Eastern Standard Tribe – Day 34 of 64

“I suppose.”

“You know it. I know it. Institutional loyalty is every bit as much about informed self-interest as personal loyalty is. The Tribe takes care of me, I take care of the Tribe. We’ll negotiate a separate payment from Jersey for this—after all, this is outside of the scope of work that we’re being paid for—and we’ll split the money, down the middle. We’ll work in a residual income with Jersey, too, because, as you say, this is bigger than MassPike. It’s a genuinely good idea, and there’s enough to go around. All right?”

“Are you asking me or telling me?”

“I’m asking you. This will require both of our cooperation. I’m going to need to manufacture an excuse to go stateside to explain this to them and supervise the prototyping. You’re going to have to hold down the fort here at V/DT and make sure that I’m clear to do my thing. If you want to go and sell this idea elsewhere, well, that’s going to require my cooperation, or at least my silence—if I turn this over to V/DT, they’ll pop you for industrial espionage. So we need each other.”

Art stood and looked down at Fede, who was a good ten centimeters shorter than he, looked down at Fede’s sweaty upper lip and creased brow. “We’re a good team, Fede. I don’t want to toss away an opportunity, but I also don’t want to exploit it at the expense of my own morals. Can you agree to work with me on this, and trust me to do the right thing?”

Fede looked up. “Yes,” he said. On later reflection, Art thought that the yes came too quickly, but then, he was just relieved to hear it. “Of course. Of course. Yes. Let’s do it.”

“That’s just fine,” Art said. “Let’s get to work, then.”

They fell into their traditional division of labor then, Art working on a variety of user-experience plans, dividing each into subplans, then devising protocols for user testing to see what would work in the field; Fede working on logistics from plane tickets to personal days to budget and critical-path charts. They worked side by side, but still used the collaboration tools that Art had grown up with, designed to allow remote, pseudonymous parties to fit their separate work components into the same structure, resolving schedule and planning collisions where it could and throwing exceptions where it couldn’t. They worked beside each other and each hardly knew the other was there, and that, Art thought, when he thought of it, when the receptionist commed him to tell him that “Linderrr”—freakin’ teabags—was there for him, that was the defining characteristic of a Tribalist. A norm, a modus operandi, a way of being that did not distinguish between communication face-to-face and communication at a distance.

“Linderrr?” Fede said, cocking an eyebrow.

“I hit her with my car,” Art said.

“Ah,” Fede said. “Smooth.”

Art waved a hand impatiently at him and went out to the reception area to fetch her. The receptionist had precious little patience for entertaining personal visitors, and Linda, in track pants and a baggy sweater, was clearly not a professional contact. The receptionist glared at him as he commed into the lobby and extended his hand to Linda, who took it, put it on her shoulder, grabbed his ass, crushed their pelvises together and jammed her tongue in his ear. “I missed you,” she slurped, the buzz of her voice making him writhe. “I’m not wearing any knickers,” she continued, loud enough that he was sure that the receptionist heard. He felt the blush creeping over his face and neck and ears.

The receptionist. Dammit, why was he thinking about the receptionist? “Linda,” he said, pulling away. Introduce her, he thought. Introduce them, and that’ll make it less socially awkward. The English can’t abide social awkwardness. “Linda, meet—” and he trailed off, realizing he didn’t actually know the receptionist’s name.

The receptionist glared at him from under a cap of shining candy-apple red hair, narrowing her eyes, which were painted in high style with Kubrick action-figure faces.

“My name is Tonaishah,” she hissed. Or maybe it was Tanya Iseah, or Taneesha. He still didn’t know her goddamned name.

“And this is Linda,” he said, weakly. “We’re going out tonight.”

“And won’t you have a dirty great time, then?” Tonaishah said.

“I’m sure we will,” he said.

“Yes,” Tonaishah said.

Art commed the door and missed the handle, then snagged it and grabbed Linda’s hand and yanked her through.

“I’m a little randy,” she said, directly into his ear. “Sorry.” She giggled.

“Someone you have to meet,” he said, reaching down to rearrange his pants to hide his boner.

“Ooh, right here in your office?” Linda said, covering his hand with hers.

“Someone with two eyes,” he said, moving her hand to his hip.

“Ahh,” she said. “What a disappointment.”

“I’m serious. I want you to meet my friend Fede. I think you two will really hit it off.”

“Wait,” Linda said. “Isn’t this a major step? Meeting the friends? Are we getting that serious already?”

“Oh, I think we’re ready for it,” Art said, draping an arm around her shoulders and resting his fingertips on the upper swell of her breast.

She ducked out from under his arm and stopped in her tracks. “Well, I don’t. Don’t I get a say in this?”

“What?” Art said.

“Whether it’s time for me to meet your friends or not. Shouldn’t I have a say?”

“Linda, I just wanted to introduce you to a coworker before we went out. He’s in my office—I gotta grab my jacket there, anyway.”

“Wait, is he a friend or a coworker?”

“He’s a friend I work with. Come on, what’s the big deal?”

“Well, first you spring this on me, then you change your story and tell me he’s a coworker, now he’s a friend again. I don’t want to be put on display for your pals. If we’re going to meet your friends, I’ll dress for it, put on some makeup. This isn’t fair.”

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