Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Profiteers, Part 3

Preamble: Before we resume the current serial, The Profiteers, today's non-fiction component of this free slice of science-fiction will consist of a brief diversion on the subject of the news. If you're ahead of the curve and already don't care about the news, feel free to skip past the italics and carry on with the time-travel shenanigans below.

I think after letting go of television the next logical step for me was ignoring the news. I'd been reading the news of the world reflexively and hungrily, panning for novelty and stim, wallowing away my most difficult hours at the pretence of informing myself.

But the news is just an adrenalin-packed weather channel; no matter how scared you get it will either rain tomorrow or it won't.

So I read a bit. Oh boy. Addled losers are making a go of bombing local things! Somebody's anxious to amputate the Canada Day crowds in Victoria and somebody's plotting to kerplode the trains I take into the city once a week or so. It sure is a good thing the cops are reading my email!

I do my part. Whenever I'm on the train I keep a sharp eye out for anyone whose opinions might seem too firm.

But largely it seems like there's not much connection between things I think or do and things people who want to kerplode the train think or do. There's no particular strain of local activism that will quiet their addled concerns. I can't sign a petition to stop them or join a secret police to help frighten them. If I work hard to save gas and live more green it won't win the salvation of the West from technologically-empowered lunatics.

So why should I let the newspaper tell me people are trying to kerplode my train? Is it worthwhile for me to append this to my list of worries?

I don't think so. My time is better invested in getting re-accredited for first aid. After all, if my train does kerplode and I'm not personally randomized the best contribution I can probably make is lending a hand to those in distress.

How would reading the details of the arrests of lunatics aid me in this?

It wouldn't.

News is fear porn. It's a stimulant for endless and unrewardable chronic info-seeking behaviour. It's where the guise of being connected to our fellows decorates another cheap way to pull levers and punch buttons in our brains so we vote for misogynists and buy soma.

Is there anything in the news about global warming I can't learn from Shakespeare?

Nope.

Don't get me wrong: I am deeply grateful to the Internet for connecting me to the works and thoughts of some of the most interesting, diligent and brave human beings on the planet. I just wish the freedom to own the effort of culling the wheat from the chaff weren't a Faustian bargain of neurological overload and ideological diarrhea.

I've had enough news to last me a lifetime. From now on I promise to forget the name of every politician and to hopelessly mangle the acronyms of their parties. Economics is white boys playing in sheep guts, as inherently fascinating to me as fucking baseball. Science news is having the tone-deaf sing you random and non-sequential bars of Mozart -- like recorded birdsong.

Health news makes me wish I lived on another planet. It's 2013, information is everywhere, and you know what? Magical thinking is more popular than ever.

The only thing I know about today is that it's Tuesday and it's going to rain. You can smell that. The train is dopplering along in the distance so nobody's kerploded it today. The grocery store treated my money as legal tender, and if they hadn't I wouldn't have had any options that foreknowledge could change (I don't often trade in pelts or precious stones). Since the electricity still works I'll do my job. Later, when the milfy wife comes home, we'll sit in the sunset and drink wine until we're sleepy.

How would today be better armed with a fuzzy grasp of current affairs? I submit that staying informed is bollocks.

(I've blathered enough. The fiction unfurls beneath the fold.)


THE PROFITEERS
by Cheeseburger Brown

(This is the third post in a four-part serial, consisting of chapters 7, 8, 9 of the story. Chapters 1, 2, 3 can be read here, and chapters 4, 5, 6 here.)

7:41

My telephone started singing Bollywood. I juggled it while I drove. "Vedmohan, what's happening buddy?"

"Are you driving?"

"It's okay I've got a Bluetooth."

"Can I ask you something, Miles?"

"Apparently."

"Candidly, are we -- um, seeding -- the hat again?"

"What? No. Why?"

"Sign-ups are up, Miles. Very much up."

I frowned. "More decade deliveries?"

"The earliest is 2042, but most of them are firmly in the twenty-second century."

"Where are they coming from?"

"They're obfuscated through Tor, or something that looks like Tor from the outside anyway. Every one of them."

"How many accounts?"

"Eight hundred and twenty-nine."

"I'm sorry?"

"Eight-two-nine since noon, Miles. No -- wait. Eight hundred thirty now."

"I'll be right over."

I flew into the office, throwing open the door until it caught on the warped floor. Vedmohan popped up from his cubicle like a gopher, eyes wide. Frantically he waved me over. I was already half way there. The logs on his screen advanced steadily, line by line, as new users registered and paid.

I stared. I blinked. I stared again. We exchanged a look. I ran to the accountant's office. She looked up, her expression flustered. "I was just taking a couple of seconds to check my Facebook, Miles, honestly I don't do this all the time."

"No worries, Ally. Can you move aside for a second?"

I ploughed into the keyboard, fingers flying. Windows opened and closed on the display. I scrolled through the ledgers. Without moving my eyes from the screen I quizzed her on recent transactions. I was looking for something -- anything! -- that would tip me off on how Dennis was weaselling the cash together to pay more plants.

But I came up empty. I dropped my hands from the keyboard and sat back.

