The Sack of Troy
They were called the Five Fingers, but never in public. Partly, this was because no one was quite sure who they were; and partly it was because, if they really were who they were rumored to be, it would be unwise to say so. It was not even certain that there were only fiveor even five. Certainly, S. James Poole of Poole security Consultants was on everyone's short list; but the suggestion that there might be four others his equal at fingering the Net was a notion he would not even laugh at.
Billie Whistle studied the man whose image sprawled across her pixwall like a Marxist hero. A fat man, but one who had recently discovered thin and wasn't entirely sure he wanted to go there. His skin was loose, almost like a dog's, giving him the appearance of a partly deflated balloon. His dirty-brown hair was combed forward over his foreheada counterattack against the naked scalp creeping backward. A man, Billie decided, who had always neglected his body as a nuisance, but who in his early thirties had spotted the first hints of hardware crash on the distant horizon. Welcome to my world, she thought.
If what she saw bore any relationship to reality. Poole was seldom seen in the flesh. He could project whatever persona he wanted to show the world. "Fat computer greek" might be nothing more than clever camouflage, a comfortable screen morph masking something far different.
However, "buff and debonair" was a low-prob configuration. Geek was the default mode.
The geek tugged on hislower lip. "I don't understand," he saidaccusatory, as if his misunderstanding must be another's fault. "Was the teep unsatisfactory? Security wasn't breached, I guarantee that."
"No, it wasn't that." Billie ran her left handthe one that workedthrough short, stubby hair shaved close to the scalp. The input sockets felt like tiny bumps under her fingers. Encephalic Interface for Electronic Input/Output. The phrenology of the twenty-first century. "I teeped using one of their mobileswhat the construction workers used to call Uncle Waldoand Blackhall showed me some prime ziggy volume in the Hub's number four tank, but something didn't smell right."
Puzzlement on pale jowls. "Smell? Are they simming smells now?" Shock that there might be enhancements he hadn't heard of. "What kind of sensory jacks you got, cheesehead?"
"It's just a figure of speech, Poole." And cheesehead borderlined rude when flatskulls said it. Holes in your head for the I/O jacks. Swiss cheese. Jack cheese. Someday she would learn the identity of the person who had coined that particular slang, and he would suffer, terribly. "I meant something didn't seem right," she said, "but I can't put my finger on what it was that bothered me. Something rotten in the state of Denmark."
Poole frowned at some inner thought. "Or in the state of LEO," he said.
"Baleen needs ziggy stere," she said. "But on-orbit volume is bidding at a premium, so choice is limited and ..." Billie fell silent. She didn't want to sound like a beggar.
"You could try putting a fly on their wall," Poole suggested. "But that would be illegal." With just enough sly behind the smile that she could take it as a joke, a warning, or a suggestion, however she pleased. There were stories about Jimmy Poole. Rumors about how he had gotten his seed money. Nothing ever proven; and, if Jimmy really were one of the Five Fingers, nothing ever would be.
"Baleen is legit," she temporized. What Billie Whistle herself wasor had beenwas none of his business. The fly on the wall comment had cut way too close to the bone. Yet, how could Poole know anything? She and David had worked off-line, and the off-line world was invisible to the digerati.
"So forget telepresence," he said. "Take the trip in real, honest-to-goodness, suck-the-air-from-your-lungs outer space. Lift a bonebag and nose around LEO Station in person."
"Lift tickets are pretty steep. Twenty-eight troy. That's four hundred and fifty federal dollars per kilo."
"Baleen can't be that undercapitalized. Not if you plan to lift manufacturing gear to ziggy." The pasty-white face on her wall was replaced for a moment by a montage of wealth-images: stacks of bills; Wall Street Big Board; cartoon of spats, tails, and top hat tycoon.
"Most of our liquidity is locked up in hardware at this point," she told him. "Renting a manufacturing loft was supposed to be a no-brainer."
Poole reappeared, this time as a collage. Poole enthroned before his drives and monitors. Poole looking shrewd. Poole looking thoughtful. Poole lecturing a hall full of suits. Poole cruising in a limodressed "stupy," as they used to saywith a dark-skinned Indo woman at his side. Poole with a roll of cash. Poole with a stack of plastic. "Maybe I'll surf over to your R & C. If it looks good, I'll post a P2I. That'll give you the cash you"
"We don't have a public `Review and Comment' web site," she told him.
His eyebrows climbed. "Still looking for a bonded referee? Because I know someone"
"It's not that. We're keeping the whole enterprise private."
Poole looked thoughtful. "But a public posting by a bonded referee ... That's as good as driving stakes on a claim. The referee can log in any Promise-to-Invest and sort suggestions and pass out awards or equity shares for the really good ones. Right now, you're vulnerable if anyone copycatsindependently or by fingering things out."
