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Chicken little, p.1
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       Chicken Little, p.1

           Cory Doctorow
 
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Chicken Little


  "Cory Doctorow’s novella ‘‘Chicken Little’’ [..] does an excellent job of updating and commenting on some of the themes that informed Pohl & Kornbluth’s classic novel The Space Merchants. Doctorow’s updated high-tech take on Pohl’s take on Jonathan Swift’s ‘‘struldbrugs,’’ creatures who have immortality but not eternal youth, continuing to age through their extended lives, is particularly ingenious. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one show up on an award ballot next year." [Locus Magazine]

  A story with a product designer, drugs and an immortal quadrillionaire living in a vat.

  CORY DOCTOROW

  Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger -- the co-editor of Boing Boing (boingboing.net) and the author of Tor Teens/HarperCollins UK novels like "For the Win" and the bestselling "Little Brother". He is the former European director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and co-founded the UK Open Rights Group. Born in Toronto, Canada, he now lives in London.

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  Chicken Little

  Cory Doctorow

  The first lesson Leon learned at the ad agency was: Nobody is your friend at the ad agency.

  Take today: Brautigan was going to see an actual vat, at an actual clinic, which housed an actual target consumer, and he wasn't taking Leon.

  "Don't sulk, it's unbecoming," Brautigan said, giving him one of those tight-lipped smiles where he barely got his mouth over those big, horsey, comical teeth of his. They were disarming, those pearly whites. "It's out of the question. Getting clearance to visit a vat in person, that's a one month, two month process. Background checks. Biometrics. Interviews with their psych staff. The physicals: they have to take a census of your microbial nation. It takes time, Leon. You might be a mayfly in a mayfly hurry, but the man in the vat, he's got a lot of time on his hands. No skin off his dick if you get held up for a month or two."

  "Bullshit," Leon said. "It's all a show. They've got a brick wall a hundred miles high around the front, and a sliding door around the back. There's always an exception in these protocols. There has to be."

  "When you're 180 years old and confined to a vat, you don't make exceptions. Not if you want to go on to 181."

  "You're telling me that if the old monster suddenly developed a rare, fast-moving liver cancer and there was only one oncologist in the whole goddamned world who could make it better, you're telling me that guy would be sent home to France or whatever, No thanks, we're OK, you don't have clearance to see the patient?"

  "I'm telling you the monster doesn't have a liver. What that man has, he has machines and nutrients and systems."

  "And if a machine breaks down?"

  "The man who invented that machine works for the monster. He lives on the monster's private estate, with his family. Their microbial nations are identical to the monster's. He is not only the emperor of their lives, he is the emperor of the lives of their intestinal flora. If the machine that man invented stopped working, he would be standing by the vat in less than two minutes, with his staff, all in disposable, sterile bunny suits, murmuring reassuring noises as he calmly, expertly fitted one of the ten replacements he has standing by, the ten replacements he checks, personally, every single day, to make sure that they are working."

  Leon opened his mouth, closed it. He couldn't help himself, he snorted a laugh. "Really?"

  Brautigan nodded.

  "And what if none of the machines worked?"

  "If that man couldn't do it, then his rival, who also lives on the monster's estate, who has developed the second-most-exciting liver replacement technology in the history of the world, who burns to try it on the man in the vat -- that man would be there in ten minutes, and the first man, and his family --"

  "Executed?"

  Brautigan made a disappointed noise. "Come on, he's a quadrillionaire, not a Bond villain. No, that man would be demoted to nearly nothing, but given one tiny chance to redeem himself: invent a technology better than the one that's currently running in place of the vat-man's liver, and you will be restored to your fine place with your fine clothes and your wealth and your privilege."

  "And if he fails?"

  Brautigan shrugged. "Then the man in the vat is out an unmeasurably minuscule fraction of his personal fortune. He takes the loss, applies for a research tax-credit for it, and deducts it from the pittance he deigns to send to the IRS every year."

  "Shit."

  Brautigan slapped his hands together. "It's wicked, isn't it? All that money and power and money and money?"

