Read Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Online

Authors: David Shafer

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (28 page)

BOOK: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

“We’ll join you again just as soon as you’ve seen the ship,” Straw said to Mark. “I thought that you and I could take the afternoon to relax.”

The first half hour of the tour was docented by a bearded and barrel-chested Greek who clearly didn’t want to talk about anything other than life rafts and bow thrusters and nautical miles and who kept correcting Mark whenever he failed to use a feminine pronoun for
Sine Wave 2.
Anyway, Mark was too boggled by the size of the ship to do any good ferreting. From a cornice high on the pilothouse, looking out over the length and breadth of the vessel, the thin line of the horizon strung across its distant bow, Mark felt that
Sine Wave 2
was the center of the universe, that it could bend things into itself. Or into herself.

“So what does it carry?” asked Mark in some exasperation, indicating the quarter mile of mysterious volume that extended from the ship’s superstructure like a titanic boner. The Greek simply shrugged his shoulders.

“You don’t know what this ship carries?” Mark asked the Greek’s back. He was docenting the tour at a fair clip now.

“Not my department,” he said with such blank-wallness that Mark understood he was done talking about this.

Luckily, the guy who the Greek handed Mark off to was chattier.

“Mark Deveraux. It’s an honor. Big fan. Big fan,” said Tony, pointing two thumbs at his own chest.


They stepped into a room that Mark could have mistaken for the bridge—it ran the width of the ship and had windows on three sides and was buzzing with people and bristling with screens and devices; serpents of bundled data cables snaked the allées between the workstations. But Mark had
his tour on the ship’s bridge, at least four decks up, where he’d seen a dozen handsome officers in uniforms sharp with pleats and insignia. Most of those guys were looking at radar screens and gauges and the actual ocean, binoculars in leather cases on the walls behind them.

The people in this room weren’t part of the ship’s crew, though there was something tight, controlled, synchronous about them. Near silence, just the low buggish background of plastic keyboards. Near stillness, just dudes (they were all men) intent in Aeron chairs, oblivious to the sea.

The room looked as serious and data-heavy as Mission Control at NASA, but the techies weren’t middle-aged guys with too many pens. They were Asian guys and white guys and a few black guys, all under thirty-five, wearing Gap jeans and oxford shirts. Their stations showed those minimal attempts at cubicle decoration usually seen in all-male IT departments: snapshots from epic weekends, ironically offered action figures, pinups from windsurfing magazines.

Mark and Tony stood at the center of the large room near a well-stocked deli tray set up on a folding table: a shiny coffee urn; Danish; little ramekins of Splenda. Mark was boggled and back-footed. Was this New Alexandria? There was a tiny, keen ringing in his ears. To cover his distress, he poured himself a coffee. Tony was talking.

“The feed comes in from the computer”—he gestured forward vaguely—“and in this room, we do four things.” Tony indicated each of the four corners of the vast room as he spoke: “You got your gatherers, your bundlers, your amalgamators, and your gleaners. Once the gleaners do their thing, we move the data, in tranches, over to Processing and Encryption, and that’s when it gets written on the whales and launched.”

“The whales?” said Mark. If you repeat the last thing your interlocutor said with a rising lilt in your voice, it’s like politely saying,
What did you just say?,
and the sayer usually then feels obligated to offer more clarity. Mark centrifuged a sugar packet. He didn’t take sweetener in his coffee, but
ping those little envelopes made a man look unconcerned and in control.

“The serve-whales,” Tony resumed brightly. “Well, I guess, technically, they’re remote seabed servers, or whatever we’re supposed to call them. But when you see one launched, it’s just hard not to think of a whale. The way they spin and dive, that sound they make.

“There’s Mr. Cole,” said Tony. The airsick net mender was coming toward them. Tony began to introduce Mark to Cole, but Cole outranked Tony and so flattened him. The SineCo culture intensified the male penchant for hierarchy; every interaction had a top and a bottom, and everything, even the air in the room, was zero-sum, get-your-own. Anyone who liked getting ahead had to like seeing people behind him.

“Sure. Sure. The writer,” said Cole, as though
were a funny antique job, like falconer. “We met coming in.”

