Chapter 4: FACE TO FACE
Minas control room at the elegant Condor Tower in Auburn Hills had as much in common with her sisters control room in Detroit as a Toyota Lexus did with a Ford Model T. Where Vivians was small and crammed with clunky, outdated equipment, Minas was a spacious, harmonious blend of the latest in form and function.
Her control chair sat in the middle of the room like the captains chair on the Star Ship Enterprise. Fifty-nine neatly framed telewindows on three walls hung like displays in a flashback gallery exhibit of 12th century England. On the long walls facing each other were staggered banks of them, four rows high and seven across with a slightly different scene of a jousting tournament within each frame. A triangular arrangement of windows within the wall-sized window she faced featured a large window at the top and two smaller ones at the bottom.
In the top window, a Saxon knight in suspended animation was in imminent danger of being unhorsed with the blunted tip of a Norman lance. He was not an ELF. He was a real Saxon knight captured on flashback film. Everything was as it appeared in one nanosecond of one mid October day in 1189; every ripple of cloth, every bent blade of grass, reflection of light and flying clump of dirt; every chipped patch of paint and frosted breath of snorting beasts. When she ran the rapid succession of pictures that created one picture in motion, every sound associated with it would be heard as it would have been heard on that day in 1189.
Mina was struck by the time lag involved in adding coherent information to the picture by way of sound and what it implied about the power and the limitations of the spoken word: If it took longer to communicate a complex message through the ear than the eye, how far could words go to dispute the credibility of a conflicting image already in mind? If a picture was worth a thousand words, what was the value of a word that called up a thousand moving pictures in three dimension and engaged other senses as well?
The word, "blood," came to mind. With it came the sights and the sounds leading up to the spilling of blood before her eyes, and the smell of blood in the air with the fatal shot that produced it still ringing in her ears.
Before the incident with Shag Man and Jimmy and those other boys who attacked him, Mina had somehow failed to connect the sight of blood in her T-windows with how it smelled. She had similarly failed to ask herself about the marriage of words and pictures although she presided over those unions six days a week in the course of her normal programming chores.
Now she was faced with the real possibility that someone would take flashback pictures of her. Depending upon what story the programmer wanted to tell, she could be made to look like a hero, a pervert, a criminal or a fool. As an expert in the field, she knew that her image in the hands of another expert could be shaped to fit any mold and that an ELF could always be created to fill in any blanks. Her whole life could be ruined...
A sudden wave of guilt washed over her for thinking more about herself than she did about the boy called Jimmy.
At least she had a life. Jimmy no longer did. Mina recognized the fact that her repeated flashback exposure to violent death and injury had hardened her considerably. Still, she could not justify how quickly the violence shed witnessed against the boy that morning had been relegated in her mind to minor significance compared to what might happen to her.
She wondered if she would ever again be able to look at herself in a mirror until one unheralded fact in the back of her mind marched front and center and snapped to attention: Whatever she thought or felt or tried to do about it, the poor, defenseless boy in the ally was dead. He hadnt been dead for as long as the armor-suited nobleman in her window who was about to be bounced from his horsebut he was just as dead.
"The knight," said Mina aloud, feeling much better about herself and trying to keep further thoughts on that other subject from sneaking into her mind. "The knight... What to do about the knight...?"
Minas job forced her to regard the events in her T-window as matters of proximity and perspective. Before the knights began their joust, she had to set the stage for the clash from a distant birds-eye-view of the tournament grounds with all of its carnival-like color and pageantry. Then she had to close in to precise distances from the tents and banners, the smoky campfires and the fur-wrapped lords and ladies. She had to show the musicians and the acrobats, the jugglers, the puppeteers and the vendors, from a multitude of angles. She had to group the shots and crop the shots of the knights, their squires, their armor, their shields, their weapons, their spurs and their mounts. And she had to isolate and sift though the conversations, monologues, diatribes, ramblings and solemn prayers of whomever contributed the most to the story she wanted to tell.
Mina worked through the entire sequence on the opposing walls of telewindows with a combination of voice commands and armrest controls. Then she tested various perspectives on the climactic crash of lance and armor in the lower windows of the wall in front, resizining the windows and rotating the views as necessary for the best angle and scope before selecting one.
By making the fierce looking Saxon knight the central figure in her program and following her supervisors instructions to concentrate on action, Mina had little brain work to do. Given one familiar set of circumstances or another in the programming of any dramatic event a given set of rules always applied to produce the optimum cinematic effect.
Minas special gift was in understanding and applying those immutable cinematic laws of context and content whereas most programmers didnt believe they existed. Most programmers thought they had more creative options than they did and therefore made frequent bad choices where only one good choice could be made. Mina was frequently called upon to clean up the mess.