  Leon tried to remember that Brautigan wasn't his friend. It was those teeth, they were so disarming. Who could be suspicious of a man who was so horsey you wanted to feed him sugar cubes? "It's something else."

  "You now know about ten thousand times more about the people in the vats than your average cit. But you haven't even got the shadow of the picture yet, buddy. It took decades of relationship-building for Ate to sell its first product to a vat-person."

  And we haven't sold anything else since, Leon thought, but he didn't say it. No one would say it at Ate. The agency pitched itself as a powerhouse, a success in a field full of successes. It was the go-to agency for servicing the "ultra-high-net-worth individual," and yet...

  One sale.

  "And we haven't sold anything since." Brautigan said it without a hint of shame. "And yet, this entire building, this entire agency, the salaries and the designers and the consultants: all of it paid for by clipping the toenails of that fortune. Which means that one more sale --"

  He gestured around. The offices were sumptuous, designed to impress the functionaries of the fortunes in the vats. A trick of light and scent and wind made you feel as though you were in an ancient forest glade as soon as you came through the door, though no forest was in evidence. The reception desktop was a sheet of pitted tombstone granite, the unreadable smooth epitaph peeking around the edges of the old fashioned typewriter that had been cunningly reworked to serve as a slightly-less-old-fashioned keyboard. The receptionist -- presently ignoring them with professional verisimilitude -- conveyed beauty, intelligence, and motherly concern, all by means of dress, bearing and makeup. Ate employed a small team of stylists that worked on all public-facing employees; Leon had endured a just-so rumpling of his sandy hair and some carefully applied fraying at the cuffs and elbows of his jacket that morning.

  "So no, Leon, buddy, I am not taking you down to meet my vat-person. But I will get you started on a path that may take you there, some day, if you're very good and prove yourself out here. Once you've paid your dues."

  Leon had paid plenty of dues -- more than this blow-dried turd ever did. But he smiled and snuffled it up like a good little worm, hating himself. "Hit me."

  "Look, we've been pitching vat-products for six years now without a single hit. Plenty of people have come through that door and stepped into the job you've got now, and they've all thrown a million ideas in the air, and every one came smashing to earth. We've never systematically catalogued those ideas, never got them in any kind of grid that will let us see what kind of territory we've already explored, where the holes are..." He looked meaningfully at Leon.

  "You want me to catalog every failed pitch in the agency's history." Leon didn't hide his disappointment. That was the kind of job you gave to an intern, not a junior account exec.

  Brautigan clicked his horsey teeth together, gave a laugh like a whinny, and left Ate's offices, admitting a breath of the boring air that circulated out there in the real world. The receptionist radiated matronly care in his direction. He leaned her way and her fingers thunked on the mechanical keys of her converted Underwood Noiseless, a machinegun ratt
le. He waited until she was done, then she turned that caring, loving smile back on him.

  "It's all in your workspace, Leon -- good luck with it."

  ***

  It seemed to Leon that the problems faced by immortal quadrillionaires in vats wouldn't be that different from those facing mere mortals. Once practically anything could be made for practically nothing, everything was practically worthless. No one needed to discover anymore -- just combine, just invent. Then you could either hit a button and print it out on your desktop fab or down at the local depot for bigger jobs, or if you needed the kind of fabrication a printer couldn't handle, there were plenty of on-demand jobbers who'd have some worker in a distant country knock it out overnight and you'd have it in hermetic FedEx packaging on your desktop by the morning.

  Looking through the Ate files, he could see that he wasn't the last one to follow this line of reasoning. Every account exec had come up with pitches that involved things that couldn't be fabbed -- precious gewgaws that needed a trained master to produce -- or things that hadn't been fabbed -- antiques, one-of-a-kinds, fetish objects from history. And all of it had met with crashing indifference from the vat-people, who could hire any master they wanted, who could buy entire warehouses full of antiques.

