Chapter 5: CHARM
Margaret walked the short distance to the elevator with strong feelings about Mina, and Mina's sister, and the whole production crew of God. Their talent was as far removed from the best that Tanaka and CBI had to offer as a Masters champions was from a duffers. That kind of ability in the medium of telewindows equaled power and that kind of power in the hands of an enemy was dangerous.
Mina was the only one that the networks had managed to latch onto and somebody at Condor was out to destroy the others.
Margaret reasoned that the image assassin had to be somebody at Condor. Tanaka owned the only other entity capable of producing and broadcasting the X Channel, where enemies of the American Party had a way of showing up in embarrassing, if not criminal, sexual situations. But Condor, in consideration of its unwavering support of American party objectives, had the most logical motive. Besides, some X Channel shows were marked by a programming style that belonged to one of Margarets people, a pale, shifty-eyed little man in his late 30s with a creepy smile named Walter Judd.
Whatever else Walter Judd was, he was a good artist. No. He was a hell of an artist. His 3-D, color, X rated versions of the original Casablanca and The Postman Always Rings Twice were actually better than the originals. The the casting changes he made to innumerable mediocre films of the 20th century made them winnersif you liked X rated old moves. Margaret St. Clair loved them.
The new broadcasts featuring Hector Clay with their emphasis on men and women with extreme sexual endowment was definitely Walter's work. Not even Margaret could tell whether or not they were ELFs.
Margaret guessed that the host of God was the first of his crew to be X-channeled simply because he was the most prominent. But God was the Elation of every thinking person she knew, which made everyone associated with his show an eventual target.
Margaret pressed the button for the top floor where she could sit in her darkened office that would put her in the Virtual Reality Session that she told Mina about. What she didnt tell her star programmer, was that the meeting was about the possibility of her replacing the soon to be retired Hal Finley as programming supervisor for the State of Michigan.
The elevator door opened and Margaret almost lost her composure. Standing there, as if summoned by her earlier thoughts, with his shifty gray eyes at breast level and his creepy, crooked smile a little creepier than usual, was Walter Judd. "Good afternoon, Ms. St.Clair," he wheezed, standing to one side as she got on the elevator.
"Good afternoon, Walter," she said as pleasantly as her revulsion would allow. Fortunately for Walter Judd, that was very pleasant indeed. Margaret owed her livelihood to being a superb actress. She wasnt especially proud of that little knack but she was grateful for it.
She pushed the button for the 16th floor noting that the button for the 15th floor was already lit. The door closed. As the elevator started up Margaret's nostrils twitched involuntarily. The little man held up a paper bag, "Mr. Finleys secretary didnt come in today. He asked me to pick up a roast beef sandwich."
Margaret frowned. "Walter, youre a grade 6 flashback programmer. You dont have to run errands for Mr. Finley or anybody else."
"Oh, it wasnt like that. I was the one who said I was going to the deli. He asked me to get something for him while I was there. I didnt mind at all, honest. I like doing things for people."
"Thats very nice of you," smiled Margaret, skillfully suppressing the reflex to roll her eyes as the door slid open and Walter walked out. He turned and bowed a polite good-bye which Margaret was able to answer with an appropriate wave of her hand before the door slid mercifully closed. She shuddered at the thought of being alone in the elevator with Walter Judd and wondered what she would have done if he had touched her.
When the elevator door opened again, she stepped out onto the green shag carpeting and strode the twelve short steps down the hall to her office. The tall, smoke-gray doors slid open by themselves allowing her to walk right in. Beth, her huge-breasted, dishwater-blonde, middle-aged secretary stood to greet her in a pink, translucent blouse which showed the wide red circles around her inverted nipples.
"Whats up, Beth?"
The woman held out a stack of diskettes with something written in longhand on each one. "The trinity have decided to beam into this one," she said.
Margaret made a face, "McBain, Easton and Piper. Fuck!"
"Wanna pick another you?"
"Yeah." Margaret reached for the diskettes with the data that would represent her physical form at the meeting. Once the Virtual Reality Persona was selected, her makeup, clothing, jewelry, hair style and perfume would be decided by the computer to match the VRP with the occasion. It was not the kind of data that was wise to keep stored in the computer.