"We know that, and we're prepared to take the chance. We don't keep anything proprietary on net-accessible drives. We've got a two-year head start on any potential competitor; but some of the Bigs, if they knew what we planned, could crash development out of pocket change and beat us to market. Besides, our principal would rather keep his name off the web. If we post, the referee publishes the names of all investors." There. Set the hook.
Poole pursed his lips. "Your investors are anonymous? All word-of-mouth? Either you have one blockbuster of a product in mind, or your principal has mighty deep pockets."
"Yet you hesitated over a simple LEO lift."
Billie looked away from her doid for a moment and wet her lips. "There's a limit to how much he can tap."
Poole sent another montage across the pixwall. The Scarlet Pimpernel. Zorro. Who was that masked man, asked a grainy, black-and-white cowboy; frowning over a silver bullet. "Sounds like the masked man could use a faithful companion."
Billie carefully adjusted her features into bland puzzlement. "What do you mean?"
Film showing medieval warriors triggering a trebuchet. A great stone ball hurtled across the pixwall, morphing into a second film clip of money raining upon a Las Vegas street. Frantic people danced and snatched at the fluttering bills. "If you need liquidity, I might send some capital your way."
"You would." She made it a statement, not a question. Patience, patience. Don't jerk the line.
"Sure. I've got tons of welfare money."
A pause. Deliberate, she was sure. A verbal vacuum meant to suck the question out of her. Reluctantly, she said, "Welfare money?"
"Right. It sits around all day not doing anything."
Billie pressed her lips together. As a joke, it bordered on tasteless. And from the wrong side of the border. What did he know about it anyway? He'd never been there. "We're not looking for extra partners," she said, more snappishly than she had intended.
"Sure," said the consultant. "That's why you have to think twice about a lift ticket." His face reappeared, in the upper right of the pixwall. "Let's say, I'm willing to take a flyer. But I'll expect a quo for my quid."
"Well ..." Billie laced her voice with hesitation. "We've calculated a tentative ROI, based on a five year penetration of the estimated market before any viable competition emerges ..."
"Virgin field?" A clip from a porno flick. A panting young girl and a super-imposed marquee flashing FIVE YEAR PENETRATION.
"Untouched," she said.
Poole's face appeared on the virgin's body. This time, Billie thought she saw frank curiosity there. "And you expect me to invest, sight unseen?" The bawd morphed into an innocent, masking her face coquettishly with a fan. Right.
"I didn't expect you to invest at all," she pointed out. "We were discussing the security on my LEO teep. You brought it up. I'm not even sure our principal would agree to you buying in."
"You haven't heard what my quo is."
Billie tried not to shrug. For one thing, it always looked awkward and lopsided when she did. "What do you want?" she asked.
"I want you to go up to LEO in person. You said things didn't smell right. Okay, go up and sniff. Come back and tell me."
"In person? Me? I can't ..." She stopped. Can't ... She never spoke of herself that way. And yet, this was one task that lay beyond her.
Poole did not ask why. He just gave that impatient cough and said, "Send someone else, then. Whatever. Someone with eyes and ears and enough brains to know what they see and hear."
Now it was Billie's turn to be puzzled. "Why should it matter so much to you?"
Poole went blank on her. "Call me a patriotic Dane."
The way he said that, Billie knew she'd not learn his reasons anytime soon. "I'11 have to clear this with our principal. Like I said, he may not want another partner."
The Poole-image spread its hands. It wasn't his problem. "You want investment money?" A figure appeared in the lower right corner of the Gyricon wall screen. At first, she thought Poole was being deliberately insulting; then she realized the number was in troy ounces, not federal dollars. She carefully kept anything from showing in her face. "No bones," said Poole, "no troy."
Billie drummed the fingers of her left hand on the arm of her mobile. She thought the cursor over to the pull-down and scrolled the Dun & Bradstreet database, popularly known as Deeby-deeby. She considered the virtual keypad, and the electro-encephalitic interface translated thought into input. She spelled out Poole's name in the searchword box by glancing at each letter. Then she pondered the GO button. A popper window appeared on the pixwall, and she moved it over to the left with a toss of her head.
Impressive, she thought. Like an iceberg, Poole's wealth was reputedly ninety percent unseen; but even the portion so teasingly on display was substantial. Poole ranked near the bottom of the "500" list, but this was widely regarded as a policy decision on his part.
Poole smiled. "Rich enough for you?" A film clip showed an old man staggering: I felt a disturbance in the Force.
Billie flushed. Poole was a spider. Anything that disturbed the web, he knew about it. Certainly any site linked to him would be on bounceback. Time to cut this short. She turned her attention to the telecomm monitor and thought the cursor to the disconnect button. "We'll be in touch," she said, and pondered the disconnect.