  The normal megarich got offered experiences: a ticket to space, a chance to hunt the last member of an endangered species, the opportunity to kill a man and get away with it, a deep-ocean sub to the bottom of the Marianas trench. The people in the vat had done plenty of those things before they'd ended up in the vats. Now they were metastatic, these hyperrich, lumps of curdling meat in the pickling solution of a hundred vast machines that laboriously kept them alive amid their cancer-blooms and myriad failures. Somewhere in that tangle of hoses and wires was something that was technically a person, and also technically a corporation, and, in many cases, technically a sovereign state.

  Each concentration of wealth was an efficient machine, meshed in a million ways with the mortal economy. You interacted with the vats when you bought hamburgers, Internet connections, movies, music, books, electronics, games, transportation -- the money left your hands and was sieved through their hoses and tubes, flushed back out into the world where other mortals would touch it.

  But there was no easy way to touch the money at its most concentrated, purest form. It was like a theoretical superdense element from the first instant of the universe's creation, money so dense it stopped acting like money; money so dense it changed state when you chipped a piece of it off.

  Leon's predecessors had been shrewd and clever. They had walked the length and breadth of the problem space of providing services and products to a person who was money who was a state who was a vat. Many of the nicer grace-notes in the office came from those failed pitches -- the business with the lights and the air, for example.

  Leon had a good education, the kind that came with the mathematics of multidimensional space. He kept throwing axes at his chart of the failed inventions of Ate, Inc., mapping out the many ways in which they were similar and dissimilar. The pattern that emerged was easy to understand.

  They'd tried everything.

  ***

  Brautigan's whinny was the most humiliating sound Leon had ever heard, in all his working life.

  "No, of course you can't know what got sold to the vat-person! That was part of the deal -- it was why the payoff was so large. No one knows what we sold to the vat-person. Not me, not the old woman. The man who sold it? He cashed out years ago, and hasn't been seen or heard from since. Silent partner, preferred shares, controlling interest -- but he's the invisible man. We talk to him through lawyers who talk to lawyers who, it is rumored, communicate by means of notes left under a tombstone in a tiny cemetery on Pitcairn Island, and row in and out in longboats to get his instructions."

  The hyperbole was grating on Leon. Third day on the job, and the sun-dappled, ozonated pseuodoforested environment felt as stale as an old gym bag (there was, in fact, an old gym bag under his desk, waiting for the day he finally pulled himself off the job in time to hit the complimentary gym). Brautigan was grating on him more than the hyperbole.

  "I'm not an asshole, Brautigan, so stop treating me like one. You hired me to do a job, but all I'm getting from you is shitwork, sarcasm, and secrecy." The alliteration came out without his intending it to, but he was good at that sort of thing. "So here's what I want to know: is there any single solitary reason for me to come to work tomorrow, or should I just sit at home, drawing a salary until you get bored of having me on the payroll and can my ass?"

  It wasn't entirely spontaneous. Leon's industrial psychology background was pretty good -- he'd gotten straight A's and an offer of a post-doc, none of which had interested him nearly so much as the practical applications of the sweet science of persuasion. He understood that Brautigan had been pushing him around to see how far he'd push. No one pushed like an ad-guy -- if you could sweet-talk someone into craving something, it followed that you could goad him into hating something just as much. Two faces of a coin and all that.

  Brautigan faked anger, but Leon had spent three days studying his tells, and Leon could see that the emotion was no more sincere than anything else about the man. Carefully, Leon flared his nostrils, brought his chest up, inched his chin higher. He sold his outrage, sold it like it was potato chips, over-the-counter securities, or under-the-counter diet pills. Brautigan tried to sell his anger in return. Leon was a no-sale. Brautigan bought.

  "There's a new one," he said, in a conspiratorial whisper.

  "A new what?" Leon whispered. They were still chest to chest, quivering with angry body-language, but Leon let another part of his mind deal with that.

  "A new monster," Brautigan said. "Gone to his vat at a mere 103. Youngest ever. Unplanned." He looked up, down, left, right. "An accident. Impossible accident. Impossible, but he had it, which means?"