She thought about the one labeled "Sassy," but rejected it in favor of the one labeled, "Charmé." She held on to that one and returned the others to her secretary.
"Are you sure about that?" asked Beth with a measured arch of an eyebrow.
Margaret winked, "Im sure," she said. And she was.
Margaret breezed into her spacious inner office, plugged the diskette into the disk port on her long, flat desk computer and sat down in her plush, powder blue leather chair. In front of her was a blank T-window like the one in Minas control room, stretching from powder blue wall to powder blue wall and swimming pool blue carpet to sky blue ceiling.
To see outside of the building she would have had to go back to her outer office or down the hall to a conference room she sometimes used for staff meetings with her local supervisors. The only window in the office featured an unlikely view from 16 stories up of a beautiful fairway with a small group of female golfers and caddies. On the polished rosewood door of her bathroom was a sign that read, "Emergency Exit." In the space above the door leading to and from her outer office was an analog clock with a silver face and blue crystal hands pointing to the hour of 1.
It was hard to believe that the artificial room that would replace the real one would be as convincing as the real one. Years of experience had taught her that it would be, reminding her each time that knowledge of what was true and false had no necessary relationship to perception.
Margaret rolled her head in a circle, took one deep breath through her nostrils and blew it out of her mouth. Then she touched the blister on her computer keyboard that plunged her office into total darkness.
This was the part she hated; waiting in the dark for a make-believe conference room as true to the senses as anything the real world had to offer to show up around her. To be so utterly dependent on someone else for the use of her own eyes and ears, not to mention the rest of her body, was a stark reminder of where the power lay at CBI. That, she suspected, was the idea of not having a place ready for her to pop into at the scheduled time of the meeting. But she did have control of her thoughts and she didnt let the inky blackness around her stop her from using it to think about her pitch for Mina.
She waited and she thought and she waited some more.
In a blink of her eyes, she was sitting at a large, round, clear, glass table, in a tan leather seat of a maple paneled lodge with eleven other peopleall men in dark, Softglow business suits. At least it seemed that way.
Except for a natural sense of connection between mind and body, the virtual reality environment that she was now a part of provided every other clue that things were in fact what they were not. Huge bay windows framed a breathtaking Alpine view and let in a flood of sunlight that warmed her cheeks. A lively fire danced in a rainbow-stone fireplace against a far wall. The erratic crackle of the fire teased her ears and the sweet scent of burning pine blended with the Don Juan cologne of the men on either side of her.
The man on her right, a taller, darker, slicker version of Walter Judd, leered at her full red lips and cracked, "Margaret St.Clair! How nice to see you. Is that Charm youre wearing?"
His were the first words spoken in the virtual reality setting, drawing all eyes immediately toward him and Margaret. One man looked uncomfortably toward the nearest window, another to the ceiling. A few others snickered nastily like naughty little schoolboys. The rest put on the correct corporate smile to be polite to him, to be inoffensive to her and to reveal nothing about themselves.
Margaret smiled sweetly and batted her long eyelashes, "Why yes, Jerry," she purred, "it is Charm." Then, she said, in a confidential tone loud enough for everyone to hear as well as they had heard him, "I wonder if were the only two wearing it."
One of the men who had looked uneasy at the first reference to charm, dropped his jaw in shock. The other, a trim, eastern Mediterranean type who was sitting next to the man called Jerry, burst into laughter.
He was joined straight-away by a handsome, silver-haired gentleman on the other side of the table with a commanding air about him. the silver-haired man could have used a few extra pounds to look his best but his borderline anorexic appearance somehow added to his aura of power and authority. When he laughed, Margaret knew that everyone else except her and the victim of her joke would have to laugh too, whether they got it or not.
Sure enough, even the normally sullen Phil McBain was soon laughing heartily at the hapless district manager, who could do nothing but sit there and turn deeper shades of red.
