When Andrea saw Lester again, he was coming down the drive leading to the shantytown and the factory. She was taking tea in the tea-room that had opened in a corkscrew spire high above the rest of the shantytown. The lady who operated it called herself Mrs Torrence, and she was exquisitely antique but by no means frail, and when she worked the ropes on her dumbwaiter to bring up supplies from the loading area on the ground, her biceps stood at attention like Popeye's. There was a rumor that Mrs Torrence used to be a man, or still was, under her skirts, but Andrea didn't pay attention to it.
Lester came down the drive grinning and bouncing on the balls of his feet. Perry had evidently been expecting him, for he came racing through the shantytown and pelted down the roadway and threw himself at Lester, grabbing him in a crazy, exuberant, whooping hug. Francis gimped out a moment later and gave him a solemn handshake. She hadn't blogged their meeting in Detroit, so if Francis and Perry knew about Lester's transformation, they'd found out without hearing it from her.
She finished recording the homecoming from Mrs Torrence's crow's nest, then paid the grinning old bag and took the stairs two at a time, hurrying to catch up with Lester and his crowd.
Lester accepted her hug warmly but distantly, letting go a fraction of a second before she did. She didn't let it get to her. He had drawn a crowd now, with Francis's protege printer-techs in the innermost circle, and he was recounting the story of his transformation. He had them as spellbound as a roomful of ewoks listening to C3PO.
"Shit, why don't we sell that stuff?" Jason said. He'd taken a real interest in the business end of their 3D printer project.
"Too much competition," Lester said. "There are already a dozen shops tooling up to make bathtub versions of the therapy here in America. Hundreds more in Eastern Europe. There just won't be any profit in it by the time we get to market. Getting thin on the cheap's going to be easy. Hell, all it takes to do it is the stuff you'd use for an E lab. You can buy all that in a kit from a catalog."
Jason nodded, but looked unconvinced.
Andrea took Lester's return as her cue to write about his transformation. She snapped more pics of him, added some video. He gave her ten minutes' description of the therapies he'd undergone, and named a price for the therapy that was substantially lower than a couple weeks in a Hollywood fat-farm, and far more effective.
The response was amazing. Every TV news-crew in the greater Miami area made a pilgrimage to their factory to film Lester working in a tight t-shirt over a 3D printer, wrangling huge vats of epoxy-mix goop in the sun with sweat beading over his big, straining biceps.
Her message boards exploded. It seemed that a heretofore unsuspected contingent of her growing readership was substantially obese. And they had friends. Lester eventually gave up on posting, just so he could get some work done. They had the printers to the point where they could turn out new printers, but the whole system was temperamental and needed careful nursing. Lester was more interested in what people had to say on the engineering message-boards than chatting with the fatties.
The fatties were skeptical and hopeful in equal measures. The big fight was over whether there was anything to this, whether Lester would keep the weight off, whether the new skinny Lester was really Lester, whether he'd undergone surgery or had his stomach stapled. America's wallets had been cleaned out by so many snake-oil peddlers with a "cure" for obesity that no one could believe what they saw, no matter how much they wanted to.
Lord, but it was bringing in the readers, not to mention the advertising dollars. The clearing price for a thousand weight-loss ads targeted to affluent, obese English-speakers was over fifty bucks, as compared to her customary CPM of three bucks a thou. Inside of a week, she'd made enough to buy a car.
"You should go," Lester told her, as she clicked him through her earnings spreadsheet. "Jesus, this is insane. You know that these fatties actually follow me around on the net now, asking me questions in message boards about engineering? The board moderators are asking me to post under an assumed name. Madame, your public has spoken. There is a dire need for your skills in St Petersburg. Go. They have chandeliers in the subways and caviar on tap. All the blinis you can eat. Bear steaks."
She shook her head and slurped at the tea he'd brought her. "You're joking. It's all mafiyeh there. Scary stuff. Besides, I'm covering this beat right now, New Work."
