Virtually True, page 1
Also by Adam L. Penenberg:
Trial & Terror
A fast-paced legal thriller
The True Story behind the Ford-Firestone Killing Machine
From Facebook to Twitter, How Today’s Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves
(with Marc Barry)
Espionage in Corporate America
Adam L. Penenberg
Copyright © 2012 by Adam L. Penenberg.
Edited by Dorothy E. Zemach. Cover design by Deb Rogers.
Published in the United States by Wayzgoose Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
For the Penengirls,
Charlotte, Lila, & Sophie
It’s late, the hours leaning closer to dawn than midnight, the sky soaked gunmetal gray by desperate city lights. And it’s tomorrow, not yesterday, in Luzonia—a republic recently gouged out of a war-ravaged peninsula, a land weeping monsoon tears on the other side of Greenwich Mean.
Inside Bar 24-7, True Ailey sniffs the sweaty air, asking himself why he agreed to meet here. Like the surrounding city and country, it’s dysfunctional, dangerous, brimming with prostitutes with unripe berry eyes and naked except for bar codes tattooed on their wrists (a government regulation), hustlers, fortune hunters, drug dealers and addicts, alcoholics, soldiers on leave, guerrillas from Southeast Asia’s post-millennium ethnic cleansing wars; all of them scarred, True sees, with that distant look, like they’ve seen more than you.
Bar bravado in a score of languages flows over and around him, accompanied by plastic music. True’s first foray into Bar 24-7, a landmark that never closes—has never closed, even for a nanosecond—in 20 years. Dots, blobs, and dashes of light dance around the room, spelling patterns on the walls and ceiling. Is there a message, a symbol in there? He cuts through the crowd, not meeting stares of lust or challenge, catching glimpses of infrared corneal transplants, robotic arms that can slice and chop mere mortals like himself, plastic skin grafts melted over burn wounds, bulging stacks of artificial muscle uncamouflageable under camouflage.
He’s juiced, adrenaline coursing. Intuition is 60,000 times faster than thought but equally accurate; that and that alone will help him navigate this violence-infested sea. True moves quickly, arms pinioned to his sides, hands palm-side up: No threat here, Jack, in the universal language of the body. Like riding a cresting wave of pure information or shooting through clouds of 3-D data, numbers, digital images, sound that is not sound but waves, raw data factored by DNA computers.
But before these points are points they are trillions of dots squished together, each dot made up of trillions of other dots, veering off on tangents and funneled back into minuscule shapes that combine with other shapes to make the patterns that produce the dots that form these points that can be plotted so that one day True can interpret them.
At least, that’s how he looks at it.
There. Alone at a table. Staring at True with onyx-tinted eyes and hair, slick designer ringlets chiming by his ears. The affluence of the clothes contrasts with the texture of his skin, which is dry, and spotted as crushed moth wings.
Images slash through True. The memory of awaiting his own execution: the shivering steel of a gun barrel brushing his temple, the click of an empty chamber. Then another: the fear of dying when he wasn’t ready. Then a familiar voice. Reprieve.
He swings his leg over the back of an empty chair, sits.
“You’re late,” the man says.
True shakes his head. “Right on time.”
He grabs True’s wrist, twists it in order to better view the screen. “My internal clock’s not in synch. It’s this damned urban lifestyle. In the jungle I tell time just by looking at the sun.”
True unearths the slightest traces of a Pakistani accent buried beneath many lands, many years of estrangement. “Aslam, you’re one multi-talented zealot.” Glances at Aslam’s wrist-top, notes its complexities. A brand-new model, twice the RAM of True’s, with built-in surveillance hardware, debugging software, weapons detector, DNA check, a cornucopia of video monitors and microphones. True’s seen the commercials. “What’s wrong with your wrist-top?”
“Just got it.”
Aslam hedges. “I don’t know how to set the clock.”
True smiles. A sitcom moment. “Well, it’s hard to stay up on the latest technology.”
Across the planet, from within the tiny nooks and crannies that pass for new republics to the monstrous regional trade alliances subjugating the world’s economy, the words latest technology are ever splattered in ad copy and mooed in jingles. But the words have become essentially meaningless, day-old technology as stale as yesterday’s aspirations or yesteryear’s inspirations.
“What’s with the new businessman look?” A suit with a roll of six buttons, equipped with UV shield. True fingers the lapel, shiny black and aqua-colored beads with super tensile strengths. “Bullet- and laser-proof?”
“Bomb-resistant, too, a few unk-unks aside.”
Unk-unks—unknown unknowns. True imagines Aslam taking part in some contentious board meetings. “I suppose it’d depend on the bomb.” True watches Aslam drain the dregs of his drink. A bloody Caesar, ostensibly. “I thought the Koran forbids alcohol.”
