Robot jungle gyms and the New Work

Rat-Toothed Freddy is up to no good, while Lester is a man transformed. Chapter 9 of "Themepunks."

Published November 7, 2005 8:30PM (EST)

Perry and Andrea went out for dinner in Miami the next night with a PhD candidate from Pepperdine's B-school, eating at the same deco patio that she'd dined at with Tjan. Perry wore a white shirt open to reveal his tangle of wiry chest hair and the waitress couldn't keep her eyes off of him. He had a permanent squint now, and a scar that made his eyebrow into a series of small hills.

"I was just in Greensboro, Miss," the PhD candidate said. He was in his mid-twenties, young and slick, his only nod to academe a small goatee. "I used to spend summers there with my grandpa." He talked fast, flecks of spittle in the corners of his mouth, eyes wide, fork stabbing blindly at the bits of crab-cake on his plate. "There wasn't anything left there, just a couple gas-stations and a 7-Eleven, shit, they'd even closed the Wal-Mart. But now, but now, it's alive again, it's buzzing and hopping. Every empty storefront is full of people playing and tinkering, just a little bit of money in their pockets from a bank or a company or a fund. They're doing the dumbest things, mind you: tooled-leather laptop cases, switchblade knives with thumb drives in the handles, singing and dancing lawn-Santas that yodel like hillbillies."

"I'd buy a tooled-leather laptop case," Perry said, swilling a sweaty bottle of beer. He waggled his funny eyebrow and rubbed his fuzzy scalp.

"The rate of employment is something like ninety-five percent, which it hasn't been in like a hundred years. If you're not inventing stuff, you're keeping the books for someone who is, or making sandwiches for them, or driving delivery vehicles around. It's like a tiny, distributed gold rush."

"Or like the New Deal," Andrea said. That was how she'd come to invite him down, after she'd read his paper coining the term New Work to describe what Perry was up to, comparing it to Roosevelt's public-investment plan that spent America free of the Depression.

"Yeah, exactly, exactly! I've got research that shows that one in five Americans is employed in the New Work industry. 20 percent!"

Perry's lazy eye opened a little wider. "No way," he said.

"Way," the PhD candidate said. He finished his caipirinha and shook the crushed ice at a passing waiter, who nodded and ambled to the bar to get him a fresh one. "You should get on the road and write about some of these guys," he said to Andrea. "They need some ink, some phosphors. They're pulling up stakes and moving to the small towns their parents came from, or to abandoned suburbs, and just doing it. Bravest fucking thing you've seen in your life."

The PhD candidate stayed out the week, and went home with a suitcase full of the parts necessary to build a 3D printer that could print out all of the parts necessary to build a 3D printer.

Lester e-mailed her from wherever it was he'd gone, and told her about the lovely time he was having. It made her miss him sharply. Perry was hardly ever around for her now, buried in his work, buried with the kids from the shantytown and with Francis. She looked over her last month's blogs and realized that she'd been turning in variations on the same theme for all that time. She knew it was time to pack a duffel bag of her own and go see the bravest fucking thing she'd seen in her life.

"Bye, Perry," she said, stopping by his workbench. He looked up at her and saw the bag and his funny eyebrow wobbled.

"Leaving for good?" he said. He sounded unexpectedly bitter.

"No!" she said. "No! Just a couple weeks. Going to get the rest of the story. But I'll be back, count on it."

He grunted and slumped. He was looking a lot older now, and beaten down. His hair, growing out, was half grey, and he'd gotten gaunt, his cheekbones and forehead springing out of his face. On impulse, she gave him a hug like the ones she'd shared with Lester. He returned it woodenly at first, then with genuine warmth. "I will be back, you know," she said. "You've got plenty to do here, anyway."

"Yeah," he said. "Course I do."

She kissed him firmly on the cheek and stepped out the door and into her car and drove to Miami International.

