When I finally returned to the Park, 36 hours had passed and Lil had not com_ack to the house. If she’d tried to call, she would’ve gotten my voicemail—_ad no way of answering my phone. As it turned out, she hadn’t been trying t_each me at all.
I’d spent the time alternately moping, drinking, and plotting terrible, irrational vengeance on Debra for killing me, destroying my relationship, taking away my beloved (in hindsight, anyway) Hall of Presidents an_hreatening the Mansion. Even in my addled state, I knew that this was prett_nproductive, and I kept promising that I would cut it out, take a shower an_ome sober-ups, and get to work at the Mansion.
I was working up the energy to do just that when Dan came in.
“Jesus,” he said, shocked. I guess I was a bit of a mess, sprawled on the sof_n my underwear, all gamy and baggy and bloodshot.
“Hey, Dan. How’s it goin’?”
He gave me one of his patented wry looks and I felt the same weird reversal o_oles that we’d undergone at the U of T, when he had become the native, and _ad become the interloper. He was the together one with the wry looks and _as the pathetic seeker who’d burned all his reputation capital. Out of habit, I checked my Whuffie, and a moment later I stopped being startled by its lo_core and was instead shocked by the fact that I could check it at all. I wa_ack online!
“Now, what do you know about that?” I said, staring at my dismal Whuffie.
“What?” he said.
I called his cochlea. “My systems are back online,” I subvocalized.
He started. “You were offline?”
I jumped up from the couch and did a little happy underwear dance. “I was, bu_’m not now.” I felt better than I had in days, ready to beat the world—or a_east Debra.
“Let me take a shower, then let’s get to the Imagineering labs. I’ve got _retty kickass idea.”
The idea, as I explained it in the runabout, was a preemptive rehab of th_ansion. Sabotaging the Hall had been a nasty, stupid idea, and I’d gotte_hat I deserved for it. The whole point of the Bitchun Society was to be mor_eputable than the next ad-hoc, to succeed on merit, not trickery, despit_ssassinations and the like.
So a rehab it would be.
“Back in the early days of the Disneyland Mansion, in California,” _xplained, “Walt had a guy in a suit of armor just past the first Doom Bugg_urve, he’d leap out and scare the hell out of the guests as they went by. I_idn’t last long, of course. The poor bastard kept getting punched out b_tartled guests, and besides, the armor wasn’t too comfortable for lon_hifts.”
Dan chuckled appreciatively. The Bitchun Society had all but done away wit_ny sort of dull, repetitious labor, and what remained—tending bar, moppin_oilets—commanded Whuffie aplenty and a life of leisure in your off-hours.
“But that guy in the suit of armor, he could improvise. You’d get a slightl_ifferent show every time. It’s like the castmembers who spiel on th_ungleboat Cruise. They’ve each got their own patter, their own jokes, an_ven though the animatronics aren’t so hot, it makes the show worth seeing.”
“You’re going to fill the Mansion with castmembers in armor?” Dan asked, shaking his head.
I waved away his objections, causing the runabout to swerve, terrifying a pac_f guests who were taking a ride on rented bikes around the property. “No,” _aid, flapping a hand apologetically at the white-faced guests. “Not at all.
But what if all of the animatronics had human operators—telecontrollers, working with waldoes? We’ll let them interact with the guests, talk with them, scare them … We’ll get rid of the existing animatronics, replace ’em wit_ull-mobility robots, then cast the parts over the Net. Think of the Whuffie!
You could put, say, a thousand operators online at once, ten shifts per day, each of them caught up in our Mansion … We’ll give out awards for outstandin_erformances, the shifts’ll be based on popular vote. In effect, we’ll b_dding another ten thousand guests to the Mansion’s throughput every day, onl_hese guests will be honorary castmembers.”
“That’s pretty good,” Dan said. “Very Bitchun. Debra may have AI and flash- baking, but you’ll have human interaction, courtesy of the biggest Mansion- fans in the world—”
“And those are the very fans Debra’ll have to win over to make a play for th_ansion. Very elegant, huh?”
The first order of business was to call Lil, patch things up, and pitch th_dea to her. The only problem was, my cochlea was offline again. My moo_tarted to sour, and I had Dan call her instead.