“Please. It’s been a rough day.” Aslam smiles and slaps True’s back. Walks his fingers down his spine. “You’re skinny as hell, although that didn’t stop every bar girl in this zone from giving you the once over.”
“Why’d you want to rendez here?”
“I’ve always wondered. Why’d your parents order you with avocado eyes? Don’t people assume they’re lenses?”
“You’re not worried about being marked?”
“What for? Copping enemies of the state’s bad for business. Besides, I’ve left the insurgency.”
“I was wondering, since I never saw you in a suit before.”
“Camouflage isn’t a suit?”
Aslam stepping off a precipice. His face has been stung by the sun’s unfiltered rays, ravaged by countless bouts with melanoma. Reflected in Aslam’s eyes, True can almost see replays of battles—violent orange and black explosions cracking holes in the earth. War exacted a tremendous toll. True wonders if he’s the same man he left behind, years before, in Kathmandu, where his mind floated skyward in a hashish haze.
Aslam lights a bidi, slips the smoldering end into his mouth, a security from years of smoking in jungle cloak. Puffing oblong rings, “The world is changing, changing in ways you can’t imagine.” Taps his chest. “Look at me, True, how I’ve changed.”
Except for the suit, designer ‘do,’ and flowery cologne, he’s the same. True tells him so.
“Okay. I left because things were crashing. We were starving, our weapons wer
True knows this, that the economies of Arab nations crashed with the recent discovery of alternative energy sources, solar cells, cold fusion, and fuel concocted from corn, wheat, barley, household garbage. No oil exports, no income; no income, no weapons, no training, no insurgency. He lets silence pressure Aslam for an explanation.
“I was headhunted. Jacked into major legitimate business. Better than eating roots and shitting in the woods.”
It’s inconceivable to True that the man of a dozen insurgencies would now be shimmying up the corporate ladder. “You? Hired for corp work? As what? Head of guerilla marketing?”
“Never mind. It’s you we’ve come to discuss.”
“Who’ve you sold out to?”
“I’ll rephrase the Q. Who do you work for now?”
“It doesn’t matter to you yet.”
But it does. True’s a journalist who’s shot off the data runway so many times he isn’t sure he ever left; smoked targets for scillions of bits of raw data, the lifeblood of his profession, and this helped him crack stories, spill news to an info-addicted world. More than once he became entangled in webs of information that took on a coherent shape only later, megabits of evidence that helped him uncover conspiracies, odd factoids here and there that were the springboard to a major epiphany, uncrunched numbers disproving statistics, a verbal slip, a gesture out of place, a break with habit that led to pay dirt. The trick is to keep pressing, suck up a crumb here or there until you can make sense of it.
Aslam’s eyes fall on a VR weapons game. A pudgy tourist in khaki is leading an assault, missiles and stealth planes cloaked invisible until firing. Out of the jungle a few weeks and already Aslam’s eyes are giving him away.
“So,” True says, “you’ve booted into a gig with a weapons contractor.”
Aslam’s eyebrows modulate. “Forget me. I’ve got something for you.”
“What? A scoop? You’ve left the insurgency and converted to Judaism? Now that would be a ratings star.”
“Just because you’re going to burn in hell doesn’t mean I will. No. A business proposition.” Aslam’s eyes, effervescent, back on the urge. “Listen, True. The world’s changing. Corporate power is still on the rise. Want my advice? Hitch on now. Soon government won’t govern shit.”
“Government already doesn’t govern shit.”
“So you know the way of the world. War is being revolutionized. Some of the new technologies in advanced stages of R & D are bound to change the global balance of power.”
“Some of the technologies are bad. Real bad. One corporation monopolizes them, that’s major trouble for the rest.”
“What’s some corporate battle technology got to do with me?”
“My idea. We need a digithead who can suss out some info. I said I knew the modeiant one.” Aslam coughs, extinguishes his bidi. “An ice cream habit.” Clears his throat. “I should nix the nic from my life.”
“Why don’t you quit?”
“No discipline.” Aslam stands, smoothes his suit. “I’ll get some drinks.”
Long strides to the bar. True covers Aslam with his eyes, ready to counter possible threats, but Aslam doesn’t seem worried. The bartender stands behind a hole protected by impenetrable clear plastic: money goes in; drinks, drugs come out. Barbed wire winds double helixes throughout the see-through shield, more decorative than functional. On stage, whores feasting on hardcore kink, all types in addition to the usual balloon-breasted amazons—freaks with skin tinted across the ROYGBIV spectrum, female bodybuilts with Popeye forearms and rice-terrace abs, chicks with dicks, dykes, gays, contortionists.