"New Work isn't going anywhere, Andrea. We'll be here when you get back. And this story is one that needs your touch. They're micro-entrepreneurs solving post-industrial problems. It's the same story you've been covering here, but with a different angle. Take that money and buy yourself a business-class ticket to St Petersburg and spend a couple weeks on the job. You'll clean up. They could use the publicity, too -- someone to go and drill down on which clinics are legit and which ones are clip-joints. You're perfect for the gig."
"I don't know," she said. She closed her eyes. Taking big chances had gotten her this far and it would take her farther, she knew. The world was your oyster if you could stomach a little risk.
"Yeah," she said. "Yeah, hell yeah. You're totally right, Lester."
"What you said!"
"It's cheers," he said. "You'll need to know that if you're going to make time in Petrograd. Let me go send some e-mail and get you set up. You book a ticket."
And just like that she was off to Russia.
Lester insisted that she buy a business-class ticket, and she discovered to her bemusement that British Airways had about three classes above Business, presumably with even more exclusive classes reserved for royalty and peers of the realm. She luxuriated in fourteen hours of reclining seats and warm peanuts and in-flight connectivity, running a brief videoconference with Lester just because she could. Tjan had sent her a guide to the hotels and she'd opted for the Pribaltiyskaya, a crumbling Stalin-era four-star of spectacular, Vegasesque dimensions. The facade revealed the tragedy of the U.S.S.R.'s unrequited love-affair with concrete, as did the cracks running up the walls of the lobby.
They checked her into the hotel with the nosiest questionnaire ever, a two-pager on government stationery that demanded to know her profession, employer, city of birth, details of family and so forth. An American businessman next to her at the check-in counter saw her puzzling over it. "Just make stuff up," he said. "I always write that I come from 123 Fake Street, Anytown, California, and that I work as a professional paper-hanger. They don't check on it, except maybe the mob when they're figuring out who to mug. First time in Russia?"
"It shows, huh?"
"You get used to it," he said. "I come here every month on business. You just need to understand that if it seems ridiculous and too bad to be true, it is. They have lots of rules here, but no one follows 'em. Just ignore any unreasonable request and you'll fit right in."
"That's good advice," she said. He was middle-aged, but so was she, and he had nice eyes and no wedding ring.
"Get a whole night's sleep, don't drink the so-called 'champagne' and don't change money on the streets. Did you bring melatonin and modafinil?"
She stared blankly at him. "Drugs?"
"Sure. One tonight to sleep, one in the morning to wake up, and do it again tomorrow and you'll be un-lagged. No booze or caffeine, either, not for the first couple days. I have extra, here." He dug in his travel bag and came up with some generic Walgreens bottles.
"That's OK," she said, handing her credit card to a pretty young clerk. "Thanks, though."
He shook his head. "It's your funeral," he said. "Jet-lag is way worse for you than this stuff. It's over the counter stateside. I don't leave home without it. Anyway, I'm in room 1422. If it's two in the morning and you're staring at the ceiling and regretting it, call me and I'll send some down."
Was he hitting on her? Christ, she was so tired, she could barely see straight. There was no way she was going to need any help getting to sleep. She thanked him again and rolled her suitcase across the cavernous lobby with its gigantic chandeliers and up the elevators.
But sleep didn't come. The network connection cost a fortune -- something she hadn't seen in years -- and the number of worms and probes bouncing off her firewall was astronomical. The connection was slow and frustrating. Come 2 a.m., she was, indeed, staring at the ceiling.
Would you take drugs offered by a stranger in a hotel lobby? They were in a Walgreens bottle for chrissakes. How bad could they be? She picked up the house-phone on the chipped bedstand and punched his hotel room.
"Oh Christ, I woke you up," she said. "I'm sorry."
"'Sok. Lady from check-in, right? Gimme your room number, I'll send up a melatonin now and a modafinil for the morning. No sweatski."
"Uh," she hadn't thought about giving a strange man her room number. In for a penny, in for a pound. "2813," she said. "Thanks."
"Geoff," he said. "It's Geoff. New York -- upper West Side. Work in health products."
"Andrea," she said. "Florida, lately. I'm a writer."
