A Fanciful Tale
Billowing towers of dark clouds greeted Carol as she looked out her kitchen window in the early morning. The stalks in the neighboring farmer’s field were cowering under the shadow of the gathering storm. Carol wanted to take Adain and Yswil for a walk later that day, and the poor things were fearful of the rain. So, after praising the cumulonimbus for its aggressive beauty, she closed her eyes and tried to devote her mind to bright thoughts.
What were the events she could look forward to that day? The meeting of the crew that was planning Saturday’s Midnight Festival in the eastern hills, where she always had such fun. And Pirou’s rye bread, which they would eat naked in bed—damn the scattered seeds. And fiddle music, and the new irises on the south side of the house, and of course the rain that would come, eventually, after she had had her walk, when she could stand in the driveway with her arms stretched to the brimming heavens.
Carol was a woman of quiet demeanor, with a young look, and eyes that had a round-about way of coming to focus at unexpected times on whatever called her attention. But when she had a goal in mind, her small mouth set itself and her gentle cheeks grew narrow; her eyes took on a gleam that would made an observer thank her eyelids for modestly covering the orbs’ fierce intensity.
Mink padded in to the kitchen bearing her morning pout. Carol had to turn away from the window. Her roommate’s attitude begged for a challenge. And even though a cup of tea would put it all right, something made Carol want to test Mink’s self-control. So she pointed to the drainer over the sink and said cattily, “Mink, it’s your turn to dry the breakfast dishes.”
She knew she was having the desired effect as she saw Mink give a shake to her reddish brown ringlets of hair. With a contemptuous gesture, the sleepy woman raised her sleek arm to grasp a washcloth from a nearby chair. Draping her hand casually in the air, she flicked the cloth toward the drainer. It swept across a baking pan…caught the bar of the drainer and nimbly spun around one hundred eighty degrees…spiraled drunkenly around and around four dishes…and finally wiped a few drops off a spatula before folding itself in a neat square on the kitchen counter.
Mink flashed a cute smirk at her own sleight of hand. But Carol frowned and exclaimed. “Now you know that’s not how it’s done!” Indeed, she was offended by the clumsiness of Mink’s gesture. “They’re still damp; you need more attention to detail.”
Carol stepped right to the center of the round kitchen—conveniently marked by a tile bearing a blue star—and raised her arms in a ceremonious port de bras. Everything in the room fell quiet; the fiddle tunes emanating from the music box broke off in mid-phrase. Carol pursed her lips and sent a slender stream of air in a fanning motion from the left of the drainer toward the right. In the suspended silence, a slight intensification of presence could be sensed from that corner of kitchen, as the air gathered itself in response to Carol’s summons. A vibration excited the atmosphere around the dishes and swept away the remaining drops of water. Drying themselves, the dishes gleamed and shined. With another graceful motion of her arms, Carol calmed the air. The music started up again.
Mink snorted. “If it was so easy, why did you bother me?”
“Because you’re in a funk and it ruins my bright thoughts. Now it’s going to rain and I haven’t walked Adain and Yswil. And you know how they hate the rain.”
“So let them sleep.” Mink’s arrogant, expressive mouth was curled with impatience and her blue eyes strayed to the door. Her brow seemed still sunk in a state of unconsciousness beneath the ringlets of hair; her sharp chin tilted toward the floor. “I’m getting dressed and heading off to the community library to find a fertility rite for Gwynneth. I want to be somewhere quiet right now. Why do you have that stupid music on?”
“You usually like it just as much as I do. Come back when you’re fit for company.”
Mink aimed a final snort at the music box as she slunk out. The amiable jig was replaced by cacophonous squeaking noises that sounded like rusty combines sliding down a rough slope.
Carol didn’t mind Mink. It wasn’t her fault, poor sweetheart, she was just tired from her dancing the night before.
When Mink re-emerged with tight jeans and a low-cut blouse, Pirou had descended to the kitchen and was cupping her hands about a large mug of rose hip tea. Pirou was as round as Mink was angular. Her eyes, sad at heart but always brightly shining, squatted together near the middle of a soft face across which a dozen different expressions could play in a single minute. Her mouth hung ripely over the teacup; her small nose contracted as the pungent warm odor rose gently to her nostrils.
“Like the dance last night, Mink?” she asked. She could tell, though, from Mink’s erratic stride, that something annoyed her.
“Farts and dumb-asses,” grimaced Mink. “That’s what the mundanes are. I just can’t get along with them; it’s not worth trying.”
A couple minutes were all they needed to worm the real tale out of her. She had no compunctions about regaling them with the idiocies of the general populace, particularly the male half.
“And while I was sitting on his lap, waving a glass of wine under his nose, I sensed this awful—uck! oh, you wouldn’t believe it!—just plain disgusting vibration start up in his pants. And then,” Mink’s mouth twisted in repulsion, “he pulls this little player out of his pants pocket. I say to him, can’t that wait? And then, with me still on his lap swaying to the music, he starts punching the buttons with his thumb.”
“Oh, it’s a new fad, Mink. Some guys just go bananas over gadgets.”
“It’s not so new. I’ll tell you what it is.” Mink started to pace the kitchen from the bread box to the armoire, crossing the center of the room with clunky taps of her boots while swerving to avoid Carol’s sacred blue star. Her jaw was pulsing with the effort of expounding for them. “The world is getting blasé. It has less and less regard for us. We used to be treated with awe, even with fear. Now there’s nothing special about divining what goes on a hundred miles away or seeing visions in a cup of tea leaves. Everybody gets their kicks from their little pocket players.”
She straightened and let her thin frame shake with regret. “Their field of vision is crammed; they have no attention left for the miraculous or even the incongruous. They are blinded by trivial novelties, and the voice of passion is drowned out.”
“I thought you didn’t care about mundanes, Mink,” said Pirou in her soft, quizzical drone.
“I care if they get cut off from what’s grand in life, Pirou!” cried Mink. “I care that they have no sense of our power. Because then our power seeps away.”
“Now Mink,” admonished Carol, “You don’t want things like they were in times past. You don’t want them to beat us, or even burn us.”
“No, of course not. But I want to see some recognition that there is more to life than their silly little—what do they call them—data points.” She curled her lips and let her tongue slide out in mockery. “Oh, what’s your cell phone number? I’ll leave you a voice mail about where I’ll be Saturday. Did you get the stats on your new amplifier?” She glared at the other two women. “That’s what has replaced the thrill of the unknown. And we who live on the edge of unknown have become nothing to them.” Her eyelids closed in pain. “Nothing.”
They all remained silent a minute. The fiddle music took a sorrowful turn as it spun an old ballad about a maid who lived alone.
“I’m off for the library,” spat out Mink abruptly. “At least we still have our lore.” And she left, letting the door squeal about her departure.
Carol stirred and caught a view of the darkening clouds out the window. “Oh, Pirou, will you take the bats for a walk? I have to pick some tufts and take them to Allen’s to make oil for the Midnight Festival. And if we don’t get Adain and Yswil out before the rain, they’ll be cooped up here and bounce about all night making us crazy.”
“I’m not really dressed,” drawled Pirou with a bit of grumpiness. But she was a kindly sort, so she slipped on a shawl and sandals and made a chirping noise as she wended her way gracefully and expansively to the door. Carol started pruning the leaves from the herbs in her kitchen window box.
Carol came back without her burden of herbs from Allen’s, who was an expert at soaps, scents, and lotions. Carol had put in an order for Pirou’s favorite massage oil, plus the libations needed for the Midnight Festival. Spring was well on its way, and she took in the emergent odor of a quickening soil as she walked back home, delighting in the dogwood and tracking the motions of each bird that flew across the meadow. Now she had passed through a hole in the fence by the road and was crossing an abandoned field next to an imposing boxy monolith. It was the western-most building in a shopping mall, a place she had never been. In fact, she normally gave it as wide a berth as she could, winding her way between the road and the parking lot, annoyed at having to pervert her route from a straight line to go around the massive obstruction of the buildings in the mall.
But today she looked curiously at the squat, ugly blocks poised under the wide sky and receding clouds, which had spent their rains a couple hours before. She gingerly made a turn to the left and approached the front of the mall in small steps, taking it in with wary eyes.
Straight in front was a menacing sign, thirty feet high at least, that bore the words “Fair Play Electromart.” Plastered across the huge window, and blocking her view of its contents, was a sign that said, “Spring Sale—30% off.” People were streaming in and out the doors.
She had never entered a department store, but she had had the occasion a few times in her life to venture inside other large buildings. She didn’t like them. When she was out of doors, she loved being enclosed by tall trees whose leaves formed a murmuring, lofty hedge, or by majestic hills that shaded a valley. These were enlivening, uplifting—even breath-taking. And when she was inside houses, she liked the quiet of small rooms. But open spaces in large buildings had none of the virtues of either alternative, outside or in; they weren’t inspiring and they weren’t intimate. In fact, all they could make Carol think of was the hubris of men who think the sheer scale of costly expenditures can humble those who come near.
Still, there was something that fascinated people inside the Electromart; something people wanted. And after hearing Mink’s lament that morning on the instruments of diversion, Carol wanted to know what the something was. So she followed the consumers inside, joined them like a small mouse smelling her way through the aisles, and gazed around while trying to ignore the assault of the surrounding noise. The jumble of pop music and crude voices jarred her. She saw a streamer bedecked with pennants, which made her think of a Maypole. But when she touched a pennant it turned out to be fashioned of cheap stock, obviously machine-made. It lent the place a pastiche of festivity without delivering true pleasure.