Annoyingly, Poole's face remained on her pixwall a moment longer. Long enough to wink at her. Bastard, she thought. He had to prove that he'd had control of the commlink all along.
She disconnected from the system and ran the disinfectant. Not that she thought Poole had penetrated her. His personal stone tablets did not have too many line items, but not screwing his own client was one of them. And no third party could have cut in while Poole held her dance card. He was that good. Still, it never hurt to be careful.
Inserting the stump of her arm into the socket of her power chair, she cruised into her kitchen, where the others waited.
"Well?" said Red Hawkins, the operative, "did he go for it?" David Desherite, Baleen's principal, said nothing, but stood against the sink with his arms crossed and an inquiring look on his face.
"We've got him," she said, "but there's a catch." She didn't look directly at David.
"Wot's the catch?" asked Red.
Billie positioned her wheelchair in front of the coffeemaker. "Go back in the living room. I'll make some coffee and we'll talk."
"Need help?" asked David.
"I'm the hostess," she told him, avoiding the question.
She blinked her eyes three times and her implants converted the synapse sequence to the electronic command: Activate #1 VCSEL laser. That was the one installed on her cap's foreheaddead center, like a third eye. She tilted her head so the microlaser's tiny red spot struck the coffee machine's receptor. The menu screen lit and Billie pointed at it with the stump of her right arm. She imagined wiggling her fingers and the microlasers on the arm cup established a handshake with the coffeemaker's A/S.
Handshake, she thought bitterly.
She twitched an imaginary middle finger to scroll the selections. VCSELs lased from the surface of a chip, not its edge, so they could pack a godawful number of them on the end of her arm and train their software to respond to impulses that no longer had wrist, hand, or fingers to work on. The screen displayed COFFEEBLACK. She twitched YES, then 3CUPS. She had filled the bean magazine that morning and the hot water was permanently fixtured. Next best thing to an IV drip. (But that reminded her of real IV drips; and the smells of antiseptic and disinfectant wafted momentarily through her memory.)
With her "real" hand, she pulled three mugs from the cabinet under the coffee machine. In all the apartment's four rooms, there were no cabinets that could not be reached by a one-armed woman sitting in a wheelchairthanks to Tyler Crayle and his foundation money.
It had cost a great deal to design this apartment and make it, if not user-friendly, at least not overtly hostile. Most days, she preferred to forget what taking that money had entailed. The move to Milwaukee, the loss of her flowing brown locks to the El sockets, and the job that her benefactor had asked her to do for the Nameless Ones.
Not all costs were counted in troy ounces; some were carved from your soul.
She set the first cup under the spigot with her left hand, and when the screen said READY, she toggled again with her phantom limb. She filled the cups one by one and placed them carefully on the chair's built-in tray. Everything ready, she reinserted her right arm into the chair and imagined pushing on a joy stick. The chair rolled toward the doorway.
That job had been nearly three years ago, and Tyler Crayle had never called on her again. She had not walked the wild side sincenot until David had approached her.
As for the move to Milwaukee, who cared what strangers called the mass of buildings she glimpsed through her windows? It might as easily have been Portland or Chattanooga or Ypsilanti. The world outside her walls barely existed. The world within her walls was as wide as all cyberspace. There was an old saying: In the virtch, no one knows you're a dog. Or a cheesehead. Or even a paraplegic, double-amputee cheesehead, who once might have been a knockout babe, a sharp techie, and a dynamite dancer.
David Desherite waited on the other side of the door, ready to take the tray from her. She rolled past before he could reach out. "I could have done that for you," he said as he trailed her.
"Yes, I know." He meant well; but on this one topic he was clueless.
Red had squatted by her audio tower, making himself at home. He had pulled µCDs out of their magazine slots, checking the titles. Irritated, she nodded to the player, connected, and selected a playlistas easily as running an imaginary finger down a virtual roster. Red jumped when the unit began to play a symphony by Rodriguez. He turned and grinned at her.
"Built-in remote, eh? Wish I could play that trick, sheila."
"No," she told him flatly. "You really don't."
The Australian opened his mouth, then thought better of it. The other two served themselves from her tray and settled onto the stools that were the only human furniture in a room that more nearly resembled an art gallery. All things considered, she didn't need chairs and sofas. Or beds. And she didn't need Red tagging along when David indulged his foible for personal face-time. Not that Red had no rightBaleen's organization was flat and, aside from some deference to David as principal partner, there was no hierarchy; but Billie hadn't envisioned Red's grinning, bald head when she had imagined this meeting. Heat flushed her cheeks. And what did she really think would happen if she and David had been alone? David wasn't the only clueless one here.
"We tapped the Poole for a sack of troy," said Billie and told them how much. Red whistled. David was cautious.
"That's not pocket change. How far can we trust him?"
"About as far as you can throw him."
"How far is that?"