“Of course,” said Mark, like it was some historical event instead of yesterday.

“Come with me,” said Cole. “Pope wanted you to see what the gleaners do.”

Cole walked Mark down a line of workstations. He moved like a teacher seeking his pet, and when he stopped behind the desk of an overweight guy in a Liverpool jersey, the guy sat up a little straighter in his netted chair. He had about ten screens before him, keyboards like snare drums in the orbit of his left hand, and his right hand stroked a post-mouse input device that Mark had never seen before. Two of the screens really were just running code, but at a clip so fast it was barely discernible, so the effect was like one of those little plug-in Zen fountains from the SkyMall catalog. The guy was wearing a flip-down visor across his eyes that looked like it could be used for telesurgery. He seemed to be selecting items on the screen and moving them around—dragging and dropping—but at a speed that Mark had never conceived of. It was like watching a dervish.

“Do you know what he’s doing?” Cole asked Mark.

Not really. Mining data?
“I do. But you’re the information architect. Why don’t you tell me?”

Cole nodded, as if to say
Fair enough
. “So the material these guys are working with has already been enriched. This isn’t Sears cards and DMV photos. This is the cream of the cream that rises to the top of the ten exabytes per day.” He said the
part like Mark should know what that meant. Mark nodded.

Cole went on. “So you’re talking deep financials, all the way back to birth; full medical, obviously, HIPAA data and biosampling; kinship; relational; ownership; political. Then we do hopes and dreams, fears and desires, stills and video, voice and text…” He did this and-on-and-on motion with one hand.

“Voice and text?” said Mark, just choosing at random.

“Everything the subject’s ever said or written over a digital line.”

“How everything?”

Cole just shrugged. “Everything everything. Capturing it’s easy. Well, not easy, but…you know, achievable. It’s just always been a question of jurisdiction, interpretation, organization, and storage. Once we beat those, it was a cinch. Here, put these on.” He handed Mark a visor with a flip-down screen, like the one the gleaner was wearing.

Mark donned the visor. One large screen was plain before his eyes; ten little ones encircled it, as in a kaleidoscope. He could still see the room they were in, though; he could still see his hand before his face.

“Say a name,” said Cole. “Any name.”

The name came instantly, unbidden. The Lost Girlfriend. Five years ago was the last time he’d seen her. He gave the name. “I think she lives in New York. She works for—”

But Cole wasn’t listening. The gleaner sitting beside them swiveled and stroked his devices. And in seconds, she was there, on the large screen before his right eye. And it wasn’t some mug shot, DMV photo, or surveillance still.

One of the smaller screens blossomed for a moment.
Skype call with mother. T-16 days,
it said on the screen. Another small screen showed the mother.

Margaret, still beautiful, at a kitchen table with a little girl. The girl looked like Margaret. So she had gotten the baby she wanted. And then Margaret stood and beamed and showed her rounded belly to her mother, to Mark and Cole and the fat guy in the Liverpool jersey.

“We’re not saying the names yet to anyone, but I’ll tell you. If it’s a boy, we’re going to name him Hershel.” Hershel was her dad’s name. Her dad had died of a heart attack while running with Margaret when she was a teenager. That had screwed her up for years.

“Now bring it forward and extract fears and relevance,” said Cole to the gleaner.

And from a bud in his ear came scratchy audio, hissing like old tape. One screen in the corona blossomed again:
baby monitor, daughter, husband, T-3 days.

A man was singing a lullaby:

…speed bonny boat, like a bird on the wing…

“Where’s Mommy?” asked a small girl’s voice.

“Mommy’s sad right now, bug.”

“Why is Mommy sad?”

“She’s sad because your little brother’s not coming,” said the man’s voice. “But it’s okay, bug, we’re going to try to make you another little brother or sister.”

“But I want
little bruddah,” whined the girl.

And the man said, “I did too, bug. I did too.” And then he was sobbing and stifling his sobs and Mark tore the screened visor off his head.

Seamus Cole was staring at him evenly, like
How now, guru guy?

“Why the hell would you be collecting shit like this?” Mark said, looking straight at Cole.

