It’s the softest of whispers that demand the most attention.
Frank Gattis had been standing at the back of the break room on thirty-seven stirring his coffee when he first noticed the feed slowing down. The tiny whisperer in his left ear usually let out a steady monologue, telling him in short, stilted sentences the latest happenings in the city, what the clowns in Washington were up to, and how his stock portfolio expected to fare over the coming day. When current events grew stale, the feed turned more social, bringing him updates from personal and professional networks in the form of status messages and location pings. All day, without pause or variance of tempo, the whisperer spoke to Frank, keeping him perpetually linked to the world.
Only the biggest news stories could slow down the feed.
As a senior aggregator for Banks Media Productions, Frank was responsible for seeking out and delivering such stories. Although he spent every moment of every day gathering content to send up the pipe, he was always on the lookout for the big one, the undiscovered stone that could shatter the calm water of the feed and make the other media houses sit up and take note. The ripples would make The White Line out of Atlantic City throttle its political news and tales of corruption in East Coast gaming. Lincoln Continental out of Umbra would ease its incessant technobabble just long enough to turn an ear to Banks Media.
Even the lesser feeds operating in small towns or on college campuses would fall silent, their engineers’ fingers at the ready to copy, paste, and rebrand whatever news they might hear from one of the big three media houses.
This time, though, it was Banks Media who was slowing down, stalling stories of corporate influence and Hollywood gossip in anticipation of a ripple from some far-off stone. Whatever was happening out there in the ether, it was big enough for Donato Banks to bring the entire BMP feed to a relative standstill.
It was enough to distract Frank from the task he had been sent to do.
The other aggregators in the break room sensed the ebb before the surge too. There were a dozen of them sitting around with their coffees and donuts, discussing the plentiful but ultimately unusable content they had gathered over the weekend. The group was largely middle-ladder types, those who had been at the company a few years but who hadn’t broken a story large enough to get them invited up to the fiftieth floor as Frank had. They traded leads and talked of sports until one by one, they all quieted.
Their mouths held on aborted words as their heads cocked to the left in unison.
Frank watched it play out, watched two-dozen eyeballs scan back and forth as if they were reading the news instead of hearing it in their heads. The resulting silence allowed him to zero in on his own whisperer, to pick out that soft rustle endlessly reverberating in his ear. A soundbite of President Hadden speaking at an anti-MX rally cut out abruptly.
Breaking on White Line Media: 2015.11.09.0605. James Perion. Dying. Cancer.
The ocean had receded, but with those words, it returned as a giant wall of water ready to wash the beach clean.
The message repeated twice and then the feed dove headfirst into the Perion Synthetics hashtag, dredging up recent news stories about the company and reaction from industry pundits.
Panic may have spread through other break rooms throughout the country, but not on the thirty-seventh floor of the Banks Media Productions Tower. These were professional aggregators, men and women whose job it was to stay calm in the face of an earth-shattering calamity. Instead of fleeing before the tsunami, they took the time to calmly but quickly gather their beach towels and umbrellas and head back to their cars.
The crowd stood as one.
Frank stepped forward and put a hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him. When Cameron Gray looked up, Frank winked at him.
Cell phones appeared from pockets; furtive calls went out to stock brokers as the feed slipped into the financial hashes, turning its focus to pre-market trading. Those without personal investment in Perion Synthetics began narrating into their slivers, the small tabs of metal embedded in their wrists that acted as a PDA, and for aggregators, as their primary recording device. Others pulled leather covers from their palettes to view the BMP feed in graphical format; photos and videos scrolled in an endless loop down the vibrant screens.
Once the last aggregator had filed out, Frank removed his hand.
“That’s okay,” said Cameron. “It’s only the biggest news story of the year, but I’m sure whatever you have to say is more important.”
The cocky little shit with the throwback skater haircut and unnecessarily tight button-up had no idea what was about to fall into his lap. And yet, Donato Banks had taken a personal interest in him, had decided it was worth his time and effort to mold the mid-grade aggregator with more forced bravado than brains into something better.
“You don’t deserve what’s about to happen to you, kid,” said Frank, shaking his head. “But orders are orders, so I’m gonna take you upstairs anyway. Leave your orange juice; Banks will shit if you spill it on his leather.”
Frank dropped his coffee in a trashcan on the way out of the break room. Despite the many conversations spilling from the offices around him, he heard Cameron’s footsteps keeping pace. They stepped into the elevator at the end of the hall.
“Fifty,” said Frank. “No stops.”
Cameron brought his wrist to his mouth as the elevator began to rise. “Hashtag: Vinestead,” he said, instructing his whisperer to focus on stories related to the ubiquitous and maligned conglomerate.
“Checking up on the competition?” asked Frank.
“Just trying to beat everyone to the endgame,” said Cameron. “If this story turns out to be true and James Perion really is dying of cancer, then you know at some point it’s all going to lead back to Vinestead. And I’m going to be there. Waiting.”