It was time to concentrate on what she was there to see. Everybody seemed to be looking at the hundreds of devices and the small pads under them covered with lettering. Carol squinted at one of the labels. It was covered with meaningless letters and numbers. Yet other people were engaged in animated discussions over them, so she figured they must mean something.
Passing back and forth along the aisles for what seemed like an hour, Carol began to discern patterns in the code. As prices increased, so did many of the other numbers listed on the labels. There was a method to this.
Finally she decided it was time to act. She glanced along a row of television sets and picked one that was a little less ugly than the rest—one with not quite as dull a finish, and not quite as tall and harsh-edged. Next she found a person wearing a little badge that she took as a sign that he had access to these properties. The man she chose appeared tired, like one who had worked for many hours and was looking at another job ahead of him after this one, but his face was not as sunken as the others and his mouth seemed to have some play in it, as if he was not totally dulled by his environment.
Fixing her eye on him, she pointed to the television set and said in a quiet but commanding voice, “I’d like to take that one.”
“The VG 826?” he asked. His voice had life in it; while quiet, he seemed like a concerned fellow.
Not remembering what numbers were on the label, she just answered, “Yes, that’s the one.”
The clerk walked over to a large screen with a squat keyboard under it covered with letters and numbers. Suspending his hand on the keyboard, he asked, “Phone number and credit card, please.”
Carol strode over to stand squarely next to him, and with her lips set in a firm straight line, snapped her fingers right in his face. He jerked his head around to take her in and stared at her for the first time. And his eyes opened wide as the sagging around them disappeared. His lips parted in a new receptivity. His face seemed to come alive.
“You are not the slave of that machine anymore,” said Carol. “You will listen to me now.”
“Yes,” he answered briskly.
She pointed again to the television set. “I want that one, now.”
“Certainly,” he nodded, went quickly to stand in front of the set, and started to tug at it. She glanced around and with a jerk of her head put up invisible barriers around the aisle to keep other people far off. Then she turned back to her clerk. The television was refusing to budge. His arms were wrapped about it as he bent like a tortured Michaelangelo statue. His neck muscles were strained and lips were peeled back in agony.
“No, stop!” Carol cried. “Don’t have a heart attack!” He let go and staggered back.
“Thank you…thank you…” he panted.
“Is it so heavy?” She asked in disbelief.
“It’s bolted down.”
And indeed, now she could see that every device was bolted to its shelf, or in the case of smaller ones, connected to it by a chain. Her brows came together in perplexity. “Is there any way I can get one, then, without all that phone number and credit card crap?”
“I’ll have to put an order for one into the system for you,” the clerk explained helpfully. “I can enter it as a replacement and give you a slip; that way you won’t need to show ID or anything.”
“Thank you, that will do.”
So the clerk ran back to the keyboard, eyes shining. But the moment he gazed at the screen his jaw drooped; his eyebrows thickened; he lost all signs of the life he had gained and seemed to enter a trance state. “Phone number and credit card, please.”
“No!” yelled Carol, her face now gaunt and forbidding. She snapped her fingers again, and once more he looked at her with animation. “Put it in as a replacement, remember?”
He nodded with awed eyes and parted lips. He turned to look at the screen, put his hand on the keyboard, and let his face sink back. “Phone number and credit card, please.”
“Damn!” Carol shouted and stomped off, leaving him to be shaken awake by someone else who would pass by. Through the rows and rows of shelves teaming with beeping, flashing devices, she strode to the door. There was something here that demanded action on her part.
“I will get my hands on some of those players,” she swore under her breath, “and I will be the one to play when I am done.”
“Who knows something about phones and game players and stuff like that?” Carol posed herself in Pirou’s doorway. The light from her den shined through the door to outline her body, brightly on the left and more obscurely where she leaned on the right.
“You care about that all of a sudden?” asked Pirou. She was sitting yogi-like on the mattress on the floor of her room, her hand resting in that of Sirwold sitting next to her. “Mink was just complaining about those things this morning, wasn’t she?”
“Well, I want to take a closer look. I need to find out what makes those players tick. Anybody know how to get some?”
“Gifford,” piped up Sirwold. He had smooth faced with slicked-back hair and an appealingly plump head that looked like the twin of Pirou’s. He often wore a slightly crooked smile, sly and self-deprecating, which could descend to the cosmically silly. “Gifford likes that kind of thing. I’ve seen him play with them at parties.”
“Hmm,” muttered Carol. She was planning on a visit to Gifford’s house anyway, because he lived with Dace, who was in charge of the Midnight Festival. “Thanks, Sirwold.” And her form disappeared from the doorway.
Sirwold turned his beatific smile now toward Pirou. They took a moment just to gaze at each other and enjoy the cherry scent that floated in from a small mudroom nearby where cheese was being smoked. “I’ve been making a tree house out near the stream to the East,” he told her. “It’ll be done in a week or two—I hope you’ll visit me there.”
“Love to!” said Pirou.
“I put a featherbed up there.” He was grinning now. Pirou gave a little squeal. Sirwold turned earnest for a moment. The trace of a shade covered his merry forehead. “I want you to spend more time over at my place, Pirou. We get along well. You’re fun.”
“No kidding! I’ll come any time you want, Sirwold.” She planted a kiss on his cheek and said it again with a bright, drawn out lilt. “Aaaaaaaaaany time!”
“Spend the morning with me after Midnight Festival?”
“I’ll be sleeping it off!”
They laughed an he drew her close. “That Carol has odd notions sometimes,” said Sirwold.
“Oh, she’s the sweetest. She’s taught me a lot, and she keeps us all together. She really cares about everybody.”
“But what’s going on with those players she wants?”
Pirou’s puffy cheeks crinkled a tiny bit. “Oh, she’ll figure out they’re not worth her time. She’s too interested in her garden and her pets.”
“I just wonder what’s eating her about them,” mumbled Sirwold as he lay back against her breast.
Dace sat magisterially on a chair in her well-swept kitchen. She had gotten all the dishes washed and the crumbs off the counter from breakfast by the time Carol arrived. Gifford stood behind Dace, treating her shoulders to pulses of hand pressure. A gaudy poster of an angel gazed down on the domestic scene.
“You have to decide what you want in those devices, Carol,” Gifford said. “They’re changing all the time.” He was a tall, gentle man with his long hair, blond but graying, tied in back. Although he had a keen sense of irony, his thinly bearded face took on a paternal concern when he spoke, as now, with serious intent.
“Yeah,” said Carol, “but I can’t get through—there’s something eerie going on in the store. The database, whatever it is, has them hypnotized. I can’t find a way past it.”
“Now why won’t they give you the player you want?” Dace quizzed her.
“Well, they have to please the database. It’s like an offering. But what you have to offer is a phone number and credit card.”
“The phone number is just for marketing,” said Gifford.
“They think you’re chained to the money economy,” Gifford explained. “They want to increase those chains. Some people work weeks and weeks of overtime to pay off those places.”
“Well, I don’t have a phone number. So what are they going to do to me?”
“I just mean the phone number doesn’t really matter. The credit card is the real issue.”
“You know what you need?” said Dace. “An account with Bridget Bank. That’s what all our folk use when they have to deal with the money economy.”
Carol had heard others mention Bridget Bank, but had failed to pay attention. “And Bridget Bank can give me a credit card?”
“Oh, there isn’t really a Bridget Bank. But I think I have an old card around you can use.” Dace rose and went toward her study. She was quick but walked with solidity. Her long hair fell primly down her back. In just a minute or so she had found the card, stored in her well-organized filing system, and brought it back to the kitchen.
“Now.” She threw a glance at Carol, and added with a touch of levity, “You look like a 90246 kind of person.” She blew upon the little slip of plastic in her hand, and bits of it wrinkled and popped up to form digits. “There! A Bridget Bank credit card accepted by any institution you please”—here Dace gave Carol a pregnant look—“so long as you put the staff in the proper mood.”
Carol clapped her hands. “Perfect! You’re a doll, Dace.” But suddenly another thought struck her, and her face took on its pensive aspect. “I don’t think the card is the only problem, Dace,” she said. “Isn’t there supposed to be some money on the other end?”
“You never have to show them a dime.”
“No, but…” Carol felt like a fowl out of her pond here. “I thought people were supposed to deposit money some place before they used a credit card, and the people who gave them something would get the money somehow.” She looked up with a raised eyebrow and a questioning twist to her mouth.
Dace suddenly laughed. “Oh, the money trail!” she whooped. “Carol, don’t trouble yourself with that for even a second. There are trillions of dollars spinning around the globe”—she rose and her square jaw danced with merriment as she daintily took Gifford’s hand and they executed a dance step several hundred years old across the floor—“spinning, spinning around the globe every day.” She sat back elegantly. “Nobody knows where it all is. Billions disappear all the time. No matter how much you spend, the piddling amounts you remove from the system are nothing compared to that.”
“Well!” Carol heaved a sigh. “I can get something accomplished, then.”
“What the fuck is all this garbage?” screeched Mink.
Devices of all colors, shapes, and sizes littered the den. Some were crackling and mired in dull patterns, others shone with technicolor glory. Chirping noises erupted all around the room, overcome occasionally with a square-waved imitation of a 1960s pop tune or a snippet of Berlioz or Tchaikovsky. Pirou had wrapped herself up in a quivering ball, buried in the easy chair in one corner, while Carol bustled from one player to another punching their buttons.
