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Day Two Hundred and Twenty-two: The Workaholic

December 30, 2011 Leave a comment

For the month of December, I’ll be world-building. This means taking a look at the people, places, and institutions that I have created over the last six months and trying to figure out more about them. This will involve a look at the stories in which they’ve appeared, and then some speculation, stream-of-consciousness writing, and with any luck a few revelations. In addition, I may come back and add new material as the Elves in my unconscious ship out new ideas, so I’ll be sure to link them up.

Your feedback as readers is, of course, more than welcome. There are probably questions that I’m forgetting to ask and holes that I need to fill.

Wish me luck!

——————

I’m going to do a couple of short ones, as I’m a day behind and the New Year is coming up. I’m sure you’re all busy as well, so I won’t take up too much of your time.

Our random number generator today provided us with Peter Wach, a character who has popped up in a couple of stories, never with a lot of good happening to him. Let’s see what his stories tell us about him.

46: The Big Day

  • He works 80 hours a week at Munin Scientific.
  • He’s working on “carbon pico-crystal arrays” that will allow a vast amount of storage space on a single chip.
  • He’s married.
  • He has a personality conflict with Ewan Conwell.
  • He was accused by the management heads of Munin of stealing work from Conwell. He was then detained and interrogated by security.

127: Last-Ditch

  • Some time after the events in The Big Day, Wach went to Taylor Petraglia for help.
  • He wants some kind of revenge/compensation from Munin.
  • After the events of The Big Day, Wach was fired, his bank account was frozen, his house was foreclosed on, his driver’s license was revoked, and his wife was sent a well-doctored photograph of Peter having sex with a teenage boy.
  • He’s currently staying with a friend.

Here we have a classic hard-luck case. Peter is a person of very narrow focus, and normally it would serve him well. It allowed him to work on this project, which is every bit as revolutionary as he claims it will be. In his words, “When it gets into production, it’ll be a bigger advance in computing than the integrated circuit.” So that’s saying a lot.

The problem, of course, is that he misses a lot of what goes on around him, which made it very easy for the conspiracy against him to be pulled off. And to be fair, I don’t think that Ewan Conwell actually had anything to do with it. He was a convenient excuse for the higher-ups to use, and the fact that Peter doesn’t like him very much just helps sell the whole thing. In fact, if Ewan found out how his name had been used as part of their snare, I reckon he’d be pretty angry about it.

The main thing about Peter, though, is that he is very good at what he does, and pretty crap at everything else. He never would have dreamed that his work would lead him to this situation, which betrays a certain trust in the fundamental order of things. He doesn’t have the time or desire to worry about the bigger picture, and so assumes that everything is working smoothly. A more street-wise man, perhaps, would have recognized the potential for backstabbing and hidden a copy of the data somewhere outside the company. But Peter is not that kind of guy.

Whats going to happen to him from here on out? Good question. If he’s gone to Petraglia, then Peter could just end up being the catalyst for a good mystery-thriller story. On the other hand, it would be interesting to see a naive kind of guy like Peter wade into the murky waters of industrial espionage and somehow come out on top. A more challenging story, certainly.

We’ll keep Peter around and see what happens to him, I think.

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Day Two Hundred and Eight: Raven of Industry

December 15, 2011 2 comments

For the month of December, I’ll be world-building. This means taking a look at the people, places, and institutions that I have created over the last six months and trying to figure out more about them. This will involve a look at the stories in which they’ve appeared, and then some speculation, stream-of-consciousness writing, and with any luck a few revelations. In addition, I may come back and add new material as the Elves in my unconscious ship out new ideas, so I’ll be sure to link them up.

Your feedback as readers is, of course, more than welcome. There are probably questions that I’m forgetting to ask and holes that I need to fill.

Wish me luck!

