Eastern Standard Tribe

by Cory Doctorow

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Art Berry lives in a world just slightly askew from the rest of us. In our increasingly wireless world of instant and constant communication, he gives his loyalty not to a state or a company or family and friends he sees regularly, but to the Eastern Standard Tribe-a largely faceless collection of people whose home time zone is the Eastern Standard Zone, who are locked in cutthroat competition with other tribes aligned with other time zones...

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

I once had a Tai Chi instructor who explained the difference between Chinese and Western medicine thus: “Western medicine is based on corpses, things that you discover by cutting up dead bodies and pulling them apart. Chinese medicine is based on living flesh, things observed from vital, moving humans.”

The explanation, like all good propaganda, is stirring and stilted, and not particularly accurate, and gummy as the hook from a top-40 song, sticky in your mind in the sleep-deprived noontime when the world takes on a hallucinatory hypperreal clarity. Like now as I sit here in my underwear on the roof of a sanatorium in the back woods off Route 128, far enough from the perpetual construction of Boston that it’s merely a cloud of dust like a herd of distant buffalo charging the plains. Like now as I sit here with a pencil up my nose, thinking about homebrew lobotomies and wouldn’t it be nice if I gave myself one.

Deep breath.

The difference between Chinese medicine and Western medicine is the dissection versus the observation of the thing in motion. The difference between reading a story and studying a story is the difference between living the story and killing the story and looking at its guts.

School! We sat in English class and we dissected the stories that I’d escaped into, laid open their abdomens and tagged their organs, covered their genitals with polite sterile drapes, recorded dutiful notes en masse that told us what the story was about, but never what the story was. Stories are propaganda, virii that slide past your critical immune system and insert themselves directly into your emotions. Kill them and cut them open and they’re as naked as a nightclub in daylight.

The theme. The first step in dissecting a story is euthanizing it: “What is the theme of this story?”

Let me kill my story before I start it, so that I can dissect it and understand it. The theme of this story is: “Would you rather be smart or happy?”

This is a work of propaganda. It’s a story about choosing smarts over happiness. Except if I give the pencil a push: then it’s a story about choosing happiness over smarts. It’s a morality play, and the first character is about to take the stage. He’s a foil for the theme, so he’s drawn in simple lines. Here he is:


Art Berry was born to argue.

There are born assassins. Bred to kill, raised on cunning and speed, they are the stuff of legend, remorseless and unstoppable. There are born ballerinas, confectionery girls whose parents subject them to rigors every bit as intense as the tripwire and poison on which the assassins are reared. There are children born to practice medicine or law; children born to serve their nations and die heroically in the noble tradition of their forebears; children born to tread the boards or shred the turf or leave smoking rubber on the racetrack.

Art’s earliest memory: a dream. He is stuck in the waiting room of one of the innumerable doctors who attended him in his infancy. He is perhaps three, and his attention span is already as robust as it will ever be, and in his dream -- which is fast becoming a nightmare -- he is bored silly.

The only adornment in the waiting room is an empty cylinder that once held toy blocks. Its label colorfully illustrates the blocks, which look like they’d be a hell of a lot of fun, if someone hadn’t lost them all.

Near the cylinder is a trio of older children, infinitely fascinating. They confer briefly, then do something to the cylinder, and it unravels, extruding into the third dimension, turning into a stack of blocks.

Aha! thinks Art, on waking. This is another piece of the secret knowledge that older people possess, the strange magic that is used to operate cars and elevators and shoelaces.

Art waits patiently over the next year for a grownup to show him how the blocks-from-pictures trick works, but none ever does. Many other mysteries are revealed, each one more disappointingly mundane than the last: even flying a plane seemed easy enough when the nice stew let him ride up in the cockpit for a while en route to New York -- Art’s awe at the complexity of adult knowledge fell away. By the age of five, he was stuck in a sort of perpetual terrible twos, fearlessly shouting “no” at the world’s every rule, arguing the morals and reason behind them until the frustrated adults whom he was picking on gave up and swatted him or told him that that was just how it was.

In the Easter of his sixth year, an itchy-suited and hard-shoed visit to church with his Gran turned into a raging holy war that had the parishioners and the clergy arguing with him in teams and relays.