We met her up at Imagineering, a massive complex of prefab aluminum building_ainted Go-Away Green that had thronged with mad inventors since the Bitchu_ociety had come to Walt Disney World. The ad-hocs who had built a_magineering department in Florida and now ran the thing were the leas_olitical in the Park, classic labcoat-and-clipboard types who would work fo_nyone so long as the ideas were cool. Not caring about Whuffie meant tha_hey accumulated it in plenty on both the left and right hands.
Lil was working with Suneep, AKA the Merch Miracle. He could design, prototyp_nd produce a souvenir faster than anyone—shirts, sculptures, pens, toys, housewares, he was the king. They were collaborating on their HUDs, facin_ach other across a lab-bench in the middle of a lab as big as a basketbal_ourt, cluttered with logomarked tchotchkes and gabbling away while their eye_anced over invisible screens.
Dan reflexively joined the collaborative space as he entered the lab, leavin_e the only one out on the joke. Dan was clearly delighted by what he saw.
I nudged him with an elbow. “Make a hardcopy,” I hissed.
Instead of pitying me, he just airtyped a few commands and pages started t_oll out of a printer in the lab’s corner. Anyone else would have made a bi_eal out of it, but he just brought me into the discussion.
If I needed proof that Lil and I were meant for each other, the designs sh_nd Suneep had come up with were more than enough. She’d been thinking jus_he way I had—souvenirs that stressed the human scale of the Mansion. Ther_ere miniature animatronics of the Hitchhiking Ghosts in a black-light box, their skeletal robotics visible through their layers of plastic clothing; action figures that communicated by IR, so that placing one in proximity wit_nother would unlock its Mansion-inspired behaviors—the raven cawed, Mme.
Leota’s head incanted, the singing busts sang. She’d worked up some forma_ttire based on the castmember costume, cut in this year’s stylish lines.
It was good merch, is what I’m trying to say. In my mind’s eye, I was seein_he relaunch of the Mansion in six months, filled with robotic avatars o_ansion-nuts the world ’round, Mme. Leota’s gift cart piled high wit_rilliant swag, strolling human players ad-libbing with the guests in th_ueue area …
Lil looked up from her mediated state and glared at me as I pored over th_ardcopy, nodding enthusiastically.
“Passionate enough for you?” she snapped.
I felt a flush creeping into face, my ears. It was somewhere between anger an_hame, and I reminded myself that I was more than a century older than her, and it was my responsibility to be mature. Also, I’d started the fight.
“This is fucking fantastic, Lil,” I said. Her look didn’t soften. “Reall_hoice stuff. I had a great idea—” I ran it down for her, the avatars, th_obots, the rehab. She stopped glaring, started taking notes, smiling, showin_e her dimples, her slanted eyes crinkling at the corners.
“This isn’t easy,” she said, finally. Suneep, who’d been politely pretendin_ot to listen in, nodded involuntarily. Dan, too.
“I know that,” I said. The flush burned hotter. “But that’s the point—wha_ebra does isn’t easy either. It’s risky, dangerous. It made her and her ad- hoc better—it made them sharper.” Sharper than us, that’s for sure. “They ca_ake decisions like this fast, and execute them just as quickly. We need to b_ble to do that, too.”
Was I really advocating being more like Debra? The words’d just popped out, but I saw that I’d been right—we’d have to beat Debra at her own game, out- evolve her ad-hocs.
“I understand what you’re saying,” Lil said. I could tell she was upset—she’_everted to castmemberspeak. “It’s a very good idea. I think that we stand _ood chance of making it happen if we approach the group and put it to them, after doing the research, building the plans, laying out the critical path, and privately soliciting feedback from some of them.”
I felt like I was swimming in molasses. At the rate that the Liberty Squar_d-hoc moved, we’d be holding formal requirements reviews while Debra’s peopl_ore down the Mansion around us. So I tried a different tactic.
“Suneep, you’ve been involved in some rehabs, right?”
Suneep nodded slowly, with a cautious expression, a nonpolitical animal bein_rawn into a political discussion.
“Okay, so tell me, if we came to you with this plan and asked you to pul_ogether a production schedule—one that didn’t have any review, just take th_dea and run with it—and then pull it off, how long would it take you t_xecute it?”
Lil smiled primly. She’d dealt with Imagineering before.
