The Infinite Matrix
 

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an excerpt from
down and out in
the magic kingdom
 
by Cory Doctorow
 

part 2

  illustration
 

The Mansion's cast were sickeningly cheerful and solicitous. Each of them made a point of coming around and touching the stiff, starched shoulder of my butler's costume, letting me know that if there was anything they could do for me. . . I gave them all a fixed smile and tried to concentrate on the guests, how they waited, when they arrived, how they dispersed through the exit gate. Dan hovered nearby, occasionally taking the eight minute, twenty-two second ride-through, running interference for me with the other castmembers.

He was nearby when my break came up. I changed into civvies and we walked over the cobbled streets, past the Hall of the Presidents, noting as I rounded the corner that there was something different about the queue-area. Dan groaned. "They did it already," he said.

I looked closer. The turnstiles were blocked by a sandwich board: Mickey in a Ben Franklin wig and bifocals, holding a trowel. "Excuse our mess!" the sign declared. "We're renovating to serve you better!"

I spotted one of Debra's cronies standing behind the sign, a self-satisfied smile on his face. He'd started off life as a squat northern Chinese, but had had his bones lengthened and his cheekbones raised so that he looked almost elfin. I took one look at his smile and understood — Debra had established a toe-hold in Liberty Square.

"They filed plans for the new Hall with the steering committee an hour after you got shot" Dan explained. "The committee loved the plans; so did the net. They're promising not to touch the Mansion."

"You didn't mention this," I said, hotly.

"We thought you'd jump to conclusions. The timing was bad, but there's no indication that they arranged for the shooter. Everyone's got an alibi; furthermore, they've all offered to submit their backups for proof."

"Right," I said. "Right. So they just happened to have plans for a new Hall standing by. And they just happened to file them after I got shot, when all our ad-hocs were busy worrying about me. It's all a big coincidence."

Dan shook his head. "We're not stupid, Jules. No one thinks that it's a coincidence. Debra's the sort of person who keeps a lot of plans standing by, just in case. But that just makes her a well-prepared opportunist, not a murderer."

I felt nauseated and exhausted. I was enough of a castmember that I sought out a utilidor before I collapsed against a wall, head down. Defeat seeped through me, saturating me.

Dan crouched down beside me. I looked over at him. He was grinning wryly. "Posit," he said, "for the moment, that Debra really did do this thing, set you up so that she could take over."

I smiled, in spite of myself. This was his explaining act, the thing he would do whenever I fell into one of his rhetorical tricks back in the old days. "All right, I've posited it."

"Why would she: one, take out you instead of Lil or one of the real old-timers; two, go after the Hall of Presidents instead of Tom Sawyer Island or even the Mansion; and three, follow it up with such a blatant, suspicious move?"

"All right," I said, warming to the challenge. "One: I'm important enough to be disruptive but not so important as to rate a full investigation. Two: Tom Sawyer Island is too visible, you can't rehab it without people seeing the dust from shore. Three, Debra's coming off of a decade in Beijing, where subtlety isn't real important."

"Sure," Dan said, "sure." Then he launched an answering salvo, and while I was thinking up my answer, he helped me to my feet and walked me out to my runabout, arguing all the way, so that by the time I noticed we weren't at the Park anymore, I was home and in bed.


With all the Hall's animatronics mothballed for the duration, Lil had more time on her hands than she knew what to do with. She hung around the little bungalow, the two of us in the living room, staring blankly at the windows, breathing shallowly in the claustrophobic, superheated Florida air. I had my working notes on queue management for the Mansion, and I pecked at them aimlessly. Sometimes, Lil mirrored my HUD so she could watch me work, and made suggestions based on her long experience.

It was a delicate process, this business of increasing through-put without harming the guest experience. But for every second I could shave off of the queue-to-exit time, I could put another sixty guests through and lop thirty seconds off total wait-time. And the more guests who got to experience the Mansion, the more of a Whuffie-hit Debra's people would suffer if they made a move on it. So I dutifully pecked at my notes, and found three seconds I could shave off the graveyard sequence by swiveling the Doom Buggy carriages stage-left as they descended from the attic window: by expanding their fields-of-vision, I could expose the guests to all the scenes more quickly.

I ran the change in fly-through, then implemented it after closing and invited the other Liberty Square ad-hocs to come and test it out.

It was another muggy winter evening, prematurely dark. The ad-hocs had enough friends and family with them that we were able to simulate an off-peak queue-time, and we all stood and sweated in the pre-show area, waiting for the doors to swing open, listening to the wolf-cries and assorted boo-spookery from the hidden speakers.