Thats what she was doing with the jousting match when she heard her supervisors voice in her left earlobe receiver calling her name. She swiveled around in her chair.
In the wall-sized telewindow next to her door, she saw the fidgety, prune-faced Hal Finley sitting at his desk in his expensive, Softglow suit looking two decades older than his 64 years. The thick, brown carpet running up to the non-reflective T-window glass made it look as though Mina and her boss were in the same room, although his office was nine floors above hers. He appeared tired and drawn and, as usual, intoxicated.
"Yes, Mr. Finley?"
"Have you finished that little job I gave you this morning?"
"Not quite. Give me another fifteen minutes."
"Fifteen minutes?" grumbled the dark-haired man with the red, deeply wrinkle face, his words delivered with a telltale slur. "It was 90% done when you got it. All it needed was a little cleaning up, for Christ sake. Youre going to have to do better than that young lady. The days when a pretty girl could charm her way up the CBI corporate ladder are over."
The way he used the word "charm," called up images of an illicitly proportioned porno comedian by that name whose humor centered around oral sex performed on men. It also called up images of how Finleys boss, Margaret St.Clair, was rumored to have gotten her executive position in CBIa rumor so widespread and persistent that most of Condors employees accepted it as fact.
Mina waited patiently for the name-dropping that always accompanied one of these little chats. Finley continued true to form, "Mr. McBain, Mr. Easton and Mr. Piper expect all of their people to perform up to snuff, regardless of race, creed, color or sex. I advise you to keep that in mind if you want to get anywhere around here."
"Yes sir," said Mina, neither vexed nor intimidated by his injudicious remarks. She was used to them.
Finley abruptly closed the window, restoring Minas favorite view of Hamilton Ontario in autumn from the highground of the Queens Highway. She allowed herself to luxuriate in the scene for awhile. Then she yawned and stretched and swiveled around to go back to work.
Finley was right about the job being 90% done when she got it. But their District Manager, Margaret St.Clair, knew as well as Mina did that it was set up so badly it had to be completely restructured before anyone could finish it. Besides, Mina had already gone places in the company. She programmed her own primetime show, which put her ahead of other programmers at her grade level. She saw herself on a fast track to go farther, with or without the sponsorship of Margaret St.Clair.
On the other hand, the rumors about where Margaret left her lip-prints on some former vice presidents to get her number 4 position from the top, made it unlikely that Margaret would ever rise to number 3. Open care and feeding of those rumors by one of Margarets subordinates would not have been tolerated by the men in higher management if she was in their good graces. Finley could have kept his job only with the backing of higher ranking executives like the blond-haired, blue-eyed former Negro, Phil McBain or the cold, lean, sandy-haired, smiling serpent, Jeff Easton.
A telephone transmission chime sounded in Minas left earlobe receiver and she checked the window on her wristband to see if the callers preprogrammed image had been called up from memory. It had.
"Mina?" Vivians refusal to buy a receiver that would automatically modulate the volume to Minas normal speaking tone was as irksome at first as it ever was. But the bad feeling was quickly swallowed up in the joy of hearing her voice. Mina accessed her sisters incoming signal on her wristband computer and turned up the volume on her transmitter. "Vivian."
"Oh, Mina! I was so worried about you. I know I should have"
"No, no, no," said Mina. "Im the one. You were right about everything."
Vivian said nothing for a long moment. Then she said, "Hold it. Something must have happened."
"It did. II'd better tell you about it later."
"Well, I called to see if you were your old self."
"Im OK," said Mina, "but Im not my old self. I have a lot of stuff I have to sort out."
"You dont see. But you will."
Just then, Mina recalled her coded talk with Rick Tyler, the renegade cop who would have rescued the boy if he could have and chased down his assailants. She recalled not only their deceptive questions and answers, but the reason for them.
Oh, God, thought Mina, I have to pee.
Instead, she set her subconscious the mission of coming up with a good cover story on the spotand there it was, "Ill tell you this much: I stopped by your house around a quarter to five to talk about that house for sale across the street, but you must have already left for work. A house like that in East Point would cost three or four times as much. And the neighborhood is much nicer than I expected."
"What?" said Vivian as though her sister had been speaking in tongues.
Mina couldnt allow that line of conversation to continue so she cut it short.
"I cant get into it now," she said, "Ive got somebody elses job I have to finish up before I can get back to mine and Prune Face thinks it should have been done already."
Vivian snickered. "Yeah," she said, "You told me about him. I wont hold you. As a matter of fact I have my own stack of laundry to wash. You still wanna come by my place today."