It started innocently enough: “Why does God care if we take off our hats, Gran?” But the nosy ladies in the nearby pews couldn’t bear to simply listen in, and the argument spread like ripples on a pond, out as far as the pulpit, where the priest decided to squash the whole line of inquiry with some half-remembered philosophical word games from Descartes in which the objective truth of reality is used to prove the beneficence of God and vice-versa, and culminates with “I think therefore I am.” Father Ferlenghetti even managed to work it into the thread of the sermon, but before he could go on, Art’s shrill little voice answered from within the congregation.

Amazingly, the six-year-old had managed to assimilate all of Descartes’s fairly tricksy riddles in as long as it took to describe them, and then went on to use those same arguments to prove the necessary cruelty of God, followed by the necessary nonexistence of the Supreme Being, and Gran tried to take him home then, but the priest -- who’d watched Jesuits play intellectual table tennis and recognized a natural when he saw one -- called him to the pulpit, whence Art took on the entire congregation, singly and in bunches, as they assailed his reasoning and he built it back up, laying rhetorical traps that they blundered into with all the cunning of a cabbage. Father Ferlenghetti laughed and clarified the points when they were stuttered out by some marble-mouthed rhetorical amateur from the audience, then sat back and marveled as Art did his thing. Not much was getting done vis-a-vis sermonizing, and there was still the Communion to be administered, but God knew it had been a long time since the congregation was engaged so thoroughly with coming to grips with God and what their faith meant.

Afterwards, when Art was returned to his scandalized, thin-lipped Gran, Father Ferlenghetti made a point of warmly embracing her and telling her that Art was welcome at his pulpit any time, and suggested a future in the seminary. Gran was amazed, and blushed under her Sunday powder, and the clawed hand on his shoulder became a caress.


The theme of this story is choosing smarts over happiness, or maybe happiness over smarts. Art’s a good guy. He’s smart as hell. That’s his schtick. If he were a cartoon character, he’d be the pain-in-the-ass poindexter who is all the time dispelling the mysteries that fascinate his buddies. It’s not easy being Art’s friend.

Which is, of course, how Art (“not his real name”) ended up sitting 45 stories over the woodsy Massachusetts countryside, hot August wind ruffling his hair and blowing up the legs of his boxers, pencil in his nose, euthanizing his story preparatory to dissecting it. In order to preserve the narrative integrity, Art (“not his real name”) may take some liberties with the truth. This is autobiographical fiction, after all, not an autobiography.

Call me Art (“not my real name”). I am an agent-provocateur in the Eastern Standard Tribe, though I’ve spent most of my life in GMT-9 and at various latitudes of Zulu, which means that my poor pineal gland has all but forgotten how to do its job without that I drown it in melatonin precursors and treat it to multi-hour nine-kilolumen sessions in the glare of my travel lantern.

The tribes are taking over the world. You can track our progress by the rise of minor traffic accidents. The sleep-deprived are terrible, terrible drivers. Daylight savings time is a widowmaker: stay off the roads on Leap Forward day!

Here is the second character in the morality play. She’s the love interest. Was. We broke up, just before I got sent to the sanatorium. Our circadians weren’t compatible.


April 3, 2022 was the day that Art nearly killed the first and only woman he ever really loved. It was her fault.

Art’s car was running low on lard after a week in the Benelux countries, where the residents were all high-net-worth cholesterol-conscious codgers who guarded their arteries from the depredations of the frytrap as jealously as they squirreled their money away from the taxman. He was, therefore, thrilled and delighted to be back on British soil, Greenwich+0, where grease ran like water and his runabout could be kept easily and cheaply fuelled and the vodka could run down his gullet instead of into his tank.

He was in the Kensington High Street on a sleepy Sunday morning, GMT0300h -- 2100h back in EDT -- and the GPS was showing insufficient data-points to even gauge traffic between his geoloc and the Camden High where he kept his rooms. When the GPS can’t find enough peers on the relay network to color its maps with traffic data, you know you’ve hit a sweet spot in the city’s uber-circadian, a moment of grace where the roads are very nearly exclusively yours.

So he whistled a jaunty tune and swilled his coffium, a fad that had just made it to the UK, thanks to the loosening of rules governing the disposal of heavy water in the EU. The java just wouldn’t cool off, remaining hot enough to guarantee optimal caffeine osmosis right down to the last drop.