"Good night, Andrea. Pills are en route."
"Good night, Geoff. Thanks."
"Tip the porter a euro, or a couple bucks. Don't bother with rubles."
"Oh," she said. It had been a long time since her last visit overseas. She'd forgotten how much minutiae was involved.
He rang off. She put on a robe and waited. The porter took about fifteen minutes, and handed her a little envelope with two pills in it. He was about fifteen, with a bad mustache and bad skin, and bad teeth that he displayed when she handed him a couple of dollar bills.
A minute later, she was back on the phone.
"Which one is which?"
"Little white one is melatonin. That's for now. My bad."
She saw him again in the breakfast room, loading a plate with hard-boiled eggs, potato pancakes, the ubiquitous caviar, salami, and cheeses. In his other hand he balanced a vat of porridge with strawberry jam and enough dried fruit to keep a parrot zoo happy for a month.
"How do you keep your girlish figure if you eat like that?" she said, settling down at his table.
"Ah, that's a professional matter," he said. "And I make it a point never to discuss bizniz before I've had two cups of coffee." He poured himself a cup of coffee. "This is number two."
She picked her way through her cornflakes and fruit salad. "I always feel like I don't get my money's worth out of buffet breakfasts," she said.
"Don't worry," he said. "I'll make up for you." He pounded his coffee and poured another cup. "Humanity returns," he said, rubbing his thighs. "Marthter, the creature waketh!" he said in high Igor.
"You are really into, uh, substances, aren't you?" she said.
"I am a firm believer in better living through chemistry," he said. He pounded another coffee. "Ahhh. Coffee and modafinil are an amazing combo."
She's taken hers that morning when the alarm got her up. She'd been so tired that it actually made her feel nauseated to climb out of bed, but the modafinil had gotten her going. She knew a little about the drug, and figured that if the TSA approved it for use by commercial pilots, it couldn't be that bad for you.
"So, my girlish figure. I work for a firm that has partners here in Petersburg who work on cutting-edge pharma products, including some stuff the FDA is dragging its heels on, despite widespread acceptance in many nations, this one included. One of these is a pill that overclocks your metabolism. I've been on it for a year now, and even though I am a stone calorie freak and pack away five or six thousand calories a day, I don't gain an ounce. I actually have to remember to eat enough so that my ribs don't start showing."
Andrea watched him gobble another thousand calories. "Is it healthy?"
"Compared to what? Being fat? Yes. Running ten miles a day and eating a balanced diet of organic fruit and nuts? No. But when the average American gets the majority of her calories from soda-pop, 'healthy' is a pretty loaded term."
It reminded her of that talk with Lester, a lifetime ago in the IHOP. Slowly, she found herself telling him about Lester's story.
"Wait a second, you're Andrea Fleeks? New Work Fleeks? San Jose Mercury News Fleeks?"
She blushed. "You can't possibly have heard of me," she said.
He rolled his eyes. "Sure. I shoulder-surfed your name off the checking form and did a background check on you last night just so I could chat you up over breakfast."
It was a joke, but it gave her a funny, creeped-out feeling. "You're kidding?"
"I'm kidding. I've been reading you for freaking years. I followed Lester's story in detail. Professional interest. You're the voice of our generation, woman. I'd be a philistine if I didn't read your column."
"You're not making me any less embarrassed, you know." It took an effort of will to keep from squirming.
He laughed hard enough to attract stares. "All right, I did spend the night googling you. Better?"
"If that's the alternative, I'll take famous, I suppose," she said.
"You're here writing about the weight-loss clinics, then?"
"Yes," she said. It wasn't a secret, but she hadn't actually gone out of her way to mention it. After all, there might not be any kind of story after all. And somewhere in the back of her mind was the idea that she didn't want to tip off some well-funded newsroom to send out its own investigative team and get her scoop.
"That is fantastic," he said. "That's just, wow, that's the best news I've had all year. You taking an interest in our stuff, it's going to really push it over the edge. You'd think that selling weight loss to Americans would be easy, but not if it involves any kind of travel: 80 percent of those lazy insular fucks don't even have passports. Ha. Don't quote that. Ha."
