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The Coin Giver
By M. M. Buckner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 M. M. Buckner
All rights reserved.
My father is dying.
The idea drifted through Dominic's mind like an unfamiliar scent He crossed the granite lobby of ZahlenBank, eyeing the concessionaires and thinking of his father, crushed in an accident the day before. Light blazed through the glass dome overhead and bleached the scene around him. Ticket sellers, water vendors and hologram artists cluttered the rotunda with their cheap stalls, selling unlicensed goods under the very roof of ZahlenBank. Their sweat soured the air. Protes, all of them, Dominic thought. Lazy protected employees, living off subsidies, adding nothing of value to society. My father is dying.
No one would mistake Dominic Jedes for a prote. He stood a meaty six-foot-five, wore hand-tailored suits and kept his sandy hair clipped short. For a large man, his movements were subdued, even quiet. He walked with a hushed balance as if ready to spring to the attack. Yet Dominic never lurched into violence. He was never known to raise his voice.
Just then, he stopped midstride and frowned at a prote manicurist who'd set up her table directly in front of the executive elevator. He curled his fingers till the nails bit into his palms, and he spoke in an undertone, "Clear that out of my way."
The young woman clutched her paint bottles in both hands and kicked her table half a meter to the side. Dominic didn't look at her face. Her insignia showed she worked for Scandia.Com. Yet here she was, squandering her rest period, chasing after illegal income. He stepped past her, into the elevator, and as he thumbed the ID pad, weariness overtook him. Monday. Tedium. He rubbed his eyes to wake up.
As the elevator rose through the glass framework of ZahlenBank's executive spire, Dominic peered out at the yellow Norwegian sky. All he could see was smog. Now in the year 2249, everyone lived under glass. The global greenhouse effect had turned the atmosphere steamy hot and unbreathable. Dominic glimpsed his reflection in the window.
With his square open face and sea gray eyes, he would have been striking, but lines marked his forehead, and the flesh under his chin had just started to sag. At thirty, he was beginning to look like the oldest man at the bank. He rubbed his jaw. Most of his colleagues had gotten face work, but he just couldn't bring himself to bother with it. He was beginning to feel that way about a lot of things. Nevertheless, as the elevator slowed to a stop, he straightened his collar and smoothed his hair out of habit. The door whooshed open, and he nearly tripped over his assistant, Karel Folger. The young man crawled on all fours in front of the elevator, gathering sheets of printout.
"Good morning, sir. Sorry, urn, sorry." Karel glanced up with his eager grin that showed too much pink gum above the tooth-line. "I have your brief ready for the meeting. I was just—Sorry, sir."
Dominic had a habit of puffing out his cheeks, then expelling the air all at once in an exasperated blow. Now he puffed that way, and Karel's red-rimmed eyes loomed huge in his pinched, adolescent face. A string of black hair fell across his forehead, and he combed it back with his fingernails. He reminded Dominic of his own early days at the bank. Karel had been on the job less than a month.
"I need caffie." Dominic pretended to read the brief.
"Yes, sir. Meeting starts in five, sir. Mr. Lorn wants to see you first. Should I bring your caffie there?"
The mention of Klas Lorn made Dominic scowl. What did that old sycophant want now? He said, "No, I'll be going straight to the conference room."
"Yes, sir." Karel sprinted down the corridor, and Dominic watched him collide with a security guard.
Again, a stray thought harassed Dominic's mind: My father is dying. The broad bronze door to his father's office lay directly across from the elevator. Dominic glanced at the plate on the door and felt his shoulders tighten. A couple of execs passed him in the hall. He barely noticed their greetings. More execs emerged from the elevator and hailed him. He stood like an automaton, staring at Richter Jedes' door.
"We're the best kind of partners," Richter used to say. "We think exactly alike."
Do we? Sometimes Dominic wished it were true. It would make things easier. Not long ago, he had been ZahlenBank's brightest young deal maker, following Richter's footsteps on a fast track for the presidency. Everything he knew, every feint, every gambit, every nuanced smile, he owed to his father. Richter taught him how to target clients like a heat-seeking missile, how to calculate advantages and weigh values, and when the time came for negotiation, how to choose his own ground.
Dominic glanced down the hall where his colleagues were gathering in the conference room. Most often, that was the room Dominic chose for his deals. In that room, with his handheld remote, Dominic was master. He controlled the lighting, the view-screen, the state-of-the-art holographics, even the drapes that opened to reveal a commanding view of Trondheim. He joked that the U-shaped table was his altar of ritual bloodletting. It was no accident that the chairs were deep and enfolding and difficult to move. While the clients remained chair-bound, he strolled and talked and fanned their desires. By instinct, he could sense the exact moment they began to yield. He could smell it. Like old dollar bills.
Then he would pitch his voice low and move steadily up through the U, thrusting his arguments forward, driving his point home. With a breath, a nod, a parting of lips, the clients would agree to his terms. And in that fleeting moment as he closed the deal, Dominic knew he was exactly the man his father wanted him to be.