“I’ve stocked up on these so we can find out why people are so fascinated by them,” she answered Mink with a calculated cheeriness. “Don’t you want to learn the secret? They’ll be here for only a few weeks while I get the hang of them.”
“And what about that ugly, noisy clunking thing out in the front lawn?” snapped Mink. She was not in the least mollified by the sight of Carol’s busy concentration.
“An electric generator. Most of these players are battery-driven, but a few need a power source.”
“I’m not standing for it!” yelled Mink with a stomp of her foot.
Pirou spoke up with a shaking voice. “I don’t like it either,” she whimpered. “They don’t feel right. They disturb the room’s flow.”
“Now don’t worry, Pirou!” Carol ran over, throw her arms around Pirou, and planted a kiss on her mouth. Carol felt more solicitous of Pirou, who was suffering a true feeling of dislocation, than of Mink’s imperious moralizing. Mink was a firey babe and a classy chick, and the possessor of an uncanny power to size up a situation and bring out its essence—a companion as precious to Carol as anyone—but she had learned to let Mink’s outbursts attitude roll off her. Now she purred to Pirou, “Just think of it as playing! What fun these things can be! Did you think we were going to fall under their thrall like most people, love? No, no, no, we won’t, dear!”
“Come, Pirou,” said Mink, stretching her hand. “I’ll take you to the pond for some breathing exercises. We’ll let Carol clear up this mess.” And pursing her lips, she turned her flaring eyes on Carol. “Move this stuff to the shed, will you? It’s the least you can do for your doting roommates. Put them there at least when you’re not doing…whatever the hell you’ve decided to devote your life to all of a sudden!” And with that verdict she flounced out the door with Pirou.
Late into the night Carol sat with her players, reading from time to time the small pamphlets that came with them, turning each player over, tapping them, listening to the back of each one, getting intimate with them. They did not respond the way most physical objects did. But she could tell they had their own logic.
And as she put them side by side, she realized that certain things didn’t act right. Sometimes she would punch in a command that was meant to move a number or an image from one device to another, and the recipient refused to take the information. This was intriguing, and struck her as wrong.
So she went to the cellar, took some pieces of slender sandalwood, and sawed them cleanly to make six rectangular slabs. Next she crossed to her neighbor Cary’s land, to a spot where he had left a kind of junkyard with old tools and machine parts; he never minded her puttering through it. She extracted a number of steel joints and came back to glue one onto the back of one of her wooden slabs. She then glued the six of them together together, and carefully selecting some lacquer, covered the resulting box jet black. She painted stars, moons, and pentangles on the box’s surface.
Putting her face down near the box, which was small enough to fit into the crook of her arm, she whispered some encouraging words. For a moment she cradled it tenderly and looked like an old woman hunching over a keepsake. And then she took it up to the den. The players behaved much better from then on.
Carol had no idea how the sleek European automobile had made it down the dirt path that ran for a mile and a half from her door to the paved road outside the town. The path was so narrow that one could hardly tell it from the entry points to neighboring farmer’s fields, and so deeply rutted that puddles of water would last for days after a rainstorm. Traversing the road by car was distinctly punitive. And yet the gleaming vehicle sat in front of their door, and two people in formal attire stood next to it.
One was a middle-aged man with deep, serious cheeks and a grumpy look around his formidable brows. He wore a blue suit and a somber tie dotted with irregular rectangles of dark blue and white. His companion was a pert young woman who seemed to have an excess of energy; she composed herself next to the car with her hands folded before her. Her face had a Japanese cast and a nose that seemed to jump ahead of her. The two of them looked up at Carol on the porch.
“Excuse me, Ma’am,” said the middle-aged man. “My name is Jerry Bradford, and this is Mary Takumi. We represent Pleiathos Systems, and we’re are looking for a woman by the name of Carol—I’m sorry; no one has been able to tell us her full name.”
The rudeness of seeking to know one’s name repelled Carol, but she could see no reason to turn the people away, nor any polite means of doing so. “I am Carol,” she answered with as much composure as she could muster. “Please excuse the bad condition of the road; we don’t expect many visitors.”
“And I apologize for not calling you first,” said Takumi with a tiny self-deprecating smile. “We were told you don’t have a phone.”
“Although you seem to have made a lot of interesting purchases recently of that nature,” added Bradford.
“Well, do please come in,” said Carol.
The visitors stepped tentatively toward the house, which was ringed by a semicircle of stones a few inches high. Bradford lumbored over the stones nearest the car to make his way to the porch; Takumi scampered around to a gap in the stones that led to the front path. Crossing the porch to the living room, they stopped and gazed around.
The bare wooden walls were hung with ribbons and pictures of satyrs dancing. Two paper mobiles hung from the ceiling of the room. The furniture was aging and worn. A set of unfinished wooden shelves sported books on well-being and ritual. Carol wished she had time to hide some of the more esoteric texts, just as she regretted the loose flowing robe of vermilion and gold she had put on that morning. The two visitors exchanged glances of surprise.
“Tea?” asked Carol.
“No thank you,” said Bradford. Choosing his words carefully, he said, “Carol, we’d just like to ask you a bit about some black boxes that you’ve been circulating.”
Carol in fact had made about a dozen in the past month, and had freely offered them to friends along with some of the players from her collection.
“Even though there are just a few of your devices in the field so far, they’ve generated a lot of interest,” Bradford said in further explanation. “Customers have actually contacted us to ask why our products don’t work the same way.”
“Well, I can show it to you. I’m sure it’s nothing new,” she answered, and she became aware now that a confused and frightened Pirou stood behind her on the stairs. Pirou at least had found the time to throw on relatively conventional jeans and an embroidered blouse.
“Oh,” said Takumi. She had become rather uncomfortable since entering the living room, but kept enough composure to say, “we’d be very interested.”
“Just step into the den for a moment,” said Carol, attempting to act gracious. She led the way, with Takumi trotting quickly after her and Bradford coming more deliberately, still looking back at the accoutrements in the living room. Pirou trailed tentatively behind.
“Now, here are two players that display videos,” explained Carol, showing off her recently acquired expertise. She placed one on the mantel and the other on a small table in the middle of the room. One of her black boxes stood between them. “Each player can embellish the video stream with annotations and links. Let’s start a video on one…” she pressed a button on the player on the mantel, resulting in the image of horses galloping across its tiny display. “And then enter the command to jump ahead on the other player…” She pushed a button on the second display on the table. The player on the mantel switched to displaying a seascape with whales spouting in the background.
Pirou by now had come over and poked her pug nose at the player on the mantel. “What did you just do there, Carol?”
“I just pressed function key two and entered the number twenty-five, which refers to the part of the video showing whales. Let me do it again,” she said, pushing the buttons on the player on the table.
The activities on the two devices, and their relationship, apparently began to dawn on Pirou. “You pushed the buttons on this player,” she exclaimed, pointing to the mantel, “but the picture is on that player,” she finished, pointing to the table.
“Well, that’s the idea, Pirou.”
Takumi lifted one of her hands, which had been tightly folded in front of her waist. “Isn’t that thing up there one of ours?” she whispered quickly to Bradford, pointing to the player on the mantel.
“Oh!” Carol exclaimed. She took a closer look at the player, and saw the words Pleiathos Systems in tiny letters across the bottom. “Your company made this! I didn’t realize that. Isn’t it nice.”
Pirou clapped her hands and crinkled up her face in glee. “It’s so cute, Carol!” But Bradford let loose a groan and tumbled into a chair. The women all looked at him with alarm as he started to gasp in shallow, heaving breaths.
Takumi raced to her purse and rifled through it. “I’ve got to find his angina meds!” she cried.
Pirou ran in back of him and started to caress his head. “Now, now, you’ll be all right.”
Bradford jerked forward and shoved Pirou’s hands away in a panic. “Don’t touch me!” he barked. He gazed back at her, his cheeks pulsing spasmodically, his mouth bent into a look of pure terror.
It was Pirou’s turn now to collapse. She sobbed miserably and wailed, “I didn’t think I’d upset you! I just wanted to make you feel better.”
“You did fine, Pirou—you did perfectly fine,” said Carol, running to her.
“You did indeed,” affirmed Takumi, for whom the crisis had provided a valuable chance to refocus. “Please excuse Jerry’s response,” she said in a professional manner. “He was distraught. Jerry, here’s your pill.”
Jerry still looked suspicious and uncomfortable. He tossed the pill in his mouth and chewed it with stern determination, while he squirmed in the chair.
“Those two devices are not meant to communicate,” he grumbled at Takumi. “Ours is running a modified version of the double-u one thirty-six dot three protocol. It can send control channel information to the other device, but does not recognize control information from it.” He looked at Carol. “It can’t possibly do what she made it do! The protocol is secret, and we haven’t licensed it to any other company. And we have compelling marketing reasons for making customers stick to devices in our product line for everything they want to do.”
Carol stood her ground as he seethed.
Bradford continued, “Could you tell us, Carol, how you got those two players to work together?”
Carol had heard him say the word secret, so she figured she was safe having secrets of her own. “I’m afraid I can’t talk about that,” she said diffidently. “It’s just something I developed to fix a problem in the way the machines were supposed to behave.”
Bradford was still overcome. He stared in front of him at nothing in particular and breathed with some effort. Takumi stepped in to the breach.