"Ha," she said. "Don't worry, I won't. Look, how about this, we'll meet in the lobby around nine, after dinner, for a cup of coffee and an interview?" She had gone from intrigued to flattered to creeped-out with this guy, and besides, she had her first clinic visit scheduled for ten and it was coming up on nine and who knew what a Russian rush-hour looked like?
"Oh. OK. But you've got to let me schedule you for a visit to some of our clinics and plants -- just to see what a professional shop we run here. No gold-teeth-shiny-suit places like you'd get if you just picked the top Google AdWord. Really American-standard places, better even, Scandinavian-standard, a lot of our doctors come over from Sweden and Denmark to get out from under the socialist medicine systems there. They run a tight ship, ya shore, you betcha," he delivered this last in a broad Swedish bork-bork-bork.
"Um," she said. "It all depends on scheduling. Let's sort it out tonight, OK?"
"OK," he said. "Can't wait." He stood up with her and gave her a long, two-handed handshake. "It's a real honor to meet you, Andrea. You're one of my real heroes, you know that?"
"Um," she said again. "Thanks, Geoff."
He seemed to sense that he'd come on too strong. He looked like he was about to apologize.
"That's really kind of you to say," she said. "It'll be good to catch up tonight."
He brightened. It was easy enough to be kind, after all.
She had the front desk call her a taxi -- she'd been repeatedly warned off of gypsy cabs and any vehicle that one procured by means of a wandering tout. She got into the back, had the doorman repeat the directions to Lester's clinic twice to the cabbie, watching him switch on the meter, and checked the tariff, then settled in to watch St Petersburg go flying by.
She switched on her phone and watched it struggle to associate with a Russian network. They were on the road for all of five minutes -- long enough to note the looming bulk to the Hermitage and the ripples left by official cars slicing through the traffic with their blue blinking lights -- when her phone went nutso. She looked at it -- she had ten texts, half a dozen voice-mails, a dozen new clipped articles, and it was ringing with a number in New York.
She bumped the New York call to voice-mail. She didn't recognize the number. Besides, if the world had come to an end while she was asleep, she wanted to know some details before she talked to anyone about it. She paged back through the texts in reverse chronological -- the last five were increasingly panicked messages from Lester and Perry. Then one from Tjan. Then one from Kettlebelly. They all wanted to discuss "the news" whatever that was. One from her old editor at the Merc asking if she was available for comment about "the news." Tjan too. The first one was from Rat-Toothed Freddy, that snake.
"Kodacell's creditors calling in debts. Share price below one cent. Imminent NASDAQ de-listing. Comments?"
Her stomach went cold, her breakfast congealed into a hard lump. The clipped articles had quotes from Kettlewell ("We will see to it that all our employees are paid, our creditors are reimbursed, and our shareholders are well-done-by through an orderly wind-down"), Perry ("Fuck it -- I was doing this shit before Kodacell, don't expect to stop now") and Lester ("It was too beautiful and cool to be real, I guess.") Where she was mentioned, it was usually in a snide context that made her out to be a disgraced pitchman for a failed movement.
Which she was. Basically.
Her phone rang. Kettlewell.
"Hi, Kettlewell," she said.
"Where have you been?" he said. He sounded really edgy. It was the middle of the night in California.
"I'm in St Petersburg," she said. "In Russia. I only found out about ten seconds ago. What happened?"
"Oh Christ. Who knows? Cascading failure. Fell short of last quarter's estimates, which started a slide. Then a couple lawsuits filed. Then some unfavorable press. The share price kept falling, and things got worse. Your basic clusterfuck."
"But you guys had great numbers overall--"
"Sure, if you looked at them our way, they were great. If you looked at them the way the street looks at them, we were in deep shit. Analysts couldn't figure out how to value us. Add a little market chaos and some old score-settling assholes, like that fucker Freddy, and it's a wonder we lasted as long as we did. They're already calling us the twenty-first century Enron."