If he was jittery, it was no more so than was customary for ESTalists at GMT+0, and he was driving safely and with due caution. If the woman had looked out before stepping off the kerb and into the anemically thin road, if she hadn’t been wearing stylish black in the pitchy dark of the curve before the Royal Garden Hotel, if she hadn’t stepped right in front of his runabout, he would have merely swerved and sworn and given her a bit of a fright.

But she didn’t, she was, she did, and he kicked the brake as hard as he could, twisted the wheel likewise, and still clipped her hipside and sent her ass-over-teakettle before the runabout did its own barrel roll, making three complete revolutions across the Kensington High before lodging in the Royal Garden Hotel’s shrubs. Art was covered in scorching, molten coffium, screaming and clawing at his eyes, upside down, when the porters from the Royal Garden opened his runabout’s upside-down door, undid his safety harness and pulled him out from behind the rapidly flacciding airbag. They plunged his face into the ornamental birdbath, which had a skin of ice that shattered on his nose and jangled against his jawbone as the icy water cooled the coffium and stopped the terrible, terrible burning.

He ended up on his knees, sputtering and blowing and shivering, and cleared his eyes in time to see the woman he’d hit being carried out of the middle of the road on a human travois made of the porters’ linked arms of red wool and gold brocade.

“Assholes!” she was hollering. “I could have a goddamn spinal injury! You’re not supposed to move me!”

“Look, Miss,” one porter said, a young chap with the kind of fantastic dentition that only an insecure teabag would ever pay for, teeth so white and flawless they strobed in the sodium streetlamps. “Look. We can leave you in the middle of the road, right, and not move you, like we’re supposed to. But if we do that, chances are you’re going to get run over before the paramedics get here, and then you certainly will have a spinal injury, and a crushed skull besides, like as not. Do you follow me?”

“You!” she said, pointing a long and accusing finger at Art. “You! Don’t you watch where you’re going, you fool! You could have killed me!”

Art shook water off his face and blew a mist from his dripping moustache. “Sorry,” he said, weakly. She had an American accent, Californian maybe, a litigious stridency that tightened his sphincter like an alum enema and miraculously flensed him of the impulse to argue.

“Sorry?” she said, as the porters lowered her gently to the narrow strip turf out beside the sidewalk. “Sorry? Jesus, is that the best you can do?”

“Well you did step out in front of my car,” he said, trying to marshal some spine.

She attempted to sit up, then slumped back down, wincing. “You were going too fast!”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I was doing 45 -- that’s five clicks under the limit. Of course, the GPS will tell for sure.”

At the mention of empirical evidence, she seemed to lose interest in being angry. “Give me a phone, will you?”

Mortals may be promiscuous with their handsets, but for a tribalist, one’s relationship with one’s comm is deeply personal. Art would have sooner shared his underwear. But he had hit her with his car. Reluctantly, Art passed her his comm.

The woman stabbed at the handset with the fingers of her left hand, squinting at it in the dim light. Eventually, she clamped it to her head. “Johnny? It’s Linda. Yes, I’m still in London. How’s tricks out there? Good, good to hear. How’s Marybeth? Oh, that’s too bad. Want to hear how I am?” She grinned devilishly. “I just got hit by a car. No, just now. Five minutes ago. Of course I’m hurt! I think he broke my hip -- maybe my spine, too. Yes, I can wiggle my toes. Maybe he shattered a disc and it’s sawing through the cord right now. Concussion? Oh, almost certainly. Pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, missed wages...” She looked up at Art. “You’re insured, right?”

Art nodded, miserably, fishing for an argument that would not come.

“Half a mil, easy. Easy! Get the papers going, will you? I’ll call you when the ambulance gets here. Bye. Love you too. Bye. Bye. Bye, Johnny. I got to go. Bye!” She made a kissy noise and tossed the comm back at Art. He snatched it out of the air in a panic, closed its cover reverentially and slipped it back in his jacket pocket.

“C’mere,” she said, crooking a finger. He knelt beside her.

“I’m Linda,” she said, shaking his hand, then pulling it to her chest.

“Art,” Art said.