“Carol, we’d like to thank you very much for showing us your wonderful device today. Jerry is clearly in no condition to continue our informal meeting, so I’m going to take him back to our hotel. May we send representatives to carry on some business discussions with you?”
“Well…” started Carol, trying to think of an excuse that would deflect further contact.
“I would like to remind you that Pleiathos Systems is the leading developer of software and consumer devices worldwide,” said Takumi crisply. “We have a distribution network spanning thousands of vendors and an R&D facility that is the gem of the industry. Our devices appear in over eighty percent of American homes and have completely overtaken corporate offices. You will benefit from working with us, I assure you, as so many talented, independent developers have.”
“I think you should get Jerry to bed,” Carol finally said. “He’s welcome to stay with us for a while and recuperate, of course.” She was twisting the hem of her robe. It bothered her that in a short time she had nearly caused a heart attack in two ordinary men. In the back of her mind was the impression that her creative excursions with electronics would reawaken in other people a natural awe. It annoyed her that instead they seemed to inspire fear, or nothing at all.
“Thanks, Carol, but I’ll be all right in the car,” answered Bradford. He stood up, shaky but confident. “Good to meet you.” He dipped his head toward Pirou. “And you, Ma’am. I appreciate your concern for my health.”
And within seconds the visitors had gotten in their car and turned it back along the unredemptibly gutted dirt road.
Throngs had arrived at the top of the hill by nightfall; the Midnight Festival was promising to be the major event of the Spring. Torches were now posted in the clearing and drumming had begun. Gaily clad men and women of all ages were chanting and circling as they strewed bits of herbs along the ground.
Carol’s face gleamed with pleasure in the flickering bold light. Pirou flitted alluringly among the trees, alternately hiding from and smacking face to face with Sirwold. Even Mink looked happy. She lent the silky purr of her beautiful voice to the collective songs.
The Festival reminded Carol that she had a rich and vibrant life. After putting gobs of work into this evening’s pageant, she had spent nearly every waking hour during the past week sitting in her shed or her den with the devices she had bought at Fair Play Electromart and elsewhere. It seemed amazing that she had known nothing before of that world, along whose edge she now danced. She knew the players wouldn’t hold her interest for long. On the other hand, she’d never give up Midnight Festival for anything.
A set of Uilleann pipes somewhere struck up a reel, and gradually all the drummers picked up the crooked, trenchant four-beat rhythm. Each blast of the drones shook the branches. Now revelers were hefting themselves high in the air; snapping their heels and cracking twigs high in the trees, they leapt toward the sky and uttered a long Wooooooooooo.
Towards dawn the twirlers slowed their pace and lovers began to nestle in each other’s arms. Regretfully, the musicians and jugglers packed their bags to leave. Carol, Mink, and Pirou meandered into one another in the darkness and walked as a threesome with hands held down a gentle path back to civilization. Sirwold had a small concertina on which he noodled around as they descended. He wasn’t very good at it, but the women liked the thin, winding melody and were thankful that it might sustain the mood as they passed through the forest. They parted from him at the farmer’s fence, which separated the wild woods from the civilized valley. Leaving the door to their house open so the dust-laden rays of the sun could warm the interior, they went to bed and slept almost till noon.
In the moment before the figures in the living room stirred themselves to motion, Carol thought they were wax statues left by prankish friends. During that infinitesimal snapshot of time, she stood in the doorway of the bedroom, her eyes half-veiled by the images of departing dreams, and saw two silent, utterly still beings. They were both male, and despite superficial differences in their size and coloring, seemed stamped from a single mold. One had a wanly smooth face with huge, cold eyes, abnormally wide open. The other, with a bit of a chocolate shade to his face and hands, bore a twist in both his eyebrows and the expression of his mouth, which seemed to have just tasted a very sour lemon and was trying to decide whether he could politely spit it out. The two sat and stared at each other. And in the breathlessly suspended interval between one tick of the clock and the next, as Carol was just shaking off the deep and delicious slumber that follows Midnight Festival, her familiar surroundings seemed to sprout the incongruous poltergeists.
And then the men were on their feet, straightening their blue suit jackets and ties, and holding out their hands in elaborate protocol. The pop-eyed one fixed the corners of his mouth in that uncomfortable grimace that people who are condemned to carrying out insincere transactions substitute for a smile. The other’s mouth maintained the quizzical and ironic twist that would never resolve either into an accepting or rejecting gesture.
Had Carol been warned of their visit, she would have concocted some spell to keep them away or banish them once present. But she had been suspended in time all day, in the world of twirling and softness and loving, and all her guards were down. She could, of course, have simply asked them to come back later, but she felt that, now they were here, she should just get through this and get done with it.
The man with the wan face and wide eyes was McFindal; the one with the twist in his mouth was Scranton. Carol no longer cared about her dress or the state of the living room, for McFindal gazed on everything with a greedy intensity that denied any surroundings the chance to justify themselves, whether they be palace or pit. Scranton seemed as if he saw through the surface of everything to the core—but disapproved of it anyway.
McFindal asked where Carol had learned to do product development. She didn’t know what he meant but understood he was just choosing a polite topic with which to start the conversation, and replied in similar fashion that she had just begun showing an interest in portable players recently. Scranton said “Humph” once in a while and added nothing to the conversation.
Finally McFindal made his pitch. “Carol, we’d love to productize your intellectual property, and we’re offering two and a half million dollars for your invention.” His cherub-like face exuded wonder and joy, as if he had waited all his life for the pleasure of bestowing this gift on her and watching her reaction.
Carol tried to fit this sum into the context of the pricing on the devices she had brought—the only formal merchandise with which she had experience—and decided two and a half million dollars was a lot of money. But she was amused at how low they had started the bidding. If a single player could cost hundreds of dollars and a single store in a single locality could carry dozens of each one, how much would it be worth to know the magic that led to the player’s creation?
At first she was going to say something self-deprecating about her invention not being worth so much, but it occurred to her that this would not let her off the hook. All they would do is press her all the harder to make a deal. No, she’d do better to act like them. Bid them up and up. Make them squirm! It could actually be fun.
“Well, given that I paid four hundred and thirty dollars just for that player there,” she said, pointing at the Pleiathos Systems device still stuck on her mantel, “it seems like any technology you want to include would be worth a lot more than what you’ve offered me.”
McFindal nodded, unfazed. “Are you familiar with the cost structures of the industry?” he asked. She realized she had misstepped and was caught in her own trap.
“I don’t claim to be an expert,” she said, realizing that there was no point in bluffing. She searched for another gambit. “I just feel I can do better by keeping control over my creation.”
“Productizing is tricky business,” warned Scranton tersely. “That’s where the rewards lie.” He seemed reluctant to talk much, and happy to fall silent as soon as he had seized the moment to speak.
“And you’d be surprised what a small role technological innovation actually plays in our products,” McFindal said, bulldozing onward. Carol smiled, seeing that he let loose a statement that was both candid and incautious. Scranton also recognized the lapse and pulled his partner back.
“Now McFindal, don’t risk belittling our colleague’s contribution,” said Scranton. “We ought to meet her challenge head on. Show we’re serious about acquiring her technology.”
McFindal recovered. “Well,” he answered, “I am all in favor of compensating engineers fairly, and that’s one reason Pleiathos Systems extended Carol the offer of working for us. But what do you think we have authority to offer for a purchase? We could raise the two and a half million dollars to three and one quarter million, I’d say, for matters related to the invention, including schematics, patents, and derivative rights.”
Now Carol felt relief, thinking that all she had to do now was hold out and refuse their offers.
“I’m not inclined to release control of my technology,” she said in carefully measured tones, “But in any case, that is nowhere near the value I see for my invention, which I dare say is unique in both function and implementation.” Her words came out sounding very professional, she thought, and she was pleased with herself. She also noticed that Mink and Pirou had entered the room and were watching with some concern from the corners. Mink sat stiffly like a crudely carved folk doll, her eyes darting to and fro among the three participants in the conversation. Pirou simply draped her full-proportioned body along an easy chair and stared forward.
“Scranton, will you call the chief of engineering and ask him for authority to bargain further?” asked McFindal. Scranton bounded out the door, where clouds were beginning to cover the cheery brightness that had begun the morning.
“May we offer you some herb tea?” said Pirou, raising her lumbering frame slightly.
“No thank you, I’m all set,” said McFindal. He mentioned a diner nearby where he and Scranton had eaten before coming, and chatted on in that manner for a few minutes till Scranton returned, his mouth rolled if possible into even more of a twist. It seemed that Scranton was now directing the charge.
“I got encouragement from the chief of engineering,” he said to McFindal, and turned to Carol. He measured what he was going to say carefully, concerned as always with getting his point across precisely in a minimum word count. “Carol, we are pleased to offer you twenty-four million dollars for the complete rights to your invention.”
“That’s the lower end of a range, isn’t it?” she asked with a smile. She felt like they were playing a game of which they expected her to know at least a few rules, and that with a bit of luck she could play to the end.
“Well,” answered Scranton, sitting pertly back on a wooden chair after pulling the thighs of his trousers up slightly. “Only one half of entering into a negotiation”—it occurred to Carol when he said this that she had never asked to enter into this negotiation—“is thinking in terms of what we may or may not offer. Think also of what the intellectual property is worth to you. What do you want?”
Mink suddenly spoke up sharply, “What do you want?” she asked in clipped tones. “Tell us what this technology means to you.”
