to come to Orlando. But I’m going to go to Wisconsin. Madison.”

“You’re what now?”

Perry hadn’t said anything about this to anyone except Hilda. Something about this Disney exec, it made him want to spill the beans. “I can’t go along with this. I’m going to bow out. Do something new. I’ve been in this shithole for what feels like my whole life now.”

Sammy looked poleaxed. “Perry, that wasn’t the deal—”

“Yeah, I know. But think about this: do you want me there if I hate it, resent it? Besides, it’s a little late in the day to back out.”

Sammy reeled. “Christ almighty. Well, at least you’re not going to end up my employee.”

Francis—who had an uncanny knack for figuring out the right moment to step into a conversation—sidled over. “Nice shirt, Perry.”

“Francis, this is Sammy.” Francis had a bottle of water and a plate of ribs, so he extended a friendly elbow.

“We’ve met—showed him the bicycle factory.”

Sammy visibly calmed himself. “That’s right, you did. Amazing, just amazing.”

“All this is on Sammy,” Perry said, pointing at the huge barbecue smoker, the crowds of sticky-fingered gorgers. “He’s the Disney guy.”

“Hence the shirts, huh?”

“Exactly.”

“So what’s the rumpus, exactly?” Francis asked. “It’s all been hush-hush around here for a solid week.”

“I think we’re about to find out,” Perry said, nodding at the gigantic screen, which rippled in the sultry Florida night-breeze, obscured by blowing clouds of fragrant smoke. It was lit up now, showing CNNfn, two pan-racial anchors talking silently into the night.

The speakers popped to life and gradually the crowd noises dimmed. People moved toward the screen, all except Francis and Perry and Sammy, who hung back, silently watching the screen.

“—guest on the show is Freddy Niedbalski, a technology reporter for the notorious British technology publication Tech Stink. Freddy has agreed to come on Countdown to break a story that will go live on Tech Stink’s website in about ten minutes.” The camera zoomed out to show Freddy, sitting beside the anchor desk in an armchair. His paunch was more pronounced than it had been when Perry had seen him in Madison, and there was something wrong with his makeup, a color mismatch that made him look like he’d slathered himself with Man-Tan. Still, he was grinning evilly and looking like he could barely contain himself.

“Thank you, Tania-Luz, it’s a pleasure.”

“Now, take us through the story. You’ve been covering it for a long time, haven’t you?”

“Oh yes. This is about the so-called ’New Work’ cult, and its aftermath. I’ve broken a series of scandals involving these characters over the years—weird sex, funny money, sweatshop labor. These are the people who spent all that money in the New Work bubble, and then went on to found an honest-to-God slum that they characterized as a ‘living laboratory.’”—out came the sarcastic finger-quotes—“but, as near as anyone can work out was more of a human subject experiment gone mad. They pulled off these bizarre stunts with the help of some of the largest investment funds on the planet.”

Perry looked around at the revellers. They were chortling, pointing at each other, mugging for the camera. Freddy’s words made Perry uncomfortable—maybe there was something to what he said. But there was Francis, unofficial mayor of the shantytown, smiling along with the rest. They hadn’t been perfect, but they’d left the world a better place than they’d found it.

“There are many personalities in this story, but tonight’s installment has two main players: a venture capitalist named Landon Kettlewell and a Disney Parks senior vice president called Sammy Page. Technically, these two hate each others’ guts—” Sammy and Kettlewell toasted each other through the barbecue smoke. “But they’ve been chumming up to one another lately as they brokered an improbable deal to shaft everyone else in the sordid mess.”

“A deal that you’ve got details on for us tonight?”

“Exactly. My sources have turned up reliable memos and other intelligence indicating that the investors behind the shantytown are about to take over Disney Parks. It all stems from a lawsuit that was brought on behalf of a syndicate of operators of bizarre, trademark infringing rides that were raided off the backs of complaints from Disney Parks. These raids, and a subsequent and very suspicious beating of an ex-Disney Park employee, led to the creation of an investment syndicate to fund a monster lawsuit against Disney Parks, one that could take the company down.

“The investment syndicate found an unlikely ally in the person of Sammy Page, the senior VP from Disney Parks, who worked with them to push through a plan where they would settle the lawsuit in exchange for a controlling interest in Disney Parks.”

The anchors looked suitably impressed. Around the screen, the partiers had gone quiet, even the kids, mesmerized by Freddy’s giant head, eyes rolling with irony and mean humor.

“And that’s just for starters. The deal required securing the cooperation of the beaten-up ex-Disney employee, who goes by the name of ’Death Waits’—no, really! — and he required that he be made a vice president of the new company as well, running the ’Fantasyland’ section of the Florida park. In the new structure, the two founders of the New Work scam, Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks are to oversee the Disneyfication of the activist rides around the country, selling out their comrades, who signed over control of their volunteer-built enterprises as part of the earlier lawsuit.”

The male anchor shook his head. “If this is true, it’s the strangest turn in American corporate history.”

“Oh yes,” Freddy said. “These people are like some kind of poison, a disease that affects the judgement of all those around them—”

“If it’s true,” the male anchor continued, as if Freddy hadn’t spoken. “But is it? Our next guest denies all of this, and claims that Mr Niedbalski has his facts all wrong. Tjan Lee Tang is the chairman of Massachusetts Ride Theorists, a nonprofit that operates three of the spin-off rides in New England. He is in our Boston studios. Welcome, Mr Tang.”

Freddy’s expression was priceless: a mixture of raw terror and contempt. He tried to cover it, but only succeeded in looking constipated. On the other half of the split-screen, Tjan beamed sunnily at them.

“Hi there!” he said. “Greetings from the blustery Northeast.”

“Mr Tang, you’ve heard what our guest has to say about the latest developments in the extraordinary story of the rides you helped create. Do you have any comment?”