"Kettlewell," she said, "I lived through a couple of these, and something's not right. When the dotcoms were going under, their CEOs kept telling everyone everything was all right, right up to the last minute. They didn't throw in the towel. They stood like captains on the bridge of sinking ships."
"So what's going on here. It sounds like you're whipped. Why aren't you fighting? There were lots of dotcoms that tanked, but a few of those deep-in-denial CEOs pulled it off, restructured and came out of it alive. Why are you giving up?"
"Andrea, oh, Andrea." He laughed, but it wasn't a happy laugh. "You think that this happened overnight? You think that this problem just cropped up yesterday and I tossed in the towel?"
"Yeah. We've been tanking for months. I've been standing on the bridge of this sinking ship with my biggest smile pasted on for two consecutive quarters now. I've thrown out the most impressive reality distortion field the business world has ever seen. Just because I'm giving up doesn't mean I gave up without a fight."
Andrea had never been good at condolences. She hated funerals. "Lionel, I'm sorry. It must have been very hard--"
"Yeah," he said. "Well, sure. I wanted you to have the scoop on this, but I had to talk to the press once the story broke, you understand."
"I understand," she said. "Scoops aren't that important anyway. I'll tell you what. I'll post a short piece on this right away, just saying, 'yes, it's true, and I'm getting details.' Then I'll do interviews with you and Lester and Perry and put up something longer in a couple of hours. Does that work?"
He laughed again, no humor in it. "Yeah, that'll be fine."
"No, no," he said. "No, it's OK."
"Look, I just want to write about this in a way that honors what you've done over the past two years. I've never been present at the birth of anything remotely this important. It deserves to be described well."
It sounded like he might be crying. There was a snuffling sound. "You've been amazing, Andrea. We couldn't have done it without you. No one could have described it better. Great deeds are irrelevant if no one knows about them or remembers them."
Her phone was beeping. She snuck a peek. It was her old editor. "Listen," she said. "I have to go. There's a call coming in I have to take. I can call you right back."
"Don't," he said. "It's OK. I'm busy here anyway. This is a big day." His laugh was like a dog's bark.
"Take care of yourself, Kettlewell," she said. "Don't let the bastards grind you down."
"Nil carborundum illegitimis to you, too."
She clicked over to her editor. "Jimmy," she said. "Long time no speak. Sorry I missed your calls before -- I'm in Russia on a story."
"Hello, Andrea," he said. His voice had an odd, strained quality, or maybe that was just her mood, projecting. "I'm sorry, Andrea. You've been doing good work. The best work of your career, if you ask me. I follow it closely."
It made her feel a little better. She'd been uncomfortable about the way she and Jimmy had parted ways, but this was vindicating. It emboldened her. "Jimmy, what the hell do I do now?"
"Christ, Andrea, I don't know. I'll tell you what not to do, though. Off the record."
"Off the record."
"Don't do what I've done. Don't hang grimly on to the last planks from the sinking ship, chronicling the last few struggling, sinking schmucks' demise. It's no fun being the stenographer for the fall of a great empire. Find something else to cover."
The words made her heart sink. Poor Jimmy, stuck there in the Merc's once-great newsroom, while the world crumbled around him. It must have been heartbreaking.
"Thanks," she said. "You want an interview?"
"What? No, woman. I'm not a ghoul. I wanted to call and make sure you were all right."
"Jimmy, you're a prince. But I'll be OK. I land on my feet. You've got someone covering this story, so give her my number and have her call me and I'll give her a quote."
"It's fine, Jimmy."
"Andrea," he said. "We don't cover that kind of thing from our newsroom anymore. Just local stuff. National coverage comes from the wires or from the Knight-Ridder national newsroom."
She sucked in air. Could it be possible? Her first thought when Jimmy called was that she'd made a terrible mistake by leaving the Merc, but if this is what the paper had come to, she had left just in time, even if her own life-raft was sinking, it had kept her afloat for a while.
"The offer still stands, Jimmy. I'll talk to anyone you want to assign."
"You're a sweetheart, Andrea. What are you in Russia for?"