“It’s public. It’s over our network. We call dibs on it.”

They were calling

“But it’s illegal, to spy on people like this.”

“Information is free. Storage is unlimited,” said Cole, totally unbothered. “Our privacy policy is reviewed regularly, and our mandate to collect is spelled out in the implied-consent decree of 2001. We’re just keeping this stuff safe, anyway. The other server giants have terrible vulnerabilities; they could be erased so easily.” Did he just
“But that’s not really my department.”

your department?”

He brought Mark to a little elevator, and the two men rode four decks down and then walked through two negative-pressure rooms with sticky floors. There were men coming the other way, peeling off paper gowns as they walked, as the handsome surgeons on the hospital shows do. Now the passageways were tubular, striated with cabling and cancerous with little blinking boxes. Mark and Cole arrived at a sort of viewing platform, a room with a glass wall. Mark had to get right up close to the glass before his eyes could make any sense of what was on the other side.

It was a machine. But what kind? A death ray? They were standing at one end of it, and it appeared to extend the length of the ship. On the other side of the glass, men in paper gowns were walking alongside the machine on little scaffolds. It hummed at some primordial frequency. Mark’s fillings were ringing.

“What is it?” he asked.

“It’s a beast,” said Cole. “A beast that’s all brain. We feed it information—all electronically transmitted information, all the time, over any line we claim—then it builds models: predictive, algorithmic. Ten moves out, twenty, but the pieces aren’t chess pieces, they’re people pieces. And then it extracts anything of value and makes a copy of both those files—the everything file and the anything-of-value file—and writes those files onto solid-state atomic drives and launches the drives down to the ocean floor.”

There was no way Mark could continue to hide his surprise. “Well, fuck me,” he said, a little under his breath.

“Yeah. I think what Straw wants from you, at least until we unveil, is more like a cover story.”


The “relaxing” that Straw had mentioned was, as Mark had feared it would be, entirely
relaxing. It took place beside a swimming pool in a little stone-tiled terrazzo cloister that was carved into the middle of the top deck of the pilothouse of
Sine Wave 2
. By means of a remote control that seemed to both dazzle and baffle him, Straw fought with a vast louvered-glass roof that opened and closed across the cloister. Mark kept getting scorched and blinded by shafts of equatorial sun that flooded the poolside whenever Straw accidentally commenced a louver retraction.

“Damn it,” said Straw. “You ask for one thing to be done right…” Then he buzzed thrice and angrily a little buzzer that sat beside his iced tea; a crew member hustled out from one of the glass walls of the cloister, wearing a sort of waiter’s jacket and shorts. “Close this stupid ceiling,” Straw barked at the guy.

Shorts were the thing around here. On this upper deck of the ship, the maritime vibe was replaced with a Mediterranean villa vibe, and the male crew were all in snug shorts. Mark had tried
Sorry, I forgot my suit,
in an attempt to avoid time poolside with Straw, but to his horror, Straw said,
No worries, I have one here,
and whipped out a particularly abbreviated pair.

So Mark had to stay reclined in a lounge chair beside Straw’s lounge chair while he tried to get some specifics on the job that Straw seemed to have no doubt he would accept.

Having spent a year allowing Straw to be vague about SineCo business, Mark was having a hard time determining the nature and extent of what was really going on here. Straw moved from half-formed notion to ill-formed conclusion via cloudy and self-serving thought processes.

“But you told me that New Alexandria was going to be like a library,” said Mark, “that it would serve the public.”

“It will. And a library can ask you to obey its rules; it can ask you to apply for a library card, pay late fines, and, yes—if it is the best library the world has ever known—pay a nominal fee for membership.”

“But if the books that the library, um, collects are already the property of the people the library wants to loan the books to…if you take something and then ‘loan’ it back to its original owner for a fee…” He left the rest of the sentence unsaid, but Straw seemed totally unbothered by the implication, so Mark had to recalibrate. “James, can you see why this”—he made a little sweeping gesture meant to take in the ship and its mission—“would be a hard story to tell?”

“Mark, let me ask you this,” said Straw. “Can you tell me where the nearest black hole is?”

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