“I certainly do. Freddy, old buddy, you’ve been had. Whomever your leak was in Disney, he was putting you on. There is not one single word of truth to anything you had to say.” He grinned wickedly. “So what else is new?”

Freddy opened his mouth and Tjan held up one hand. “No, wait, let me finish. I know it’s your schtick to come after us this way, you’ve been at it for years. I think it’s because you have an unrequited crush on Suzanne Church.

“Here’s what’s really happening. Lester Banks and Perry Gibbons have taken jobs with Disney Parks as part of a straightforward deal. They’re going to do research and development there, and Disney is settling its ongoing lawsuit with us with a seventy million dollar cash settlement. Half goes to the investors. Some of the remainder will go to buy the underlying titles to the shantytown and put them in a trust to be managed by a co-operative of residents. The rest is going into another trust that will be disbursed in grants to people operating rides around the country. There’s a non-monetary part of the deal, too: all rides get a perpetual, worldwide license on all Disney trademarks for use in the rides.”

The announcers smiled and nodded.

“We think this is a pretty good win. The rides go on. The shantytown goes on. Lester and Perry get to do great work in a heavily resourced lab environment.”

Tania Luz turned to Freddy. “It seems that your story is in dispute. Do you have further comment?”

Freddy squirmed. A streak of sweat cut through his pancake makeup as the camera came in for a closeup. “Well, if this is true, I’d want to know why Disney would make such a generous offer—”

“Generous?” Tjan said. He snorted. “We were asking for eight billion in punitive damages. They got off easy!”

Freddy acted like he hadn’t heard. “Unless the terms of this so-called deal are published and subject to scrutiny—”

“We posted them about five minutes ago. You could have just asked us, you know.”

Freddy’s eyes bugged out. “We have no way of knowing whether what this man is saying is true—”

“Actually, you do. Like I say, it’s all online. The deals are signed. Securities filings and everything.”

Freddy got up out of his seat. “Would you shut up and let me finish?” he screamed.

“Sorry, sorry,” Tjan said with a chuckle. He was enjoying this way too much. “Go on.”

“And what about Death Waits? He’s been a pawn all along in this game you’ve played with other people’s lives. What happens to him as you all get rich?”

Tjan shrugged. “He got a large cash settlement too. He seemed pretty happy about it—”

Freddy was shaking. “You can’t just sell off your lawsuit—”

“We were looking to get compensated for bad acts. We got compensated for them, and we did it without tying up the public courts. Everybody wins.” He cocked his head. “Except you, of course.”

“This was a fucking ambush,” Freddy said, pointing his fingers at the two coiffed and groomed anchors, who shied away dramatically, making him look even crazier. He stormed off the stage, cursing, every word transmitted by his still-running wireless mic. He shouted at an invisible security guard to get out of his way. Then they heard him make a phone-call, presumably to his editor, shouting at him to kill the article, nearly weeping in frustration. The anchors and Tjan pasted on unconvincing poker-faces, but around the BBQ pit, it was all howls of laughter, which turned to shrieks when Freddy finally figured out that he was still on a live mic.

Perry and Sammy locked eyes and grinned. Perry ticked a little salute off his forehead at Sammy and hefted his tee. Then he turned on his heel and walked off into the night, the fragrant smell of the barbecue smoke and the sound of the party behind him.

He parked his car at home and trudged up the stairs. Hilda had packed her suitcase that morning. He had a lot more than a suitcase’s worth of stuff around the apartment, but as he threw a few t-shirts—including his new fake bootleg Mickey tee—and some underwear in a bag, he suddenly realized that he didn’t care about any of it.

Then he happened upon the baseball glove. The cloud of old leather smell it emitted when he picked it up made tears spring into his eyes. He hadn’t cried through any of this process, though, and he wasn’t about to start now. He wiped his eyes with his forearm and reverently set the glove into his bag and shut it. He carried both bags downstairs and put them in the trunk, then he drove to just a little ways north of the ride and called Hilda to let her know he was ready to go.

She didn’t say a word when she got in the car, and neither did he, all the way to Miami airport. He took his frisking and secondary screening in stoic silence, and once they were seated on the Chicago flight, he put his head down on Hilda’s shoulder and she stroked his hair until he fell asleep.

Epilogue

Lester was in his workshop when Perry came to see him. He had the yoga mat out and he was going through the slow exercises that his physiotherapist had assigned to him, stretching his crumbling bones and shrinking muscles, trying to keep it all together. He’d fired three physios, but Suzanne kept finding him new ones, and (because she loved him) prettier ones.

He was down on all fours, his ass stuck way up in the air, when Perry came through the door. He looked back through his ankles and squinted at the upside-down world. Perry’s expression was carefully neutral, the same upside-down as it would be right-side-up. He grunted and went down to his knees, which crackled like popcorn.

“That doesn’t sound good,” Perry remarked mildly.

“Funny man,” Lester said. “Get over here and help me up, will you?”

Perry went down in a crouch before him. There was something funny about his eye, the whole side of his head. He smelled a little sweaty and a little gamy, but the face was the one Lester knew so well. Perry held out his strong, leathery hands, and after a moment, Lester grasped them and let Perry drag him to his feet.

They stood facing one another for an uncomfortable moment, hands clasped together. Then Perry flung his arms wide and shouted, “Here I am!”

Lester laughed and embraced his old friend, not seen or heard from these last 15 years.

Lester’s workshop had a sofa where he entertained visitors and took his afternoon nap. Normally, he’d use his cane to cross from his workbench to the sofa, but seeing Perry threw him for such a loop that he completely forgot until he was a pace or two away from it and then he found himself flailing for support as his hips started to give way. Perry caught him under the shoulders and propped him up. Lester felt a rush of shame color his cheeks.

