Monday 1 July 2013

The Profiteers, Part 2

Preamble: Happy Canada Day! While you're drunk and sunburned, why not relax with a nice slice of science-fiction?

(The current serial continues beneath the fold.)

by Cheeseburger Brown

(This is the second post in a four-part serial, consisting of chapters 4, 5, 6 of the story. Chapters 1, 2, 3 can be read here.)


We built it; would they come?

Our initial setup was pretty pedestrian, to be honest. We had our street-facing hosting spread across a number of third-party providers, mostly Amazon and Citrix, bundled in layers of Vedmohan's cutting-edge obfuscationary code to keep American and Chinese cybers out of the loop before the data had a chance to get to the warehouse in Etobicoke where the isolation tanks hummed.

Our midtown office had warped floors and always smelled like the fish restaurant downstairs. The receptionist was an entry-level account with an AI provider based in Moncton whose audio avatars had even poorer people skills than Siri. There was no place to park. The ventilation was awful so the coders in their cubicles were always either too hot or too cold. Either way they complained.

Dennis hooted as he walked in, the door coughing as it caught on the warped floor. He passed a tray of hot coffees to the nearest person standing and let his coat fall at his feet. He was all teeth. "They finally came!"

"We've got a customer?" Vedmohan cried excitedly.

"No, the business cards!" said Dennis. "Check them out. Totally fancy. Metallic ink. Lenticular background, makes it look all three-d."

I squinted at the card as it was passed to me. "These look expensive, Dennis."

"You've got to spend money to make money, Miles."

"I borrowed my investment from my grandma. Pay me the minimal respect of at least pretending not to be cavalier about how you use it."

"I shopped around a lot before settling on a print supplier."

"You did not. But I appreciate the thought behind that lie."

"Beautiful. Now listen: we need to seed the hat before we can start dancing."

Vedmohan frowned and turned to me with furrowed brow. I shrugged. "What do you mean, Dennis?"

"You can't busk with an empty guitar case," said Dennis. "You drop a few bucks in there to give people the right idea."

"In your hat?"

"No, the hat's if you're dancing for tips. Slightly different analogy. When I write my business success book I'm not sure which version I'll use. Which do you guys think is more effective in communicating the idea?" Vedmohan and agreed it was the guitar one. Dennis nodded. "I think so, too. So we've got to seed the userbase with a couple of paying accounts."

"You want us to recruit friends and family?"

"No, this isn't Amway. We're going to need more than arm's length relationships with any of the initial subscribers. Otherwise it looks like fraud."

"It is fraud."

"Exactly. So let's keep it discrete."

Vedmohan's eyes widened. "What's this about fraud? I don't think my uncles will --"

Dennis put his arm around the kid's skinny shoulders. "It's just a figure of speech, kid. It's an English thing. Business expression."

"English is my first language. I was born and raised in Brampton. I am perfectly well acquainted with what fraud means."

"Have a coffee," said Dennis. "Miles, I'm going to need you do to me a favour."

I nodded, turning to Vedmohan. "It's not a big deal, Ved. It's like paying for a handful of Twitter followers so other people think it's cool to follow you. It's just to get the ball rolling, right Dennis?"

"Right," smiled Dennis, still squeezing Vedmohan's shoulders. To me: "Where's your car?"

"On St. Clair. Shit, I should put more money in the meter. What time is it?"

"Forget about it. I'm going to need you to do an errand. See that briefcase? It's got to go to this address this afternoon."

"What's in it?"

"The seed money. You're going to meet with this guy, give him the briefcase, he puts them on untraceable prepaid debit cards. These Russians, they have a machine that cranks them out. The seeders are going to use the cards to buy the seed accounts. See?"

"Where the hell did you get that kind of money?" 
"Don't worry, I didn't use company funds. I sold my house."

"Where are you living, Dennis?"

"In my office."

"So that's what that smell is. You're crazy."

"Fuck you. I'm all-in. It's do or die."

When he said this he lifted his hands, letting Vedmohan go free. I swept up my jacket and patted my pocket for my telephone. "I'm taking gas money from petty cash."


Dennis was interviewed for the Report on Business channel. That was the gig that opened the floodgates. Vedmohan sat on the edge of my desk as we hunched over my laptop to watch, eating popcorn. They came back from commercial with a clip from the second Back to the Future movie.

ROB TV: "That's Canada's own Michael J. Fox and SCTV alumnus and Canadian classic of comedy Joe Flaherty in a scene courtesy of Universal Pictures. The topic: post-dated mail. I'm back with Dennis Cole. Dennis, your company purports to deliver messages to the future for time-travelling customers. Is this a lark or do you know something the rest of the business world doesn't?"