Tjan met her at Logan and took her bag. "I'm surprised you had the time to meet me," she said. The months had been good to him, slimming down his pot-belly and putting a twinkle in his eye.

"I've got a good organization," he said, as they motored away toward Rhode Island, through strip-mall suburbs and past boarded-up chain restaurants. Everywhere there were signs of industry: workshops in old storefronts, roadside stands selling disposable music players, digital whoopee cushions, and so forth. "I barely have to put in an appearance."

Tjan yawned hugely and constantly. "Jet-lag," he apologized. "Got back from Russia a couple days ago."

"Did you see your kids?" she said. "How's business there?"

"I saw my kids," he said, and grinned. "They're amazing, you know that? Good kids, unbelievably smart. Real little operators. The older girl is running a baby-sitting service -- not baby-sitting herself, you see, but recruiting other kids to do the sitting for her while she skims a management fee and runs the quality control."

"She's your daughter all right," she said. "So tell me everything about the Westinghouse projects."

She'd been following them, of course, lots of different little startups, each with its own blogs and such. But Tjan was quite fearless about taking her through their profit and losses, and taking notes on it all kept her busy until she reached her hotel. Tjan dropped her off and promised to pick her up the next morning for a VIP tour of the best of his teams, and she went to check in.

She was in the middle of receiving her key when someone grabbed her shoulder and squeezed it. "Andrea bloody Fleeks! What are you doing here, love?"

The smell of his breath was like a dead thing, left to fester. She turned around slowly, not wanting to believe that of all the hotels in rural Rhode Island, she ended up checking into the same one as Rat-Toothed Freddy.

"Hey, Freddy," she said. Seeing him gave her an atavistic urge to stab him repeatedly in the throat with the hotel stick-pen. He was unshaven, his gawky Adam's apple bobbing up and down and he swallowed and smiled wetly. "Nice to see you."

"Fantastic to see you, too! I'm here covering a shareholder meeting for Westinghouse, is that what you're here for, too?"

"No," she said. She knew the meeting was on that week, but hadn't planned on attending it. She was done with press conferences, preferring on-the-ground reporting. "Well, nice to see you."

"Oh, do stay for a drink," he said, grinning more widely, exposing those grey teeth in a shark's smile. "Come on -- they have a free cocktail hour in this place. I'll have to report you to the journalist's union if you turn down a free drink."

"I don't think 'bloggers' have to worry about the journalist's union," she said, making sarcastic finger-quotes in case he didn't get the message. He still didn't. He laughed instead.

"Oh, love, I'm sure they'll still have you even if you have lapsed away from the one true faith."

"Good night, Freddy," was all she could manage to get out without actually hissing through her teeth.

"OK, good night," he said, moving in to give her a hug. As he loomed toward her, she snapped.

"Freeze, mister. You are not my friend. I do not want to touch you. You have poor personal hygiene and your breath smells like an overflowing camp-toilet. You write vicious personal attacks on me and on the people I care about. You are unfair, mean-spirited, and you write badly. The only day I wouldn't piss on you, Freddy, is the day you were on fire. Now get the fuck out of my way before I kick your tiny little testicles up through the roof of your reeking mouth."

She said it quietly, but the desk-clerks behind her overheard it anyway and giggled. Freddy's smile only bobbled, but then returned, broader than ever.

"Well said," he said and gave her a single golf-clap. "Sleep well, Andrea."

She boiled all the way to her room and when she came over hungry, she ordered in room service, not wanting to take the chance that Rat-Toothed Freddy would still be in the lobby.

She settled down to answer some e-mail -- she'd heard from Lester again, which cheered her up -- and saw that her wireless network monitor was going bonkers. Her computer was streaming zillions of bits off of its hard-drive. She was accustomed to the occasional listener to her stored music or viewer of her video, but this was nuts. She didn't know much about this stuff, but she knew who to ask.