——————

Okay, why don’t we do another Evil Corporation today (yes, I know – it’s a tautology, but what can you do?). Munin Scientific is a company that specializes in computer components, with a focus on memory. They make storage media, hard drives, RAM, all kinds of things that make your computer work, and they’re constantly pushing the limits of materials and technique. Having said all that, let’s see what the stories say about them:

46: The Big Day

  • It has a very intense corporate culture. In the thoughts of Peter Wach, “Nobody got anywhere in Munin Scientific on forty hours a week. Nobody.”
  • Wach is doing work on carbon pico-crystal arrays.
  • The company issues employees with time-sensitive USB drives. “The drives had to be accessed at least once every twenty-four hours, to ensure security. If they weren’t, then the LED would turn red and the drive would erase itself the next time it was plugged into a computer.”
  • Pete works with Ewan Conwell
  • The Board Room is on the thirtieth floor of the headquarters.
  • The board room has a custom-designed table: “A long table, shiny and black, stretched down the middle of the brightness and made Pete a little dizzy. Embossed in the center of the table, shining under layers of lacquer, was the Munin Scientific logo.”
  • The chief technology officer is Terence Dorshimer.
  • The vice-president in charge of research is Harris Brummitt.
  • The CEO is Ulysses Grodin, “probably one of the most well-known and well-loved CEOs in the country.”
  • Brummit may be from the Southern United States.
  • The security guards carry tasers.
  • Wach is suspected of stealing data from Conwell.

65: Amanuensis

  • Cerbecorp once tried to buy out Munin Scientific. They failed.

98: Back in the Saddle

  • A man named Brant Laidler was murdered on his way to merger talks with Munin.

127: Last-Ditch

  • Wach’s life was destroyed after the events of The Big Day. He lost his job, his home, and his marriage.
  • Munin has Wach’s prototype. It’s locked in a secure locker at Munin Headquarters, in basement vaults designed by Cerbecorp.It’s said to be impenetrable to anything less than a commando team.

So yeah, all in all it looks like Munin isn’t a nice company, but then we know so very little about it. We know that one of their employees designed a fantastic new storage medium, and he got thrown out on his ass for it. Why would they do this? That, sir-and-or-madam, is a damn fine question.

The company is named, of course, after one of the ravens of Odin, father of the Norse gods. Odin was famous for many things, not the least of which was having two ravens that gathered information for him. They were Huginn and Muninn, AKA “Thought” and “Memory”. Why did I choose Munin? Well, after I had used Cerberus for one company, I thought it would be interesting to use another mythological animal. After some thinking and web-surfing, I came up with Munin, which pretty much defined what Munin Scientific focused on – memory.

You might also have noticed that the CEO’s surname is Grodin, which contains the name of the raven-god. Not a coincidence, I assure you. It would also not surprise you, I think, to learn that Ulysses Grodin thinks of himself in god-like terms, at least as a CEO. He is enamored with the life of the AllFather, and has managed to fit his own personal narrative into that mythology.

Granted, it only fits well from his point of view. Odin’s sacrifice of his eye for wisdom, for example, is Grodin’s favorite allegory. The mistakes that he made when he was young were, as he thinks of it, the same as the sacrifice of Odin. The god, I’m sure would disagree.

That said, Grodin has built up an excellent company, mainly by being astute enough to hire the best people. When he started Munin, the focus on memory and storage was no accident. He saw the digitization of media on the horizon and knew that there would have to be a way to keep it safe. The floppy disks of times gone by weren’t going to be enough, so Grodin turned the technical knowledge he had, teamed up with Brummitt and Borshimer, and built their company. Now you have to work to find a computer that doesn’t have Munin Scientific technology in it somewhere.

Of course, it must be remembered that there were two ravens on Odin’s shoulders. So what about Huginn? Well, that ties into the project that Wach was on and why he got axed from it. It speaks to Grodin’s need for godhood. If it works, it’ll change the world, and you’ll know about it as soon as I do.

Story Ideas:

  • The Huginn Project

Day Ninety-eight: Back in the Saddle

August 27, 2011 2 comments

Loren held the phone to her ear with her shoulder as she worked. “I just don’t know if I can get back into it for good, Anna,” she said. The hotel room was dark and stifling, but had an excellent view overlooking the street. She sat by the window with a little folding table, working as she talked.

“You’ve already made a great first step,” Anna said. “You’re back at work, back out there. You’ll probably pick up right where you left off.”

“Yeah, right,” Loren said. “Just like falling off a bicycle.”

“Exactly,” Anna said. “It’s – Wait, what?”

“Nothing. Just something my ex-boyfriend used to say.” She switched the phone to the other ear. “I don’t know, Anna, I just don’t feel it anymore, y’know? All that enthusiasm has just gone… Bleh.”

She could hear something on the other end. It sounded like Anna was in the kitchen. “You know, Lo, when I took that time off after Alton was born, I thought I’d never get back to work. I was away from teaching for six years. Six!” It sounded like she was chopping. “A whole graduating class had come and gone by the time I managed to get back to work. I thought I was going to be eaten alive by those kids, and you know what?”

Loren held the phone up while she fished around on the floor for the pin she’d dropped. “What?”

“I just walked in there like I owned the place, Lo. I shut down all those little nagging voices in my head and held my head up high and took charge.”

“That’s great, Anna, but I think my scene is a little different.” She peeked through the curtains at the office tower across the street. There was a long black town car parked in front and a bored-looking man in an ill-fitting suit leaning against the door. Loren checked her watch. Probably another fifteen minutes, which was just enough time.

“Well sure,” Anna said. “But the principle is the same, right? You’re a professional, aren’t you?”

“You know I am, Anna.”

“Exactly. Hold on.” There was the loud whine of a blender for about thirty seconds that gave Loren a little window of focus to start reassembly. “You still there?” Anna asked.

“Yup, still here.”

“Good. So like I was saying – you’ve done this a million times, Lo.”

“Eighty-one, Anna.” She snapped the bolt action into the barrel and tested it out. It came back smoothly and snapped forward. Perfect. She glanced down at her watch. Ten more minutes to finish and get set up.

“Fine, eighty-one. You should be an old hand at this by now.”

“I know,” Loren said. “I guess it’s just the jitters, right?” She started feeding rounds into the magazine, quietly counting as she did so. “I have a reputation – four, five – right?”

“You do, and it’s a good one.” Loren could hear the tick-tick-WHOOMPH of a gas stove being lit. “Can you tell me who it is?”

“You know I can’t, Anna,” Loren said. She held the rifle up to her shoulder and sighted along the barrel. “Rules are rules.”

“Fine, be a spoilsport,” she said.

“Well, that is in my job description.” Loren took the scope out of its case and cupped a hand over the end as she peered down onto the street. The guy leaning against the car jumped closer in her view, and she was pretty sure he had a gun holstered under his jacket. She adjusted the focus a bit, but it didn’t really need it. She snapped it in place, put the gun on her bed and started repacking her go-bag. “Look, Anna, I really appreciate this, but I have to go. Time’s a-wasting.”

“No problem, sis,” Anna said. “Happy shooting.”

“Thanks, Anna. Save some for me, okay?” She snapped the phone closed before either of them had to say “good-bye” and started preparing in earnest. The gun was ready and waiting, all she had to do was prepare for a quick exit. There were enough other tall buildings on this side of the street that her position wouldn’t be immediately obvious, but still – a good sniper never lingers. Rule number one.

The battered backpack was laid out and ready. All she had to do was break down the gun, throw the parts inside, and she’d be ready to go. She was dressed in her suburban mom clothes and hadn’t showered yet. If everything worked out, she’d be gone before Brant Laidler’s brains were finished sliding down the wall behind him.

She turned the seat around, steadied her arm on the folding table and let the curtains peek open just enough to get a good view of the door across the street. Laidler would be coming out any minute, on his way to merger talks with Munin Scientific that her employer didn’t want him to make. Loren took a deep breath and started counting doubles in her head along with her heartbeat, which she could just barely feel. She got to 16,384 before she lost count and had to start again. The second time, she made it up to 65,536. Her third run was interrupted when Brant Laidler walked out the door of his office building, chatting jovially with an assistant. He had a thin white combover and a paunch, but he looked like a nice enough guy. Someone’s uncle, maybe. Probably liked to tell jokes to children.

Loren stopped counting, centered the scope on his face, and took a deep breath.

She let it out slowly, feeling all the nervous energy, tension, doubt and fear rise away from her like a vapor. It left her still, quiet and sure. She put the crosshairs right between his eyebrows, and squeezed the trigger.

Loren didn’t need to see his head explode into a red mist to know she’d made the shot. In an instant, she was up, her hands twisting and unmaking the rifle and throwing the parts into the bag. She took off the extra shirts she was wearing and stuffed them in as well, then zipped up the bag, ran her hands through her hair and left the room. There was no one in the hallway to watch her leave, but she kept her face a sleepy, harried mask. By the time she got to the front entrance, her steps had slowed down and she was flipping intently through a local guidebook. No one said anything to her as she left, and she didn’t even lift her head to look at the police cars and the ambulance that raced by in the opposite direction.

Later, as she was melting the hotel keycard with a cigarette lighter, she would finally allow herself a moment of glee. She giggled quietly to herself and resolved to call Anna back once she reached the safehouse. “Yup,” she whispered as she tossed the small, blackened lump of plastic down a sewer drain. “I still got it.”

Day Sixty-five: Amanuensis

July 25, 2011 3 comments

Cordell McCandlish slid into the back seat of the limousine, nodded at the black-suited bodyguard who sat across from him, and opened up his briefcase. A uniformed doorman eased the door closed and the driver started the car. The limo pulled out into traffic, flanked by two black SUV’s, each filled with bodyguards and hired security. Cordell started to go through the files he would need for his monthly meeting. He paged back and forth through revenue estimates and earnings reports, patent applications and security statements. Site accidents, hirings, firings, all the daily minutia of the company that they contained. The data was sorted and compiled and arranged so that it formed a cogent picture of how the company was functioning.

All of it utterly useless for his business today.

But protocols had to be followed, for the sake of Cerbecorp. McCandlish would meet with Abraham Jordan, just as he had every month for the last ten years, and he would bring along all the information pertinent to the running of his vast corporate empire. Everyone knew the ritual, thus the armed escort. The information in McCandlish’s briefcase could bring down Cerbecorp, its affiliates, probably even its competitors. Indeed, not five minutes after they started driving, McCandlish heard a small pinging noise come from the outside of the car. The large bodyguard in the seat opposite him put a finger to his ear for a moment. “Just a shooter, Mister McCandlish,” he rumbled. “Nothing to worry about.”

McCandlish nodded and closed the briefcase. They would be there soon enough, ensconced in the bomb-proof fortress that Jordan had erected in the heart of the city. What Cerbecorp offered, better than anyone else, was security. Whether it was physical security, data security, financial security, it didn’t matter. If you had something you needed to keep safe, Cerbecorp was the first place you went to. For all that it had been run for years by a near-paranoid psychopath, that surprised no one.

What did surprise people was how the company thrived. Jordan had spent the first few years of his position as the President of the company utterly hiding – figuratively and literally – from all risk. He made few investments, subjected all new employees to a rigorous inspection and background check, and refused to leave the tower he’d had built downtown. It was not until he’d hired McCandlish as his right-hand man that the company started to take off, and plenty of people were very aware of that. They were also aware that the company had been going in some unexpected directions in the last few years, leading some to wonder if Jordan hadn’t finally snapped. The company’s attempt to buy out Munin Scientific, the building of a new subterranean research complex in New Mexico – these were not the kinds of ventures that Abraham Jordan would have taken.

Analysts attributed the changes to McCandlish’s influence. He wondered if they had any idea how right they were.

The limo came to a stop and McCandlish blinked his mind clear. A bodyguard opened the door for him, and he got out, followed by the large young man who had ridden in with him. The three of them walked to the elevator in silence. The bodyguards each pressed their ID badges to a sensor, and McCandlish stated his name in a loud and clear voice. A green light blinked on above the elevator and the doors slid open.

Jordan’s suite was ten floors underground. The elevator opened into a minimalist lobby, with a simple reception desk, matte white walls and two armed guards in front of a steel door. There were no windows, nor should there be. The whole suite was a concrete and steel box, built to withstand nearly anything from earthquakes to terrorist attacks to – it was said – nuclear bombs. The guards carried large handguns and a variety of other implements of intimidation on their belts. That was normal, and perfectly expected.

What was not expected was the disheveled young man who was sitting slumped in a chair by the reception desk. McCandlish curled a lip at the sight of him. Jordan’s son was everything his father wasn’t – a layabout, reckless, completely undependable. Than Jordan stood up and ran a hand through his uncombed hair. “Cord,” he said. His eyes were red and he hadn’t shaved. McCandlish was sure he could smell alcohol. “Cord, I have to see my father,” he said, reaching out.

One of the bodyguards stepped in between them and blocked Than from getting any closer. He groaned, a noise that was closer to a whine. “C’mon, Cord! I need to see him!”

“Why?” Cordell asked. “Run out of money again? Because you’re not getting any more, young man.” McCandlish stepped out from behind the bodyguard and nodded to let the large man know he could stand down. “You asked for full access to the trust fund, and you got it.” He put his hands – and the briefcase – behind his back and watched the young man’s eyes follow it. “You blew it, Than. And that is not my problem, nor is it your father’s.”

Than stood for a moment, his eyes locked on McCandlish. There was an instant where he thought the young man would fall over, or perhaps throw up, so he was especially surprised when Than lunged at him and grabbed his lapels. “I know what you’re doing,” he said. His eyes were bloodshot, wide, and mad. “I know what’s going on with you and my father. I haven’t seen him in years, no one has, and if you don’t cut me in, I’ll -” Than squawked as he was pulled away by the bodyguards. They held him with ease as he struggled in their grip.

McCandlish straightened his jacket and looked around the room. The armed guards hadn’t moved. “Bring him upstairs,” McCandlish said to the bodyguards. “I’ll see to him after my meeting with his father.” The bodyguards nodded, tightened their grip, and hauled Than into the waiting elevator. The doors perfectly silenced his angry shouts.

“Well,” McCandlish said to the guards. “That was a change of pace.”

The guards didn’t respond, nor did they move. McCandlish held out his hands. The guard on the left reached into one of his belt pouches and removed a small device – long and thin with a small display on the top side. He pressed a button and a number appeared – 10 – indicating the place where a small blood sample would be taken. McCandlish rolled up his right sleeve to expose the randomly chosen spot inside his elbow. The guard set the device against his skin, there was a small pinprick and a hiss. McCandlish rolled down his sleeve and waited as the guard plugged the small device into a carefully concealed port next to the door.

A moment later, the door unlocked. far quieter than would have been expected. The guards stood aside, and McCandlish nodded to them as he passed into Jordan’s suite.

The room was white. Pure, antiseptic, disorienting white. Only the hospital bed in the center, and the attendant machines that flocked around it, gave him any idea where up and down were. He carefully stepped towards the bed. There would be a nurse here, normally. During their meetings she would leave by a different door. This was a private moment between Jordan and McCandlish, just as it had been for years.

“Hello, Abe,” McCandlish said quietly. “It’s that time again.”

The machines beeped and hissed quietly, but Jordan didn’t say a word. He lay in his bed, slivers of white showing under nearly closed eyelids. A variety of tubes went up his nose and down his throat, needles in both arms, cables and pipes snaking all around the bed. Jordan’s skin was sallow and brittle, his muscles soft and watery. He moved slightly as the implanted rollers in the bed started their massage, but he didn’t react at all. Abraham Jordan was just this side of dead, and had been for some time. But vast wealth and deep paranoia were able to buy a lot of things, not the least of which were far more years than he had any right to.

McCandlish rested the briefcase on the bed, but didn’t open it. “Your son,” he said. “He thinks he knows what’s going on.” He shook his head. “Pity if he does. I don’t think he does.” He shrugged. “But risk is weakness, isn’t that right, Abraham?” He looked at Jordan, who didn’t respond. Who hadn’t responded to a question for the least five years. McCandlish patted his hand. “Don’t worry, Abe,” he said. “It’ll be quick. He’ll never see it coming.”

He sighed and popped open the briefcase. “Shall we begin, then? Barbeau Pharmaceuticals is asking for a cooperative arrangement.” He outlined the deal in quiet, measured tones.

Abraham Jordan respired and metabolized, but did not respond.

Day Forty-six: The Big Day

July 6, 2011 4 comments

Pete stared at himself in the mirror, straightened his tie, and tried to smooth down his flyaway hair. “Should’ve gotten a haircut,” he muttered.

But it wasn’t just that. The pale complexion, the ill-fitting suit, the exhausted look in his eyes – they all worked together to make him look like a man who worked eighty hours a week. Which, of course, he did. For the last two years. But that’s what you had to do, what anyone who wanted to get ahead had to do. Nobody got anywhere in Munin Scientific on forty hours a week. Nobody.

After today, though, it would all be worth it. The work he had done on carbon pico-crystal arrays would revolutionize the industry. It would launch Munin Scientific to the top of the market, and within five years everything that had a computer in it would be indebted to them. To him. He took a USB drive out of his jacket pocket. It was all there.