Ally fidgeted. "Am I in trouble or something?"

"What? No. You're doing a bang-up job, Ally. Every eye dotted, every tea crossed. Just try to stay off the Facebook, will you? I don't want to have to filter it."

"Yes, of course! I'm very sorry Miles."

I was already gone. I closed my eyes and leaned into the wall beside the pop machine. "Call Dennis, mobile," I grunted at my phone. It buzzed and garbled and droned. "Dennis! Dennis? Dennis, can you listen for a sec: something's happening. Something big."


8:09

The flight was cancelled. Dennis and I were far too busy all of a sudden running what had become a going concern from merely the shell of one. There was no time to hightail it scot-free from our scam when the scam kept insisting on behaving as if it were legitimate.

Chronic overtime led to complaining coders. Somebody had hacked the candy machine and stolen all the Smarties. If Ally didn't lock the supply cabinet all the stationary disappeared, and if she did lock the supply cabinet she kept losing the key and then nobody could print anything on letterhead. Two days after we hired a human receptionist she told us our building had sick-building syndrome and it was exacerbating her environmental allergy to electromagnetism.

The landlord said our sign was too big and the fish restaurant was upset about it. The bank next door said we were hogging all the street parking and lodged a protest with the city. Throughout everything was a steady stream of invoices from various specializing sub-species of lawyer.

Suddenly Dennis was on the front cover of business magazines, complete with the crossed-arms pose and knowing smirk. Flattering rhetorical headlines. Unrelenting interview requests. Famous lunches.

Vedmohan and I had lunch at the fish restaurant downstairs. It was our last time. The company was moving to fancier facilities downtown. "I don't think anybody's asking the key question," he said around his food.

"The new place doesn't use keys. It's all wireless fobs now. They're orange."

"I mean about time-travel, Miles."

"What's the key question about time-travel, Ved?"

"The application of it, naturally," he said. "Is it research or war?"

I shrugged, pushing my fork around my plate. "Your uncle seemed to think it was all cool."

"Uncle Jagjeevan thinks homeopathy is real and genetics isn't."

"That is your stunted Western perspective speaking," I said in my best version of Jagjeevan's bass voice, wagging my head from side to side and shaking my finger at him.

Vedmohan laughed briefly but the smile didn't last. "Miles, I'm serious. It creeps me out but I guess it's okay if we're facilitating the study of history for agents from the future, but what if backwards time travel is a contentious technology? What if there's more than one party at work?"

"What if?"

"We might be putting ourselves in the middle of a conflict, Miles. We could be in real danger."

"You worry too much."

"You're sounding more and more like Dennis every day."

"You can't really knock Dennis, Ved. I mean, whatever flaws the guy has it's not debatable that he's making us rich. How's your new car?"

Vedmohan's eyes flitted. "It's awesome," he confessed, then frowned. "But if our operation has become very valuable to one party in a multi-party scenario, we could be a target for retaliation. Can you appreciate that? Of all people, I hope you are be able to see the implications. Miles. Yes?"

I sniffed and wiped absently at my nose. "My friend, I think you're being paranoid," I told him, then popped the very last bite into my mouth. "Man I'm going to miss this place."


9:27

Vedmohan crashed his new car into a telephone pole. He didn't ever drink alcohol and there was none in his blood but he'd obviously been suffering from some overage of zeal because he'd been going so fast parts of the engine were recovered almost a half a kilometre down the road.

What remained of Vedmohan didn't survive long, fortunately.

The police described it as a "road racing-related accident" on the basis that "rich Indian kids from Brampton love road racing." Q.E.D.

That's when things started to go weird.

Dennis strode into my new office, interrupting my view of glass towers and a glittering inland sea. "Now you've got to explain this one to me, Miles. Why were you guys buying this piece of shit?"

I accepted a proffered paper. I looked up over it at him. "What the fuck?"

"I know, exactly," nodded Dennis. "When did you even negotiate this deal?"

"I didn't, Dennis."

"You think Vedmohan forged your name?"

I rubbed my thumb over the signature on the page. "This is fucked up, Dennis. Ved wasn't like that. You knew him. He was a math prostitute with a heart of gold."

"So maybe he fooled us all. Point remains somebody bought this turd out in the middle of butt-fuck. It's ours. So guess who's booking a flight to inspect the new acquisition?"

I sighed. "Fuck you," I tried.

"Fuck you," said Dennis. "Your name's on the page, Miles. Go deal with it. Whatever it is. And find out what that skinny little dead kid blew company money on. Probably a fucking curry factory."

"Have some respect. Ved was a good guy, for Christ's sake."

"Was he? Get on a damn plane and find out, Miles. Find out precisely what he had his dick in. Then come tell me he's a good guy. Okay?"

I frowned. I nodded. "My girlfriend's going to kill me for cancelling this weekend," I muttered.

"So?" shrugged Dennis as he stood and buttoned his jacket. "Get a new one."

My assistant got the lawyer on the line. "Your office know anything about this deal? We're starting to suspect Ved was up to something fishy. My name's all over the paperwork somehow. Did you get my fax?"