Hey blog-readers! I've got a PowerBook G9 running the latest OS and patches. Something is causing me to transmit a lot of data over a wireless network in a hotel here, and I want to know what it is. How do I figure that out?

The first reply came five minutes later. Then six more. She was downloading various recommended apps while mediating the flamewar that broke out between two of her readers with contradictory views about the best way for her to solve her problem.

But she did get the utility installed and immediately saw the cause of her data-hemorrhage: the app reported someone had gained illicit access to her computer, using a guest account that came with the OS, and had run an exploit that escalated their privileges so that they could copy her entire hard drive over the network.

Her first impulse was so switch off her machine, but if she did that, she wouldn't be able to ask her online people for advice on fixing this. The utility had a couple buttons for stopping the process, so she tried them, repeatedly clicking until the network traffic levels fell to acceptable levels. She posted some screenshots on her blog and got more advice for rooting out any malware the attacker had left behind. All that evening as she patched and picked over her computer, her mind ground around and around, thinking about all the stuff on her machine: personal notes, candid photos, raw journals of her feelings, things she'd never share with anyone.

She had just closed her eyes and lain back on the pillow when she had a thought so terrible it literally nauseated her: Rat-Toothed Freddy. This was so his thing, to avenge himself for her outburst of temper to go picking through her machine. Eyes staring a the ceiling, she clenched and unclenched her fists on the sheets. Her computer, her betrayer, whirred softly. She should have encrypted her files, she knew, and it had been on her list of things to do for years, just as soon as she met a geek who could actually explain how that crypto stuff worked.

She tapped the spacebar and brought the screen back up. More e-mail from her blog people. Suggestions for tracing back the attack. Information on encrypting her files. The two flame warriors asking her for more mediation on which was right and which was wrong. She opened up the recipe for tracing back the attack and started to run through it, and shortly she had a lot of junk on her screen that, with the right interpretation, would tell her more about who had attacked her. As she watched, more junk appeared. The progress-bar said that this would run all night and more as it picked through her log-files, so she dimmed her screen and went to sleep.

In the breakfast room, she found herself eyeing up her fellow diners' laptops as they surfed news over their pancakes and oatmeal. She was looking for a generic Ikea laptop, recent model, with a fast typist at the helm. That much the log-analyzer had deduced. If she could find the machine, she could look at the network card's unique ID to confirm that it was the one that had been used to raid her computer. One thing the log-analyzer had been sure of was that the offender was on her local network, though it had warned that the attacker might be anywhere, having compromised a local machine to use as a jumping-off point to attack her. That didn't strike her as likely: not many people knew that she was here on the local net.

Tjan met her as she was finishing her coffee. She hadn't seen Rat-Toothed Freddy yet and couldn't remember what sort of machine he used habitually, though she was pretty sure that she'd have remembered it if he'd been using one of Ikea's veneer-finish wood-grain machines.

"I've got five projects slated for you to visit today," Tjan said, sliding into the booth beside her. Funnily now that he was in the cold northeast, he was dressing like a Floridian in blue jeans and a Hawai'ian barkcloth shirt with a bright patter of pineapples and Oscar Meyer Weinermobiles. Back in Florida, he'd favored unflattering nylon slacks and white shirts with ironed collars.

The projects were fascinating and familiar. The cultural differences between Florida New Work and New England New Work were small but telling: a lot more woodcraft, from a part of the country where many people had grown up in their grandfathers' woodworking shops. A little more unreflexive kitsch, like the homely kittens and puppies that marched around the reactive, waterproof, smash-proof screens integrated into a bio-monitoring crib.

At the fourth site, she was ambushed by a flying hug. Tjan laughed as she nearly went down under the weight of a strong, young woman who flung her arms around Andrea's neck. "Holy crap it's good to see you!"

Andrea untangled herself and got a look at her hugger. She had short mousy hair, twinkling blue eyes, and was dressed in overalls and a pretty flowered blouse, scuffed work boots and stained and torn work-gloves. "Uh..." she said, then it clicked. "Fiona?"