“Steady there, cowboy,” Perry said.

“Sorry, sorry,” Lester muttered.

Perry lowered him to the sofa, then looked around. “You got anything to drink? Water? I didn’t really expect the bus would take as long as it did.”

“You’re taking the bus around Burbank?” Lester said. “Christ, Perry, this is Los Angeles. Even homeless people drive cars.”

Perry looked away and shook his head. “The bus is cheaper.” Lester pursed his lips. “You got anything to drink?”

“In the fridge,” Lester said, pointing to a set of nested clay pot evaporative coolers. Perry grinned at the jury-rigged cooler and rummaged around in its mouth for a while. “Anything, you know, buzzy? Guarana? Caffeine, even?”

Lester gave an apologetic shrug. “Not me, not anymore. Nothing goes into my body without oversight by a team of very expensive nutritionists.”

“You don’t look so bad,” Perry said. “Maybe a little skinny—”

Lester cut him off. “Not bad like the people you see on TV, huh? Not bad like the dying ones.” The fatkins had overwhelmed the nation’s hospitals in successive waves of sickened disintegrating skeletons whose brittle bones and ruined joints had outstripped anyone’s ability to cope with them. The only thing that kept the crisis from boiling over entirely was the fast mortality that followed on the first symptoms—difficulty digesting, persistent stiffness. Once you couldn’t keep down high-calorie slurry, you just starved to death.

“Not like them,” Perry agreed. He had a bit of limp, Lester saw, and his old broken arm hung slightly stiff at his side.

“I’m doing OK,” Lester said. “You wouldn’t believe the medical bills, of course.”

“Don’t let Freddy know you’ve got the sickness,” Perry said. “He’d love that story—’fatkins pioneer pays the price—”

“Freddy! Man, I haven’t thought of that shitheel in—Christ, a decade, at least. Is he still alive?”

Perry shrugged. “Might be. I’d think that if he’d keeled over someone would have asked me to pitch in to charter a bus to go piss on his grave.”

Lester laughed hard, so hard he hurt his chest and had to sag back into the sofa, doing deep yoga breathing until his ribs felt better.

Perry sat down opposite him on the sofa with a bottle of Lester’s special thrice-distilled flat water in a torpedo-shaped bottle. “Suzanne?” he asked.

“Good,” Lester said. “Spends about half her time here and half on the road. Writing, still.”

“What’s she on to now?”

“Cooking, if you can believe it. Molecular gastronomy—food hackers who use centrifuges to clarify their consomme. She says she’s never eaten better. Last week it was some kid who’d written a genetic algorithm to evolve custom printable molecules that can bridge two unharmonius flavors to make them taste good together—like, what do you need to add to chocolate and sardines to make them freakin’ delicious?”

“Is there such a molecule?”

“Suzanne says there is. She said that they misted it into her face with a vaporizer while she ate a sardine on a slab of dark chocolate and it tasted better than anything she’d ever had before.”

“OK, that’s just wrong,” Perry said. The two of them were grinning at each other like fools.

Lester couldn’t believe how good it felt to be in the same room as Perry again after all these years. His old friend was much older than the last time they’d seen each other. There was a lot of grey in his short hair, and his hairline was a lot higher up his forehead. His knuckles were swollen and wrinkled, and his face had deep lines, making him look carved. He had the leathery skin of a roadside homeless person, and there were little scars all over his arms and a few on his throat.

“How’s Hilda?” Lester asked.

Perry looked away. “That’s a name I haven’t heard in a while,” he said.

“Yowch. Sorry.”

“No, that’s OK. I get email blasts from her every now and again. She’s chipper and scrappy as always. Fighting the good fight. Fatkins stuff again—same as when I met her. Funny how that fight never gets old.”

“Hardy har har,” Lester said.

“OK, we’re even,” Perry said. “One-one on the faux-pas master’s tournament.”

They chatted about inconsequetalities for a while, stories about Lester’s life as the closeted genius at Disney Labs, Perry’s life on the road, getting itinerant and seasonal work at little micro-factories.

“Don’t they recognize you?”

“Me? Naw, it’s been a long time since I got recognized. I’m just the guy, you know, he’s handy, keeps to himself. Probably going to be moving on soon. Good with money, always has a quiet suggestion for tweaking an idea to make it return a little higher on the investment.”

“That’s you, all right. All except the ’keeps to himself’ part.”

“A little older, a little wiser. Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

“Thank you, Mister Twain. You and Huck been on the river a while then?”

“No Huck,” he said. His smile got sad, heartbreakingly sad. This wasn’t the Perry Lester knew. Lester wasn’t the same person, either. They were both broken. Perry was alone, though—gregarious Perry, always making friends. Alone.

“So, how long are you staying?”

“I’m just passing through, buddy. I woke up in Burbank this morning and I thought, ‘Shit, Lester’s in Burbank, I should say hello.’ But I got places to go.”

“Come on, man, stay a while. We’ve got a guest-cottage out back, a little mother-in-law apartment. There are fruit trees, too.”

“Living the dream, huh?” He sounded unexpectedly bitter.

Lester was embarrassed for his wealth. Disney had thrown so much stock at him in the beginning and Suzanne had sold most of it and wisely invested it in a bunch of micro-funds; add to that the money she was raking in from the affiliate sites her Junior Woodchucks—kid-reporters she’d trained and set up in business—ran, and they never had to worry about a thing.

“Well, apart from dying. And working here.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he wished he could take them back. He never let on that he wasn’t happy at the Mouse, and the dying thing—well, Suzanne and he liked to pretend that medical science would cure what it had brought.

Perry, though, he just nodded as if his suspicions were confirmed. “Must be hard on Suzanne.”