“About five years,” he said, almost instantly.
“Five years?” I squawked. “Why five years? Debra’s people overhauled the Hal_n a month!”
“Oh, wait,” he said. “No review at all?”
“No review. Just come up with the best way you can to do this, and do it. An_e can provide you with unlimited, skilled labor, three shifts around th_lock.”
He rolled his eyes back and ticked off days on his fingers while mutterin_nder his breath. He was a tall, thin man with a shock of curly dark hair tha_e smoothed unconsciously with surprisingly stubby fingers while he thought.
“About eight weeks,” he said. “Barring accidents, assuming off-the-shel_arts, unlimited labor, capable management, material availability …” H_railed off again, and his short fingers waggled as he pulled up a HUD an_tarted making a list.
“Wait,” Lil said, alarmed. “How do you get from five years to eight weeks?”
Now it was my turn to smirk. I’d seen how Imagineering worked when they wer_n their own, building prototypes and conceptual mockups—I knew that the rea_ottleneck was the constant review and revisions, the ever-fluctuatin_roupmind consensus of the ad-hoc that commissioned their work.
Suneep looked sheepish. “Well, if all I have to do is satisfy myself that m_lans are good and my buildings won’t fall down, I can make it happen ver_ast. Of course, my plans aren’t perfect. Sometimes, I’ll be halfway through _roject when someone suggests a new flourish or approach that makes the whol_hing immeasurably better. Then it’s back to the drawing board … So I stay a_he drawing board for a long time at the start, get feedback from othe_magineers, from the ad-hocs, from focus groups and the Net. Then we d_eviews at every stage of construction, check to see if anyone has had a grea_dea we haven’t thought of and incorporate it, sometimes rolling back th_ork.
“It’s slow, but it works.”
Lil was flustered. “But if you can do a complete revision in eight weeks, wh_ot just finish it, then plan another revision, do that one in eight weeks, and so on? Why take five years before anyone can ride the thing?”
“Because that’s how it’s done,” I said to Lil. “But that’s not how it has t_e done. That’s how we’ll save the Mansion.”
I felt the surety inside of me, the certain knowledge that I was right. Ad- hocracy was a great thing, a Bitchun thing, but the organization needed t_urn on a dime—that would be even more Bitchun.
“Lil,” I said, looking into her eyes, trying to burn my POV into her. “We hav_o do this. It’s our only chance. We’ll recruit hundreds to come to Florid_nd work on the rehab. We’ll give every Mansion nut on the planet a shot a_oining up, then we’ll recruit them again to work at it, to run th_elepresence rigs. We’ll get buy-in from the biggest super-recommenders in th_orld, and we’ll build something better and faster than any ad-hoc ever has, without abandoning the original Imagineers’ vision. It will be unspeakabl_itchun.”
Lil dropped her eyes and it was her turn to flush. She paced the floor, hand_winging at her sides. I could tell that she was still angry with me, bu_xcited and scared and yes, passionate.
“It’s not up to me, you know,” she said at length, still pacing. Dan and _xchanged wicked grins. She was in.
“I know,” I said. But it was, almost—she was a real opinion-leader in th_iberty Square ad-hoc, someone who knew the systems back and forth, someon_ho made good, reasonable decisions and kept her head in a crisis. Not _othead. Not prone to taking radical switchbacks. This plan would burn up tha_eputation and the Whuffie that accompanied it, in short order, but by th_ime that happened, she’d have plenty of Whuffie with the new, thousands- strong ad-hoc.
“I mean, I can’t guarantee anything. I’d like to study the plans tha_magineering comes through with, do some walk-throughs—”
I started to object, to remind her that speed was of the essence, but she bea_e to it.
“But I won’t. We have to move fast. I’m in.”
She didn’t come into my arms, didn’t kiss me and tell me everything wa_orgiven, but she bought in, and that was enough.
My systems came back online sometime that day, and I hardly noticed, I was s_reoccupied with the new Mansion. Holy shit, was it ever audacious: since th_irst Mansion opened in California in 1969, no one had ever had the guts t_eriously fuxor with it. Oh, sure, the Paris version, Phantom Manor, had _lightly different storyline, but it was just a minor bit of tweakage t_atisfy the European market at the time. No one wanted to screw up the legend.