Scranton spread his hands in a shrug. “The world is headed toward interoperability. Convergence is talked about everywhere. We recognize the importance of having our device work with others, and we want to be recognized in turn as being fair players.”
Carol did not totally understand Scranton’s terms, but she had picked up his general claim and it struck her as disingenuous. “Why do you need my box to work with other companies’ equipment? Why can’t you just talk to the other companies?”
Scranton smiled. “Our engineering and marketing departments fell prey to a certain urgency when they heard about your device. We experience a time advantage in adopting an existing solution rather than re-engineering from scratch.”
“You want it all, don’t you.” Mink intruded again, insistently. “You’re not planning to work with the other companies. You just want to take this idea and bury it, don’t you?”
“There’s no other reason you’d want to own my creation,” added Carol. She lagged slightly behind Mink in comprehending the situation, but her companion’s insight was pulling her along quickly.
McFindal sighed. “We haven’t decided where to take this yet,” he answered. “But we know we want it. And for that reason, I’m going to take a bold step and raise our offer right now to seventy-five million. That shows we mean it.” He began to look tired, but Carol could guess he wasn’t at the top of his range yet. And she had to force him to the top in order to get rid of the visitors.
“No,” she said.
“Young lady,” said McFindal, “you are a tough negotiator, and it may actually work against you in the end. But I’m going to call the vice president of the consumer division and see what I can do.” He went outdoors to make his call, while the three women sat still. Scranton spent his time strolling along the exposed clapboard living room walls, scrutinizing the tapestries, the water-color pictures, and the beadwork with which the women had draped the public area of their home over the years. He seemed to show more interest in them than in the course of the multi-million dollar gambit going on at that moment. By this time, the light that had filled the room and twinkled on the baubles earlier was noticeably diminished. The clouds silently muscling their way across the sky outside had converged and now loitered around darkly wondering what else to do.
“Okay!” McFindal said with an air of finality as he entered. He pointed a finger at Carol rudely. “The vice president of the consumer division has expressed his strong support for this venture and has authorized me to offer one hundred and fifty million dollars.” His eyebrows descended significantly and his smooth round cheeks took on a darker cast. He repeated the sum, as if Carol perhaps had not been paying attention. “One hundred and fifty million dollars.” He straightened up and raised his eyebrows again as he took in her reaction. “And if you don’t accept that, young lady, I have to be totally honest with you: you would be stupid.”
“I am not inclined to accept any offer,” said Carol. “I see your goals now, and I don’t support them.”
“You have made assumptions about our goals,” put in Scranton. “Are you going to turn down an opportunity like this on the basis of an impulsive impression?”
Carol rued her direct parry, which had not succeeded in ending the conversation that was becoming so stressful to her. Indeed, her mind was fogging over. The quantities they were tossing around could not fit in her brain. She remembered that she had started the morning as a game; it seemed foreboding to her now.
“How could anything—anything—be so important to you?” she blurted out in candid perplexity. “What does it mean, a little box covered with stars and moons?”
“It’s all about the future,” McFindal ventured with a tiny smile that caused his lower lip to protrude out in front of his jaw. “The future is our business. Don’t you want control over your future?”
“Nope,” interjected Pirou laconically.
“Of course you do! We all lay plans, we hope, we dream.”
“But that’s not about control,” put in Mink.
“I don’t understand why you even talk about the future,” challenged Carol.
“No!” said Carol, feeling a note of panic. “I mean, what is the future? It doesn’t really exist. There’s no sort of thing out there that we can put our hand on and call the future.”
“You’re being ridiculous,” charged McFindal. “Now how about this: I will give you three hundred and seventy-five million dollars for all the rights to your invention.”
“I mean the future is just an idea we make up,” continued Carol, trying with scant coherence to explain a concept that she sensed innately. “It’s our consolation for all the nice things we’re missing right now. And our way of pushing off our worries when we know there’s something wrong now. But it’s not a thing you can control like one of those little racing cars at Fair Play Electromart.”
“And how can one explain why Pleiathos Systems could have been so successful so far?” asked McFindal with an honestly questioning tone.
“What comes about, in what we call the future, is an interplay among the actions and strivings of many, many people,” Mink stepped up to say. “The future just kind of falls out. In fact, it will be so different from the past that we don’t even have the words to anticipate it.”
Scranton’s clenched jaw opened a bit; a rare flicker of a reaction stirred in his eyes. Yet he did not speak. As for McFindal, he seemed paler and his good cheer had worn away. He seemed to be listening as never before. And while he tried to muster umbrage at their words, his reply could only float out weakly. “We shall see,” he uttered slowly and without great conviction. “We shall see if even Pleiathos Systems is incapable of determining its future.”
It seemed as if no one had anything else to say. McFindal gazed around, suddenly surprised to be present with such odd folk. And his hand molded itself around his cell phone.
“Scranton, I think we’d better call Griffon.”
This woke Carol from her musings, because even she, who had been isolated from the ways of the world, had heard of Griffon, the chief of Pleiathos Systems and one of the richest men in the world.
McFindal did not leave the house this time. He pressed two buttons on his phone and raised one side of his mouth in a tiny ironic smile, saying “I hope the encryption is good, because I wouldn’t want any sniffers to pick up this phone number,” then put the device to the side of his head.
“J.G.!” he said energetically and collegially. “McFindal at Carol’s. We’re up to three seventy-five and she doesn’t want to sell. Doesn’t want to be part of the team either.” He seemed to be all back to business, but the women could see from his manner that he had lost some of his poise.
“I want—” Carol burst out with the start of a demand, and then didn’t know how to finish it. She wanted Griffon to make all his devices differently, to have them do everything the buyers expected them to do, to work together with all other devices…to play fair. She didn’t know how to put that in a demand.
“Yes?” asked McFindal with his wide, blue eyes upon her, his mouth turned up in hope.
“I don’t know,” she whispered in dejection.
“J.G., she’s confused,” said McFindal into the phone, himself a bit agitated. “I think she needs to hear from you.”
“No!” shouted Carol. Her eyes began to fill with tears. “I can’t talk to him.”
“Shall we put this off a couple weeks, J.G.? No? OK, one last try. Thanks for the support you’re giving us.” McFindal closed his phone. He turned back to Carol, but without his former dynamism. “It would be a shame to finish this valuable discussion with nothing to show for it. But Griffon says we can’t hold up company planning any longer. So I have one final offer for you: eight hundred million and forty million—oh hell, why quibble over minutiae—let’s offer you a simple, round billion dollars, one billion dollars to turn over all information regarding your invention. And you can walk away from us a rich woman.”
Mink leaped into action. Seductively she strode to the center of the living room and exclaimed, “One billion dollars! One billion dollars!” She looked down her narrow nose at the increasingly uncomfortable McFindal. “What could I do with one billion dollars!” she mused. Her face seemed to enlarge with the thought of the possibilities, as her mouth widened in a rare smile; her bony cheeks extended magnificently like the pinnacles of a church pointing to heaven. “Why, I could build a whole city and populate it with citizens in a social experiment. I could build factories and load them with machines buzzing away under the care of grateful worker bees.” She twirled elegantly and swept her hand near the floor.
Then she gathered herself and faced the visitors with an expression of unctuous dignity. “I think I will hobnob with presidents and prime ministers; I will be invited to weekly appearances on television news programs, and alternate between Hollywood and Washington when the weather cools.” Then a sexy grin broke out on her face and she tilted her shoulders down while pointing at McFindal. “You and I—we have only a glorious future to look forward to!”
At this McFindal could take no more and sprung so quickly from his chair that it threatened to crack from the stress. “I’ve had enough!” he yelled. “You’ll never get it.” His jowls trembling, he threw his hand over his eyes as he hovered in the doorway leading out. “I knew there was something wrong the moment I walked into this place. You’re just not of this world. It’s madness to stay here any longer.” With that he fled to the open air that quivered under the heavy clouds, leapt over the semicircle of stones that marked the end of the yard, and raced up the road to where the visitors’ sleek vehicle sat.
Carol had almost forgotten Scranton, whom she now realized had said nothing for the past several minutes. He arose more deliberately than McFindal and made his way calmly to the doorway. There he looked out to see how far away McFindal had gone, placed himself on the stoop outside, and turned to take in the women one last time. Even as drops of rain began to bat at them, and McFindal hunched over near the car with his hand on the roof and his taut face gazing toward the stoop, Scranton held his ground and spoke.
“What you’ve been doing here is beautiful,” he said curtly. He shut his mouth in his characteristic twist and paused for a moment as he looked again at the wall hangings and second-hand furniture. Then he continued, “Pleiathos Systems shouldn’t interfere with whatever you ladies have in mind. I’ll try to explain that to headquarters. But I must say—they don’t tend to know when to stop.”
With a brief nod he turned and headed back to his car, where McFindal had already fired the ignition and engaged the gear. By this time the rain was pummeling them from the sky as if breaching a dam; a bolt of lightning sent its glowering retort across the landscape. McFindal made a large looping turn on the edge of the field by the road and rolled his car ponderously along the fast-filling ruts and potholes, until the engine’s noise dissolved into the enveloping waters and the vehicle disappeared from sight.