“Art. Here’s the deal, Art. It’s no one’s fault, OK? It was dark, you were driving under the limit, I was proceeding with due caution. Just one of those things. But you did hit me. Your insurer’s gonna have to pay out -- rehab, pain and suffering, you get it. That’s going to be serious kwan. I’ll go splits with you, you play along.”

Art looked puzzled.

“Art. Art. Art. Art, here’s the thing. Maybe you were distracted. Lost. Not looking. Not saying you were, but maybe. Maybe you were, and if you were, my lawyer’s going to get that out of you, he’s going to nail you, and I’ll get a big, fat check. On the other hand, you could just, you know, cop to it. Play along. You make this easy, we’ll make this easy. Split it down the middle, once my lawyer gets his piece. Sure, your premiums’ll go up, but there’ll be enough to cover both of us. Couldn’t you use some ready cash? Lots of zeroes. Couple hundred grand, maybe more. I’m being nice here -- I could keep it all for me.”

“I don’t think --”

“Sure you don’t. You’re an honest man. I understand, Art. Art. Art, I understand. But what has your insurer done for you, lately? My uncle Ed, he got caught in a threshing machine, paid his premiums every week for forty years, what did he get? Nothing. Insurance companies. They’re the great satan. No one likes an insurance company. Come on, Art. Art. You don’t have to say anything now, but think about it, OK, Art?”

She released his hand, and he stood. The porter with the teeth flashed them at him. “Mad,” he said, “just mad. Watch yourself, mate. Get your solicitor on the line, I were you.”

He stepped back as far as the narrow sidewalk would allow and fired up his comm and tunneled to a pseudonymous relay, bouncing the call off a dozen mixmasters. He was, after all, in deep cover as a GMTalist, and it wouldn’t do to have his enciphered packets’ destination in the clear -- a little traffic analysis and his cover’d be blown. He velcroed the keyboard to his thigh and started chording.

Trepan: Any UK solicitors on the channel?

Gink-Go: Lawyers. Heh. Kill ‘em all. Specially eurofag fixers.

Junta: Hey, I resemble that remark

Trepan: Junta, you’re a UK lawyer?

Gink-Go: Use autocounsel, dude. L{ia|awye}rs suck. Channel #autocounsel. Chatterbot with all major legal systems on the backend.

Trepan: Whatever. I need a human lawyer.

Trepan: Junta, you there?

Gink-Go: Off raping humanity.

Gink-Go: Fuck lawyers.

Trepan: /shitlist Gink-Go

##Gink-Go added to Trepan’s shitlist. Use ‘/unshit Gink-Go’ to see messages again

Gink-Go: <shitlisted>

Gink-Go: <shitlisted>

Gink-Go: <shitlisted>

Gink-Go: <shitlisted>

##Gink-Go added to Junta’s shitlist. Use ‘/unshit Gink-Go’ to see messages again

##Gink-Go added to Thomas-hawk’s shitlist. Use ‘/unshit Gink-Go’ to see messages again

##Gink-Go added to opencolon’s shitlist. Use ‘/unshit Gink-Go’ to see messages again

##Gink-Go added to jackyardbackoff’s shitlist. Use ‘/unshit Gink-Go’ to see messages again

##Gink-Go added to freddy-kugel’s shitlist. Use ‘/unshit Gink-Go’ to see messages again

opencolon: Trolls suck. Gink-Go away.

Gink-Go: <shitlisted>

Gink-Go: <shitlisted>

Gink-Go: <shitlisted>

##Gink-Go has left channel #EST.chatter

Junta: You were saying?

##Junta (private) (file transfer)

##Received credential from Junta. Verifying. Credential identified: “Solicitor, registered with the Law Society to practice in England and Wales, also registered in Australia.”

Trepan: /private Junta I just hit a woman while driving the Kensington High Street. Her fault. She’s hurt. Wants me to admit culpability in exchange for half the insurance. Advice?

##Junta (private): I beg your pardon?

Trepan: /private Junta She’s crazy. She just got off the phone with some kinda lawyer in the States. Says she can get $5*10^5 at least, and will split with me if I don’t dispute.

##Junta (private): Bloody Americans. No offense. What kind of instrumentation recorded it?

Trepan: /private Junta My GPS. Maybe some secams. Eyewitnesses, maybe.

##Junta (private): And you’ll say what, exactly? That you were distracted? Fiddling with something?