Now that was hitting the nail on the head. “You always were a perceptive son of a bitch.”

“She never said fatkins was good for you. She just reported the story. The people who blame her—”

This was the elephant in the room whenever Lester and Suzanne talked about his health. Between the two of them, they’d popularized fatkins, sent millions winging to Russia for the clinics, fuelled the creation of the clinics in the US and Mexico.

But they never spoke of it. Never. Now Perry was talking about it, still talking:

“—the FDA, the doctors. That’s what we pay them for. The way I see it, you’re a victim, their victim.”

Lester couldn’t say anything. Words stoppered themselves up in his mouth like a cork. Finally, he managed to choke out, “Change the subject, OK?”

Perry looked down. “Sorry. I’m out of practice with people.”

“I hope you’ll stay with us,” he said, thinking I hope you leave soon and never come back.

“You miss it, huh?”

“Sometimes.”

“You said working here—”

“Working here. They said that they wanted me to come in and help them turn the place around, help them reinvent themselves. Be nimble. Shake things up. But it’s like wrestling a tar-baby. You push, you get stuck. You argue for something better and they tell you to write a report, then no one reads the report. You try to get an experimental service running and no one will reconfigure the firewall. Turn the place around?” He snorted. “It’s like turning around a battleship by tapping it on the nose with a toothpick.”

“I hate working with assholes.”

“They’re not assholes, that’s the thing, Perry. They’re some really smart people. They’re nice. We have them over for dinner. They’re fun to eat lunch with. The thing is, every single one of them feels the same way I do. They all have cool shit they want to do, but they can’t do it.”

“Why?”

“It’s like an emergent property. Once you get a lot of people under one roof, the emergent property seems to be crap. No matter how great the people are, no matter how wonderful their individual ideas are, the net effect is shit.”

“Reminds me of reliability calculation. Like if you take two components that are 90 percent reliable and use them in a design, the outcome is 90 percent of 90 percent—81 percent. Keep adding 90 percent reliable components and you’ll have something that explodes before you get it out of the factory.

“Maybe people are like that. If you’re 90 percent non-bogus and ten percent bogus, and you work with someone else who’s 90 percent non-bogus, you end up with a team that’s 81 percent non-bogus.”

“I like that model. It makes intuitive sense. But fuck me, it’s depressing. It says that all we do is magnify each others’ flaws.”

“Well, maybe that’s the case. Maybe flaws are multiplicative.”

“So what are virtues?”

“Additive, maybe. A shallower curve.”

“That’d be an interesting research project, if you could come up with some quantitative measurements.”

“So what do you do around here all day?”

Lester blushed.

“What?”

“I’m building bigger mechanical computers, mostly. I print them out using the new volumetrics and have research assistants assemble them. There’s something soothing about them. I have an Apple][+ clone running entirely on physical gates made out of extruded plastic skulls. It takes up an entire building out on one of the lots and when you play Pong on it, the sound of the jaws clacking is like listening to corpse beetles skeletonizing an elephant.”

“I think I’d like to see that,” Perry said, laughing a little.

“That can be arranged,” Lester said.

They were like gears that had once emerged from a mill with perfectly precise teeth, gears that could mesh and spin against each other, transferring energy.

They were like gears that had been ill-used in machines, apart from each other, until their precise teeth had been chipped and bent, so that they no longer meshed.

They were like gears, connected to one another and mismatched, clunking and skipping, but running still, running still.

Perry and Lester rode in the back of the company car, the driver an old Armenian who’d fled Azerbaijan, whom Lester introduced as Kapriel. It seemed that Lester and Kapriel were old friends, which made sense, since Lester couldn’t drive himself, and in Los Angeles, you didn’t go anywhere except by car. The relationship between a man and his driver would be necessarily intimate.

Perry couldn’t bring himself to feel envious of Lester having a chauffeured car, though it was clear that Lester was embarrassed by the luxury. It was too much like an invalid’s subsidy to feel excessive.

“Kap,” Lester said, stirring in the nest of paper and parts and empty health-food packages that he’d made of the back-seat.

Kapriel looked over his shoulder at them. “Home now?” He barely had an accent, but when he turned his head, Perry saw that one ear had been badly mangled, leaving behind a misshapen fist of scar.

“No,” Lester said. “Let’s eat out tonight. How about Musso and Frank?”

“Ms Suzanne says—”

“We don’t need to tell her,” Lester said.

Perry spoke in a low voice, “Lester, I don’t need anything special. Don’t make yourself sick—”

“Perry, buddy, shut the fuck up, OK? I can have a steak and a beer and a big-ass dessert every now and again. Purified medicated fatkins-chow gets old. My colon isn’t going to fall out of my asshole in terror if I send a cheeseburger down there.”

They parked behind Musso and Frank and let the valet park the town car. Kapriel went over to the Walk of Fame to take pictures of the robotic movie stars doing acrobatic busking acts, and they went into the dark cave of the restaurant, all dark wood, dark carpets, pictures of movie stars on the walls. The maitre d’ gave them a look, tilted his head, looked again. Calmly, Lester produced a hundred-dollar bill and slid it across the podium.

“We’d like Orson Welles’s table, please,” he said.

The maitre d’—an elderly, elegant Mexican with a precise spade beard—nodded affably. “Give me five minutes, gentlemen. Would you care to have a drink in the bar?”

They sat at the long counter and Perry ordered a Scotch and soda. Lester ordered water, then switched his order to beer, then non-alcoholic beer, then beer again. “Sorry,” he said to the waitress. “Just having an indecisive kind of night, I guess.”

Perry tried to figure out if Lester had been showing off with the c-note, and decided that he hadn’t been. He’d just gone native in LA, and a hundred for the maitre d’ when you’re in a hurry can’t be much for a senior exec.