Margaret allowed herself a tiny lingering smile, as her inner self breathed a sigh of relief. The devious sons of bitches had done what she thought they would do. They sat her next to the most openly sexist manager at CBI, knowing how tough it would be for her to make a coherent case around the crap he was certain to throw into the game at his first opportunity.
The man was a jerk. But he was a smart jerk who would have used what sounded enough like logic to pass as good reasons for saying no to the corporations most qualified candidate. Now, he was out of it. If he tried to say anything Margaret didnt approve of, she could silence him with one word. And everybody in the VRS knew what that word was.
The silver-haired patrician stepped down the volume of laughter around the table by gradually reducing his own. On each side of him were no-name district managers trying to look at ease in such unexpected close proximity to Dean Piper, the CEO of Condor Industries. The baby-faced district manager on his left was having a noticeably hard time of making himself look like his own man while coordinating the character and duration of his laughter with his superiors.
On the right of the young DM was Jeff Easton, hawk-faced president of CBI, the mammoth broadcasting division of Condor Industries, Inc. Directly across from him, was Phil McBain, senior vice president of CBI, in charge of programming. Margaret quickly mapped the dynamics of the situation that the supposedly random seating arrangements had imposed upon the young execand Piper and Easton and McBainand the men sitting next to them.
A ripple of fear verging on panic tore through Margaret's belly. If they had wanted her to lose, this is not how they would have set it up...unless they were trying to draw her into another kind of trap.
The whole thing was fishy. It was as though Condors senior executives had found a way to see the future and make the best adjustments for themselves to unfavorable aspects of the future they could not control. As implausible as that seemed to Margaret, it was no more implausible than a computer generated Virtual Reality Setting like this one would have seemed only a decade before. It was also the only explanation she could think of that fit all of the observable facts. She decided to proceed with caution.
"OK," said McBain, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, former Negro, "Lets get down to business."
McBain's virtual reality persona gave his words a warm, relaxed flavor that he never could have projected in the real world because it wasnt in him. It seemed to Margaret that only the men at his level of management and above with flat, black rings the size and shape of quarters with a thin, gold border had the option of choosing a persona with that capability. She wondered how many of the other middle managers around the table had seen enough of the top brass in and out of virtual reality to reach the same conclusion.
McBain played with the knot beneath his solid red tie that looped over it in the current style like the long tongue of a baseball shoe. He locked his eyes on Margarets. "We understand that you have a junior management candidate for us to look at."
Margaret nodded and watched for signs of confusion from him that should follow what she had to say, "I certainly do. Hes been with the company for over twenty years and"
"Hold it," said the man with the eastern Mediterranean features. He was wearing the kind of off-balanced expression that everyone should have had on his face for at least an instant. All of the other district managers had that look on their faces. But all three senior execs appeared to accept her impromptu mention of someone other than Mina as a well known line in a well rehearsed play. Margaret filed that thought and listened to her fellow DM complete his.
"I dont know what guy youre talking about but whoever he is, he couldnt be close to Mina Foski."
Several heads nodded in agreement, including a couple who had earlier chosen to wear the corporate smile.
"Just testing," said Margaret, without saying what she was testing for. "Youve all seen what she can do with an ordinary strip of flashback film. By the time she gets her programs down on disk, theres nothing any of us can do to improve them. Its not like we all havent had a crack at it because we have."
A corpulent DM sitting on the right of McBain shook his head, "Nobody in his right mind is going to argue with that. The kid is a genius. Were lucky to have her. But wed be foolish to give up the proven talent she has for network programming to make her a supervisor for one state. Hell, who's gonna do Crime Scene 200 and those other things she does for the network if she's not there?"
"Hes right," said McBain, sadly, "Shes too good at what she does to be moved up to where she would probably be an ordinary supervisor."
Margaret bristled, "What do you mean, probably?"
McBain, unruffled, started to answer but Easton cut him off. "The skills required to edit flashbacks and to supervise the people who are editing the flashbacks are two different things. Genius tends to be a highly specialized thing. If she was a very good programmer or even a mediocre one, she might make a great supervisor. But lets face it, the odds are against her being a great programmer and a great manager. Some of you represent the exception to the rule but all of you showed what you could do as first-rate mangers before you were given a permanent managerial position. Ms. Foski has been with us for less than three years and her supervisory talents havent been tested."