What the hell made the Mansion so cool, anyway? I’d been to Disney World an_umber of times as a guest before I settled in, and truth be told, it ha_ever been my absolute favorite.
But when I returned to Disney World, live and in person, freshly bored stupi_y the three-hour liveheaded flight from Toronto, I’d found myself crowd- driven to it.
I’m a terrible, terrible person to visit theme-parks with. Since I was a pun_id snaking my way through crowded subway platforms, eeling into the only sea_n a packed car, I’d been obsessed with Beating The Crowd.
In the early days of the Bitchun Society, I’d known a blackjack player, _ompulsive counter of cards, an idiot savant of odds. He was a pudgy, unassuming engineer, the moderately successful founder of a moderatel_uccessful high-tech startup that had done something arcane with softwar_gents. While he was only moderately successful, he was fabulously wealthy: he’d never raised a cent of financing for his company, and had owned i_utright when he finally sold it for a bathtub full of money. His secret wa_he green felt tables of Vegas, where he’d pilgrim off to every time his ban_alance dropped, there to count the monkey-cards and calculate the odds an_eat The House.
Long after his software company was sold, long after he’d made his nut, he wa_ressing up in silly disguises and hitting the tables, grinding out hand afte_and of twenty-one, for the sheer satisfaction of Beating The House. For him, it was pure brain-reward, a jolt of happy-juice every time the dealer buste_nd every time he doubled down on a deckfull of face cards.
Though I’d never bought so much as a lottery ticket, I immediately got hi_ompulsion: for me, it was Beating The Crowd, finding the path of leas_esistance, filling the gaps, guessing the short queue, dodging the traffic, changing lanes with a whisper to spare—moving with precision and grace and, above all, expedience.
On that fateful return, I checked into the Fort Wilderness Campground, pitche_y tent, and fairly ran to the ferry docks to catch a barge over to the Mai_ate.
Crowds were light until I got right up to Main Gate and the ticketing queues.
Suppressing an initial instinct to dash for the farthest one, beating m_errymates to what rule-of-thumb said would have the shortest wait, I steppe_ack and did a quick visual survey of the twenty kiosks and evaluated th_ueued-up huddle in front of each. Pre-Bitchun, I’d have been primaril_nterested in their ages, but that is less and less a measure of anythin_ther than outlook, so instead I carefully examined their queuing styles, their dress, and more than anything, their burdens.
You can tell more about someone’s ability to efficiently negotiate th_omplexities of a queue through what they carry than through any othe_eans—if only more people realized it. The classic, of course, is the unlade_itizen, a person naked of even a modest shoulderbag or marsupial pocket. T_he layperson, such a specimen might be thought of as a sure bet for a fas_ransaction, but I’d done an informal study and come to the conclusion tha_hese brave iconoclasts are often the flightiest of the lot, left smiling wit_ovine mystification, patting down their pockets in a fruitless search for _riting implement, a piece of ID, a keycard, a rabbit’s foot, a rosary, a tun_andwich.
No, for my money, I’ll take what I call the Road Worrier anytime. Such _erson is apt to be carefully slung with four or five carriers of on_escription or another, from bulging cargo pockets to clever military-grad_trap-on pouches with biometrically keyed closures. The thing to watch for i_he ergonomic consideration given to these conveyances: do they balance, ar_hey slung for minimum interference and maximum ease of access? Someone who’_iven that much consideration to their gear is likely spending their time i_ine determining which bits and pieces they’ll need when they reach it_eadwaters and is holding them at ready for fastest-possible processing.
This is a tricky call, since there are lookalike pretenders, gear-pigs wh_ack everything because they lack the organizational smarts to figure out wha_hey should pack—they’re just as apt to be burdened with bags and pockets an_ouches, but the telltale is the efficiency of that slinging. These pack mule_ill sag beneath their loads, juggling this and that while pushing overloos_traps up on their shoulders.
I spied a queue that was made up of a group of Road Worriers, a queue that wa_lightly longer than the others, but I joined it and ticced nervously as _atched my progress relative to the other spots I could’ve chosen. I was born_ut, a positive omen for a wait-free World, and I was sauntering down Mai_treet, USA long before my ferrymates.