Lester sipped gingerly at his beer. “I like this place,” he said, waving the bottle at the celebrity caricatures lining the walls. “It’s perfect Hollyweird kitsch. Celebrities who usually eat out in some ultra-modern place come here. They come because they’ve always come—to sit in Orson Welles’s booth.”

“How’s the food?”

“Depends on what you order. The good stuff is great. You down for steaks?”

“I’m down for whatever,” Perry said. Lester was in his medium here, letting the waiter unfold his napkin and lay it over his lap without taking any special notice of the old man.

The food was delicious, and they even got to glimpse a celebrity, though neither Perry nor Lester knew who the young woman was, nor what she was famous for. She was surrounded by children who came over from other tables seeking autographs, and more than one patron snapped a semi-subtle photo of her.

“Poor girl,” Perry said with feeling.

“It’s a career decision here. You decide to become famous because you want that kind of life. Sometimes you even kid yourself that it’ll last forever—that in thirty years, they’ll come into Musso and Frank and ask for Miss Whatshername’s table. Anyone who wants to know what stardom looks like can find out—and no one becomes a star by accident.”

“You think?” Perry said. “I mean, we were celebs, kind of, for a while there—”

“Are you saying that that happened by accident?”

“I never set out to get famous—”

“You took part in a national movement, Perry. You practically founded it. What did you think was going to happen—”

“You’re saying that we were just attention whores—”

“No, Perry, no. We weren’t just attention whores. We were attention whores and we built and ran cool shit. There’s nothing wrong with being an attention whore. It’s an attention economy. If you’re going to be a working stiff, you should pick a decent currency to get paid in. But you can’t sit there and tell me that it didn’t feel good, didn’t feel great to have all those people looking up to us, following us into battle, throwing themselves at us—”

Perry held up his hands. His friend was looking more alive than he had at any time since Perry had been ushered into his workshop. He sat up straight, and the old glint of mischief and good humor was in his eye.

“I surrender, buddy, you’re right.” They ordered desserts, heavy “diplomat puddings”—bread pudding made with cake and cherries, and Lester dug in, after making Perry swear not to breathe a word of it to Suzanne. He ate with such visible pleasure that Perry felt like a voyeur.

“How long did you say you were in town for?”

“I’m just passing through,” Perry said. He had only planned on maybe seeing Lester long enough for lunch or something. Now it seemed a foregone conclusion that he’d be put up in the “guest cottage.” He thought about getting back on the road. There was a little gang in Oregon that made novelty school supplies, they were always ramping up for their busy season at this time of year. They were good people to work for.

“Come on, where you got to be? Stay a week. I’ll put you on the payroll as a consultant. You can give lunch-hour talks to the R&D team, whatever you want.”

“Lester, you just got through telling me how much you hate your job—”

“That’s the beauty of contracting—you don’t stick around long enough to hate it, and you never have to worry about the org chart. Come on, pal—”

“I’ll think about it.”

Lester fell asleep on the car ride home, and Kapriel didn’t mind if Perry didn’t want to chat, so he just rolled his windows down and watched the LA lights scream past as they hit the premium lanes on the crosstown freeways, heading to Lester’s place in Topanga Canyon. When they arrived, Lester roused himself heavily, clutched his stomach, then raced for the house. Kapriel shook his head and rolled his eyes, then showed Perry to the front door and shook his hand.

In the morning, he prowled Lester and Suzanne’s place like a burglar. The guesthouse had once served as Lester’s workshop and it had the telltale leavings of a busy inventor—drawers and tubs of parts, a moldy coffee-cup in a desk-drawer, pens and toys and unread postal spam in piles. What it didn’t have was a kitchen, so Perry helped himself to the key that Lester had left him with the night before and wandered around the big house, looking for the kitchen.

It turned out to be on the second floor, a bit of weird architectural design that was characteristic of the place, which had started as a shack in the hills on several acres of land and then grown and grown as successive generations of owners had added extensions, seismic retrofitting, and new floors.

Perry found the pantries filled with high-tech MREs, each nutritionally balanced and fortified in ways calculated to make Lester as healthy as possible. Finally, he found a small cupboard clearly devoted to Suzanne’s eating, with boxes of breakfast cereal and, way in the back, a little bag of Oreos. He munched thoughtfully on the cookies while drinking more of the flat, thrice-distilled water.

He heard Lester totter into a bathroom on the floor above, and called “Good morning,” up a narrow, winding staircase.

Lester groaned back at him, a sound that Perry hadn’t heard in years, that theatrical oh-my-shit-it’s-another-day sound.

He clomped down the stairs with his cane, wearing a pair of boxer-shorts and rubber slippers. He was gaunt, the hair on his sunken chest gone wiry grey, and the skin around his torso sagged. From the neck down, he looked a hundred years old. Perry looked away.

“Morning, bro,” Lester said, and took a vacuum-sealed pouch out of a medical white box over the sink, tore it open, added purified water, and put it in the microwave. The smell was like wet cardboard in a dumpster. Perry wrinkled his nose.

“Tastes better than it smells. Or looks,” Lester said. “Very easy on the digestion. Which I need. Never let me pig out like that again, OK?”

He collapsed heavily into a stool and closed his sunken eyes. Without opening them, he said, “So, are you in?”

“Am I in?”

“You going to come on board as my consultant?”

“You were serious about that, huh?”

“Perry, they can’t fire me. If I quit, I lose my health bennies, which means I’ll be broke in a month. Which puts us at an impasse. I’m past feeling guilty about doing nothing much all day long, but that doesn’t mean I’m not bored.”

“You make it sound so attractive.”

“You got something better to do?”

“I’m in.”