The solstice came, and then the equinox. The days grew cooler, first around the edges and then noticeably even in the brightness of the afternoon. Carol, Mink, and Pirou started to sweep leaves up against the foundations of the house, to fill jars with the vegetables teeming in their garden, and to knit garments for winter-time festivals. Sirwold dropped by often and kept Pirou amused. The flashing devices that Carol had bought became part of the women’s routine, brought out on dark nights to entertain visitors by the fire.
No one strange and unexpected came by their door; as they returned to their equilibrium, a relief at being able to live in their own world again spread over them and allowed them to pace through life basking in the pleasures of the wood and the field.
But one morning Pirou heard a knock at the door and saw a polite young man in a uniform with a large envelope encased in clear plastic. After he left she tore open the thick cardboard and glanced over the document inside.
This communication is official notification from Pleiathos Systems, Inc. to the woman known as Carol, hereafter referred to as “Carol,” in accordance with U.S. Commercial Code, to cease the manufacture, use, marketing, promotion, and distribution of the interoperability device infringing on patents, trade secrets, and copyrights of Pleiathos Systems, Inc., hereafter referred to as “the work,” and all associated properties and technologies, including but not limited to…
“Carol!” yelled Pirou toward the second floor.
She called again, and after a moment, the window on the left corner of the second floor opened and Carol leaned out, her head tied in a handkerchief.
“Carol!” said Pirou. “We’ve got crazy mail.”
“From whom?” asked Carol.
Pirou gazed across the top of the first sheet. “Those guys,” she called up to Carol. “Pleiathos Systems.”
Carol laughed. “I’ll come down,” she said and pulled in her head.
A moment later they both stood outside the door in the chilly, slanted sun’s rays and looked over the paper. “Well, what do we do?” asked Pirou with a cross look on her soft features.
Carol shrugged. “You know what we do when someone sends us crazy mail. Roaches in their bed sheets. Scorpions in their bathroom. Mildew in their vestibule. Screeching cries on their telephone. The crazy mail goes away eventually.” Pirou tensed up her eyes and started to shake her head with pursed lips, but Carol kept going. “It goes away. It always does. Georgette got crazy mail from her landlord when she held a festival in her yard; she made it go away. Peter got crazy mail from the neighbors when he put up pots of boiling pitch for a building project; he got it to go away.”
“But this is different!” protested Pirou.
“Why is it different?”
“Well, there’s nobody to retaliate against. This isn’t somebody like a landlord or a neighbor. It’s a whole company. What person do we send down mildew or scorpions on?”
Carol carefully took the sheets of paper and scanned every page. True enough, while there was a signature on the final page, it didn’t look like anybody significant. It would do no good to punish the messenger.
She stood for a minute, tapping her finger against her lips. Then, after some consideration, she said thoughtfully, “Dace had experience with something like this. Remember when she designed some clothing for somebody?” she mused. “And then a company started using her designs without paying her? She retained a lawyer and everything.”
“What does that have to do with us?” said Pirou testily. “This isn’t about clothing.”
“But that’s not my point—what I’m talking about is the kind of argument we’re having. Dace had an idea somebody else was taking from her, and Pleiathos Systems is trying to take an idea from us. Right?” Carol bunched up her fist. “We ought to talk to Dace. I bet she’d know what to do.”
Carol, Pirou, and Mink arrayed themselves around the table in Dace’s kitchen. Gifford was next to the stove, busying himself with the contents of a steamer. Dace, bearing the sheets from Pleiathos Systems delicately in her sturdy hands, made rounds of the kitchen, pacing while she read the document for what seemed to the other woman an interminable amount of time. They were amazed that she seemed to find meaning in the morass of text. Finally, she cautiously spoke.
“This is really nasty,” she said. “They don’t just want you to stop making and giving away your boxes. They say the boxes really belong to them. They want you to tell them exactly how you make them and let them make the boxes instead of you. And they can take your home and everything you have if you don’t give in.”
Carol snorted. “If told them the spells I used, it wouldn’t do them much good.”
Dace let her hand drop, sheets of paper fluttering. She stuck her finger at Carol. “The problem is that they think they can get something of value from you.”
“They don’t care about that,” said Mink firmly. “They just want to stop people from being able to use their equipment with devices from other companies.”
“Can’t we just promise not to make any more boxes?” asked Carol.
Dace looked down at the sheets. “That probably never would have gone over with them,” she answered. “Certainly it’s too late now.” She threw back her brown, graceful locks and looked around at the others. “But we haven’t discussed whether they can actually get away with this.” She rustled the sheets as if shaking dirt from them. “From the little I know, this letter is completely bogus. If somebody wants you to stop distributing an idea or process, they have to have some kind of prior relationship to it. I can’t see how Pleiathos Systems could show they have anything to do with your box. They don’t even know what it does.”
“But who’s a judge going to listen to, me or them?” exclaimed Carol. “What do I have to say for myself?”
“We’ll fix any judges who try to hurt you, Carol,” said Mink, drawing herself up imposingly. “They’ll go down burning. We’ll make mincemeat of them!”
Dace closed her eyes and winced. “You can’t stop the whole court system, Mink.”
“The court is something big, like the company that sued us,” added Pirou. “You can’t blame an individual judge for the way the system works.”
“Why not?” Mink was roused now, the red tint flaring in her hair as she shook it. “We’ll mow the tyranny down, one blade at a time.”
At this, Gifford came over and put his large hands gently on Mink’s shoulders. “You’re getting overheated, Mink,” he said in his calmest, most sustained voice. “The court system is a good thing. Most of the world isn’t like us—oh yes, we have our tiffs and sometimes throw mean little spells at each other, and perhaps we occasionally need some mediation, but eventually we settle down and forget about whatever happened between us. But out in the world, things are really ugly, Mink—some people need these courts.”
Mink didn’t look particularly mollified. “Well, you’re taking us back to square one again—what do we do for Carol?”
“You haven’t been paying attention to what I’m saying,” insisted Dace with irritation. “I’m saying you can beat them at their own game. They’re poorly behaved players. You just get a lawyer and fight them within the system.”
Carol exploded in a rare display of anxiety. “But Dace, don’t you know what I did?” she cried out. “I can’t tell a lawyer about the boxes, I can’t ask him to defend me in court.”
“Well, I’m just telling you how to handle this kind of situation.”
Suddenly Pirou shifted around in her seat to confront Dace coyly. “Dace, you know so much about this. Can’t you be our lawyer?”
“Yes!” cried Mink, more cheerful than she’d been all day. “You know us, and you know the ways of the opponent. You can represent us.”
Dace, completely dumb-founded, let both her arms hang down and shook her head in disbelief at the three women around the table. “Who’s being ridiculous now?” she said. “I’m not a lawyer. I don’t really know anything.” She threw the sheets on the side table. “Oh, you shouldn’t have come here at all.”
They all began to speak back at her.
“But you’re the only one we can trust!”
“Can’t you just explain to a judge what you told us just now?”
“Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease, Dace.” Pirou clasped her hands in supplication and smiled brightly.
Dace couldn’t think of what more to say. Finally Gifford came to her and took her hand.
“It looks like you got what you asked for,” he asked. “Are you the type of person to open someone’s eyes and then deny her what she’s gazing at?”
The Bryant County courthouse had been built in the nineteenth century, and made to last. The main courthouse was constructed of large, flat boards of local wood; offices were lodged in a brick addition that was put on years later. Fine oak beams supported an impressive arched roof. Light filtered through tall windows to add warmth and majesty to the benches and balconies, which were broad and well-worn from the sliding hands and buttocks of many generations of litigants.
The four women met outside. Carol wore a silky white blouse with a glaring yellow scarf over ballooned dark pants. Pirou had on one of her embroidered peasant blouses along with a pea-green skirt and heels on her woven sandals. Mink was the most striking of all, her metallic silver blouse setting off her tumbling red ringlets, along with black pants stuck into knee-high boots and sunglasses with wide frames flaring out to the sides.
Dace, in her turn, came relatively conservatively dressed. She had cut her hair. Her skirt came mid-way down her thighs and matched her blazer, both blue with just the slightest touch of violet. A subtle application of base and eye-liner gave her a worldly look while somehow heightening the force of her personality. She seemed a little disturbed to see the others in their eccentric outfits, but nodded and led them in to the courtroom, where they sensed the solemnity of the surroundings and fell silent.
Carol walked slowly from back to front and back again, down one side of the courtroom and up the other. A large number of people of all ages, none of them familiar to her, sat in the benches and looked at her. She wondered why they were there, and wished that fewer people would witness this odd affair. At the front, on a small table, sat one of her painted boxes. She recognized it as one that she had glued together in the shed on a pleasantly relaxed, rainy day, the patter of the drops seeming to whisper kindly answers to the spells she uttered as she applied the talismans. Now she tentatively came down the middle aisle to the place where Dace was gesturing for her to sit, and noticed in the very center of the room a set of blue tiles in the shape of a star. It reminded her of her kitchen. She wondered what insight had been possessed by the person who had designed this chamber.
At a table on the left side of the room sat the lawyers for the plaintiff: three men in middle-aged suits, one gray and dour, one young and cocky, and one mature and business-like. This last one would end up doing most of the talking, keeping his thin lips set when he was silent and letting his light-colored eyes dart regularly toward the women’s table.
The bailiff announced the entry of Judge Corely, an unassuming middle-aged black man with a balding head and crow’s feet behind his wire-rimmed glasses. After formalities, the judge took his seat and the business-like lawyer rose to make a motion.