"Yeah! Didn't Tjan tell you I was here?" The last time she'd seen this woman, she was weeping over pizza and getting ready to give up on life. Now she was practically vibrating.

"Uh, no," she said, shooting a look at Tjan, who was smiling like the Buddha and pretending to inspect a pair of shoes with gyroscopically stabilized retractable wheels in the heels.

"I've been here for months! I went back to Oregon, like you told me to, and then I saw a recruiting ad for Westinghouse and I sent them my CV and then I got a videoconference interview and then, bam, I was on an airplane to Rhode Island!"

Andrea blinked. I told you to go back to Oregon? Well, maybe she had. That was a lifetime ago.

The workshop was another dead mall, this one a horseshoe of storefronts separated by flimsy gyprock. The Westinghousers had cut through the walls with drywall knives to join them all together. The air was permeated with the familiar Saran-Wrap-in-a-microwave tang of 3D printers. The parking lot was given over to some larger apparatus and a fantastical children's jungle-gym in the shape of a baroque, spired pirate fortress, with elegantly curved turrets, corkscrew sky-bridges, and flying buttresses crusted over with ornate, grotesque gargoyles. Children swarmed over it like ants, screeching with pleasure.

"Well, you're looking really good, Fiona," she said. Still not great with people, she thought. Fiona, though, was indeed looking good, and beaming. She wasn't wearing the crust of cosmetics and hair-care products she'd affected in the corporate Silicon Valley world. She glowed pink.

"Andrea," Fiona said, getting serious now, taking her by the shoulders and looking into her eyes. "I can't thank you enough for this. This has saved my life. It gave me something to live for. For the first time in my life, I am doing something I'm proud of. I go to bed every night thankful and happy that I ended up here. Thank you, Andrea. Thank you."

Andrea tried not to squirm. Fiona gave her another long hug. "It's all your doing," she said at last. "I just told you about it. You've made this happen for you, OK?"

"OK," Fiona said, "but I still wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you. I love you, Andrea."

Ick. Andrea gave her another perfunctory hug and got the hell out of Dodge.

"What's with the jungle-gym?" It really had been something, fun and martian-looking.

"That's the big one," Tjan said, with a big grin. "Most people don't even notice it, they think it's daycare or something. Well, that's how it started out, but then some of the sensor people started noodling with jungle-gym components that could tell how often they were played with. They started modding the gym every night, adding variations on the elements that saw the most action, removing the duds. Then the CAD people added an algorithm that would take the sensor data and generate random variations on the same basis. Finally, some of the robotics people got in on the act so that the best of the computer-evolved designs could be instantiated automatically: now it's a self-modifying jungle-gym. The kids love it. It is the crack cocaine of jungle-gyms, though we won't be using that in the marketing copy, of course."

"Of course," Andrea said dryly. She'd automatically reached for her notepad and started writing when Tjan started talking. Now, reviewing her notes, she knew that she was going to have to go back and get some photos of this. She asked Tjan about it.

"The robots go all night, you know. Not much sleep if you do that."

No going back to the hotel to see Rat-Toothed Freddy, what a pity. "I'll grab a couple blankets from the hotel to keep warm," she said.

"Oh, you needn't," he said. "That crew has a set of bleachers with gas-heaters for the night crew and their family to watch from. It's pretty gorgeous, if you ask me."

They had a hasty supper of burgers at a drive-through and then went back to the jungle-gym project. Andrea ensconced herself at someone's vacated desk for a couple hours and caught up on e-mail before finally emerging as the sun was dipping swollen and red behind the mall. She set herself up on the bleachers, and Fiona found her with a thermos of coffee and a flask of whisky. They snuggled under a blanket between a small crowd of geeks, an outdoor slumber party under the gas-heaters' roar.