Suzanne came home a week later and found them sitting up in the living room. They’d pushed all the furniture up against the walls and covered the floor with board-game boards, laid edge-to-edge or overlapping. They had tokens, cards and money from several of the games laid out around the rims of the games.

“What the blistering fuck?” she said good naturedly. Lester had told her that Perry was around, so she’d been prepared for something odd, but this was pretty amazing, even so. Lester held up a hand for silence and rolled two dice. They skittered across the floor, one of them slipping through the heating-grating.

“Three points,” Perry said. “One for not going into the grating, two for going into the grating.”

“I thought we said it was two points for not going into the grating, and one for dropping it?”

“Let’s call it 1.5 points for each.”

“Gentlemen,” Suzanne said, “I believe I asked a question? To wit, ’What the blistering fuck—’”

“Calvinball,” Lester said. “Like in the old Calvin and Hobbes strips. The rules are, the rules can never be the same twice.”

“And you’re supposed to wear a mask,” Perry said. “But we kept stepping on the pieces.”

“No peripheral vision,” Lester said.

“Caucus race!” Perry yelled, and took a lap around the world. Lester struggled to his feet, the flopped back down.

“I disbelieve,” he said, taking up two ten-sided dice and rolling them. “87,” he said.

“Fine,” Perry said. He picked up a Battleship board and said, “B7,” and then he said, “What’s the score, anyway?”

“Orange to seven,” Lester said.

“Who’s orange?”

“You are.”

“Shit. OK, let’s take a break.”

Suzanne tried to hold in her laughter, but she couldn’t. She ended up doubled over, tears streaming down her face. When she straightened up, Lester hobbled to her and gave her a surprisingly strong welcome-home hug. He smelled like Lester, like the man she’d shared her bed with all these years.

Perry held out his hand to her and she yanked him into a long, hard hug.

“It’s good to have you back, Perry,” she said, once she’d kissed both his cheeks.

“It’s fantastic to see you, Suzanne,” he said. He was thinner than she remembered, with snow on the roof, but he was still handsome as a pirate.

“We missed you. Tell me everything you’ve been up to.”

“It’s not interesting,” he said. “Really.”

“I find that difficult to believe.”

So he told them stories from the road, and they were interesting in a kind of microcosm sort of way. Stories about interesting characters he’d met, improbable meals he’d eaten, bad working conditions, memorable rides hitched.

“So that’s it?” Suzanne said. “That’s what you’ve done?”

“It’s what I do,” he said.

“And you’re happy?”

“I’m not sad,” he said.

She shook her head involuntarily. Perry stiffened.

“What’s wrong with not sad?”

“There’s nothing wrong with it, Perry. I’m—” she faltered, searched for the words. “Remember when I first met you, met both of you, in that ghost mall? You weren’t just happy, you were hysterical. Remember the Boogie-Woogie Elmos? The car they drove?”

Perry looked away. “Yeah,” he said softly. There was a hitch in his voice.

“All I’m saying is, it doesn’t have to be this way. You could—”

“Could what?” he said. He sounded angry, but she thought that he was just upset. “I could go work for Disney, sit in a workshop all day making crap no one cares about? Be the wage-slave for the end of my days, a caged monkey for some corporate sultan’s zoo?” The phrase was Lester’s, and Suzanne knew then that Perry and Lester had been talking about it.

Lester, leaning heavily against her on the sofa (they’d pushed it back into the room, moving aside pieces of the Calvinball game), made a warning sound and gave her knee a squeeze. Aha, definitely territory they’d covered before then.

“You two have some of the finest entrepreneurial instincts I’ve ever encountered,” she said. Perry snorted.

“What’s more, I’ve never seen you happier than you were back when I first met you, making stuff for the sheer joy of it and selling it to collectors. Do you know how many collectors would pony up for an original Gibbons/Banks today? You two could just do that forever—”

“Lester’s medical—”

“Lester’s medical nothing. You two get together on this, you could make so much money, we could buy Lester his own hospital.” Besides, Lester won’t last long no matter what happens. She didn’t say it, but there it was. She’d come to grips with the reality years ago, when his symptoms first appeared—when all the fatkins’ symptoms began to appear. Now she could think of it without getting that hitch in her chest that she’d gotten at first. Now she could go away for a week to work on a story without weeping every night, then drying her eyes and calling Lester to make sure he was still alive.

“I’m not saying you need to do this to the exclusion of everything else, or forever—” there is no forever for Lester “—but you two would have to be insane not to try it. Look at this board-game thing you’ve done—”

“Calvinball,” Perry said.

“Calvinball. Right. You were made for this. You two make each other better. Perry, let’s be honest here. You don’t have anything better to do.”

She held her breath. It had been years since she’d spoken to Perry, years since she’d had the right to say things like that to him. Once upon a time, she wouldn’t have thought twice, but now—

“Let me sleep on it,” Perry said.

Which meant no, of course. Perry didn’t sleep on things. He decided to do things. Sometimes he decided wrong, but he’d never had trouble deciding.

That night, Lester rubbed her back, the way he always did when she came back from the road, using the hand-cream she kept on her end-table. His hands had once been so strong, mechanic’s hands, stubby-fingered pistons he could drive tirelessly into the knots in her back. Now they smoothed and petted, a rub, not a massage. Every time she came home, it was gentler, somehow more loving. But she missed her massages. Sometimes she thought she should tell him not to bother anymore, but she was afraid of what it would mean to end this ritual—and how many more rituals would end in its wake.

It was the briefest backrub yet and then he slid under the covers with her. She held him for a long time, spooning him from behind, her face in the nape of his neck, kissing his collar bone the way he liked, and he moaned softly.

“I love you, Suzanne,” he said.

“What brought that on?”

“It’s just good to have you home,” he said.

“You seem to have been taking pretty good care of yourself while I was away, getting in some Perry time.”