But those days seemed like another lifetime on this wretched Monday morning. He rolled his knotted shoulders. As he stood in the corridor gazing at nothing, forgetting why he had stopped, mousy little Elsa Bremen touched his shoulder. She ducked her head and tried to appear even smaller than she was. "Karel said I might have a word with you, sir."
"What is it?"
"That submarine. We received an image this morning." Elsa opened her notebook.
Dominic yawned. "Why do you bother me with this now, Elsa?" He was about to turn away when the holographic image in her notebook caught his attention. A curious bottle-shaped vessel shimmered just above Elsa's screen. Its surface seemed to be crusted over with some kind of brown growth. Elsa moved her finger to rotate the miniature image, and Dominic saw it was mounted on belt-driven treads like a battle tank.
"That's the Benthica?" he asked.
Elsa nodded. "Recorded by satellite this morning at the bottom of the Arctic Sea."
Dominic studied it. "Two thousand protes live in that?"
"For a while." Elsa sighed.
A bleeding heart, that was his Elsa. Dominic liked her for it, and he pitied her. There she stood with her head bowed over the notebook, too shy to look at him. With all her brains, Elsa would never have broken out of junior management if he hadn't helped her. He yawned again and halfheartedly covered his mouth with his hand. "Send it to my local node."
Elsa pressed the notebook to her chest and trundled off on her short legs. Dominic watched till she rounded a corner. Then he remembered he was standing in front of his father's office. Why had he stopped here? The office would be vacant. Idly, Dominic read the engraved plate hanging on his father's door.
"Money defines value. It has no subtlety. It cannot deceive or equivocate. All transactions balance. All statements are true. Money is the immaculate computation of power."
My father, he thought again.
Richter Jedes had smashed his racing aircar in the mountains above Trondheim. He banked too steeply, trying to cut off an opponent. Still, he emailed everyone to confirm this morning's meeting. Dominic dreaded it.
Without knowing why, he entered his father's office, and' at once, his glance fell on the gray box. The NP. It rested quietly on his father's desk—harmless, inert, hardly bigger than two fists pressed together. Dominic felt an impulse to crush it. Instead, he turned his back and looked at the photographs. Richter with women. Richter with his race-car. Richter in full surface gear climbing a mountain in Asia. Richter standing with his son, seven-year-old Dominic, in the Alaskan courtroom of the World Trade Organization. That photo hung slightly off center, and the misalignment nagged at Dominic's senses. He could almost smell the dusty carpet again and hear his father scolding him to stand still.
"Where are they, Father?" Young Dominic couldn't stop fidgeting that day in Alaska. He thought Richter had brought him to meet a real live Org.
"Where are who?" Richter was testy and distracted.
"Gig and Meninx and Phil and Sanja. I want to see what they look like." Orgs were Dominic's boyhood heroes. They were the superintelligent, quasi-biochemical computer brains that ran the World Trade Organization. Incorruptible. His young mind resonated to that idea.
"You wanna see Orgs?" Richter clicked through a file.
"Uh-huh. Will they talk? I mean, like people?"
Stories about the Orgs filled the juvenile Net sites. Their semiorganic wetware had evolved in bold, mysterious directions, and they circled the Earth in stealth-clad satellites, defending free markets and preserving the rule of law. Dominic drew pictures in his notebook of colossal robotic guardians, streaming radiance.
"Fuck the Orgs," Richter said.
Seven-year-old Dominic wasn't sure what that meant. With a boy's hope, he peered around the courtroom, searching for a hint of godlike presence, but he saw only mortals shuffling among the desks like clerks in a store.
"Will they have faces," he asked, "and teeth?"
Richter grabbed Dominic's arm and shook him hard. "Orgs are the enemy, son. God dammit, the Orgs wanna break up ZahlenBank!"
That day, for the first time, Richter spoke to Dominic as if he were a grown man. "Only one bank controls the money and data in this hemisphere." Richter made a tight fist. "ZahlenBank! The WTO wants to split us into a dozen separate operating units. That's why I come here to these courtrooms every month. To fight their lawsuits. Damn the Orgs! I've been holding 'em off for decades!"
Dominic held his bream and nodded.
"Divestiture," his father growled in his face. "You know what that word means? It means death, son. The death of ZahlenBank, We'll never let that happen, will we?"
"Never," Dominic promised with a thumping heart.
In the stale air of his father's empty office, Dominic straightened the photo. Almost imperceptibly, he moved his lower jaw from side to side. Without looking again at the gray box, he squared his shoulders, walked out and marched down the hall to the conference room. He pushed through the double doors and took his place at the left of the U-shaped table. Someone—Oscar Blein—was already making a report. The normal Monday group had convened. Eleven senior directors with their assistants. Business as usual.