Returning to Walt Disney World was a homecoming for me. My parents had brough_e the first time when I was all of ten, just as the first inklings of th_itchun society were trickling into everyone’s consciousness: the death o_carcity, the death of death, the struggle to rejig an economy that had grow_p focused on nothing but scarcity and death. My memories of the trip are di_ut warm, the balmy Florida climate and a sea of smiling faces punctuated b_agical, darkened moments riding in OmniMover cars, past diorama afte_iorama.
I went again when I graduated high school and was amazed by the richness o_etail, the grandiosity and grandeur of it all. I spent a week there stunne_ovine, grinning and wandering from corner to corner. Someday, I knew, I’_ome to live there.
The Park became a touchstone for me, a constant in a world where everythin_hanged. Again and again, I came back to the Park, grounding myself, communin_ith all the people I’d been.
That day I bopped from land to land, ride to ride, seeking out the shor_ines, the eye of the hurricane that crowded the Park to capacity. I’d tak_igh ground, standing on a bench or hopping up on a fence, and do a visua_eccy of all the queues in sight, try to spot prevailing currents in the flo_f the crowd, generally having a high old obsessive time. Truth be told, _robably spent as much time looking for walk-ins as I would’ve spent lining u_ike a good little sheep, but I had more fun and got more exercise.
The Haunted Mansion was experiencing a major empty spell: the Snow Cras_pectacular parade had just swept through Liberty Square en route t_antasyland, dragging hordes of guests along with it, dancing to the JapRa_ounds of the comical Sushi-K and aping the movements of the brave Hir_rotagonist. When they blew out, Liberty Square was a ghost town, and _rabbed the opportunity to ride the Mansion five times in a row, walking o_very time.
The way I tell it to Lil, I noticed her and then I noticed the Mansion, but t_ell the truth it was the other way around.
The first couple rides through, I was just glad of the aggressive ai_onditioning and the delicious sensation of sweat drying on my skin. But o_he third pass, I started to notice just how goddamn cool the thing was. Ther_asn’t a single bit of tech more advanced than a film-loop projector in th_hole place, but it was all so cunningly contrived that the illusion of _aunted house was perfect: the ghosts that whirled through the ballroom wer_hosts, three-dimensional and ethereal and phantasmic. The ghosts that sang i_omical tableaux through the graveyard were equally convincing, genuinel_itty and simultaneously creepy.
My fourth pass through, I noticed the detail, the hostile eyes worked into th_allpaper’s pattern, the motif repeated in the molding, the chandeliers, th_hoto gallery. I began to pick out the words to “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” th_ong that is repeated throughout the ride, whether in sinister organ-tone_epeating the main theme troppo troppo or the spritely singing of the fou_usical busts in the graveyard.
It’s a catchy tune, one that I hummed on my fifth pass through, this tim_oticing that the overaggressive AC was, actually, mysterious chills that ble_hrough the rooms as wandering spirits made their presence felt. By the time _ebarked for the fifth time, I was whistling the tune with jazz_mprovisations in a mixed-up tempo.
That’s when Lil and I ran into each other. She was picking up a discarded ice- cream wrapper—I’d seen a dozen castmembers picking up trash that day, seen i_o frequently that I’d started doing it myself. She grinned slyly at me as _ebarked into the fried-food-and-disinfectant perfume of the Park, hands i_ockets, thoroughly pleased with myself for having so completely experienced _eally fine hunk of art.
I smiled back at her, because it was only natural that one of the Whuffie- kings who were privileged to tend this bit of heavenly entertainment shoul_otice how thoroughly I was enjoying her work.
“That’s really, really Bitchun,” I said to her, admiring the titanic mountain_f Whuffie my HUD attributed to her.
She was in character, and not supposed to be cheerful, but castmembers of he_eneration can’t help but be friendly. She compromised between ghastl_emeanor and her natural sweet spirit, and leered a grin at me, thumpe_hrough a zombie’s curtsey, and moaned “Thank you—we do try to keep i_pirited.”
I groaned appreciatively, and started to notice just how very cute she was, this little button of a girl with her rotting maid’s uniform and her feather- shedding duster. She was just so clean and scrubbed and happy abou_verything, she radiated it and made me want to pinch her cheeks—either set.
The moment was on me, and so I said, “When do they let you ghouls off? I’_ove to take you out for a Zombie or a Bloody Mary.”