“I took him to Musso and Frank,” he said. “I ate like a pig.”

“And you paid the price, didn’t you?”

“Yeah. For days.”

“Serves you right. That Perry is such a bad influence on my boy.”

“I’ll miss him.”

“You think he’ll go, then?”

“You know he will.”

“Oh, honey.”

“Some wounds don’t heal,” he said. “I guess.”

“I’m sure it’s not that,” Suzanne said. “He loves you. I bet this is the best week he’s had in years.”

“So why wouldn’t he want to stay?” Lester’s voice came out in the petulant near-sob she had only ever heard when he was in extreme physical pain. It was a voice she heard more and more often lately.

“Maybe he’s just afraid of himself. He’s been on the run for a long time. You have to ask yourself, what’s he running from? It seems to me that he’s spent his whole life trying to avoid having to look himself in the eye.”

Lester sighed and she squeezed him tight. “How’d we get so screwed up?”

“Oh, baby,” she said, “we’re not screwed up. We’re just people who want to do things, big things. Any time you want to make a difference, you face the possibility that you’ll, you know, make a difference. It’s a consequence of doing things with consequences.”

“Gak,” he said. “You always get so Zen-koan when you’re on the road.”

“Gives me time to reflect. Were you reading?”

“Was I reading? Suzanne, I read your posts whenever I feel lonely. It’s kind of like having you home with me.”

“You’re sweet.”

“Did you really eat sardines on sorbet toast?”

“Don’t knock it. It’s better than it sounds. Lots better.”

“You can keep it.”

“Listen to Mr Musso and Frank—boy, you’ve got no business criticizing anyone else’s food choices.”

He heaved a happy sigh. “I love you, Suzanne Church.”

“You’re a good man, Lester Banks.”

Perry met them at the breakfast table the next morning as Suzanne was fiddling with the espresso machine, steaming soy milk for her latte. He wore a pair of Lester’s sloppy drawstring pants and a t-shirt for a motorcycle shop in Kansas City that was spotted with old motor-oil stains.

“Bom dia,” he said, and chucked Lester on the shoulder. He was carrying himself with a certain stiffness, and Suzanne thought, Here it comes; he’s going to say goodbye. Perry Gibbons, you bastard.

“Morning,” Lester said, brittle and chipper.

Perry dug around on Suzanne’s non-medicated food-shelf for a while and came up with a bagel for the toaster and a jar of peanut butter. No one said anything while he dug around for the big bread knife, found the cutting board, toasted the bagel, spread peanut butter, and took a bite. Suzanne and Lester just continued to eat, in uncomfortable silence. Tell him, Suzanne urged silently. Get it over with, damn you.

“I’m in,” Perry said, around a mouthful of bagel, looking away.

Suzanne saw that he had purple bags under his eyes, like he hadn’t slept a wink all night.

“I’m staying. If you’ll have me. Let’s make some stuff.”

He put the bagel down and swallowed. He looked back at Lester and the two old comrades locked eyes for a long moment.

Lester smiled. “All right!” He danced a shuffling step, mindful of his sore hips. “All right, buddy, fuckin’ A! Yeah!”

Suzanne tried to fade then, to back out of the room and let them do their thing, but Lester caught her arm and drew her into an embrace, tugging on her arm with a strength she’d forgotten he had.

He gave her a hard kiss. “I love you, Suzanne Church,” he said. “You’re my savior.”

Perry made a happy sound behind her.

“I love you, too, Lester,” she said, squeezing his skinny, brittle back.

Lester let go of her and she turned to face Perry. Tears pricked his eyes, and she found that she was crying too. She gave him a hug, and felt the ways that his body had changed since she’d last held him, back in Florida, back in some forgotten time. He was thicker, but still solid, and he smelled the same. She put her lips close to his ear and whispered, “You’re a good man, Perry Gibbons.”

Lester gave his notice that morning. Though it was 8PM in Tehran when Lester called, Sammy was at his desk.

“Why are you telling me this, Lester?”

“It says in my contract that I have to give my notice to you, specifically.”

“Why the hell did I put that there?” Sammy’s voice sounded far away—not just in Iran. It sounded like he had travelled through time, too.

“Politics, I think,” he said.

“Hard to remember. Probably wanted to be sure that someone like Wiener wouldn’t convince you to quit, switch companies, and hire you again.”

“Not much risk of that now,” Lester said. “Let’s face it, Sammy, I don’t actually do anything for the company.”

“Nope. That’s right. We’re not very good at making use of people like you.”

“Nope.”

“Well, email me your paperwork and I’ll shove it around. How much notice are you supposed to give?”

“Three months’.”

“Yowch. Whatever. Just pack up and go home. Gardening leave.”

It had been two years since Lester’d had any contact with Sammy, but it was clear that running Iranian ops had mellowed him out. Harder to get into trouble with women there, anyway.

“How’s Iran treating you?”

“The Middle East operation is something else, boy. You’d like it here. The post-war towns all look like your squatter city—the craziest buildings you ever saw. They love the DiaBs though—we get the most fantastic designs through the fan channels….” He trailed off. Then, with a note of suspicion: “What are you going to do now?”

Ah. No sense in faking it. “Perry and I are going to go into business together. Making kinetic sculptures. Like the old days.”

“No way! Perry Gibbons? You two are back together? Christ, we’re all doomed.” He was laughing. “Sculptures—like that toast robot? And he wants to go into business? I thought he was some kind of Commie.”

Lester had a rush of remembrance, the emotional memory of how much he’d hated this man and everything he stood for. What had happened to him over the years that he counted this sneak, this thug, as his colleague? What had he sold when he sold out?