"Yes," said Mina, "
"Are you sure you know where it is?
"Sure. Ill be there around 6:00."
"Good," said Vivian. "Ill be home. Bye."
"Bye," said Mina, and headed for the ladies room....
After two years of working on the same floor without seeing anyone in the sumptuous, pink powder room but an occasional cleaning woman, Mina had begun to think of the place as her own. She was, therefore, taken aback when she turned from the sink nearest the door and bumped into the only other woman in the building who could have entered without a mop and bucket, Margaret St.Clair.
"Hi, Mina," said the striking brunette brightly, as though they were old friends who met there at the same time every day. Mina had never been closer to the woman with the dazzling smile and exotic perfume than the glass of her floor-to-ceiling telewindow. She didnt know what to sayespecially when she remembered the name of Margarets expensive perfume. It was a French word with only a slight change of accent in English and an accented "e" on the end in the written form that the English word didnt have.
Mina didnt notice the tiny twitch of her nostrils. Margaret did.
"Yes," said the older woman, while Mina was still stumbling over her tongue and trying not to look at Margaret's full, Bawdy-Red lips. "Its Charmé, all right," she said, using the French pronunciation of charm which treated the c like an s. "I know what that means. I was wearing it before it had that meaning and Im too stubborn to change. For what its worth, the stories arent true. And if you have any more questions, you can feel free to ask them out loud instead of writing them on you face."
"I wasnt" Mina stopped the lie before it got out, reading the comical rebuttal written so clearly on Margarets face. It was embarrassing. It was also funny. The sparkle in Margarets jade green eyes told her it was more than OK to laugh. And she did.
So did Margaret.
The next thing they knew, they were making faces at each other and laughing hysterically at the absurd conversation they were able to carry on with their face muscles alone. Every time they coasted to a stop, one of them would give the other a meaningless look of deep suspicion answered by a look of wide-eyed innocence and they would start in again.
"Well," said Margaret, when she could stop laughing long enough to talk, "it was a pleasure speaking with you face to faceso to speak." She extended her hand and Mina took it with a last good laugh at Margarets play on words.
"The pleasure was all mine," said Mina.
The pleasure of the meeting and the warm touch of friendly human flesh was in fact mutual. In the age of telewindows and virtual reality conferences, people like Mina and Margaret in corporations like Condor Broadcasting Inc. rarely got close enough to shake hands. For all Mina knew, the Margaret St.Clair shed seen and spoken to in her big telewindow could have been an ELF. The Mina Foski that Margaret knew could only have been real because of the extraordinary work she did. But until this impromptu meeting on comparatively safe grounds Margaret wasnt sure if she was quite human.
Mina was too beautiful, too intelligent, too creative and entirely too serious to be a bona fide Homo Sapien according to every sample of the species in Margarets catalog of memories. She didnt believe that science had developed to the point of making a convincing mobile replica of a human being but she cultivated enough healthy paranoia not to dismiss the possibility. If there was any way for such a thing to be built, Tanaka, the company that Mina came from, would have built it. Condor might have bought it for a dozen nefarious purposes and the stakes were too high for Margaret to overlook any of them, no matter how farfetched.
Human or android, Mina was gorgeous enough to make some real humans sweat. Margaret removed her hand from Minas and hoped that the younger woman wouldnt notice the extra moisture.
Another rumor about Margaret was beginning to make the rounds. Condors first female district manager for programming couldnt afford to breath life into that one with this trip to the womens lavatory. Her only reason for being there was to test the water for a more conventional meeting later on if the virtual reality session she was about to attend went the way she thought it would.
"I have to go now," said Margaret backing away. "I have a VRS conference I have to beam into..." She checked her watch, "in about two minutes. God, how I hate those meetings. I know how weird all of this must seem too youI mean, me popping in and out of here like this and asking you to have dinner with me tonight at Duncansbut theres a good explanation for all of it and its important. So, what do you say? Is 5:30 a good time?"
Mina stood in the wash of Margarets words unable to form any of her own. She was astonished, bewildered flattered and disarmed to the point of giddiness. She stammered and grinned and gave a quick little nod in answer to the older womans body language that said she wanted an answer right away.
"Good," grinned Margaret, "Maybe we can tee off together sometime at the club... Oh, shit; here I am going off in all directions at once. Dont pay any attention to that. I always get a little goofy when Im pressed for time. Ill explain everything at dinner. Wish me luck." Without waiting for a reply, she ducked out of the ladies room, leaving Minas head in a spin.
There was only one reason the CBI networks top regional executive would ask her to dinner at Duncans. She'd be a fool not to accept.
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