"Well ..." She tried to be fair. "He has been losing weight lately."
Red's laugh was a donkey's bray.
"You said there was a catch," David prompted her.
"Yeah. He wants us to send a bonebag to LEO and `check things out." She exchanged a significant glance with David and made a covert nod toward Red. David went all bland.
"Check things out ... Why?"
"I told him something seemed funny to me. He made bagging a condition on the investment."
David nodded. "And what struck you as odd about LEO?"
"Shary was evasive. He wouldn't meet my eyes."
Red snickered. "You were Uncle Waldo. A telepresence mobile doesn't have eyes to meet. Just optics."
"I didn't mean it literally. And there was something else. I can't pin it down. But I keep thinking I saw something when Blackhall, the engineer, was showing me around."
"But you don't know what?" David said.
Billie shook her head. "A gut feeling."
Red laughed. "That might be what you had for breakfast today."
A flash of irritation crossed David's face, and he glanced at Red a moment. "So, Poole is paying us to satisfy your own uneasiness? What's in it for him?"
Billie shook her head. "He imitated a clam." But she thought, Maybe the same things you're looking for.
"Then I guess I should go up," said Red Hawkins. "I'm the bleeding operative. I'll be installing the equipment and rigging things. Besides, I helped build the damn station. I know my way around, and half the otters in ziggy know me."
David sipped his coffee. "That's a good reason why you shouldn't go. You have a motive for going up, but not for asking the kinds of questions you'll need to ask."
And besides, Billie thought, Red didn't have the kind of subtlety the job might call for. She thought Red was down with Baleen. He was the sort of man who, when he hired on, hired on all the way. Yet, like Baleen's product, he was more surface area than volume. What you saw was what you got, because there wasn't much else there.
"It's risky," she said.
"Oh,"David waved a negligent hand"what can Orbital Management Corporation do?"
"They could learn enough about Baleen to pirate our whole venture," she said. "I've got too much invested to feel easy about that." Yet what would Poole do if they took his cash, then failed to follow through? The whisper was that Poole no longer walked the wild side; but that didn't mean he'd forgotten how.
Red Hawkins toyed with his beard. It was a large, tightly curled affair, counterpoint to his barren skull. "She's got a point, mate. Everything I got's sunk in this game, too. Same with Shao and Karl."
"I'd make it good for you," said David. "You know that."
Red cocked his head and looked at him. "Then there wouldn't be much point to it, would there?"
David dropped his eyes. "I mean if it blows because I fooed. If Baleen goes down because the market wasn't right, that's different."
Red snorted. "Don't come the raw prawn with me, mate." David colored, but Red continued. "Aw, don't take it wrong, rich boy. I didn't come down in the rain. Besides, wot'd I do with that construction bonus besides blow it on feed, frosties, and features? This way I can get rich enough I can buy the bleeding brewery." He threw back his head and brayed. Billie and David traded looks past him.
"You want to go," Billie said.
David shook his head. "I have to go."
"We have too much riding on this to risk it over some personal weenie of yours."
David made an exasperated sound. "Someone has to go. You think something strange is going on, and Poole must think so, too, or he wouldn't have paid us to go look. Can we risk installing Baleen without resolving those doubts? So someone goes. It's got to be Baleen, and it's got to be someone with ziggy. That leaves out Shao and Karl. Red, you're too well-known. That leaves me."
"A couple months on Wilson's SpaceLab," said Red.
"And on Goddard and FreeFall Resort. I know ziggy, otter." David gave Red a level stare and the two held the pose a moment. Then Red tugged at his beard and nodded.
"Yeah," he said. "Maybe you do."
Billie regarded David: the confident pose, the glittering eyes, the easy smile; but behind it all, a hard and implacable anger. And she wondered not for the first time since she had thrown her life and fortune into Baleen whether Baleen was something in which David believed or whether it was just something he had fashioned to use in another cause, to which she was not privy.
After the others had gone, Billie saw the µCDs that Red had thoughtlessly yanked from their position in the player's magazine. She hated it when she had to deal with physical objects. It was a reminder of how helpless she really was. She could pretend all she wanted and lie about empowerment and throw euphemism on euphemism; but the truth was she only had one arm and one leg and they might as well have taken the other leg because she couldn't move it or feel it and the only time she was ever really free was living other people's dreams in an electronic wonderland.
There were empty slots in the magazine. Her ballet and other dance music had once been kept there. But three days after she had finished rehab, she had used her one good hand to yank those disks out one by one and snap them in two with the wheels of the chair that bound her.
She turned her mobile and faced the now-blank pixwall. So Poole was going to gift them with gold. Was that good news or not? It all depended on what sort of man Poole really was. What sort of person lay behind that carefully cultivated public persona? And why had a cruel fate made him so suddenly a fulcrum in Billie Whistle's own personal life?