The doors swung open, revealing Lil in a rotting maid's uniform, her eyes lined with black, her skin powdered to a deathly pallor. She gave us a cold, considering glare, then intoned, "Master Gracey requests more bodies."

As we crowded into the cool, musty gloom of the parlor, Lil contrived to give my ass an affectionate squeeze. I turned to return the favor, and saw Debra's elfin comrade looming over Lil's shoulder. My smile died on my lips.

The man locked eyes with me for a moment, and I saw something in there — some admixture of cruelty and worry that I didn't know what to make of. He looked away immediately. I'd known that Debra would have spies in the crowd, of course, but with elf-boy watching, I resolved to make this the best show I knew how.

It's subtle, this business of making the show better from within. Lil had already slid aside the paneled wall that led to stretch-room number two, the most-recently serviced one. Once the crowd had moved inside, I tried to lead their eyes by adjusting my body language to poses of subtle attention directed at the new spotlights. When the newly remastered soundtrack came from behind the sconce-bearing gargoyles at the corners of the octagonal room, I leaned my body slightly in the direction of the moving stereo-image. And an instant before the lights snapped out, I ostentatiously cast my eyes up into the scrim ceiling, noting that others had taken my cue, so they were watching when the UV-lit corpse dropped from the pitch-dark ceiling, jerking against the noose at its neck.

The crowd filed into the second queue area, where they boarded the Doom Buggies. There was a low buzz of marveling conversation as we made our way onto the moving sidewalk. I boarded my Doom Buggy and an instant later, someone slid in beside me. It was the elf.

He made a point of not making eye contact with me, but I sensed his sidelong glances as we rode through past the floating chandelier and into the corridor where the portraits' eyes tracked us. Two years before, I'd accelerated this sequence and added some random swivel to the Doom Buggies, shaving 25 seconds off the total, taking the hourly through-put cap from 2365 to 2600. It was the proof-of-concept that led to all the other seconds I'd shaved away since. The violent pitching of the Buggy brought me and the elf into inadvertent contact with one another, and when I brushed his hand as I reached for the safety bar, I felt that it was cold and sweaty.

He was nervous! He was nervous. What did he have to be nervous about? I was the one who'd been murdered — maybe he was nervous because he was supposed to finish the job. I cast my own sidelong looks at him, trying to see suspicious bulges in his tight clothes, but the Doom Buggy's pebbled black plastic interior was too dim. Dan was in the Buggy behind us, with one of the Mansion's regular castmembers. I rang his cochlea and subvocalized: "Get ready to jump out on my signal." Anyone leaving their Buggy would interrupt an infrared beam and stop the ride-system. I would keep a close watch on Debra's crony.

We went past the hallway of mirrors and into the hallway of doors, where monstrous hands peeked out around the sills, straining against the hinges, recorded groans mixed in with pounding. I thought about it — if I wanted to kill someone on the Mansion, what would be the best place to do it? The attic staircase — the next sequence — seemed like a good bet. A cold clarity washed over me. The elf would kill me in the gloom of the staircase, dump me out over the edge at the blind turn toward the graveyard, and that would be it. Would he be able to do it if I were staring straight at him? I swiveled in my seat and looked him straight in the eye.

He quirked half a smile at me and nodded a greeting. I kept on staring at him, my hands balled into fists, ready for anything. We rode down the staircase, facing up, listening to the clamor of voices from the cemetery and the squawk of the red-eyed raven. I caught sight of the quaking groundskeeper animatronic from the corner of my eye and startled. I let out a subvocal squeal and was pitched forward as the ride-system shuddered to a stop.

"Jules?" came Dan's voice in my cochlea. "You all right?"

He'd heard my involuntary note of surprise and had leapt clear of the Buggy, stopping the ride. The elf was looking at me with a mixture of surprise and pity.

"It's all right, it's all right. False alarm." I paged Lil and subvocalized to her, telling her to start up the ride ASAP, it was all right.

I rode the rest of the way with my hands on the safety-bar, my eyes fixed ahead of me, steadfastly ignoring the elf. I checked the timer I'd been running. The demo was a debacle — instead of shaving off three seconds, I'd added thirty.


I debarked from the Buggy and stalked quickly out of the exit queue, leaning heavily against the fence, staring blindly at the pet cemetery. My head swam: I was out of control, jumping at shadows. I was spooked.

I sensed someone at my elbow, and thinking it was Lil, come to ask me what had gone on, I turned with a sheepish grin and found myself facing the elf.

He stuck his hand out and spoke in the flat no-accent of someone running a language module. "Hi there. We haven't been introduced, but I wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your work. I'm Tim Fung."