“Perry Gibbons,” Lester said, and drew in a breath. “Perry Gibbons is the sharpest entrepreneur I’ve ever met. He can’t help but make businesses. He’s an artist who anticipates the market a year ahead of the curve. He could be a rich man a hundred times over if he chose. Commie? Page, you’re not fit to keep his books.”

The line went quiet, the eerie silence of a net-connection with no packets routing on it. “Goodbye, Lester,” Sammy said at length.

Lester wanted to apologize. He wanted not to want to apologize. He swallowed the apology and disconnected the line.

When it was time for bed, Suzanne shut her lid and put the computer down beside the sofa. She stepped carefully around the pieces of the Calvinball game that still covered the living room floor and stepped into a pair of slippers. She slid open the back door and hit the switch for the yard’s flood-light. The last thing she wanted to do was trip into the pool.

She picked her way carefully down the flagstones that led to the workshop, where the lights burned merrily in the night. There was no moon tonight, and the stars were laid out like a bag of synthetic diamonds arrayed on a piece of black velour in a street market stall.

She peered through the window before she went around to the door, the journalist in her wanting to fix an image of the moment in her mind before she moved in and disturbed it. That was the problem with being a reporter—everything changed the instant you started reporting on it. By now, there wasn’t a person alive who didn’t know what it means to be in the presence of a reporter. She was a roving Panopticon.

The scene inside the workshop was eerie. Perry and Lester stood next to each other, cheek by jowl, hunched over something on the workbench. Perry had a computer open in front of him, and he was typing, Lester holding something out of sight.

How many times had she seen this tableau? How many afternoons had she spent in the workshop in Florida, watching them hack a robot, build a sculpture, turn out the latest toy for Tjan’s amusement, Kettlewell’s enrichment? The postures were identical—though their bodies had changed, the hair thinner and grayer. Like someone had frozen one of those innocent moments in time for a decade, then retouched it with wizening makeup and hair-dye.

She must have made a noise, because Lester looked up—or maybe it was just the uncanny, semi-psychic bond between an old married couple. He grinned at her like he was ten years old and she grinned back and went around to the door.

“Hello, boys,” she said. They straightened up, both of them unconsciously cradling their low backs, and she suppressed a grin. My little boys, all grown up.

“Darling!” Lester said. “Come here, have a look!”

He put his arm over her shoulders and walked her to the bench, leaning on her a little.

It was in pieces, but she could see where it was going: a pair of familiar boxy shapes, two of Lester’s mechanical computers, their cola-can registers spilling away in a long daisy-chain of worm-gears and rotating shafts. One figure was big and round-shouldered like a vintage refrigerator. The other was cockeyed, half its gears set higher than the other half. Each had a single, stark mechanical arm extended before it, and at the end of each arm was a familiar cracked and fragrant baseball glove.

Lester put a ball into one of the gloves and Perry hammered away at the keyboard. Very, very slowly, the slope-shouldered robot drew its mechanical arm back—“We used one of the open-source prosthestic plans,” Lester whispered in the tense moment. Then it lobbed a soft underhand toss to the lopsided one.

The ball arced through the air and the other bot repositioned its arm in a series of clattering jerks. It seemed to Suzanne that the ball would miss the glove and bounce off of the robot’s carapace, and she winced. Then, at the very last second, the robot repositioned its arm with one more fast jerk, and the ball fell into the pocket.

A moment later, the lopsided bot—Perry, it was Perry, that was easy to see—tossed the ball to the round-shouldered one, who was clearly her Lester, as she’d first known him. Lester-bot caught the ball with a similar series of jerks and returned the volley.

It was magic to watch the robots play their game of catch. Suzanne was mesmerized, mouth open. Lester squeezed her shoulder with uncontained excitement.

The Lester-bot lobbed one to Perry-bot, but Perry-bot flubbed the toss. The ball made a resounding gong sound as it bounced off of Perry-bot’s carapace, and Perry-bot wobbled.

Suzanne winced, but Lester and Perry both dissolved in gales of laughter. She watched the Perry-bot try to get itself re-oriented, aligning its torso to face Lester-bot and she saw that it was funny, very funny, like a particularly great cartoon.

“They do that on purpose?”

“Not exactly—but there’s no way they’re going to be perfect, so we built in a bunch of stuff that would make it funnier when it happened. It is now officially a feature, not a bug.” Perry glowed with pride.

“Isn’t it bad for them to get beaned with a baseball?” she asked as Lester carefully handed the ball to Perry-bot, who lobbed it to Lester-bot again.

“Well, yeah. But it’s kind of an artistic statement,” Perry said, looking away from them both. “About the way that friendships always wear you down, like upper and lower molars grinding away at each other.”

Lester squeezed her again. “Over time, they’ll knock each other apart.”

Tears pricked at Suzanne’s eyes. She blinked them away. “Guys, this is great.” Her voice cracked, but she didn’t care. Lester squeezed her tighter.

“Come to bed soon, hon,” she said to Lester. “I’m going away again tomorrow afternoon—New York, a restaurant opening.”

“I’ll be right up,” Lester said, and kissed the top of her head. She’d forgotten that he was that tall. He didn’t stand all the way up.

She went to bed, but she couldn’t sleep. She crossed to the window and drew back the curtain and looked out at the backyard—the scummy swimming pool she kept forgetting to do something about, the heavy grapefruit and lemon trees, the shed. Perry stood on the shed’s stoop, looking up at the night sky. She pulled the curtains around herself an instant before he looked up at her.

Their eyes met and he nodded slowly.

“Thank you,” she mouthed silently.

He blew her a kiss, stuck out a foot, and then bowed slightly over his outstretched leg.

She let the curtain fall back into place and went back to bed. Lester climbed into bed with her a few minutes later and spooned up against her back, his face buried in her neck.

She fell asleep almost instantly.


PART II | Makers | Acknowledgements