The kid was sharp. Vinestead was where Frank would have gone had Banks not tasked him with bringing Cameron to his office. Pretty much any story worth feeding about Perion Synthetics would have a footnote related to their biggest competitor, Vinestead International. Their rivalry was more than a political ploy by James Perion to distance himself from Vinestead CEO Arthur Sedivy and his no-morals, all-profit business practices; it was personal as well.
Frank flashed on the memory of Perion and Sedivy appearing on a national news show to speak out against the threat of Chinese cyber-attacks. Both had been united against a common enemy, but somehow their prepared remarks had turned into a debate about corporate responsibility and whether companies served the people or the shareholders. Perion had just raised his fist over his shoulder when the feed went to black.
The elevator doors opened to Donato Banks’ office and Frank spied the big boss standing at the floor-to-ceiling windows watching the sun rise between the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles.
Frank led Cameron to an arrangement of leather couches and plush chairs, but neither sat. No one sat in Donato Banks’ office without being asked.
“I brought him,” said Frank.
“And what do you have for me so far?” asked Banks.
Donato Banks was never much for greetings. It was the feed mentality that kept the owner and overseer of Banks Media Productions from acknowledging that conversations usually had discreet beginnings and endings. To him, social interaction was nothing more than a point-to-point feed, an exchange of ideas both ongoing and uninterruptable. Talking to Banks often meant joining a conversation already in progress.
“Excuse me?” asked Frank.
“Not you,” said Banks, turning around. “Cam, what do you have on this Perion story?”
Frank expected Cameron to stammer some excuse, but instead, he stepped forward and spoke to Banks as if they were equals.
“Rich people don’t die from cancer,” he replied. “So either Benny is full of shit, or he’s not telling us the whole story.”
Bennett “Benny” Coker ran The White Line media house out of Atlantic City, currently ranked third in subscribers. If he had tagged his own name in the story’s metadata, it meant he was betting it all on the story being true.
Banks motioned to the couches and sat down in a chair at the head of the coffee table.
“Assume the story is true,” he said.
There was an intensity with which he stared at Cameron, an expectant look radiating from brown eyes that were sharp and powerful despite the lines surrounding them.
“Well, assuming Perion has a better health plan than us, for him to die from cancer would mean he’s refusing treatment. But why would he do that?”
Banks crossed one leg over the other. “Frank?”
“Follow the trail, kid. Perion goes to his doctor, the doctor goes to the local distributor, to the national warehouses, and small pharmacology centers. A man with his pull would end up at Feather Medical or Cell Scientifics, and those both roll up the chain to one entity. I’ll give—”
“Vinestead Pharma,” said Cam, his eyes widening. He pulled out his phone and began typing out some notes. “They own the patents on the treatments, don’t they?”
“Yes,” said Banks. “And given Perion’s contentious relationship with Vinestead, you can see why that would be a problem.”
Cameron shook his head. “Yeah, but would Vinestead really refuse to help him? That’s cold, even for Arthur Sedivy.”
“They’re more than willing to help out. All Perion would have to do is submit to a Guardian Angel biochip.”
The mild excitement that had been growing on Cameron’s face fell away. His dim eyes grew distant, perhaps imagining the back of James Perion’s neck and the surgeon’s scalpel just a few centimeters away. On a nearby tray, a fresh Guardian Angel biochip still in its protective case would be waiting for insertion, its grow-wire coiled up in a small loop beside it. Once installed in Perion’s neck, the chip would monitor the CEO’s vital systems, and with the right patented code, help his body fight back against any uncontrolled cell growth. And though Perion would live on, it would be with Vinestead technology directly connected to his brain.
Cameron sighed as he came to the realization that Perion would never allow that to happen. He would sooner face death than give Arthur Sedivy, or anyone for that matter, the opportunity to spy on his inner thoughts.
“It’s true, isn’t it?” asked Cameron. “Perion really is dying.”
Banks nodded. “He called me last night and told me personally. I think maybe he knew the story was going to leak.”
Frank noticed the red LED on Cameron’s wrist. His questions had activated the recorder in his sliver, just in case. It was a safety feature for impromptu interviews, but also handy when an aggregator needed to be discreet.
“James Perion and I have history,” said Banks, turning his attention to the vidscreen on the far wall. Flashy graphics scrolled right to left, detailing the ongoing freefall of Perion Synthetics stock. “Our relationship is one of mutual respect. He produces the most advanced synthetic humans ever known to man, and I run the biggest media house in the world. We’re cut from the same cloth.”
Frank knew the claim wouldn’t pass Quality Assurance, not so long as Lincoln Continental kept crushing Banks’ subscriber numbers. And as for Perion Synthetics, all that had come out of their secluded beta test in the wastes of the California desert had been technology only slightly related to synthetic humans.
Pieces of the puzzle, but never a complete product.
“And,” continued Banks, “he trusts me enough to not put something this personal and damaging on the feed.” He gestured to the vidscreen. “This is all on Benny Coker’s head. The panic, the freefall… everything.”
“I’m guessing you’re not dumping your Perion stock like everyone else?”