"So," said Margaret, flatly, "lets test them."
The Mediterranean looking DM agreed, "Yeah," he said, "She speaks three languages fluently and can probably get by in two or three more. She carried a 4 point grade average all the way through school and finished number one in a class of brilliant students. She has a management degree and she might be an even better teacher than she is a doer. I know that Ive learned a hell of a lot just from watching her stuff and a hell of a lot more from her ELF."
"So have I, Mike" said an older DM with a thick mustache and bushy eyebrows. He was seated on the left of McBain and he directed his remarks to Piper. "I tell ya, Dean, she pays a lot of attention to structural details that everybody else ignores. She takes as much time as she needs up front to make sure that she hasnt built in any obstacles that she has to work around later on. And shes not afraid to make mistakes. Thats where most of her innovations come fromfrom ideas that didnt work in one application but teach her something she can use somewhere else. I passed on what I learned to my supervisors and our ratings have gone up dramatically across the board."
"Can you show us some figures on that, Steve," said Piper.
"Sure," said the man with the mustache. "Light pen," he said with an inflection that marked the end of his communication with the master computer. A light pen appeared in his handnot that he needed one in a Virtual Reality Setting, but he needed something to activate the program he wanted to run within the VRS. A VR light pen was as good as anything. He pointed an amber spot of light at four imaginary corners on the round glass table and said, "Draw the ratings chart from the last sixteen months for Northeast district programming. Color code: Condor, white; Tanaka, green.
Two vertical bars sprung up out of the table like skyscrapers on a frozen lake. The green one, representing Tanaka, was clearly the tallest. "This is where we were before our people started using the Foski methodas much of it as we could get from the ELF, anyway."
The blocks stepped forward bringing up another set of blocks behind them with each step. The green and white blocks showed little difference in relative height until the seventh set arose. "We knew we were getting better," continued the man with the mustache, "but this is where it started to show." The white bar was now slightly taller than the green one. With each new advance, the white one grew noticeably taller relative to the green one.
"Very impressive, Steve" said Piper. Then he said, "Key-in table. Slow rotation."
When the table-top started turning it was apparent that nothing was holding it up. In virtual reality the laws of physics applied only when the programmer wanted them to.
Piper studied the chart then stopped the motion and erased it with the words, "Key-out."
Piper turned back to Steve. "Phil and Jeff have been telling me what a spectacular job youve been doing," he said, "and the ratings do seem to back it up. Now youre saying that Mina Foski is the one who ought to be getting all the credit?"
"No," said Steve. "Margaret deserves a bunch of the credit for making a hell of a Mina Foski ELF and letting the rest of us borrow it. My supervisors and their programmers deserve a bunch of credit for getting the most out of it and I deserve the rest for letting them do it."
"Hes right," said the DM called Mike, "Weve done the same thing in France, Italy and Greece with the same results and there is no way you can give any one person all of the credit. Mina would be the first one to tell you that. But if you dont recognize who your real key people are in a competitive international market like telewindows and give them some real authority, how can you come out on top?"
"Cars are a good example," said Steve. Look at Mikes program on how the original Ford Taurus changed from a potato to a car. Youll see that Fords top people worked on that problem for three years. Then a lower grade designer named Bud Magauldi told some colored guy working under him what they were trying to do and two days later the clay modelers had the potato problem solved. The guys who solved that problem went nowhere and neither did anybody else at Ford with a better way of doing things that didnt come from the top."
"Or from Japan," said the baby-faced DM, bravely, with Piper and Easton close enough to pat him on the back or slap him down.
Margaret knew that there would be no slapping down at this point of anybody who supported Mina. This was the snowballing effect she foresaw in the seating arrangements early on. With Jerry the jerk knocked out of action by the tacit threat of being called "charming," there was nothing to stop it.
Margaret had no doubt that the boy wonder saw the same avalanche shaping up and decided to roll with the flow rather than to let it roll over him.