"Sure, Miles, I got your fax but I don't need it -- I remember the deal. Pauline put this one together. We talked when you came in to sign, don't you remember? I rambled about my boat."

"I'm sorry?" I said. He repeated himself. I asked for the date. He gave it to me. "I was in San Francisco on the fifth," I said, feeling a bit numb.

"I don't know what to tell you, Miles. Would you like me to have the security desk pull the tapes?"

"Yeah, would you?"

"I'm kidding, Miles."

"I'm not."

I landed in Winnipeg and rented a car. We were the proud owners of a warehouse about two hundred kilometres outside of the city. I drove north until the windshield was a splatter painting of insect impressions, my GPS murmuring directions. Off the highway, along a summer-only road. I parked on cracked pavement and got out.

There was no sign. The key from the real estate people turned the deadbolt successfully. I swung open the door and stepped into a cloud of dust kicked up by my own entry. It dissipated.

The warehouse was vast. Pigeons hummed and hawed and quibbled from the rafters, white streaks of their shit painting everything below in dense layers. Sunlight cut the funk in a couple of places where the roof was giving out.

Row upon row upon row of pigeon-shit caked metal crates. I used the toe of my shoe to tease open the front of one of them. Inside the metal crate were stacks and stacks of yellowing document boxes. I took one down. Inside the yellowing document box were sheaves of manila envelopes. I withdrew a random envelope.

On the outside, just below the string tie, were three fields filled in with neat, clear, antiquated handwriting. A serial number and two dates: RECEIVED 05-05-1962, DELIVERY 11-19-2105.

I unwound the string and let the contents slip out: a single typewritten sheet with a latent message locked behind an alphanumeric cypher.

"Call Dennis, mobile."

"Miles."

"I found out what we bought. We bought a company just like ours. But established much earlier. Nineteen fifties or sixties at least, maybe older. The warehouse is full of messages awaiting delivery some time next century."

"That's fantastic!"

"Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure. Think about it, Miles. Somebody's just arranged a takeover for us, extending our marketshare backward in time. This is a huge opportunity! Does the nineteen fifties use credit cards?"

"Miles, whatever profits this company made -- or didn't make, from the looks of this dump -- have been on the books for decades. Nothing we decide in our boardroom's going to change any of that."

"Suddenly you're an expert on backward time-travel causality? What do you know? You don't even remember buying the place."

"I didn't buy it!"

"No, I guess this Miles didn't. But some Miles did. Those tapes from the security guys came in -- it's you alright."

"I'm being impersonated?"

"Probably not. Why impersonate someone when you can get them to do it themselves in a little loop of alternative history?"

"Holy shit, Dennis. That's a terrifying idea."

"I read it in a book about black holes."

"You're talking about weaponized paradoxes."

"If you say so. What does it matter in the end? They know the only way to keep us on side is to keep us successful, so before you cry into your cereal about being manipulated across time remember that you're being manipulated into a fabulously wealthy man."

"But it means they're not scientists, Dennis. Don't you get it? Vedmohan was right -- they're soldiers. We're currency in a conflict now."

Dennis grinned. "You can't spell profiteering without profit."

I took the phone away from my ear for a moment so I wouldn't say something I'd regret. Took a deep breath. "Listen Dennis, let's just look at this from a business point of view. Where's the profit in using our staff and resources to deliver this warehouse of bird shit and secrets? There's no return on investment for us."

"Doesn't matter," he replied. "It's what they want us to do, obviously, or they wouldn't have made it happen."

"That's the part I don't like."

"Oh yeah? So what do you want to do? You want to go against them?"

"Maybe."

"Fuck you. Don't even joke around. Don't jeopardize everything we've built to tilt at windmills. You can't win against people who know the future, Miles. It's all an open book to them. Every move you could possibly make."

"And that's okay with you?"

"When I was a kid my mom told me God watched me and arranged the events of my life. So it turns out it's not God it's some kind of temporal army from the distant future. The net result is the same, Miles -- except that these guys pay out. God is a cheapskate."

"Jesus, man."

"Go with the flow, Miles," said Dennis before he hung up. "Everything happens for a reason."

My telephone arm sagged. The stuttered cooing of the pigeons now sounded like chuckling to me. After a long numb moment my trance was only broken when one of them shat on my shoulder.

I couldn't remember if that was supposed to be good luck or bad. Didn't matter. Luck had nothing to do with what happened to me from now on. There was only will. And it wasn't mine.


Continues...

4 comments:

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Dude.

Guano just got real.

Also, it's funny how your rant re. the news -- with which I heartily agree -- dovetails (pigeontails?) with the conclusion drawn in this installment.

Enjoy your summer evening.

Smiley K said...

"weaponized paradoxes" Fornication! W00t!

Anonymous said...

I'm enjoying this :)

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear all,

Slight delay for Part 4. My usual writing session to complete this would be Saturday afternoon, but this Saturday I'm participating in some sort of hellacious obstacle course / endurance run up a mountain for reasons that become less clear to me as race day approaches. But we'll wrap this story right after that!

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown