Authors: Eliot Peper
Richard had burned bright his first year, bagging important deals and wrapping new teams and technologies into Cumulus. He and Huian never became close, but they worked well together. He used his vast network, charisma, and experience with negotiation to bring more sheep into the fold. But things had slowed down over the following year, and this had been the last straw. The people at the top defined an organization’s culture, and Cumulus had no room for people who didn’t pull their weight.
GOLDEN LIGHT FILTERED
through the oak leaves, and Lilly Miyamoto remembered the first and only time she fell in love.
It was during her sophomore year in high school, and she was walking from a socially awkward homeroom to her next class. After fighting her way through the hallway madness, she opened a drab door in a little-used wing of the building. As she stepped inside, a cocktail of smells enveloped her in an acrid embrace. Looking around, she peered into a hundred different worlds, a thousand different lives. A grubby homeless man offered a heel of bread to a wild tomcat. An aspen leaf rode a thermal as it fell from its branch. The iris of a massive gray eye was flecked with jade. A girl in an exquisite quinceañera dress gave Lilly the finger. A brook bubbled into rapids as the water flowed around a collection of boulders.
It took a full three seconds before all of these visions resolved themselves into pictures. Photographs of all different sizes were pinned to strings that traversed the room in a cat’s cradle of color and perspective. Disparate moments captured and reanimated in the clammy claustrophobia of a darkroom. It was a special kind of magic. Not Harry Potter magic with its wands and frivolity. Real magic. The magic that hides just out of sight all the time. The magic we catch only occasional glimpses of when we’re least expecting it.
In that moment, Lilly fell in love. With photography. That day sparked the obsession that would come to define her life. Art was a better lover than a person could be anyway. It might be thrifty, but it was steadfast.
She sighed. Her knee ached from kneeling in the grass, but this was the best angle. Her teenage dreams hadn’t included spending so much time documenting other people’s romance.
“You may kiss the bride,” said the officiant. He wasn’t a priest or rabbi or anything, just a longtime friend of the family. She couldn’t remember the details.
The groom grinned, swept up the bride in his arms, and leaned in for a long, passionate kiss. The crowd seated in the shade of the oaks whooped and leapt to their feet. Lilly spun, snapping off shots like an overenthusiastic machine gunner.
It really was a beautiful wedding. Gorgeous couple. Groomsmen and bridesmaids who could have graced the centerfold of a lifestyle magazine. Outdoor ceremony at a Sonoma County vineyard. Fresh California cuisine, doubtless prepared with locally grown organic ingredients. Two Greenie families celebrating a happy union.
Even the light was perfect, so warm and honeyed that Lilly could almost taste it. It dappled the ceremony in a photogenic glow that accentuated color and made the scene look like a Monet.
Click. Click. Click.
It was a joy to shoot, and Lilly lost herself in it for a while. Shooting was meditative. You had to forget you were in the scene. The best compositions emerged when your mind was empty, just floating along in the endless stream of photons. Suddenly, there it was. Magic. The shutter would snap shut, and you knew you’d nailed it. Or not. Only the aromatic alchemy of the darkroom would reveal whether the photo would be a timeless treasure or yet another leaflet for the scrap pile. The uncertainty of it all was as maddening as it was tantalizing. The only way forward was to go back out, find your Zen, and hope for the best. Always be shooting.
Click. Click. Click.
The couple made their way back up the aisle. Lilly circled ahead, considering angle after angle. Then she spent some time wandering through the crowd capturing candids before seeking out the wedding party. They shuffled through every branch of the family tree to make sure everyone would have a little nugget of nostalgia.
“A little to the left, perfect! Don’t be shy, squeeze in close. There we go. Three. Two. One.”
Click. Click. Click.
There were two good parts about a day wedding. One, sunlight was the best possible light. As her dad would have said, you just can’t beat the radiation from the massive ongoing fusion explosion at the center of the solar system. Two, fewer guests got truly wasted. The combination made a wedding photographer’s job a whole lot smoother. Someone should coin a term for the ratio of good light to drunken assholes.
Click. Click. Click.
A bead of sweat trickled down Lilly’s spine. She was always moving, always changing position, always attentive.
The catering staff served lunch on long tables draped with white tablecloths. Each centerpiece was a confection of vibrant color. Wine flowed along with conversation. Matt and Anne cut the cake, crossing arms to feed each other. Then came the speeches. The first dance. Lilly ticked off the checklist in her head. Her contract ended at 3 p.m., but that had been an hour ago. She wanted to get back to Oakland before dark. Oh well, the overtime would goose her tip.
Click. Click. Click.
A hand rested on Lilly’s shoulder and she jerked back, almost letting the camera fall onto its strap.
“Sorry to startle you,” said Marian, the wedding planner. Her tone was clipped, not apologetic. She held a tablet, and her tight-lipped smile was humorless. The revelers continued to gyrate, and the DJ nodded along with the beat. “I think we’ve got enough to work with. You can go.”
“Thanks,” said Lilly. She held up the camera. “I think we got some really fantastic shots. The light was amazing this afternoon.” It was true. She had gone through a number of rolls of film, and she knew there would be gold hidden in the negatives. This would be one for the portfolio. Maybe they’d let her submit a few to the lifestyle sites.
“Glad to hear it,” said Marian. “I look forward to seeing the results.” She looked down at her tablet in an obvious dismissal. For a person whose job it was to manage people, she sure was cold.
“I’ll have them ready within two weeks,” said Lilly. “Thanks again for the opportunity. Let me know if there’s ever anything I can help with in the future.” She hated that. The pandering. But work was work. She wasn’t going to book new jobs without people like Marian recommending her, no matter how much she disliked them personally.
Marian just nodded, not even looking up. Then she swiped the tablet with a finger and turned away. Probably going to harass the cleaning staff.
to the floor-to-ceiling window and surveyed her empire. The gulls had vanished, gliding up into the ether. Wind whipped at the tops of the eucalyptus, cypress, and pine trees on the hills rolling down to the bay. At the tip of the peninsula, the Golden Gate Bridge sketched a crimson arc over to the Marin Headlands. Beautifully renovated brick, stucco, and wooden buildings were scattered throughout the idyllic landscape. Many of the structures dated back to when this area was an army base, some even farther to the first Spanish settlements in this part of California. They had aged gracefully through their tenure as a public park, and now served as Cumulus’s corporate campus. Some of the construction was new. She herself stood on the top floor of a glass and steel edifice wrought in smooth curves and organic geometry, rising above the shifting leaves like some kind of utopian arcology.
She pushed down the bitter taste that Richard’s termination had left in her mouth. The most exquisite classical sculptures were carved from rough hunks of raw marble. He was nothing but a discarded spall. Nevertheless, it was beginning to feel like she could trust fewer and fewer of the people around her. They were too easily distracted by insignificant things like bonuses and promotions. Ambition was a requisite personality trait for making an impact on the world, but money, prestige, and self-absorption led so many ambitious people astray.
The glass was cool and firm against her palm. Had the past really been simpler, or did it only appear so in retrospect? With every milestone, the effort of building Cumulus seemed to become more and more complex. Oh, she knew where they were going—that much was obvious. But the vectors for error seemed to grow exponentially, and keeping the ship on course was a constant battle. At least she had Vera, a constant source of support amid the tumult of a world that required so much improvement. That was precisely why they couldn’t afford underachievers like Richard. Leaders produced results, not excuses.
She sighed. The show must go on.
“Bring up Martín Sanchez.”
The window went opaque, and a bird’s-eye-view image of Palo Alto appeared. The perspective zoomed in, neighborhoods, blocks, buildings, multicolored shade umbrellas protecting the tables of a café patio. A man sat at a table, sipping a cappuccino, and conversing with someone hidden by an umbrella. Two other panes opened on the glass wall, video streaming from a low-altitude drone and from a Fleet car passing on the street in front of the café. These angles revealed Sanchez’s companion to be a balding man in a polo shirt and khakis.
“Background,” said Huian, stepping back to see more of the screen.
More windows blossomed. Various bios, photos, résumés, press coverage, contact and financial information, social graphs, emails, demographic summaries, health care records, daily activity maps, and other digital detritus built a mosaic of Sanchez’s life in front of her. Algorithms excavated every bread crumb he had left on the internet, and reconstructed his profile like a museum curator staging an archaeology exhibit.
Huian smiled. This was technology at work. A comprehensive personal profile of this caliber would have taken a team of professional investigators a year to assemble not too long ago. But the internet connected every piece of information on earth, or near enough. And once that information was connected, everything else was just optimization. Cumulus wrapped the entire planet in its digital arms. It was beautiful.
The balding man stood, shook Sanchez’s hand, and walked away down the sidewalk. Sanchez’s thoughtful expression was visible in the drone video feed as he watched the man leave. She’d need to remember to pull that guy’s file too. But first things first.
“Call Sanchez, now.”
As the call went through, Huian waved away most of the windows, leaving just the live video and bio feeds. On screen, Sanchez startled and dug his phone out of his pocket. He frowned. Huian knew the number would be blocked. He considered for a moment and then held it up to his ear.
“Hello?” Sanchez’s voice was deeper than Huian had expected. “Who is this?”
“Martín,” she said. “I hope you’re doing well. This is Huian Li. I was hoping we could have a little chat.” She watched with satisfaction as his heart rate, blood pressure, and skin conductance skyrocketed in the bio feed. On camera, color rose into his cheeks and he sat up straight in his chair.
“Huian.” His tone was guarded. “Look, I appreciate the call but we’re not interested. I already told Richard that and more. We never discussed those provisions during the term sheet negotiations and—”
“Martín,” she interrupted. “Martín, that’s exactly why I’m calling. I want to apologize. Richard was out of line, and he’s been let go. I never approved those changes. None of that needed to happen.”
A deep frown creased his forehead. “Wait, let go? You mean Richard’s been fired?”
“I don’t renege. That kind of behavior is shortsighted, and we simply don’t tolerate it. Richard is being escorted off campus as we speak.”
“Holy shit,” Sanchez whispered to himself.
Her gaze bored into the screen. “I would like to reopen negotiations to acquire Tectonix.”
Sanchez took a deep breath and let it out slowly. His fingers drummed on the table in front of him. “Thank you for saying that,” he said. “We’re honored by your interest, of course. But after what happened, we decided that it would be best for us to remain independent.”
Huian grimaced. This was not how it was supposed to go. Time to break out the charm. “Martín,” she said. “Let me be totally honest with you.” She began pacing back and forth across the office, watching the screen over her shoulder. “We’re the stewards of the digital world. We’re bringing the entire world online, literally and figuratively. That’s why we need dynamic leaders like you, and breakthrough companies like Tectonix, to join the family. Nobody else on earth has anything like your geophysical sensors and data libraries. You would bring geology into our cloud. Can you imagine the implications? We could correlate against other indicators to support emergency earthquake and tsunami response. We could open up entire new avenues for scientific research. We could optimize water, mineral, and fossil fuel management and production. We could roll up all your competitors’ data and wrap them into Tectonix.”
His blood pressure was going up again. “Yes, I’m sure that’s all true,” he said. “But as I said, we think that remaining independent is the right move for us right now.”
Fingernails bit into her palms. She was glad he couldn’t see her own bio feed. “Tectonix is an important piece that’s missing from the Cumulus puzzle. I know Richard jerked you around and tried to game the deal. I’m trying to make amends here. Tectonix would keep its brand, and you’d continue to run it as a business line. Just like Fleet, Bandwidth, Security, Learning, Backend, Lancer, and the other Cumulus companies. You’d still get to operate it as you like, but you’d have Cumulus behind you with a war chest.”