That wasn’t the only copy, of course. No one could possibly be so stupid as to store their only copy of a potentially revolutionary technology onto something as droppable as a thumb drive. He had the data stored in several different places, all secure behind the best encryption and security the company could provide. If things went terribly wrong, he might lose the drive on the elevator ride up, but the data would still be there.

The LED on the end was glowing a soft amber. The drives had to be accessed at least once every twenty-four hours, to ensure security. If they weren’t, then the LED would turn red and the drive would erase itself the next time it was plugged into a computer. Pete didn’t take it too seriously. After all, if someone was going to steal his data, they probably wouldn’t wait until they got around to it to make copies. But it made the company feel like it was being proactive, so there wasn’t much to be done about it.

He put it back in his pocket and checked his watch. Fifteen minutes to go. He rinsed his hands off and tried to give himself a stern look in the mirror. It just came off looking more exhausted. His wife said he should smile more for interviews, to try and look more personable. He thought that smiling made him look like a freak. He tried it. He was right.

When one of the toilets flushed, he started and turned around. Ewan Conwell came out of one of the stalls and Pete felt his blood pressure rise. “How’s it goin’, Petey?” Ewan asked. He waved his hands under the sink and got a burst of water. Pete didn’t say anything, but went back to inspecting his tie. “Big day today, isn’t it? Well…” He took a handkerchief from his pocket and started to dry his hands, grinning at his own reflection and checking out those big, white teeth of his.

There was something about Conwell’s face that made Pete want to punch it, and Pete had never punched anyone in his life. Maybe the big chin, the fake smile, the beady little shark eyes – he couldn’t pin down what it was. Every time he saw Ewan, he just felt some kind of primate rage build in his gut. This wouldn’t have been so bad if they didn’t work in the same division. Ewan always seemed to be schmoozing, always looked relaxed and healthy. Never seemed to be cracking under pressure or pulling his hair out trying to solve a problem. He was perfectly happy working at Munin, and that was the biggest sign that something was really wrong with him.

“Yes,” Pete finally said.

“You wearing that tie?”

Pete looked at the tie, then at Ewan’s reflection. “Yes,” he said.

Ewan shrugged. “Cool,” he said. “Good luck!” He clapped Pete on the shoulder, winked, and walked out of the bathroom.

Pete took a few breaths to calm himself down. Freaking out over Ewan Conwell was the last thing he needed to do right now. He breathed, in and out, in and out, and then addressed his reflection. “You ready?” he asked. “Ready,” he replied.

The interview was fifteen floors above him, so he took the elevator and fidgeted with the USB drive on the ride up. It was a smooth, quiet ride, all the way up to the thirtieth floor. When he got there, a receptionist looked him over with a single raised eyebrow, carefully checked her appointment book, and pressed a button on her desk. A moment later she leaned in to her earpiece and said, “Yes, sir. He’s here.”

She looked up at him. “You may go in,” she said. The doors to the left swung open. Pete’s mouth was dry, his palms were sweating, and his stomach hurt. He nodded, gripping the USB drive tightly, and walked in.

The boardroom was bright and spare, influenced by how designers thought Japanese people lived. A long table, shiny and black, stretched down the middle of the brightness and made Pete a little dizzy. Embossed in the center of the table, shining under layers of lacquer, was the Munin Scientific logo.

Three men in suits were sitting at one end of the table, next to a laptop. The men were all wearing suits that each probably cost more than his salary. Before taxes, of course. “Come in, Mr. Wach,” one of the men said. Terence Dorshimer, the chief technology officer. About five levels above Pete, and just the fact that he knew Pete’s name was enough to make him want to throw up.

He set his shoulders back, tried to stiffen his spine, and strode to the end of the table. “Pete Wach,” Terence said, “I’d like you to meet Harris Brummitt, the vice president in charge of research.” Brummitt shook Pete’s hand, a strong, confident shake. “And this, of course, is Ulysses Grodin. I know you know who he is.”

Of course Pete knew who he was. Grodin’s was the public face of Munin Scientific. Third-generation president of the company and probably one of the most well-known and well-loved CEOs in the country. Pete put his hand out. “Of course. An honor to meet you, sir.”