Trepan: /private Junta I guess.

##Junta (private): You’re looking at three points off your licence. Statutory increase in premiums totalling EU 2*10^5 over five years. How’s your record?

##Transferring credential “Driving record” to Junta. Receipt confirmed.

##Junta (private): Hmmm.

##Junta (private): Nothing outrageous. Were you distracted?

Trepan: /private Junta I guess. Maybe.

##Junta (private): You guess. Well, who would know better than you, right? My fee’s 10 percent. Stop guessing. You were distracted. Overtired. It’s late. Regrettable. Sincerely sorry. Have her solicitor contact me directly. I’ll meet you here at 1000h GMT/0400h EDT and go over it with you, yes? Agreeable?

Trepan: /private Junta Agreed. Thanks.

##Junta (private) (file transfer)

##Received smartcontract from Junta. Verifying. Smartcontract “Representation agreement” verified.

Trepan: /join #autocounsel

counselbot: Welcome, Trepan! How can I help you?

##Transferring smartcontract “Representation agreement” to counselbot. Receipt confirmed.

Trepan: /private counselbot What is the legal standing of this contract?

##counselbot (private): Smartcontract “Representation agreement” is an ISO standard representation agreement between a client and a solicitor for purposes of litigation in the UK.

##autocounsel (private) (file transfer)

##Received “representation agreement faq uk 2.3.2 2JAN22” from autocounsel.

Trepan: /join #EST.chatter

Trepan: /private Junta It’s a deal

##Transferring key-signed smartcontract “Representation agreement” to Junta. Receipt confirmed.

Trepan: /quit Gotta go, thanks!

##Trepan has left channel #EST.chatter “Gotta go, thanks!”


Once the messy business of negotiating EU healthcare for foreign nationals had been sorted out with the EMTs and the Casualty Intake triage, once they’d both been digested and shat out by a dozen diagnostic devices from X-rays to MRIs, once the harried house officers had impersonally prodded them and presented them both with hardcopy FAQs for their various injuries (second-degree burns, mild shock for Art; pelvic dislocation, minor kidney bruising, broken femur, whiplash, concussion and mandible trauma for Linda), they found themselves in adjacent beds in the recovery room, which bustled as though it, too, were working on GMT-5, busy as a 9PM restaurant on a Saturday night.

Art had an IV taped to the inside of his left arm, dripping saline and tranqs, making him logy and challenging his circadians. Still, he was the more mobile of the two, as Linda was swaddled in smartcasts that both immobilized her and massaged her, all the while osmosing transdermal antiinflammatories and painkillers. He tottered the two steps to the chair at her bedside and shook her hand again.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you look like hell,” he said.

She smiled. Her jaw made an audible pop. “Get a picture, will you? It’ll be good in court.”

He chuckled.

“No, seriously. Get a picture.”

So he took out his comm and snapped a couple pix, including one with nightvision filters on to compensate for the dimmed recovery room lighting. “You’re a cool customer, you know that?” he said, as he tucked his camera away.

“Not so cool. This is all a coping strategy. I’m pretty shook up, you want to know the truth. I could have died.”

“What were you doing on the street at three AM anyway?”

“I was upset, so I took a walk, thought I’d get something to eat or a beer or something.”

“You haven’t been here long, huh?”

She laughed, and it turned into a groan. “What the hell is wrong with the English, anyway? The sun sets and the city rolls up its streets. It’s not like they’ve got this great tradition of staying home and surfing cable or anything.”

“They’re all snug in their beds, farting away their lentil roasts.”

“That’s it! You can’t get a steak here to save your life. Mad cows, all of ‘em. If I see one more gray soy sausage, I’m going to kill the waitress and eat her.”

“You just need to get hooked up,” he said. “Once we’re out of here, I’ll take you out for a genuine blood pudding, roast beef and oily chips. I know a place.”

“I’m drooling. Can I borrow your phone again? Uh, I think you’re going to have to dial for me.”

“That’s OK. Give me the number.”

She did, and he cradled his comm to her head. He was close enough to her that he could hear the tinny, distinctive ringing of a namerican circuit at the other end. He heard her shallow breathing, heard her jaw creak. He smelled her shampoo, a free-polymer new-car smell, smelled a hint of her sweat. A cord stood out on her neck, merging in an elegant vee with her collarbone, an arrow pointing at the swell of her breast under her paper gown.