"My grandfather worked in that studio," he said. "He told me how it functioned, but I didnt believe it until I saw Mikes program. If they hadnt made it a real team effort they never would have gotten the work out of all the people they needed to create the Classic thats so popular today. Ford had it all and threw it away because they never saw who was really doing the work. I dont think we can afford to make the same mistake."
"Neither do I," said Piper, to the group as a whole, giving the young district manager a reassuring nod. "What do you think, Jeff?"
Easton grinned at the young DM like a proud father, "I think we have a great bunch of officers who have obviously done their homework. Im convinced. I say, lets bring her on board."
Piper turned his face to McBain. "And you, Phil? What do you say?"
McBain, the former Negro, shook his blonde head slowly and threw up his hands, "Im sorry," he said, "I know that she looks like a good candidate on paper but we have a responsibility to our stockholders to consider the intangibles. I think youre overlooking one important thing."
"Whats that?" asked Margaret, sensing the answer before it came.
McBain looked gravely from face to face. "How many of you know what Mina Foski looks like." Though all of the men had been given an opportunity to learn what they could from Minas ELF, only three had bothered to look at it. Therefore, Margaret was not surprised when the others opened their palms, shrugged their shoulders or otherwise indicated that they didnt know.
Without using the unnecessary prop of a light pen, McBain pointed to the center of the thin, rotating, glass table and said, "Key-in ELF. Mina Foski." The virtual reality equivalent of Minas ELF began to materialize.
Margaret was as startled as everyone else when it appeared on the revolving table in the buff, but she had the presence of mind to see if the three top execs had the same reaction: McBain seemed mildly annoyed, Easton looked somewhat concerned and Piper was plainly concerned. None showed the slightest bit of surprise.
"Whoa!" said the stocky man.
"Good Lord!" exclaimed another DM who had said nothing until now. The rest of them sat dumbfounded before the slowly revolving image of a nude mahogany goddess turned to flesh. To call the illusion "it" instead of "her" made no more visual sense than to say the same thing about the life-like VRP that represented Margarets body to the others. Only Margarets artificial exterior was controlled more or less by her own mind. The exquisite body with the firm, pert breasts, dark, fat nipples, long, shapely legs and full, round buttocks was complete to the last little curl of its neatly trimmed pubic hair. But it had no more of a mind than a common ELF.
It stared straight ahead at the paneled walls, the fireplace and the bay window, with its legs parted slightly and its arms at its sides as though no one else was in the room. Without its clothes, it lacked the context it needed to interact realistically with the other artificial bodies in the artificial room.
The accidental skin show lasted only long enough for McBain to realize what he did wrong and to say the words that would clothe the computerized Mina properly for the occasion. "Correction. Key-in ELF: Ms. Mina Foski."
An opaque red blouse, blue, knee-length skirt and matching jacket covered the naked facsimile in a flash, but not before Margaret noticed a small pale discoloration high on her rear inner thigh. That was not a detail that the computer would have generated without a live model.
Sure, it could have been someone elses body, but Margaret didnt think so. Moreover she didnt feel it, and she, like Hector Clay had learned how and when to trust her feelings.
"Excuse me," said McBain, who then mumbled something about a "goddamn programmer" before clearing his throat and proceeding with what he wanted to say about Mina.
"This, gentlemen, is Mina Foski."
The fat mans eyes remained wide, "Shes a fucking nigger!"
The man beside him poked him in the ribs and told him to watch his language.
"Im sorry," he said to Piper and McBain, respectively, "I didnt mean to use that kind of profanity. It was just a shock, you know?"
"I know," said Piper, "Dont worry about it."
McBain was even more forgiving. "Dont even think about it. She is a nigger. I used to be an Negro but I was never a nigger so you never have to think twice about using that word around me. Theres a big difference and there is nothing wrong with calling a spade a spade."
"What the hell are you talking about?" said Steve, forgetting his place momentarily. "What has she done to deserve a name like that?"