“Your Honor,” he stated, “We have been disappointed during the discovery period that the respondant, Carol, gave us no documents showing the genesis and evolution of the work in dispute. We hereby move that respondant be required to divulge all schematics, source code, notes, design documentation, correspondence, and other materials pertaining to her work, dating from the beginning of the work.”
“Counsel?” asked Corely calmly, turning toward Dace.
“Phooey,” answered Dace.
With a satisfied nod, Corely turned back to the lawyer from Pleiathos Systems and said, “Motion denied. Counsel for the respondant has, in my opinion, expertly delineated the criteria for granting such a motion and the considerations that make it inappropriate in this situation. First, as the counsel pointed out, plaintiff must establish domain over the work that is subject to conflict, a domain that must go beyond mere demonstration of interest, as provided up to this point. Plaintiff must further prove ownership of relevant intellectual property that is allegedly being infringed by the work, and must show that significant damage of a specifically economic nature is being perpetrated by respondant. Then, and only then, does plaintiff have grounds for requiring the divulging of legally protected information concerning the work by respondant.”
The business-like lawyer said nothing. He turned toward Dace and gazed at her with a look of fear. Then he turned to Corely, bobbed his head in a bit of a nod, and sat down to exchange whispers with his colleagues.
Dace, too, leaned toward the others to whisper what was going on. “They never expected that motion to go through anyway,” she said. “They just want to shake me up a bit with a threat. We’ll get serious soon.”
Now the young lawyer was gesticulating over Carol’s box. In her wandering thoughts, Carol imagined that by waving his arms he believed he could make a spell, and that he was trying to act the way he thought a magician would act. But all he was doing was laying out some of the history of the case.
Dramatically, because he was more able to summon prejudice than magic, the lawyer pointed toward Carol’s table. At that moment, Dace spoke.
“Hoo-hoo,” she spat out.
“An apt observation, counsel,” nodded Corely. He turned to the young lawyer to deliver an opinion. “I am going to strike the claim of unfair competition from the list of complaints. First, I concur with the argument offered by counsel for the respondant, to wit, that as Carol is not associated with any known enterprise or other revenue-generating concern, not only does she therefore lack any financial role that could put her in the category of ‘competitor,’ but she fails to engage in any activity that falls under the definition of ‘competitive’ used here. Second, I do not accept the argument that Carol’s alleged distribution of the devices to which counsel for the plaintiff objects reduces the market for plaintiff’s devices; on the contrary, the heart of plaintiff’s arguments are that respondant’s works interoperate (as the industry term seems to be) with plaintiff’s devices, and therefore should, if anything, be seen as increasing rather than reducing the market.”
Again, the lawyers glared. But the young one fell silent and returned to his seat. The women’s hearts leaped. Dace seemed to have judge in the palm of her hand.
The day went on in this fashion, hour after hour, and no one in the court room except Carol and her roommates seemed to see the absurdity of it or to grow bored. Finally, after the light from the windows dimmed and the electric lamps were turned up, Corely dismissed them for the day. They threw on their cloaks and came outside, where a large crowd of strangers awaited them.
A woman in her late twenties, smartly dressed in a designer sweater and pants, came over to grasp Carol’s hand. She said, “Carol! I’ve wanted to meet you for months. I organized the support group here; we’ve all wanted to meet you for the longest time. My name is Faith Coriagliano.”
Carol murmured something about it being nice to see them all. She scrutinized the other woman but could not tell what sort of person she was. Faith looked energetic and sincere. She had long straight hair, fresh skin, a ready smile, and fluttering eyelashes that seemed to suggest surprise at everything that was new and interesting to her.
The crowd was pressing in on them; cameras whirred and microphones bristled aggressively. Pirou looked completely overwhelmed by the attention. Mink was having a great time behind her outrageous sunglasses, exchanging high fives and cheering on the crowd as it cheered her on.
“Why did you come?” Carol asked Faith.
“Believe me,” answered Faith forcefully, “lots more people wished they could be here! There are folks all over the world supporting you on this case. They call themselves the fair players movement. They heard about your sample devices and about Pleiathos Systems’s reaction to them, and think it’s great how you’re compelling the device manufacturers to work together and stop holding up progress.”
Carol couldn’t understand. She didn’t think she had done any of the things Faith had mentioned, and thought it a bit silly for people to get worked up over the little machines in her shed.
Noticing Carol’s blank expression, Faith pulled her around and brought her closer to the stone arch lining the courthouse entryway in order to get a closer look at her. The stiffness of Carol’s shoulders and the confusion on her face showed Faith that she was dealing not with the heroic technologist they were exalting out on the street, but with a distressed and emotionally torn woman.
“Say, I can guess how hard all of this is,” Faith said. “Courtrooms violate all the normal rules of social engagement. And your supporters here look strange to you—I’ve heard you women keep to yourselves and don’t mingle with the kinds of people on the pavement today. But look again,” and here Faith bent down a bit and put her head right next to Carol’s, encouraging her to face the crowd. “They really are like you; in some way they’re just Carols waiting to emerge. Some of them live in lofts or hang about dormitories; others are taking off early from six-figure jobs in tall buildings downtown. Some are dressed in Goth and some in stylish pantsuits. But they’re all motivated by the dream of doing something new that will change how people live.”
Faith now broke out in a smile and grasped Carol’s shoulder in a manner that felt to Carol like a massage that comes in welcome after an exhausting toil, and continued, “If you win, they’ll be further impelled to carry out their dreams, and if you lose they’ll be paralyzed by the fear of what will happen to them. That’s why they’re here.”
Now Carol was smiling too, and felt like she was regaining an ability to let down her guard. Faith continued. “Can you make it to the demonstration tomorrow?”
“You know—a public gathering intended to amass as many people as possible and demonstrate our resolve to the court, the plaintiff, and the press.”
Carol considered this. “Well, whatever you like is fine by me. But I’d choose to do something that’s more fun.”
Faith was taken aback. “Something fun? What could we do that’s fun?”
“Well, like a concert, maybe?”
Faith perked up and clapped her hands. “A concert! That’s perfect. A number of rock bands have expressed support for your contributions. They’d come in for a concert.”
“We sort of like folk music better, but whatever you like…”
“I’ll get on the phone right away. We already have the space and we know the right contacts to get us a permit. I bet we can pull this together tomorrow night!”
Carol, Mink, and Pirou let consciousness wax and wane under the courtroom’s oak beams, watching the light in the chamber change as the rays shifted from the eastern windows to the western ones. They hardly noticed the flow of the conversation. A script was set up and the actors never varied from it. Lawyers for Pleiathos Systems would make some motion or call on the judge to do something. Dace would spit out a grunt. The judge would then explain the legal reasoning for not doing what the other lawyers wanted.
Carol could not understand why this was going on all day. Couldn’t Dace wrap up the whole thing once and for all? Didn’t the judge ever get mad that the other side kept asking for things he thought were wrong? Wasn’t there any sanity in this place?
At lunch, Gifford joined them. He sat with his habitual, stolid sagacity while the three joined in a vociferous attack on his lover.
“I don’t see why we can’t just tell our story and get out of here,” Mink accused Dace.
“That’s not the way these proceedings go, Mink,” answered Dace, also showing a bit of exasperation. “There are formal matters to get through.”
“Formal matters,” cried Mink. “Formal matters? You mean we’ve gone a day and a half and we haven’t even started to talk about what we’re supposed to talk about?”
Gifford evidenced a bit of a smile. “I would imagine that in this case, Mink, since the plaintiffs don’t really have much of an argument—if we accept Dace’s assessment—they’re going to do everything they can to tie us up in those very formalities.”
“That’s the thing,” Dace agreed. “Whenever we touch on the substance of the lawsuit—and we do from time to time; yes, we do—the judge’s comments make it look like he’s going to rule in our favor.”
“Not surprising, with the influence you have over him,” commented Carol.
“How could you possibly accuse me of such a thing,” pouted Dace. “I know scarcely more about these matters than you. And the laws and precedents are different in each district, anyway. All I do is elicit from Judge Corely the rulings he would make under his own volition. Clearly, the more we go along, the more Pleiathos’s lawyers are going to avoid getting to the point of the case. They want to wear us down.”
“Well then, you have to keep them from doing that!” exclaimed Carol. “What’s the point of sitting around the courtroom one beautiful day after another, blocking all their motions and letting them raise more motions?”
“I’m sure the judge will eventually see it that way too, Carol,” answered Dace. “But we can’t rush things; courts have their own pace.”
“So how long can they keep up this farce?” asked Mink.
“Well, let’s work it out in terms of costs,” said Gifford. “According to the trade press, Pleiathos Systems has total assets of about eighty billion dollars.”
He grabbed a sheet of paper from a trash can and started to scribble on it. Carol realized it would have been convenient to have one of the two dozen devices in her house at that moment. But Gifford was perfectly comfortable at figures.
“Let’s say they pay each of their three lawyers $300 per hour,” continued Gifford as he lay out numbers on his sheet. “And throw in another $200 an hour for other legal costs. Say each lawyer works a ten-hour day, and that there are 250 working days a year. Now, totaling all that up, we see that Pleiathos Systems has the resources to keep this case going”—Gifford lay down a horizontal stroke and some numbers—“for approximately 21,333 years.”
Screeches went up from the women around the room. “I’m not going to spend twenty-one thousand years in a God-damned courtroom!” howled Pirou.
“Dace, you’ve got to call this off,” complained Carol. “It’s totally out of hand.”