Gradually, the robots made an appearance. Most of them humped along like inchworms, carrying chunks of new playground apparatus in coils of their long bodies. Some deployed manipulator arms, though they didn't have much by way of hands at their ends. "We just use rare-earth magnets," Fiona said. "Less fiddly than trying to get artificial vision that can accurately grasp the bars."

Tjan nudged her and pointed to a new tower that was going up. The robots were twisting around themselves to form a scaffold, while various of their number crawled higher and higher, snapping modular pieces of high-impact plastic together with snick sounds that were audible over the whine of their motors.

Andrea switched on her camera's night-vision mode and got shooting. "Where did you get all these robots?"

Tjan grinned. "It's an open design -- the EPA hired Westinghouse to build these to work on sensing and removing volatile organic compounds on Superfund sites. Because we did the work for the government, we had to agree not to claim any design copyright or patents in the outcome. There's a freaking warehouse full of this stuff at Westinghouse, all kinds of crazy things that Westinghouse abandoned because they weren't proprietary enough and they were worried that they'd have to compete on the open market if they tried to productize them. Suits us just fine, though."

The field was aswarm with glinting metal inchworm robots now, shifting back and forth, boiling and roiling and picking up enormous chunks of climber like cartoon ants carrying away a picnic basket. The playground was being transformed before her eyes, in ways gross and subtle, and it was enchanting to watch.

"Can I go out and have a look?" she said. "I mean, is it safe?"

"Sure," Fiona said. "Of course! Our robots won't harm you; they just nuzzle you and then change direction."

"Still, try to stay out of their way," Tjan said. "Some of that stuff they're moving around is heavy."

So she waded out onto the playground and carefully picked her way through the robot swarm. Some crawled over her toes. A couple twined between her feet and nearly tripped her up and once she stepped on one and it went still and waited politely for her to step off.

Once in the thick of it all, she switched on her video and began to record through the night filter. Stood there amidst the whirl and racket and undulating motion of the jungle gym as it reconfigured itself, she felt like she'd arrived at some posthuman future where the world no longer needed her or her kind. Like humanity's creations had evolved past their inventors.

She was going to have to do a lot of writing before bed.

Rat-Toothed Freddy was checking out in the lobby when Tjan dropped her off at 5AM. It was impossible to sneak past him, and he gave her a nasty, bucktoothed smile as she passed by him. It distracted her and made the writing come more slowly, but she was a pro and her readers had sent in a lot of kind mail, and there was one from Lester, still away on his mysterious errand but sounding happier than he had in months, positively giddy.

She set the alarm-clock so that she could be awake for her next stop, outside of North Carolina's research triangle, where some local millionaires had backed a dozen New Work teams.

Another three weeks of this stuff and she'd get to go home -- Florida. The condo was home now, and the junkyard. Hot and sticky and inventive and ever-changing. She fell asleep thinking of it and smiling.

It was two weeks more before Lester caught up with her, in Detroit of all places. Going back to the old place hadn't been her idea, she'd been dragged back by impassioned pleas from the local Ford and GM New Work teams, who were second-generation-unemployed, old rust-belt families who'd rebooted with money from the companies that had wrung their profit from their ancestors and abandoned them.

The big focus in the rustbelt was eradicating the car. Some were building robots that could decommission leaky gas-stations and crater out the toxic soil. Some were building car-disassembly plants that reclaimed materials from the old beasts' interiors. Between the Ford and GM teams and those funded by the UAW out of the settlements they'd won from the auto-makers, Detroit was springing up anew.

Lester e-mailed her and said that he'd seen on her blog that she was headed to Detroit, and did she want to meet him for dinner, being as he'd be in town too?

They ate at Devil's Night, a restaurant in a neighborhood of wood-frame buildings that teenagers had all but burned to the ground over several decades' worth of Halloweens. In Detroit, Hell Night was the Hallowe'en of torching abandoned buildings, and the neighborhood had been abandoned for years, its handsome houses attractive targets for midnight firebugs.