Which led to more horrifying banter, and to my taking her out for a couple a_he Adventurer’s Club, learning her age in the process and losing my nerve, telling myself that there was nothing we could possibly have to say to eac_ther across a century-wide gap.
While I tell Lil that I noticed her first and the Mansion second, the revers_s indeed true. But it’s also true—and I never told her this—that the thing _ove best about the Mansion is:
It’s where I met her.
Dan and I spent the day riding the Mansion, drafting scripts for th_elepresence players who we hoped to bring on-board. We were in a totall_reative zone, the dialog running as fast as he could transcribe it. Jammin_n ideas with Dan was just about as terrific as a pass-time could be.
I was all for leaking the plan to the Net right away, getting hearts-and-mind_ction with our core audience, but Lil turned it down.
She was going to spend the next couple days quietly politicking among the res_f the ad-hoc, getting some support for the idea, and she didn’t want th_ppearance of impropriety that would come from having outsiders being brough_n before the ad-hoc.
Talking to the ad-hocs, bringing them around—it was a skill I’d never reall_astered. Dan was good at it, Lil was good at it, but me, I think that I wa_oo self-centered to ever develop good skills as a peacemaker. In my younge_ays, I assumed that it was because I was smarter than everyone else, with n_atience for explaining things in short words for mouth-breathers who jus_idn’t get it.
The truth of the matter is, I’m a bright enough guy, but I’m hardly a genius.
Especially when it comes to people. Probably comes from Beating The Crowd, never seeing individuals, just the mass—the enemy of expedience.
I never would have made it into the Liberty Square ad-hoc on my own. Lil mad_t happen for me, long before we started sleeping together. I’d assumed tha_er folks would be my best allies in the process of joining up, but they wer_oo jaded, too ready to take the long sleep to pay much attention to _ewcomer like me.
Lil took me under her wing, inviting me to after-work parties, talking me u_o her cronies, quietly passing around copies of my thesis-work. And she di_he same in reverse, sincerely extolling the virtues of the others I met, s_hat I knew what there was to respect about them and couldn’t help but trea_hem as individuals.
In the years since, I’d lost that respect. Mostly, I palled around with Lil, and once he arrived, Dan, and with net-friends around the world. The ad-hoc_hat I worked with all day treated me with basic courtesy but not muc_riendliness.
I guess I treated them the same. When I pictured them in my mind, they were _aceless, passive-aggressive mass, too caught up in the starchy world o_onsensus-building to ever do much of anything.
Dan and I threw ourselves into it headlong, trolling the Net for address list_f Mansion-otakus from the four corners of the globe, spreadsheeting the_gainst their timezones, temperaments, and, of course, their Whuffie.
“That’s weird,” I said, looking up from the old-fashioned terminal I wa_sing—my systems were back offline. They’d been sputtering up and down for _ouple days now, and I kept meaning to go to the doctor, but I’d never gotten ’round to it. Periodically, I’d get a jolt of urgency when I remembered tha_his meant my backup was stale-dating, but the Mansion always took precedence.
“Huh?” he said.
I tapped the display. “See these?” It was a fan-site, displaying a collectio_f animated 3-D meshes of various elements of the Mansion, part of a gian_ollaborative project that had been ongoing for decades, to build an accurat_-D walkthrough of every inch of the Park. I’d used those meshes to build m_wn testing fly-throughs.
“Those are terrific,” Dan said. “That guy must be a total fiend.” The meshes’ author had painstakingly modeled, chained and animated every ghost in th_allroom scene, complete with the kinematics necessary for full motion. Wher_ “normal” fan-artist might’ve used a standard human kinematics library fo_he figures, this one had actually written his own from the ground up, so tha_he ghosts moved with a spectral fluidity that was utterly unhuman.
“Who’s the author?” Dan asked. “Do we have him on our list yet?”
I scrolled down to display the credits. “I’ll be damned,” Dan breathed.
The author was Tim, Debra’s elfin crony. He’d submitted the designs a wee_efore my assassination.
“What do you think it means?” I asked Dan, though I had a couple ideas on th_ubject myself.
“Tim’s a Mansion nut,” Dan said. “I knew that.”
He looked a little defensive. “Sure. I told you, back when you had me hangin_ut with Debra’s gang.”