“Toby, it’s Linda.”

A munchkin voice chittered down the line.

“Shut up, OK. Shut up. Shut. I’m in the hospital.” More chipmunk. “Got hit by a car. I’ll be OK. No. Shut up. I’ll be fine. I’ll send you the FAQs. I just wanted to say...” She heaved a sigh, closed her eyes. “You know what I wanted to say. Sorry, all right? Sorry it came to this. You’ll be OK. I’ll be OK. I just didn’t want to leave you hanging.” She sounded groggy, but there was a sob there, too. “I can’t talk long. I’m on a shitload of dope. Yes, it’s good dope. I’ll call you later. I don’t know when I’m coming back, but we’ll sort it out there, all right? OK. Shut up. OK. You too.”

She looked up at Art. “My boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend. Not sure who’s leaving who at this point. Thanks.” She closed her eyes. Her eyelids were mauve, a tracery of pink veins. She snored softly.

Art set an alarm that would wake him up in time to meet his lawyer, folded up his comm and crawled back into bed. His circadians swelled and crashed against the sides of his skull, and before he knew it, he was out.


Hospitals operate around the clock, but they still have their own circadians. The noontime staff were still overworked and harried but chipper and efficient, too, without the raccoon-eyed jitters of the night before. Art and Linda were efficiently fed, watered and evacuated, then left to their own devices, blinking in the weak English sunlight that streamed through the windows.

“The lawyers’ve worked it out, I think,” Art said.

“Good. Good news.” She was dopamine-heavy, her words lizard-slow. Art figured her temper was drugged senseless, and it gave him the courage to ask her the question that’d been on his mind since they’d met.

“Can I ask you something? It may be offensive.”

“G’head. I may be offended.”

“Do you do ... this ... a lot? I mean, the insurance thing?”

She snorted, then moaned. “It’s the Los Angeles Lottery, dude. I haven’t done it before, but I was starting to feel a little left out, to tell the truth.”

“I thought screenplays were the LA Lotto.”

“Naw. A good lotto is one you can win.”

She favored him with half a smile and he saw that she had a lopsided, left-hand dimple.

“You’re from LA, then?”

“Got it in one. Orange County. I’m a third-generation failed actor. Grandpa once had a line in a Hitchcock film. Mom was the ditzy neighbor on a three-episode Fox sitcom in the 90s. I’m still waiting for my moment in the sun. You live here?”

“For now. Since September. I’m from Toronto.”

“Canadia! Goddamn snowbacks. What are you doing in London?”

His comm rang, giving him a moment to gather his cover story. “Hello?”

“Art! It’s Fede!” Federico was another provocateur in GMT. He wasn’t exactly Art’s superior -- the tribes didn’t work like that -- but he had seniority.

“Fede -- can I call you back?”

“Look, I heard about your accident, and I wouldn’t have called, but it’s urgent.”

Art groaned and rolled his eyes in Linda’s direction to let her know that he, too, was exasperated by the call, then retreated to the other side of his bed and hunched over.

“What is it?”

“We’ve been sniffed. I’m four-fifths positive.”

Art groaned again. Fede lived in perennial terror of being found out and exposed as an ESTribesman, fired, deported, humiliated. He was always at least three-fifths positive, and the extra fifth was hardly an anomaly. “What’s up now?”

“It’s the VP of HR at Virgin/Deutsche Telekom. He’s called me in for a meeting this afternoon. Wants to go over the core hours recommendation.” Fede was a McKinsey consultant offline, producing inflammatory recommendation packages for Fortune 100 companies. He was working the lazy-Euro angle, pushing for extra daycare, time off for sick relatives and spouses. The last policy binder he’d dumped on V/DT had contained enough obscure leave-granting clauses that an employee who was sufficiently lawyer-minded could conceivably claim 450 days of paid leave a year. Now he was pushing for the abolishment of “core hours,” Corporate Eurospeak for the time after lunch but before afternoon naps when everyone showed up at the office, so that they could get some face-time. Enough of this, and GMT would be the laughingstock of the world, and so caught up in internecine struggles that the clear superiority of the stress-feeding EST ethos would sweep them away. That was the theory, anyway. Of course, there were rival Tribalists in every single management consulting firm in the world working against us. Management consultants have always worked on old-boys’ networks, after all -- it was a very short step from interning your frat buddy to interning your Tribesman.