I pumped his hand, which was still cold and particularly clammy in the close heat of the Florida night. "Julius," I said, startled at how much like a bark it sounded. Careful, I thought, no need to escalate the hostilities. "It's kind of you to say that. I like what you-all have done with the Pirates."

He smiled: a genuine, embarrassed smile. "Really? I think it's pretty good — the second time around you get a lot of chances to refine things, really clarify the vision. Beijing — well, it was exciting, but it was rushed, you know? I mean, we were really struggling. Every day, there was another pack of squatters who wanted to tear the Park down. Debra used to send me out to give the children piggyback rides, just to keep our Whuffie up while she was evicting the squatters. It was good to have the opportunity to refine the designs, revisit them without the floor show."

I knew about this, of course — Beijing had been a real struggle for the ad-hocs who built it. Lots of them had been killed, many times over. Debra herself had been killed every day for a week and restored to a series of prepared clones, beta-testing one of the ride systems. It was faster than revising the CAD simulations. Debra had a reputation for pursuing expedience.

"I'm starting to find out how it feels to work under pressure," I said, and nodded significantly at the Mansion. I was gratified to see him look embarrassed, then horrified.

"We would never touch the Mansion," he said. "It's perfect!"

Dan and Lil sauntered up as I was preparing a riposte.

Dan's gait was odd, stilted, like he was leaning on Lil for support. They looked like a couple. An irrational sear of jealousy jetted through me. I was an emotional wreck. Still, I took Lil's big, scarred hand in mine as soon as she was in reach, then cuddled her to me protectively. She had changed out of her maid's uniform into civvies: smart coveralls whose micropore fabric breathed in time with her own respiration.

"Lil, Dan, I want you to meet Tim Fung. He was just telling me war stories from the Pirates project in Beijing."

Lil waved and Dan gravely shook his hand. "That was some hard work," Dan said.

It occurred to me to turn on some Whuffie monitors. It was normally an instantaneous reaction to meeting someone, but I was still disoriented. I pinged the elf. He had a lot of left-handed Whuffie; respect garnered from people who shared very few of my opinions. I expected that. What I didn't expect was that his weighted Whuffie score, the one that lent extra credence to the rankings of people I respected, was also high — higher than my own. I regretted my nonlinear behavior even more. Respect from the elf — Tim, I had to remember to call him Tim — would carry a lot of weight in every camp that mattered.

"So, how're things going over at the Hall of the Presidents?" I asked Tim.

Tim gave us the same half-grin he'd greeted me with. On his smooth, pointed features, it looked almost irredeemably cute. "We're doing good stuff, I think. Debra's had her eye on the Hall for years, back in the old days, before she went to China. We're replacing the whole thing with broadband uplinks of gestalts from each of the Presidents' lives: newspaper headlines, speeches, distilled biographies, personal papers. It'll be like having each President inside you, core-dumped in a few seconds. Debra said we're going to flash-bake the Presidents on your mind!" His eyes glittered in the twilight.

"Wow," I said. "That sounds wild. What do you have in mind for physical plant?" The Hall as it stood had a quiet, patriotic dignity cribbed from a hundred official buildings of the dead USA. Messing with it would be like redesigning the stars-and-bars.

"That's not really my area," Tim said. "I'm a programmer. But I could have one of the designers squirt some plans at you, if you want."

"That would be fine," Lil said, taking my elbow. "I think we should be heading home, now, though." She began to tug me away. Dan took my other elbow.

"That's too bad," Tim said. "My ad-hoc is pulling an all-nighter on the new Hall. I'm sure they'd love to have you drop by."

The idea seized hold of me. I would go into the camp of the enemy, sit by their fire, learn their secrets. "That would be great!" I said, too loudly.

 

[ Part 1 ]    [ Part 2 ]


Cory Doctorow has been writing and selling science fiction for a dozen years or so, and after a blizzard of stories appeared, in 1998, 1999, and 2000, in Asimovís Science Fiction, SF Age, Interzone, Amazing, On Spec, and other magazines, a grateful public awarded him the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He is the author, with Karl Schroeder, of The Complete Idiotís Guide to Publishing Science Fiction, and his articles have appeared in Wired, Speculations, and other magazines. Cory blogs for boingboing, works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and generally keeps busy. You can find out more on his website, Craphound.com, if he ever gets around to updating it.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was published in January, 2003, by Tor Books. A free download of the entire book is available on Craphound. (If you're running the moody and despised Netscape 4.76, hit Reload after you get there.) 75,000 copies were downloaded in the first month of publication. Whoo-ee!

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