In this age of bargain beauty they strive to fill a niche, and when market forces dictate a change, the cost is a few tricks, a few hours of surgery, a few years lopped off a meaningless life. At the game center, a virtual siren beckons through a haze of incense and sex oils, her body rounder, skin a touch more radiant, curly jet-black hair glistening. More real, more alluring to True than the surrounding pros, whose by-the-hour leers he parries by pretending to read from his wrist-top.
Aslam hands True a Kamikaze.
“Ah, a tragic drink.” True sips, remembers days past when fiery drinks like this would KO his taste buds. Now, only a faint tingle. “Comes with a vomit-proof warranty. Goes down, fucks you up, is guaranteed not to return.”
“You’re going to accept this gig. Want to know the terms?”
“I don’t vet out data unless it’s for a story.”
“Why not? Your journo career’s maxed out. You fucked up, you’re stuck in Loser-onia, and you’ll never be able to reboot your career. The network is waiting for you to just make one little shitty-assed error so they can delete you from their payroll. Pretty soon you’ll be sitting home in some coffin apartment, hooked up to VR games, subsisting on government checks, jerking off to virtual babes.”
There’s something disturbing about hearing your life so perfectly described, True thinks, as if Aslam read his mind, was there the whole time, experienced the impotence of watching everything important to True combust. But Aslam was snaking through jungles furthering the cause of insurrection, was not around during this ugly time, was not witness to the destruction of True’s mind. “How do you know all this?”
“Donnez-moi un break. I know more about you than you can imagine.”
“Like first of all, you will data-retrieve for us. Assured. I also know what happened to you, how you ended up in the hospital an emotional bulimic. I also know what WWTV has planned for you. Believe me, my friend, you will not chill to the tune of it.”
“Tell me how you know.”
“I have a whole computer model on you, all known information, and not just the stuff in your dossier. I know all the times during the Pakistani-Indian war you chugged yogurt to cool out the spices when you shit. I’ve seen your dreams. I know what happened to the woman in your life.”
True’s cheeks turn the color of roast pork. “What happened to her?”
“That can wait. You see, I do know what it will take to get you to chase down the gravy train. And I can’t afford to dick around. I’m giving you a chance to leave this dead-end journo job, make some serious bucks, tell that shit anchor boss of yours to fuck off.”
“The model tells you under the right circumstances I’ll work for you?”
“Because you’re the best. Not just because I think so. Computer says so too.”
Aslam slaps the table, like enough of this bullshit. “So when you going infospace for us?”
“Like I said. I’m not going.”
Aslam pokes a splinty finger into True’s chest. “It’s not like you’ve been prospering. Look at your clothes. Look at you: You’re still a handsome gene-machine, that I grant you, but you’re thirty-five, passed Go more than a few times and none the healthier for it.”
True’s gaze slides down his chin, his body, around slender arms and legs. Has to agree his is not the body of a prosperous man.
“How can you reject this more-than-generous offer?” Aslam’s Pakistani lilt is more pronounced in anger.
“I don’t work for corporations.”
“Well fuck you very much. What do you call WWTV?” Aslam scratches his arm, rolls up his sleeve to unveil a circular cicatrix on his arm and shoulder; the shape of the Ouroboros, True thinks, the tail-biting snake, the ancient symbol for eternal disintegration and rebirth.
“What happened? It looks like a laser wound.”
“The usual bullshit band-aid cuts and scrapes.” Aslam stares ahead, silent so long True thinks he may have forgotten about him. “A laser wound, but not what you think. You can’t imagine.” Traces the scar full
“I am seeing reason. Besides, there’s an ethics problem.”
“There are no ethics in journalism.”
True, caught in a pale lie, doesn’t argue.
“How’d you know I work for a military contractor?”
“Who else would hire an ex-jungle insurgent?”
“You know, this weapon remains secret, the world will be irrevocably changed.”
“There was a time I would have jumped at this, feeding off the danger. But I don’t have the tools anymore. Since getting out of the hospital all I feel like doing is getting by, focusing on the day-to-day, not the grand scheme of things. It’s hard enough waking up every day.”
“Bullshit excuses. If you don’t hurry, it’ll be too late.”
“It already is.”
Aslam sips the Kamikaze, swishes it around his mouth, glares hard at True. “Sometimes, no matter how many times I tell myself not to feel anything, I can’t help myself. Months ago, before I left the insurgency, we set up camp near a river, and a little girl from a friendly village nearby, she must have been about nine, would bring us food. One day she ran off too far, and it was several hours before we realized she’d disappeared. The next morning we found her. She’d been captured by some ethnics, tied up and stretched over bamboo seeds. But these were not the regular variety of bamboo. They were the kind that grow very quickly, overnight.
“She was still breathing but the stalks had begun to climb through. And we were faced with a no-win: If we lifted her off, she’d die—there was extensive organ damage—and if we left her, she’d die anyway. Know what she said when I held a pistol to her head?”