“That’s it? A meeting? Jesus, it’s just a meeting. He probably wants you to reassure him before he presents to the CEO, is all.”

“No, I’m sure that’s not it. He’s got us sniffed -- both of us. He’s been going through the product-design stuff, too, which is totally outside of his bailiwick. I tried to call him yesterday and his voicemail rolled over to a boardroom in O’Malley House.” O’Malley House was the usability lab, a nice old row of connected Victorian townhouses just off Picadilly. It was where Art consulted out of. Also, two-hundred-odd usability specialists, product designers, experience engineers, cog-psych cranks and other tinkerers with the mind. They were the hairface hackers of Art’s generation, unmanageable creative darlings -- no surprise that the VP of HR would have cause to spend a little face-time with someone there. Try telling Fede that, though.

“All right, Fede, what do you want me to do?”

“Just -- Just be careful. Sanitize your storage. I’m pushing a new personal key to you now, too. Here, I’ll read you the fingerprint.” The key would be an unimaginably long string of crypto-gibberish, and just to make sure that it wasn’t intercepted and changed en route, Fede wanted to read him a slightly less long mathematical fingerprint hashed out of it. Once it arrived, Art was supposed to generate a fingerprint from Fede’s new key and compare it to the one that Fede wanted him to jot down.

Art closed his eyes and reclined. “All right, I’ve got a pen,” he said, though he had no such thing.

Fede read him the long, long string of digits and characters and he repeated them back, pretending to be noting them down. Paranoid bastard.

“OK, I got it. I’ll get you a new key later today, all right?”

“Do it quick, man.”

“Whatever, Fede. Back off, OK?”

“Sorry, sorry. Oh, and feel better, all right?”

“Bye, Fede.”

“What was that?” Linda had her neck craned around to watch him.

He slipped into his cover story with a conscious effort. “I’m a user-experience consultant. My coworkers are all paranoid about a deadline.”

She rolled her eyes. “Not another one. God. Look, we go out for dinner, don’t say a word about the kerb design or the waiter or the menu or the presentation, OK? OK? I’m serious.”

Art solemnly crossed his heart. “Who else do you know in the biz?”

“My ex. He wouldn’t or couldn’t shut up about how much everything sucked. He was right, but so what? I wanted to enjoy it, suckitude and all.”

“OK, I promise. We’re going out for dinner, then?”

“The minute I can walk, you’re taking me out for as much flesh and entrails as I can eat.”

“It’s a deal.”

And then they both slept again.


Met cute, huh? Linda was short and curvy, dark eyes and pursed lips and an hourglass figure that she thought made her look topheavy and big-assed, but I thought she was fabulous and soft and bouncy. She tasted like pepper, and her hair smelled of the abstruse polymers that kept it hanging in a brusque bob that brushed her firm, long jawline.

I’m getting a sunburn, and the pebbles on the roof are digging into my ass. I don’t know if I’m going to push the pencil or not, but if I do, it’s going to be somewhere more comfortable than this roof.

Except that the roof door, which I had wedged open before I snuck away from my attendants and slunk up the firecode-mandated stairwell, is locked. The small cairn of pebbles that I created in front of it has been strewn apart. It is locked tight. And me without my comm. Ah, me. I take an inventory of my person: a pencil, a hospital gown, a pair of boxer shorts and a head full of bad cess. I am 450’ above the summery, muggy, verdant Massachusetts countryside. It is very hot, and I am turning the color of the Barbie aisle at FAO Schwartz, a kind of labial pink that is both painful and perversely cheerful.

I’ve spent my life going in the back door and coming out the side door. That’s the way it is now. When it only takes two years for your job to morph into something that would have been unimaginable twenty-four months before, it’s not really practical to go in through the front door. Not really practical to get the degree, the certification, the appropriate experience. I mean, even if you went back to university, the major you’d need by the time you graduated would be in a subject that hadn’t been invented when you enrolled. So I’m good at back doors and side doors. It’s what the Tribe does for me -- provides me with entries into places where I technically don’t belong. And thank God for them, anyway. Without the Tribes, no one would be qualified to do anything worth doing.