  "It was no accident," Leon said. "Police?" It was impossible not to fall into Brautigan's telegraphed speech-style. That was a persuasion thing, too, he knew. Once you talked like him, you'd sympathize with him. And vice-versa, of course. They were converging on a single identity. Bonding. It was intense, like make-up sex for co-workers.

  "He's a sovereign three ways. An African republic, an island, one of those little Baltic countries. On the other side of the international vowel line. Mxlplx or something. They swung for him at the WTO, the UN -- whole bodies of international trade law for this one. So no regular cops; this is diplomatic corps stuff. And, of course, he's not dead, so that makes it more complicated."

  "How?"

  "Dead people become corporations. They get managed by boards of directors who act predictably, if not rationally. Living people, they're flamboyant. Seismic. Unpredictable. But. On the other hand." He waggled his eyebrows.

  "On the other hand, they buy things."

  "Once in a very long while, they do."

  ***

  Leon's life was all about discipline. He'd heard a weight-loss guru once explain that the key to maintaining a slim figure was to really "listen to your body" and only eat until it signaled that it was full. Leon had listened to his body. It wanted three entire pepperoni and mushroom pizzas every single day, plus a rather large cake. And malted milkshakes, the old fashioned kind you could make in your kitchen with an antique Hamilton Beech machine in avocado-colored plastic, served up in a tall red anodized aluminum cup. Leon's body was extremely verbose on what it wanted him to shovel into it.

  So Leon ignored his body. He ignored his mind when it told him that what it wanted to do was fall asleep on the sofa with the video following his eyes around the room, one of those shows that followed your neural activity and tried to tune the drama to maximize your engrossment. Instead, he made his mind sit up in bed, absorbing many improving books from the mountain he'd printed out and stacked there.

  Leon ignored his limbic system when it told him to stay in bed for an extra hour every morning when his alarm detonated. He ignored the fatigu
e messages he got while he worked through an hour of yoga and meditation before breakfast.

  He wound himself up tight with will and it was will that made him stoop to pick up the laundry on the stairs while he was headed up and fold it neatly away when he got to the spacious walk-in dressing room attached to the master bedroom (the apartment had been a good way to absorb his Ate signing bonus -- safer than keeping the money in cash, with the currency fluctuations and all. Manhattan real estate was a century-long good buy and was more stable than bonds, derivatives or funds). It was discipline that made him pay every bill as it came in. It was all that which made him wash every dish when he was done with it and assiduously stop at the grocer's every night on the way home to buy anything that had run out the previous day.

  His parents came to visit from Anguilla and they teased him about how organized he was, so unlike the fat little boy who'd been awarded the "Hansel and Gretelprize" by his sixth grade teacher for leaving a trail behind him everywhere he went.

  What they didn't know was that he was still that kid, and every act of conscientious, precise, buttoned-down finicky habit was, in fact, the product of relentless, iron determination not to be that kid again. He not only ignored that inner voice of his that called out for pizzas and told him to sleep in, take a cab instead of walking, lie down and let the video soar and dip with his moods, a drip-feed of null and nothing to while away the hours -- he actively denied it, shouted it into submission, locked it up and never let it free.

  And that -- that -- that was why he was going to figure out how to sell something new to the man in the vat: because anyone who could amass that sort of fortune and go down to life eternal in an ever-expanding kingdom of machines would be the sort of person who had spent a life denying himself, and Leon knew just what that felt like.

  ***

  The Lower East Side had ebbed and flowed over the years: poor, rich, middle-class, super-rich, poor. One year the buildings were funky and reminiscent of the romantic squalor that had preceded this era of lightspeed buckchasing. The next year, the buildings were merely squalorous, the landlords busted and the receivers in bankruptcy slapping up paper-thin walls to convert giant airy lofts into rooming houses. The corner stores sold blunt-skins to trustafarian hipsters with a bag of something gengineered to disrupt some extremely specific brain structures; then they sold food-stamp milk to desperate mothers who wouldn't meet their eyes. The shopkeepers had the knack of sensing changes in the wind and adjusting their stock accordingly.

 
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