Had I asked him to hang out with Debra? As I remembered it, it had been hi_uggestion. Too much to think about.
“But what does it mean, Dan? Is he an ally? Should we try to recruit him? O_s he the one that’d convinced Debra she needs to take over the Mansion?”
Dan shook his head. “I’m not even sure that she wants to take over th_ansion. I know Debra, all she wants to do is turn ideas into things, as fas_nd as copiously as possible. She picks her projects carefully. She’_cquisitive, sure, but she’s cautious. She had a great idea for Presidents, and so she took over. I never heard her talk about the Mansion.”
“Of course you didn’t. She’s cagey. Did you hear her talk about the Hall o_residents?”
Dan fumbled. “Not really. … mean, not in so many words, but—”
“But nothing,” I said. “She’s after the Mansion, she’s after the Magi_ingdom, she’s after the Park. She’s taking over, goddamn it, and I’m the onl_ne who seems to have noticed.”
I came clean to Lil about my systems that night, as we were fighting. Fightin_ad become our regular evening pastime, and Dan had taken to sleeping at on_f the hotels on-site rather than endure it.
I’d started it, of course. “We’re going to get killed if we don’t get off ou_sses and start the rehab,” I said, slamming myself down on the sofa an_icking at the scratched coffee table. I heard the hysteria and unreason in m_oice and it just made me madder. I was frustrated by not being able to chec_n on Suneep and Dan, and, as usual, it was too late at night to call anyon_nd do anything about it. By the morning, I’d have forgotten again.
From the kitchen, Lil barked back, “I’m doing what I can, Jules. If you’ve go_ better way, I’d love to hear about it.”
“Oh, bullshit. I’m doing what I can, planning the thing out. I’m ready to go.
It was your job to get the ad-hocs ready for it, but you keep telling m_hey’re not. When will they be?”
“Jesus, you’re a nag.”
“I wouldn’t nag if you’d only fucking make it happen. What are you doing al_ay, anyway? Working shifts at the Mansion? Rearranging deck chairs on th_reat Titanic Adventure?”
“I’m working my fucking ass off. I’ve spoken to every goddamn one of them a_east twice this week about it.”
“Sure,” I hollered at the kitchen. “Sure you have.”
“Don’t take my word for it, then. Check my fucking phone logs.”
“Well? Check them!”
“I’ll check them later,” I said, dreading where this was going.
“Oh, no you don’t,” she said, stalking into the room, fuming. “You can’t cal_e a liar and then refuse to look at the evidence.” She planted her hands o_er slim little hips and glared at me. She’d gone pale and I could count ever_reckle on her face, her throat, her collarbones, the swell of her cleavage i_he old vee-neck shirt I’d given her on a day-trip to Nassau.
“Well?” she asked. She looked ready to wring my neck.
“I can’t,” I admitted, not meeting her eyes.
“Yes you can—here, I’ll dump it to your public directory.”
Her expression shifted to one of puzzlement when she failed to locate me o_er network. “What’s going on?”
So I told her. Offline, outcast, malfunctioning.
“Well, why haven’t you gone to the doctor? I mean, it’s been weeks. I’ll cal_im right now.”
“Forget it,” I said. “I’ll see him tomorrow. No sense in getting him out o_ed.”
But I didn’t see him the day after, or the day after that. Too much to do, an_he only times I remembered to call someone, I was too far from a publi_erminal or it was too late or too early. My systems came online a coupl_imes, and I was too busy with the plans for the Mansion. Lil grew accustome_o the drifts of hard copy that littered the house, to printing out he_nnotations to my designs and leaving them on my favorite chair—to living lik_he cavemen of the information age had, surrounded by dead trees and tickin_locks.
Being offline helped me focus. Focus is hardly the word for it—I obsessed. _at in front of the terminal I’d brought home all day, every day, crunchin_lans, dictating voicemail. People who wanted to reach me had to haul ass ou_o the house, and speak to me.
I grew too obsessed to fight, and Dan moved back, and then it was my turn t_ake hotel rooms so that the rattle of my keyboard wouldn’t keep him u_ights. He and Lil were working a full-time campaign to recruit the ad-hoc t_ur cause, and I started to feel like we were finally in harmony, about t_each our goal.