Going out the side door has backfired on me today, though.

Oh. Shit. I peer over the building’s edge, down into the parking lot. The cars are thinly spread, the weather too fine for anyone out there in the real world to be visiting with their crazy relatives. Half a dozen beaters are parked down there, methane-breathers that the ESTalists call fartmobiles. I’d been driving something much the same on that fateful Leap Forward day in London. I left something out of my inventory: pebbles. The roof is littered, covered with a layer of gray, round riverstones, about the size of wasabi chickpeas. No one down there is going to notice me all the way up here. Not without that I give them a sign. A cracked windshield or two ought to do it.

I gather a small pile of rocks by the roof’s edge and carefully take aim. I have to be cautious. Careful. A pebble dropped from this height -- I remember the stories about the penny dropped from the top of the CN Tower that sunk six inches into the concrete below.

I select a small piece of gravel and carefully aim for the windshield of a little blue Sony Veddic and it’s bombs away. I can only follow the stone’s progress for a few seconds before my eyes can no longer disambiguate it from the surrounding countryside. What little I do see of its trajectory is disheartening, though: the wind whips it away on an almost horizontal parabola, off towards Boston. Forgetting all about Newton, I try lobbing and then hurling the gravel downward, but it gets taken away, off to neverneverland, and the windscreens remain whole.

I go off to prospect for bigger rocks.

You know the sort of horror movie where the suspense builds and builds and builds, partially collapsed at regular intervals by something jumping out and yelling “Boo!” whereupon the heroes have to flee, deeper into danger, and the tension rises and rises? You know how sometimes the director just doesn’t know when to quit, and the bogeymen keep jumping out and yelling boo, the wobbly bridges keep on collapsing, the small arms fire keeps blowing out more windows in the office tower?

It’s not like the tension goes away -- it just get boring. Boring tension. You know that the climax is coming soon, that any minute now Our Hero will face down the archvillain and either kick his ass or have his ass kicked, the whole world riding on the outcome. You know that it will be satisfying, with much explosions and partial nudity. You know that afterward, Our Hero will retire to the space-bar and chill out and collect kisses from the love interest and that we’ll all have a moment to get our adrenals back under control before the hand pops out of the grave and we all give a nervous jump and start eagerly anticipating the sequel.

You just wish it would happen already. You just wish that the little climaces could be taken as read, that the director would trust the audience to know that Our Hero really does wade through an entire ocean of shit en route to the final showdown.

I’m bored with being excited. I’ve been betrayed, shot at, institutionalized and stranded on the roof of a nuthouse, and I just want the fucking climax to come by and happen to me, so that I can know: smart or happy.

I’ve found a half-brick that was being used to hold down the tar paper around an exhaust-chimney. I should’ve used that to hold the door open, but it’s way the hell the other side of the roof, and I’d been really pleased with my little pebbly doorstop. Besides, I’m starting to suspect that the doorjamb didn’t fail, that it was sabotaged by some malevolently playful goon from the sanatorium. An object lesson or something.

I heft the brick. I release the brick. It falls, and falls, and falls, and hits the little blue fartmobile square on the trunk, punching a hole through the cheap aluminum lid.

And the fartmobile explodes. First there is a geyser of blue flame as the tank’s puncture wound jets a stream of ignited assoline skyward, and then it blows back into the tank and boom, the fartmobile is in one billion shards, rising like a parachute in an updraft. I can feel the heat on my bare, sun-tender skin, even from this distance.

Explosions. Partial nudity. Somehow, though, I know that this isn’t the climax.


Linda didn’t like to argue -- fight: yes, argue: no. That was going to be a problem, Art knew, but when you’re falling in love, you’re able to rationalize all kinds of things.

The yobs who cornered them on the way out of a bloody supper of contraband, antisocial animal flesh were young, large and bristling with testosterone. They wore killsport armor with strategic transparent panels that revealed their steroid-curdled muscles, visible through the likewise transparent insets they’d had grafted in place of the skin that covered their abs and quads. There were three of them, grinning and flexing, and they boxed in Art and Linda in the tiny, shuttered entrance of a Boots Pharmacy.

“Evening, sir, evening, miss,” one said.

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