Reclaiming these buildings was an artisanal practice of urethaning the charred wood and adding clever putty, cement and glass to preserve the look of a burned-out hulk while restoring structural integrity. One entire floor of the restaurant was missing, having been replaced by polished tempered one-way glass that let upstairs diners look down on the bald spots and cleavage of those eating below.

Andrea showed up a few minutes late, having gotten lost wandering the streets of a Detroit that had rewritten its map in the decade since she'd left. She was flustered, and not just because she was running late. There was a lingering awkwardness between her and Lester and her elation at seeing him again had an inescapable undercurrent of dread.

When the waiter pointed out her table, she told him he was mistaken. Lester wasn't there, some stranger was: short-haired, burly, with a few days' stubble. He wore a smart blazer and a loose striped cotton shirt underneath. He was beaming at her.

"Andrea," he said.

Her jaw literally dropped. She realized she was standing with her mouth open and shut it with a snap. "Lester?" she said, wonderingly.

He got up, still smiling, even laughing a little, and gave her a hug. It was Lester all right. That smell was unmistakable, and those big, warm paws he called hands.

When he let go of her, he laughed again. "Oh, Andrea, I could not have asked for any better reaction than this. Thank you." They were drawing stares. Dazedly, she sat down. So did he.

"Lester?" she said again.

"Yes, it's me," he said. "I'll tell you about it over dinner. The waiter wants to take our drink orders."

Theatrically, she ordered a double Scotch. The waiter rattled off the specials and Andrea picked one at random. So did Lester.

"So," he said, patting his washboard tummy. "You want to know how I got to this in ten weeks, huh?"

"Can I take notes?" Andrea said, pulling out her pad.

"Oh by all means," he said. "I got a discount on my treatments on the basis that you would end up taking notes."

The clinic was in St Petersburg, Russia, in a neighborhood filled with Russian dentists who catered to American health tourists who didn't want to pay U.S. prices for crowns. The treatment hadn't originated there: the electromuscular stimulation and chemical therapy for skin-tightening was standard for rich new mothers in Hollywood who wanted to get rid of pregnancy bellies. The appetite-suppressing hormones had been used in the Mexican pharma industry for years. Stem-cells had been an effective substitute for steroids when it came to building muscle in professional athletic circles the world round. Reversible genomic therapy using genes cribbed from hummingbirds boosted metabolism so that it burned 10,000 calories a day sitting still.

But the St Petersburg clinic had ripped, mixed and burned these different procedures to make a single, holistic treatment that had dropped Lester from 400 to 175 pounds in ten weeks.

"Is that safe?" she said.

"Everyone asks that," he said, laughing. "Yeah, it's safe if they're monitoring you and standing by with lots of diagnostic equipment. But if you're willing to take slower losses, you can go on a way less intensive regime that won't require supervision. This stuff is the next big grey-market pharma gold. They're violating all kinds of pharma patents, of course, but that's what Cuba and Canada are for, right? Inside of a year, every fat person in America is going to have a bottle of pills in his pocket, and inside of two years, there won't be any fat people."

She shook her head. "You look... Lester, you look incredible. I'm so proud of you."

He ducked his head. He really did look amazing. Dropping the weight had taken off ten years, and between that and the haircut and the new clothes, he was practically unrecognizable.

"Does Perry know?"

"Yeah," Lester said. "I talked it over with him before I opted for it. Tjan had mentioned it in passing, it was a business his ex-wife was tangled up with through her mafiyeh connections, and once I had researched it online and talked to some people who'd had the treatment, including a couple MDs, I decided to just do it."

It had cost nearly everything he'd made from Kodacell, but it was a small price to pay. He insisted on getting dinner.

Afterward, they strolled through the fragrant evening, past the deco skyscrapers and the ploughed fields and community gardens, their livestock pens making soft animal noises.