“Carol, you’ve got to be patient while the judge and I sort everything out,” answered Dace, gritting her teeth stubbornly. “Every trial goes through phases, and we’ll make sure we proceed to each phase at the proper time.”
The other women kept arguing, but to no avail. The rest of the day went even more dismally than before, and Pirou was totally despondent at the end, when she withdrew to a small chamber at the side of the main courtroom. There she was surprised by a visitor she had not intended to see.
“Sirwold!” she cried out as he strode in the room. He gave her a grin, beaming out amongst his tumbling dark hair, and hugged her closely.
“I missed you,” said Sirwold. “I felt it was time to come and give you a bit of support.”
“Well, I’ll need it, because the way things are going I’m going to be spending five days a week in this courtroom for twenty-one thousand years.” Pirou gazed at the gray tiled floor and sniffled.
“I’m backing you all in your big case, of course, Pirou—but to tell you the truth, I don’t care about Pleiathos Systems versus Carol. I’m just concerned about you.”
“I can’t leave the other girls now, because it would look like I was abandoning Carol. We’re public figures now—did you know that? Did you see the crowd outside?”
“Could I miss it? They’re chanting your names loud enough to disrupt work all over town!”
What fools, Pirou thought. But she just sighed again and said, “We’re going to a concert tonight.”
“I know where it is…Pirou?”
Pirou kissed him. “What is it, Sirwold?”
“I know you have to see this thing through. But I want to be with you on weekends, and I want to spend more time with you when it’s all done. Do you feel that way?”
“I never felt so happy to see anybody as when I saw you come in the door, Sirwold.” And ensconced in each other’s arms, they went out to the cheering crowd.
Faith Coriagliano proved to be a highly competent organizer, and the concert came off splendidly before an enormous audience. The field was filled with people who ambled joyfully as one musical group after another took the stage to express their support for fair use and play a few songs. In a concession to Carol and her friends, Faith had lined up a group of fife and string players. The moment they struck up their first medley, Carol, Mink, and Pirou took the stage. The crowd screamed as the three women danced about, kicking their legs high and twirling around each other with arms linked.
In a mass impulse, the audience picked up the women and carried them to the center of the field. The power of the gathering accumulated as it focused in on the women; Carol could feel their force entering her. It was a moment that stayed with her all night. She hardly slept; but the sound of the jig and the strength of the arms holding her rolled through her head.
The morning was still young, but the sun fell full on Carol’s face and put her again into the dream state in which she had lain suspended all night. One of the Pleiathos Systems lawyers was droning on and on, the judge nodding respectfully, Dace poised like a leopard to strike at the right moment. Carol looked around the room and smiled as she noticed some people she recognized from the concert; they smiled back, and their presence aroused the power of last evening’s assembled crowd in her again.
She looked at Pirou, who was fast asleep, and at Mink, who was staring at the floor. Mink was dressed simply in a cotton dress and sweater; all of them had gradually abandoned their attempt at elegant attire since the first day.
She looked then at the judge, scrutinizing him to see whether she found him wise or merely well indoctrinated. Corely certainly looked sagacious in his robes and small glasses, and talked as someone with insight. But as he glanced from one lawyer to another, from Dace to the others and back to Dace, he seemed to be a creature under their control. Why wouldn’t he at some point grab the gavel and bring it crashing powerfully down? Even his shiny head took on the aspect of a ball tossed back and forth aimlessly between the two sides. The whole court was turning into a ballpark.
Dace and the young lawyer were now arguing directly. It went on and on, and Corely would interrupt to make some point, then let them resume. Revulsion rose up within Carol. She could not tolerate the travesty any longer. In a single moment she passed from dark dream to a fury of action. She was on her feet. Everyone stopped talking. The judge’s mouth was open in amazement, his red tongue visible within his jaw. Dace had a look of panic.
With swift intent Carol headed for the blue tiled star in the center of the courtroom. There she stood and threw her hands heavenward. Like a clarion her voice rang out in the room.
“By all the forces gathered here who know me, I command this trial to end!”
A thunderclap convulsed the sky above them. The light coming from the windows dimmed, the sounds of traffic outside ceased, no one stirred, no breath was taken. The suspension of all life lasted for just a moment, and then the sun returned and the sounds of the world picked up again. Carol was kneeling by now on the floor, her hands stretched in front of her and her forehead buried between her arms. Everyone’s eyes turned slowly from her to Judge Corely. Suddenly he rapped his gavel.
“I am dismissing this case with prejudice,” he said. “Plaintiff has not shown by a preponderance of evidence that there is the slightest likelihood of success of its case on the merits. This Court stands adjourned.” And with that he left the room before anyone could react.
The three lawyers from Pleiathos Systems started yelling. But they were drowned out by the crowd, which was stamping their feet and talking wildly. The sergeant at arms made no attempt to quell the racket, but merely started clearing the room.
“What possessed you?” Dace asked Carol outside.
“I just had enough,” answered Carol. “Enough of all this.”
The clouds lazily crossed the sky, massing and breaking up again as if not sure whether they were ready to let go their rain. Under the broad sky between the farmlands renewed by summer stretched the dirt road. A scuffed-up car slowly approached, weaving from side to side in order to avoid one rut and then another. Finally, the car came to a stop near the house, and Faith emerged. She spent several minutes gazing at the ring of stones and the house.
Carol appeared in the door. “Welcome to the erstwhile locus of the technological revolution,” she said. She looked different—not older, because the three women of the house always had a fresh, young appearance, but quieter and more somber. Faith walked up the path and stood at the gateway formed by the stone semicircle.
“Are you OK, Carol? I’ve been so busy since your case came to its sudden end! I hope you don’t mind that I sought you out—I’ve been meaning for the longest time to catch up with you.”
Carol showed no sign of unease. “Come, have some tea.”
They went through the living room, with Faith murmuring praises for the rich wall hangings, and settled in the kitchen where Carol took a kettle with already hot water off the stove. “Have you been happy since the court case?” asked Faith.
“It’s been quiet here these past few weeks,” Carol answered. “And I can use some quiet.” She calmly strained the tea from the herbs and set a cup before Faith. “Pirou has moved in with a male companion. She was a kind of stabilizing force for us; I miss her a lot. And Mink is a dear, of course, but she has her highs and lows. I think we need to commune with each other for a bit.”
“No new painted boxes?”
“No new painted boxes.”
Sitting with her hands cupped around the tea, Faith pushed her shoulders toward Carol, flashing her optimistic smile, and said, “Your boxes have had an extraordinary effect. People just got used to the idea that all devices could work together and share everything they did, so the manufacturers came together and made it happen. The engineers said they had never seen standards developed and adopted so quickly.”
“I’m glad, really.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Faith with genuine concern. “You’re not getting any money for your boxes.”
“I didn’t expect to when I began them.” She leaned back, closed her eyes, and gave her first smile of the day, just a tiny one playing across the corners of her mouth. “I don’t plan ahead much about anything,” she said. She opened her eyes and widened her smile as she looked at Faith. “It’s usually better not to plan.”
Faith was clearly trying to hold back her questions. Carol continued in a confiding yet mysterious manner, “People don’t understand my folk. They always want us to buckle down and grind away at something somebody else says is important. They don’t understand that we have our work and we take it seriously: stringing beads and making costumes for pageants and dancing and making love and all the other things that fill our days.”
“I’m happy you can do that, but most of us have work. In fact, a lot of people in the world would be happy to have more of it.”
“Why? Maybe that was true in an earlier age where no wheel turned without a shoulder behind it. But what the world needs now is more play, not more work.”
“I wish I could believe that,” sighed Faith dreamily. “You see, I engage in political activism around technology, and I find that the things that make the world better are rather dull and statistical.”
“Dull? Statistics started as play. It came out of a debate among some dice players about how to improve their chances.”
“Well! Maybe that was its start. But I was talking about the kind of statistics that make life better, employed in things like physics.”
“Physics started as play. It came from some guy in the Netherlands who invented a toy that let people see things that were far away. Then Galileo got his hands on it.”
Faith knit her brows in confusion. She opened her mouth, then stopped and shook her head. She finally picked up the thread again. “So you’re saying that everything useful in life is play?”
“That’s the most useful thing people can do.”
“What about the work it takes to turn a playful idea into reality?”
“When you’re excited about your play, you can do it for years without taking a break.”
Faith sat in thought for a couple minutes, then looked again at Carol. Carol had been watching her reaction. “Do you understand my life better now?” Carol asked.
“I think so,” Faith said slowly. “It’s not as different from the rest of us as I thought.” She looked around the kitchen and realized that, of course, there was no clock. She looked at her watch. “Speaking of work, I’m afraid there’s a meeting I’ve got to get to.”
Carol stood up. “You’ll come back, though?” There was a significant lift in her voice.
“Yes, yes, of course. I feel like this time we spent together today was the most important work I’ve done all month.”
“Come Saturday. I like to have the house to myself till mid-day, so join me for lunch.”
Carol beamed. “I’m thinking bright thoughts now,” she said.
Faith got up and went down the steps. She looked across the uneven surface of the road and then anxiously at the sky.
“Don’t worry about the rain,” Carol assured her. “It will hold off till you’re back on the paved highway.”
Faith gave her a puzzled glance and then, with narrowed eyes, nodded her head. “I’ll trust you,” she said. She got in her car and guided it slowly down the road.
Other fiction by Andy Oram
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.