Banks scoffed. “Too many people know about my connection to Perion. They would assume I have inside information. And I do.” He paused, brushed some lint from his slacks. “Perion doesn’t have much time left. Weeks, a month at the most.”
Frank watched several seconds tick by on his sliver.
“But even without knowing the truth, I still wouldn’t sell. Those people are unloading everything, not because James Kirkland Perion is dying, but because they’re unsure who will be replacing him. Will that person, once chosen, be able to fill Perion’s shoes? Will they hold to his vision of humans and synthetics living side by side?”
Cameron nodded as if Banks’ revelation were old news.
“You already know who the replacement will be, don’t you?” he asked.
“I do,” said Banks. “His son. Joseph. My godson.”
The name made Frank sneer.
At twenty-seven, the son of a bitch was even younger than Cameron and in line to inherit one of the biggest companies in the world.
“Perion’s a mess about it,” continued Banks. “It’s hard enough to have mortality breathing down your neck, but now he has to worry about the future of his company once he’s gone.”
“But wouldn’t his son have help?” asked Cameron. “I’m sure there’s an entire team of sycophants just waiting to guide him on the day-to-day.”
“It’s not that. Perion doesn’t doubt the company will continue to do what it’s doing. His concern is about what it doesn’t do. Currently.”
Cameron’s eyebrow bounced, but no recognition took hold.
“You don’t get it,” said Banks, “but that’s okay. I don’t need you to get it right now.”
“So what do you need from me?”
“How about you show some appreciation?” asked Frank. “There are a lot of aggregators who would kill to be sitting where you’re sitting right now.”
“What do you know about Perion City?” asked Banks.
Cameron rattled off the clichés. “Darkened streets of endless slag. Neon residents perpetually jacked into the great collective. Skeletons of black metal gleaming in the LED twilight. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.”
Frank rolled his eyes.
“It’s a niche city,” continued Cameron. “Closed beta, employees only. All we have are rumors.”
“Which is exactly why I’m sending you there,” said Banks. “Perion and I have arranged everything. His employees will be told you’re there to do a story about the company’s fiftieth anniversary, but what you’ll really be doing is checking every crate and closet for any skeletons that might blindside Joseph. And if you happen to find those skeletons in Joseph’s closet, so be it. Perion wants to be sure about his company and his son before he goes.”
“So it’s an exposé and a biography,” said Cameron. “I can do that.” He tapped a few more notes into his phone and then pocketed it. After adjusting his pants, he gestured to Frank with his thumb. “But so can he.”
Banks smiled and dipped his head. “And I’d send him if I could, but I’m afraid there’s a little too much VTech in our friend Frank here.”
Frank thought of the various body augments he had acquired over the years. Though he had never opted for a full-on Guardian Angel chip, many of the mechanical enhancements he had made did run proprietary Vinestead code. His augmented eyes alone were enough VTech to worry a Perion Synthetics employee. Paranoia was the name of the game in Perion City, and Vinestead International was the poster child.
Banks’ answer seemed to satisfy Cameron. He sat back on the couch and relaxed for the first time.
“Well?” asked Banks. “What are you waiting for? Diana will meet you down in the lobby. She has some hardcopy and a car ready for you. Now go get me some of that human interest crap you’re always trying to pass off as content.”
Cameron stood and extended a hand. “Thank you, Mr. Banks. This is a great opportunity, and I won’t let you down.”
Banks waved the hand away. “I know you’ll do great.”
Turning to Frank, Cam said, “Sorry. This was more important.”
“Don’t mention it, kid.” Frank tapped out several beats on the floor with his foot.
Banks stared across the table, his eyes vacant.
From the elevator, Cameron asked, “Who’s my contact in Perion City?”
Banks didn’t look away. “Sava Kessler,” he said. “Perion’s head of public relations.”
“Watch yourself with her,” added Frank. “Word is she’s a true believer.”
He listened to the doors open and close. The hum of the descending car filled the office and then receded.
Frank tried to tune into his whisperer and keep up the staring contest with Banks, but with the stock market set to open any minute, the frenzy in his ear was getting hard to follow.
When it came down to it, money drove everything. Never mind that one of the greatest innovators of the century was dying from an easily treatable disease.
Banks reached for a small box on the coffee table and removed a Red Velvet whisperer. He pressed it into his ear with his index finger.
Lifting his wrist, he said, “Hashtag Internal: Cameron Gray.”
Frank smirked. “You think he has any idea what’s coming?”
“No one does,” said Banks, “but when it finally gets here, they’re going to hear about it on my feed first.”
Daniel Verastiqui is a Science Fiction author from Austin, Texas. His latest novel, Brigham Plaza, is the sixth entry in the Vinestead Anthology, a series of books that take place in a shared alternate reality but aren’t direct sequels. His books explore the themes of relationships and identity in the context of advanced technology, pervasive violence, and gratuitous swearing.
tags: #sciencefiction #cyberpunk #robots #virtualreality #augmentedreality #artificialintelligence