DENNIS COLE: "Ha, ha, ha. The fact is we do know we're tapping into a viable market. We've done the due diligence. At the end of the day we simply wouldn't be out here, offering this service now, if nobody wanted it."

ROB TV: "Give us an overview. How does it work?"

DENNIS COLE: "Basically, a customer opens an account with us and uploads a message to be delivered at a specific date and time in the future, with an address expressed using current protocols -- if it's needed at the time of delivery part of the included service includes bridging the gap from older addressing systems to newer ones as they evolve in order to ensure proper delivery. We hold that message encrypted in secure storage until the specified time arrives."

ROB TV: "Walk us through an example."

DENNIS COLE: "Alright, let's say I'm some kind of time agent from the twenty-fifth century. I have a mission in the twenty-first century and in order to complete it I'm going to need to get information to a colleague at some time between -- let's say 2205 AD. When this hypothetical agent is in the twenty-first century he signs up for an account, puts his message in trust, and when 2205 rolls around we'll pass the message on to the Internet of the day for delivery."

ROB TV: "Kind of like Michael J. Fox in the clip. Ha, ha, ha."

DENNIS COLE: "Ha, ha, ha."

ROB TV: "Seriously though, this all sounds like science-fiction, Dennis. How can you have any idea whether or not time travel will exist in the twenty-fifth century?"

DENNIS COLE: "Because we've got customers. Why would anybody pay us now to hold on to their messages unless they know we'd fulfill on our part of the bargain in the future? Do you follow me?"

ROB TV: "Are you saying anybody who has confidence in you now must have foreknowledge of the future?"

DENNIS COLE: "That's what I'm saying. We've set the price of entry high on purpose, to prohibit abuse by pranksters. Would you sign up for a twenty-five thousand dollar Internet account if you didn't have some reason to think it would come through for you?"

ROB TV: "Ha, ha, ha. Good point, Dennis. But how do you know these initial accounts haven't been set up by someone with a well-funded curiosity -- a journalist from a major news-gathering organization, for instance?"

DENNIS COLE: "The truth is we don't know. We don't know anything about our customers. Their complete anonymity and the total sanctity of their communications privacy is guaranteed by the TOS. That's the whole point. If you're a time-traveller and upsetting causality is your concern, this is, very simply, the most robust, secure, professional messaging service in history, with a smaller causality footprint than any other known method of sending messages into the future. If you're funding a mission through time or managing resources for a large organization like, say, some sort of temporal army, this is going to make sense for you from a cost perspective."

ROB TV: "Please explain the concept behind a 'causality footprint' for us."

DENNIS COLE: "Sure. It means we isolate the messages from interacting with other systems, even in very minimal ways, through the use of proprietary anti-Bayesian disentanglement technologies that divide and store the information in a series of patent-pending electromagnetic lockers that act as a buffer -- a very strong buffer -- against interactions with other particles or fields. It's a lot like a quantum computer, except instead of shielding a delicate computational procedure from interference from the outside we're shielding a critical message from having influence on the outside world."

ROB TV: "Wow, that's a lot of science words, Dennis."

DENNIS COLE: "Ha, ha, ha. What I'm saying is that the act of a time-traveller depositing a message with us will result in near-zero change to history. There's basically no impact. So instead of altering the future you're trying to transmit to, you're transmitting to a version of the future uncorrupted from the version you initially left."

ROB TV: "I'm going to get political for a moment here."


ROB TV: "What's to stop al-Qaeda from using your service as a snoop-proof network for communicating with terror agents? You've said it yourself the system is anonymous and secure."

DENNIS COLE: "Ha, ha, ha. I see where you're coming from there. It's a great point, but at the end of the day it doesn't represent a vulnerability for us because we've set the minimum time to delivery at a decade. That's to discourage contemporary applications of the system."

ROB TV: "So it wouldn't be possible to me to use the service to send myself a message in five years time?"

DENNIS COLE: "I'm afraid not."

ROB TV: "Then am I right in this? We won't have independent confirmation of a delivery to the future for ten years?"

DENNIS COLE: "That's exactly right."

ROB TV: "Forgive me but it's an unusual model for building stakeholder confidence."

DENNIS COLE: "Sure. But you have to admit, we've got some pretty unusual stakeholders. For them, ten years hence is as clear as ten years ago. To them, it's all the past. To them, the success of our enterprise is a fait accompli. So should your viewers have confidence in us today? Absolutely. If you can't trust people from the future, who can you trust?"