Karel placed a mug of hot caffie on the table for him, and only after taking a slow deliberate sip did Dominic glance at his father, the ZahlenBank Chairman and CEO. The old man's injured body dangled within a complicated steel brace at the head of the table. Their glances met.
For one surreal instant, the distance between them seemed to close, and they were alone, face-to-face. Partners again, in perfect understanding. As if no disagreements had ever separated them. Dominic stopped breathing. He felt suspended in time. As he and his father watched each other, he felt the old fear and hope—that he would win a prize he couldn't quite define. But then his father squinted and turned away, and time resumed. Dominic discovered that his heart was pounding.
Richter always piloted his own aircar in the Trondheim Sunday races. He was famous for it. Famous for many things. Even trussed up in a body brace, he still dominated the room. Everyone knew it was Richter whose vision had built ZahlenBank. The only bank in the northern hemisphere. The sole arbiter of money-data exchange. Richter built the bank's all-seeing surveillance web and engineered its enormous data-warehouse—the Ark—that captured and stored every byte of information passing through the Net. Because of Richter's foresight, ZahlenBank literally owned recorded history—by legal license. Dominic watched him with admiration.
When Klas Lorn whispered in Richter's ear, the old man flared up and shoved him away with a weak, bandaged arm.
"The surgeons can wait!" Richter bellowed. "I need to capture this meeting for my NP. Don't you people understand!"
Blein, who had been speaking, sat down without finishing his report.
"Jesus Krishna Christ!" Richter croaked a laugh and tried to slap his chest, but when his arm fell limp in its sling, Dominic winced. Don't let these jackals see your weakness, Father.
Richter went on in a tightly controlled voice. "Relax, guys. The docs can patch my carcass later. With my NP, I'll live forever."
Klas Lorn gave him a thumbs-up and a fawning smile, which clearly annoyed the old man.
"You guys still don't get it, do ya?" He waved his bandaged arm. "I was born in 1970, and I look younger than my boy there. I've had every organ replaced at least once. But that's old news. Flesh is optional now, thanks to my NP."
This time he's going to die, Dominic thought. Does he really believe that crap about the NP? Maybe he does. After all, he invented it. The Neural Profile. A new kind of bank account for storing a person's mind. Dominic pictured the gray box perched on his father's desk. He'd heard Richter's sales pitch to investors so many times, he could repeat it by heart.
"Scientists are fools, boys. They keep trying to upload the human mind to a computer. Any idiot knows you can't translate brain matter into binary code. My way is easier and cheaper—and more profitable for the bank. We just record a person's life in real time. Document the memories as they happen, instead of trying to slice-and-dice neurons later. Hell, why not? Our cameras and scanners cover every square centimeter of this hemisphere. Video, audio, email, financial and medical history, employment records, every freakin' iota. Think of the fee we could charge!
"Boys, we're talking a complete digital record of perfect memories, better than real ones because time won't distort 'em. And we'll have designer packaging. Every customer gets their own portable safe-deposit box in brushed platinum, branded with the ZahlenBank logo. When a customer dies, we transfer their deposit into a blank AI program inside the Ark. And voila! A high-resolution copy of the customer's mind rises from the dead."
But it's just a copy, Dominic wanted to shout. The person still dies.
Yet exactly as Richter predicted, the Neural Profile became ZahlenBank's hottest product. Hordes of status-conscious executives paid the whopping fee to have their lives documented. Second by second, day after day, ZahlenBank mined their personal data from the Net, hy-percompressed it for easy storage and beamed it to their personal safe-deposit boxes, in tasteful platinum gray with the golden ZahlenBank "Z" embossed near the base—a must-have trophy suitable for display on desks or caffie tables.
As the marketing brochures pointed out, surgeries extended life only a couple of centuries at most—but the Neural Profile guaranteed life everlasting. So far, no NP account holder had died to test the theory. Richter might be the first.
Now as he shifted in his steel brace, he snickered at the Monday gathering. "I'm 279 years old, and with my NP, I'll outlive you all!"
Dominic pressed his hands on the table and took a deep breath through his nose. Father, he wanted to say, call the surgeons. Even the most perfect digital record won't save you from death. He tried to imagine that blank wall, with nothingness on the other side. Was it possible the old man didn't believe in death? He made me, Dominic thought. A flesh copy to back up the data copy. He must have doubts. Dominic tried to swallow, but his mouth had gone dry.
Across the U-shaped table, Klas Lorn whined about their ongoing wrangle with the WTO, and Dominic watched his father's face. It was a standing joke that Dominic and Richter could have been twins. They shared the same wide jaws and sea-colored eyes, although Richter had been through so many cosmetic fixes, he did look younger than his son. But now his lips were turning blue, and Dominic saw him shiver in his steel brace. Could he be in pain, Dominic wondered. Could the imbecile doctors have left my father in pain? Without realizing it, he clutched the edge of the table.
Excerpted from The Coin Giver by M. M. Buckner. Copyright © 2004 M. M. Buckner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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