I went home one afternoon clutching a sheaf of hardcopy and burst into th_iving room, gabbling a mile-a-minute about a wrinkle on my original plan tha_ould add a third walk-through segment to the ride, increasing the number o_elepresence rigs we could use without decreasing throughput.
I was mid-babble when my systems came back online. The public chatter in th_oom sprang up on my HUD.
And then I’m going to tear off every stitch of clothing and jump you.
And then what?
I’m going to bang you till you limp.
Jesus, Lil, you are one rangy cowgirl.
My eyes closed, shutting out everything except for the glowing letters.
Quickly, they vanished. I opened my eyes again, looking at Lil, who wa_lushed and distracted. Dan looked scared.
“What’s going on, Dan?” I asked quietly. My heart hammered in my chest, but _elt calm and detached.
“Jules,” he began, then gave up and looked at Lil.
Lil had, by that time, figured out that I was back online, that their secre_essaging had been discovered.
“Having fun, Lil?” I asked.
Lil shook her head and glared at me. “Just go, Julius. I’ll send your stuff t_he hotel.”
“You want me to go, huh? So you can bang him till he limps?”
“This is my house, Julius. I’m asking you to get out of it. I’ll see you a_ork tomorrow—we’re having a general ad-hoc meeting to vote on the rehab.”
It was her house.
“Lil, Julius—” Dan began.
“This is between me and him,” Lil said. “Stay out of it.”
I dropped my papers—I wanted to throw them, but I dropped them, flump, and _urned on my heel and walked out, not bothering to close the door behind me.
Dan showed up at the hotel ten minutes after I did and rapped on my door. _as all-over numb as I opened the door. He had a bottle of tequila—my tequila, brought over from the house that I’d shared with Lil.
He sat down on the bed and stared at the logo-marked wallpaper. I took th_ottle from him, got a couple glasses from the bathroom and poured.
“It’s my fault,” he said.
“I’m sure it is,” I said.
“We got to drinking a couple nights ago. She was really upset. Hadn’t seen yo_n days, and when she did see you, you freaked her out. Snapping at her.
Arguing. Insulting her.”
“So you made her,” I said.
He shook his head, then nodded, took a drink. “I did. It’s been a long tim_ince I …”
“You had sex with my girlfriend, in my house, while I was away, working.”
“Jules, I’m sorry. I did it, and I kept on doing it. I’m not much of a frien_o either of you.
“She’s pretty broken up. She wanted me to come out here and tell you it wa_ll a mistake, that you were just being paranoid.”
We sat in silence for a long time. I refilled his glass, then my own.
“I couldn’t do that,” he said. “I’m worried about you. You haven’t been right, not for months. I don’t know what it is, but you should get to a doctor.”
“I don’t need a doctor,” I snapped. The liquor had melted the numbness an_eft burning anger and bile, my constant companions. “I need a friend wh_oesn’t fuck my girlfriend when my back is turned.”
I threw my glass at the wall. It bounced off, leaving tequila-stains on th_allpaper, and rolled under the bed. Dan started, but stayed seated. If he’_tood up, I would’ve hit him. Dan’s good at crises.
“If it’s any consolation, I expect to be dead pretty soon,” he said. He gav_e a wry grin. “My Whuffie’s doing good. This rehab should take it up over th_op. I’ll be ready to go.”
That stopped me. I’d somehow managed to forget that Dan, my good friend Dan, was going to kill himself.
“You’re going to do it,” I said, sitting down next to him. It hurt to thin_bout it. I really liked the bastard. He might’ve been my best friend.
There was a knock at the door. I opened it without checking the peephole. I_as Lil.
She looked younger than ever. Young and small and miserable. A snide remar_ied in my throat. I wanted to hold her.
She brushed past me and went to Dan, who squirmed out of her embrace.
“No,” he said, and stood up and sat on the windowsill, staring down at th_even Seas Lagoon.
“Dan’s just been explaining to me that he plans on being dead in a coupl_onths,” I said. “Puts a damper on the long-term plans, doesn’t it, Lil?”
Tears streamed down her face and she seemed to fold in on herself. “I’ll tak_hat I can get,” she said.
I choked on a knob of misery, and I realized that it was Dan, not Lil, whos_oss upset me the most.