Eastern Standard Tribe – Day 23 of 64


Art was at his desk at O’Malley House the next day when Fede knocked on his door. Fede was bearing a small translucent gift-bag made of some cunning combination of rough handmade paper and slick polymer. Art looked up from his comm and waved at the door.

Fede came in and put the parcel on Art’s desk. Art looked askance at Fede, and Fede just waved at the bag with a go-ahead gesture. Art felt for the catch that would open the bag without tearing the materials, couldn’t find it immediately, and reflexively fired up his comm and started to make notes on how a revised version of the bag could provide visual cues showing how to open it. Fede caught him at it and they traded grins.

Art probed the bag’s orifice a while longer, then happened upon the release. The bag sighed apart, falling in three petals, and revealed its payload: a small, leather-worked box with a simple brass catch. Art flipped the catch and eased the box open. Inside, in a fitted foam cavity, was a gray lump of stone.

“It’s an axe-head,” Fede said. “It’s 200,000 years old.”

Art lifted it out of the box carefully and turned it about, admiring the clean tool marks from its shaping. It had heft and brutal simplicity, and a thin spot where a handle must have been lashed once upon a time. Art ran his fingertips over the smooth tool marks, over the tapered business end, where the stone had been painstakingly flaked into an edge. It was perfect.

Now that he was holding it, it was so obviously an axe, so clearly an axe. It needed no instruction. It explained itself. I am an axe. Hit things with me. Art couldn’t think of a single means by which it could be improved.

“Fede,” he said, “Fede, this is incredible—”

“I figured we needed to bury the hatchet, huh?”

“God, that’s awful. Here’s a tip: When you give a gift like this, just leave humor out of it, OK? You don’t have the knack.” Art slapped him on the shoulder to show him he was kidding, and reverently returned the axe to its cavity. “That is really one hell of a gift, Fede. Thank you.”

Fede stuck his hand out. Art shook it, and some of the week’s tension melted away.

“Now, you’re going to buy me lunch,” Fede said.


They toddled off to Piccadilly and grabbed seats at the counter of a South Indian place for a businessmen’s lunch of thali and thick mango lassi, which coated their tongues in alkaline sweetness that put out the flames from the spiced veggies. Both men were sweating by the time they ordered their second round of lassi and Art had his hands on his belly, amazed as ever that something as insubstantial as the little platter’s complement of veggies and naan could fill him as efficiently as it had.

“What are you working on now?” Fede asked, suppressing a curry-whiffing belch.

“Same shit,” Art said. “There are a million ways to make the service work. The rights-societies want lots of accounting and lots of pay-per-use. MassPike hates that. It’s a pain in the ass to manage, and the clickthrough licenses and warnings they want to slap on are heinous. People are going to crash their cars fucking around with the ‘I Agree’ buttons. Not to mention they want to require a firmware check on every stereo system that gets a song, make sure that this week’s copy-protection is installed. So I’m coopering up all these user studies with weasels from the legal departments at the studios, where they just slaver all over this stuff, talking about how warm it all makes them feel to make sure that they’re compensating artists and how grateful they are for the reminders to keep their software up to date and shit. I’m modeling a system that has a clickthrough every time you cue up a new song, too. It’s going to be perfect: the rights-societies are going to love it, and I’ve handpicked the peer review group at V/DT, stacked it up with total assholes who love manuals and following rules. It’s going to sail through approval.”

Fede grunted. “You don’t think it’ll be too obvious?”

Art laughed. “There is no such thing as too obvious in this context, man. These guys, they hate the end user, and for years they’ve been getting away with it because all their users are already used to being treated like shit at the post office and the tube station. I mean, these people grew up with coin-operated stoves, for chrissakes! They pay television tax! Feed ’em shit and they’ll ask you for second helpings. Beg you for ’em! So no, I don’t think it’ll be too obvious. They’ll mock up the whole system and march right into MassPike with it, grinning like idiots. Don’t worry about a thing.”

“OK, OK. I get it. I won’t worry.”

Art signalled the counterman for their bill. The counterman waved distractedly in the manner of a harried restaurateur dealing with his regulars, and said something in Korean to the busgirl, who along with the Vietnamese chef and the Congolese sous chef, lent the joint a transworld sensibility that made it a favorite among the painfully global darlings of O’Malley House. The bus-girl found a pad and started totting up numbers, then keyed them into a Point-of-Sale terminal, which juiced Art’s comm with an accounting for their lunch. This business with hand-noting everything before entering it into the PoS had driven Art to distraction when he’d first encountered it. He’d assumed that the terminal’s UI was such that a computer-illiterate busgirl couldn’t reliably key in the data without having it in front of her, and for months he’d cited it in net-bullshit sessions as more evidence of the pervasive user-hostility that characterized the whole damned GMT.

He’d finally tried out his rant on the counterman, one foreigner to another, just a little Briton-bashing session between two refugees from the Colonial Jackboot. To his everlasting surprise, the counterman had vigorously defended the system, saying that he liked the PoS data-entry system just fine, but that the stack of torn-off paper stubs from the busgirl’s receipt book was a good visualization tool, letting him eyeball the customer volume from hour to hour by checking the spike beside the till, and the rubberbanded stacks of yellowing paper lining his cellar’s shelves gave him a wonderfully physical evidence of the growing success of his little eatery. There was a lesson there, Art knew, though he’d yet to codify it. User mythology was tricky that way.

Every time Art scribbled a tip into his comm and squirted it back at the PoS, he considered this little puzzle, eyes unfocusing for a moment while his vision turned inwards. As his eyes snapped back into focus, he noticed the young lad sitting on the long leg of the ell formed by the counter. He had bully short hair and broad shoulders, and a sneer that didn’t quite disappear as he shoveled up the dhal with his biodegradable bamboo disposable spork.

He knew that guy from somewhere. The guy caught him staring and they locked eyes for a moment, and in that instant Art knew who the guy was. It was Tom, whom he had last seen stabbing at him with a tazer clutched in one shaking fist, face twisted in fury. Tom wasn’t wearing his killsport armor, just nondescript athletic wear, and he wasn’t with Lester and Tony, but it was him. Art watched Tom cock his head to jog his memory, and then saw Tom recognize him. Uh-oh.

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