Grodin didn’t offer his hand, and Pete was left hanging for a moment.

“I… um…”

Terence stepped in to rescue him. “I’m sure you’re eager to show us what you have, Pete.” He gestured to the laptop. “It’s showtime.”

“Yes. Yes, of course.” Pete plugged the USB into the machine and the little LED turned green again. An explorer window opened up, Pete found the icon he wanted, and the slideshow began. Terence pressed a button on a remote and the lights dimmed. A wallscreen lit up, with the computer display on it.

Pete looked at the three men, licked his lips, and cleared his throat. Grodin was starting to look annoyed, Brummitt bored, and Dorshimer’s smile was beginning to turn brittle.

“How would you like,” Pete said, “to have every movie ever made – yes, every single one.” He dropped to a whisper, as he’d practiced at home. “Even the dirty ones.” He paused for a laugh, didn’t get one, and then stuttered back into form. “Um… All the movies ever made, in ten different languages – twice – stored on a chip the size of your thumbnail?” The slideshow faded to show a close-up of a hand with a small silver chip in its palm. “And if you want, we can throw in the Library of Congress just for fun.”

That should have gotten at least a chuckle. Something really wasn’t right here. He advanced the slideshow, and what looked like a computer-generated thornbush appeared. “With picotech crystal arrays, we can store more data in a smaller space than anyone would have dreamed even two years ago. What’s more-” He went to the next slide, which was numbers and data on a pleasant gradient background. “As you can see, it’s highly durable, and will hold onto data with little or no corruption for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.” He went to the next slide and started to read from it. There were circles and arrows, pointing to other circles and other arrows that explained what the technology was and how it worked, and as Pete read from it he knew that something was going horribly wrong.

He could feel the yawning void on the other side of the table. It was exactly as though someone had walked up to him and was standing behind him, breathing down his neck, but he wasn’t allowed to see. After he got to the third circle, his voice trailed off and he turned around.

All three men were staring at him. “I, um…” he said. He cleared his throat again and straightened his suit jacket. “I suppose I can… um. Take questions? If there are any?”

Brummitt shifted in his seat. He glanced at the other two men, who were still staring at Pete. “Mister Wach,” Brummitt said. “Do you think we’re idiots?”

Pete’s mind went blank for a moment. Of all the questions he had prepared for, this certainly wasn’t one of them. If they had asked about data retrieval rates, thermal fluctuations, storage tolerances – he could have talked the sun down on any of those. But did he think they were stupid? “Um… No, sir. Of course not.” He looked at the other two men, and their faces were unreadable. “Why would you think I thought-”

“You must think we’re dumber’n a Texas schoolbook, Mister Wach, coming in here like this.”

“Sir, I-”

“That we just fell off the bullshit truck yesterday. Is that it, Mister Wach?”

“No, sir, of course-”

“Because if we were stupid, if we were complete and utter shitheads who didn’t know our dicks from diamonds, then you might have gotten away with this stunt you’re trying to pull!”

Pete tried to speak, but all that came out was soundless breath. He looked from Terrence to Grodin and back, but neither man would speak. Terence pushed another button on his panel and nodded to Brummitt. A moment later, two security guards, hands on their tasers, came through the door.

Pete put his hands up. “Wait, woah, woah. Wait! Look, I really don’t understand why-”

For the first time, Ulysses Grodin spoke. “Mister Wach, you have taken enough of our time. You may either leave, or you will be taken out.” The tone of his voice made it clear which he would prefer.

“But I don’t understand,” Pete said. “The technology, my presentation, I don’t… What did I do?” he wailed. He started to make his way back around the table, which was the cue for the security guards to launch their tasers at him.

The pain was far worse than he imagined, and he collapsed almost instantly, just barely missing the table. He lay on the floor, twitching, and he heard someone say, “Again.” Another bolt of white-hot pain shot through him, and he tried to yell. His jaw was locked, and he couldn’t get the breath out.

When the pain stopped, and he felt himself fading into unconsciousness, he heard Brummitt kneel down next to him, one of his knees making popping noises as he did. “We’re going to have a very long talk later, Wach,” he said. “And you’re going to tell us exactly how and why you stole that research from Ewan Conwell.”

Pete’s last thought as he passed out was of Ewan, and how much he hated him.