"Its what she hasnt done," snapped McBain. "Being born colored on the outside is something a person cant help. But in this day and age nobody who feels like a real American has to stay that way. Look at me, look at Chief Justice Thomas and President Leighton. All of us used to be Negroes. Our parents were Negroes. Our Grandparents were Negroes. But we wanted to be better than that. They wanted us to be better than that. And, by God, we worked our butts off till we made it!
"Being black is a mind-set as much as a color. Those people really are dirty and lazy because thats how they think. They have no morals and no ambition. They spread diseases wherever they go. Theyre responsible for more crime and less wealth than any other group in our society. Those are the cold, hard facts. If theyre toasties on the outside by the time theyre twenty five or thirty, theyre probably toasties on the inside. And all of these black kids running around today wouldnt have been born black if their parents had gotten off their lazy asses, worked hard, saved their money and had the operation.
"Youve got your whiggers and your higgers, too. Now, they may be white or Hispanic on the outside, but theyre niggers on the inside. They talk nigger talk, wear nigger clothes, listen to nigger music. The point is, they are what they are inside, but now you can tell what they are inside by looking at them. Race change operations are not about color. Theyre about character and valuesAmerican values you can see."
He mumbled something and the virtual reality model of Mina Foski which appeared to be following the discussion politely, dissolved to nothing.
"The myth of that over-used liberal word 'racism' is proven everywhere you look. Likewise, the validity of the word 'nigger.' Look at the Negroes who had the operation," he continued, "and those who havent. You dont find us in jail or out on the street begging, stealing, raping, whoring, taking drugs and selling them. You will find themby the millions. They dont belong with civilized people. Even the rich black athletes and entertainers we have accepted as our own are niggers at heart. Any time you get one who looks like he or she might be the exception to the rule, youre taking an unnecessary risk. Look at O.J Simpson, for Christ sake. The only Negro you can trust is a former Negro, or a dead nigger."
Margaret didnt know whether to laugh or cry. Of all the examples to choose, he picked a man whose guilt or innocence could have been seen on flashback if people at McBains level of authority would have allowed it. They never did.
"Phil," she said, "youre right about the statistics and the risks. But what were talking about here is a necessary risk, and a manageable one. The statistics on her work and the work based on her work cant be ignored. We need what she can give us if were going to have any chance against the Japs." Margaret cringed inwardly at the ethnic slur and kept on going as though it was the most natural thing in the world for her to say. "Besides, shes twenty seven years old. A race change operation has to be a big step for anybody and she might not be able to afford it yet."
"Yeah," said the baby-faced DM, "Give her time. The extra money may be all it takes."
Piper threw up his right hand like a stop signal and lowered it when he had everyones attention. He looked at his watch.
"Time to wrap things up, folks. Its been a good meeting. Some excellent points have been made on both sides. "Personally, I dont believe that an employees color or sex" he nodded toward Margaret, "should have anything to do with his or her prospects for promotion. "Merit is the only thing that should matter. The dark days of affirmative action and reverse discrimination are ancient history. There is no law that says we have to hire or promote blacks, women, cripples, perverts, veterans or anybody from any special interest group who isnt qualified. By the same token, we owe it to ourselves and our country to seek out the best people we can find for supervisors, district managers, and right on up the ladder...Show of hands. "Who thinks we should approve Mina Foski for Programming Supervisor for the State of Michigan?"
Margaret, Steve and Mike raised their hands simultaneously. Then Piper raised his, followed swiftly by the young DM on his left, the fat man, Easton, Jerry and a husky, square-jawed man named Frost on Margarets left who hadnt said a word.
"That does it," smiled Piper, "Weve got ourselves another junior officer. Good day all."
Just like that, Margaret was back in her utterly dark office. This time she welcomed the blanket of blackness. In the short time she was in the VRS she had gotten used to her artificial body the way a sailor gets used to the motion of a boat at sea. Now, back on dry land, so to speak, her own body seemed foreign. It was going to take a while to adjust.
Meanwhile, she couldnt get the image of Minas naked body out of her mind. If that was a faithful reconstruction of her body, it meant McBain and possibly Easton and Piper had someone spying on Mina in her most intimate moments. Whoever it was could be spying on Margaret as well.
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