ROB TV: "Ha, ha, ha. Doc Brown eat your heart out. Thanks for coming on the show today. Ladies and gentlemen -- Dennis Cole."

DENNIS COLE: "Ha, ha, ha. Thanks for having me. It's been great."

Vedmohan and I both jumped when my laptop beeped. Then it beeped again. And again. With wide eyes we turned to the screen: new account requests. Those that weren't coming through proxies were coming from the world's largest news outfits, but that didn't matter -- business was business. The userbase was growing beyond the initial seeds.

People were paying.


I found caviar really salty at first but it grows on you.

Dennis had somehow created a kind of perpetual motion machine made of money. He pumped the initial revenue into a massive advertising campaign and a platoon of social media content-crank companies charged with keeping us topical. He offered contests to win access to steeply discounted accounts to keep new money dribbling in. He sued imitators and near-imitators with abandon, happy for the headlines.

The accounting made no sense. There was no conceivable way we would be able to pay our bills. But for the moment that didn't seem to matter much.

Over saké and escorts Dennis explained the exit strategy. "My share of the money is going to a bank on this island, your share's going to a bank on that island. Here's the passbook. We fly to Ecuador first, then split up."

"What about Vedmohan?"

"Fuck Vedmohan. The family's rich. He'll land on a cushion of fat uncles."

A thought occurred. I cocked my head. "Am I going to have to change my name?"

"Fuck yes," he nodded, then threw back the end of his saké. "I knew it could work for you because you haven't got family anymore. And I knew I owed it to you because I never forgot how your dad saved my ass. Don't worry. Miles is a shitty name anyway."


"Forget about it. Listen: we can't wait to cheese it. You've seen the books: you know the hammer's going to fall at the next shareholders' meeting. How long do you need to get your shit together? Forty-eight hours?"

"I can do that, yeah."

"I'll book the flight. What's your frequent flyer account number again?"

"I already sent it to you. Search your email."

"I looked but I couldn't find it."

"Search with search."

"My fingers are too big."

"Give me your damn phone, Dennis."

The escorts yawned.



Smiley K said...

Temporally fraudulent! The Enron of all time! Love it!

pso said...

Am greatly enjoying it. And also greatly looking forward to the Mr. Mississauga story.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Where's George Takei for an "oh, my" when you need one?

Somehow this does not surprise me -- and somehow I expect one of these "nobodies" around them to be crucially important to the next part of the plot.

Also, Mr. Miss! Is this truly a "new" story, or a continuation of TSM? Not that we're impatient or anything...

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Sheik said,

"Also, Mr. Miss! Is this truly a "new" story, or a continuation of TSM? Not that we're impatient or anything..."

Well, you'd be entitled to a bit of impatience.

The truth is I put myself through a ridiculous level of internal drama over the dangling posterior of TSM. And in a world where the priority of the output was to serve the art and audience we'd have no problem.

Sadly, candidly, the object here is more self-serving. I've recognized that for me writing is theraputic. By "recognize" I mean "forced to recognize" when my wife points out that I'm being excessively assholish and that I probably need the cathartic self-crank of writing.

That is to say that for writing to serve this cathartic function it must be real-time -- my larger plots and plans be damned, the subject matter is what the subject matter demands itself to be because that's what my fingers want to type about.

So whatever else I may want to write about is predictably subsumed by whatever's eating me today. Today I'm a founding member of a precarious startup and I'm more than a little freaked out about it. So that's where we go, storytelling-wise.

Against this noisy present I've, yes, been working on a new story about Mr. Mississauga, because I love Mr. Mississauga and I miss him.

He ambushes me, though. This whole time I thought I was working on a Captain Ting/Lady Bethix story but it turned out I was wrong. The scifi crux of the tale, so to speak, belonged itself to Mr. Mississauga by imaginative coersion.

I surrender to it. As I surrender to the day to day dramas that end up being stories like this one.

Only the keyboard really knows where I'm going next.

Which is why I take heart, now and again, at adding a paragraph or two to the "current" chapter of TSM. It'll spill when it spills.

TL;DR: The story-in-progress concerning Mr. Mississauga takes place prior to THE EXTRA CARS but after the events of STUBBORN TOWN.

(As far the inevitable "How could a contemporary era Mr. Miss mystery map onto a Ting/Bethix far future adventure aboard the good ship 'Dollar'?" the unrepentently impish reply can only be, "In a very interesting way!")

Cheeseburger Brown

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Hey, we're always up for a journey to the center of the Burger. Thank you for keeping the creative process so open to us.

By the way, last week while picking up couch cushions, I realized what Dennis is going to do to Miles. This makes him even more a jerk than I initially thought.