"It's wonderful to see you again, Lester," she said, truthfully. She'd really missed him, even though his participation on her message boards had hardly let up (though it had started coming in at weird hours, something explained by the fact that he'd been in Russia). Walking alongside of him, smelling his smell, only seeing him out of the corner of her eye, it was like nothing had changed.

"It's great to see you again too." Tentatively, he took her hand in his big paw. His hand was warm but not sweaty, and she realized it had been a long time since anyone had held her hand. Heart pounding, she gave his hand a squeeze.

Their conversation and their walk rambled on, with no outward acknowledgment of the contact of hand on hand, but her hand squeezed his softly now and again, or he squeezed hers, and then they were at her hotel. < i>How did that happen? she asked herself.

But then they were having a nightcap, and then he was in the elevator with her and then he was at the door of her room, and the blood was roaring in her ears as she stuck her credit-card in the reader to open it.

Wait, she tried to say. Lester, hang on a second, is what she tried to say, but her tongue was thick in her mouth. He stepped through the door with her, then said, "Uh, I need to use the bathroom."

With relief, she directed him to the small water closet. The room was basic -- now that she was her own boss, she wasn't springing for Crown Plazas and Hiltons, this was practically a coffin -- and there was nowhere to sit except the bed. Her laptop was open and there was a lot of e-mail in her inbox, but for once, she didn't care. She was keenly attuned to the water noises coming from behind the door, each new sound making her jump a little. What was he doing in there, inserting a fucking diaphragm?

She heard him work the latch on the door and she put on her best smile. Her stomach was full of butterflies. He smiled back and sat down on the bed next to her, taking her hand again. His hand was moist from being washed, and a little slippery. She didn't mind. Wordlessly, she put her head on his barrel chest. His heart was racing, and so was hers.

Gradually, they leaned back, until they were side by side on the bed, her head still on his chest. Moving like she was in a dream, she lifted her head from his chest and stared into his eyes. They were wide and scared. She kissed him, softly. His lips were trembling and unyielding. She kissed him more insistently, running her hands over his chest and shoulders, putting one leg over him. He closed his eyes and kissed her back. He wasn't bad, but he was scared or nervous and all jittery.

She kissed his throat, breathing in the smell, savoring the rough texture of his three-day beard. Tentatively, he put his hands on her back, stroked her, worked gradually towards her bottom. Then he stopped.

"What's wrong?" she said, propping herself up on her forearms, still straddling him.

She saw that there were tears in his eyes.

"Lester? What's wrong?"

He opened his mouth and then shut it. Tears slid off his face into his ears. She blotted them with a corner of hotel-pillow.

She stroked his hair. "Lester?"

He gave out a choked sob and pushed her away. He sat up and put his face in his hands. His back heaved. She stroked his shoulders tentatively.

Finally, he seemed to get himself under control. He sniffled.

"I have to go," he said.

"Lester, what's wrong?"

"I can't do this," he said. "I..."

"Just tell me," she said. "Whatever it is, tell me."

"You didn't want me before." He said it simply without accusation, but it stung like he'd slapped her in the face.

"Oh, Lester," she said, moving to hug him, but he pushed her away.

"I have to go," he said, drawing himself up to his full height. He was tall, though he'd never seemed it before, but oh, he was tall, six foot four or taller. He filled the room. His eyes were red and swollen, but he put on a smile for her. "Thanks, Andrea. It was really good to see you again. I'll see you in Florida."

She stood up and moved quickly to him, stood on tiptoe to put her arms around his neck and hug him fiercely. He hugged her back and she kissed him on the cheek.

"I'll see you in Florida," she said.

And then he was gone. She sat on the edge of her bed and waited for tears, but they didn't come. So she picked up her laptop and started to work through her mountain of e-mail.

Read Chapter 10.

By Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow ( is the author of "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town" and other novels, including "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom." His latest short story collection is "Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present." He is the co-editor of Boing Boing (

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