She told him. Screw scoops, anyway. Not like Jimmy was going to send anyone to Russia, he couldn't even afford to dispatch a reporter to Marin County by the sounds of things.
"What a story!" he said. "Man!"
"Yeah," she said. "Yeah I guess it is."
"You guess? Andrea, this is the single most important issue in practically every American's life -- there isn't one in a thousand who doesn't worry endlessly about his weight."
"Well, I have been getting really good numbers on this." She named the figure. He sucked air between his teeth. "That's what the whole freaking chain does on a top story, Andrea. You're outperforming fifty local papers combined."
"Hell yeah," he said. "Maybe I should ask you for a job."
When he got off the phone, she spoke to Perry, and then to Lester. Lester said that he wanted to go traveling and see his old friends in Russia and that if she was still around in a couple weeks, maybe he'd see her there. Perry was morose and grimly determined. He was on the verge of shipping his 3D printers and he was sure he could do it, even if he didn't have the Kodacell network for marketing and logistics. He didn't even seem to register it when she told him that she was going to be spending some time there.
Then she had to go into the clinic and ask intelligent questions and take pictures and record audio and jot notes and pay attention to the small details so that she would be able to write the best account possible.
They dressed well in Russia, in the clinics. Business casual, but well tailored and made from good material. The Europeans knew from textiles, and expert tailoring seemed to be in cheap supply here.
She'd have to get someone to run her up a blue blazer and a white shirt and a decent skirt. It would be nice to get back into grown-up clothes after a couple years' worth of Florida casual.
She'd see Geoff after dinner that night, get more detail for the story. There was something big here in the medical tourism angle -- not just weight loss but gene therapy, too, and voodoo stem-cell stuff and advanced prostheses and even some crazy performance enhancement stuff that had kept Russia out of the past Olympics.
She typed her story notes and answered the phone calls. One special call she returned once she was sitting in her room, relaxed, with a cup of coffee from the in-room percolator.
"Hello, Freddy," she said.
"Andrea, darling!" He sounded like he was breathing hard.
"What can I do for you?"
"Just wanted a quote, love, something for color."
"Oh, I've got a quote for you." She'd given the quote a lot of thought. Living with the squatters had broadened her vocabulary magnificently.
"And those are your good points," she said, taking a sip of coffee. "Goodbye, Freddy."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
A note from the author:
Here ends the first "book" of "Themepunks," a novel that I'm still hard at work on. There are two more books in the novel; the second one is about two-thirds done now, and will run about twice as long as this first section. The third section will wrap things up, resolving the stories of all the characters we meet on the way.
The next book opens with the New Work in ruins. Perry and Lester are now running a ride that is a kind of interactive museum of the accomplishments of the New Work movement, housed in the shell of a dead Wal-Mart. Riders pass through on stair-climbing Dean Kamen wheelchair knockoffs, "voting" on each exhibit's elements by hitting a "+1" and "-1" lever on the front of the chair. They also bring in their own treasures for display in the museum and leave them in the parts where they think they fit.
The ride gets cooler and cooler as time goes by. Tjan rounds up some of his Boston pals to open a second ride, networked to the first, kept in harmony by automated exhibit-tending robots. Soon there's a network of these rides, all around the U.S. This isn't invention, it's storytelling, the New Workers and their progeny talking to one another.
America has been transformed by the "fatkins" movement, body-hackers whose metabolisms have been boosted to 10,000-15,000 calories a day. These new sybarites are obsessed with pleasures of the flesh and biotech, and Lester lives among them, a reborn sybarite.
But all is not well. Sammy, an executive at Walt Disney World (a separate public company, divorced from the parent company) has conceived of a deep and abiding hatred of the ride and the riders. Add to that the reappearance of Kettlewell and Andrea, and Kettlewell's furious wife, and police raids on the ride and things start to spiral out of control...
I've been really delighted with this experiment so far! The feedback you've sent has been great, and has really helped me think about book 2 as I wrote it. It remains to be seen whether Salon will pick up the next book for syndication, but in any event I'm immensely grateful to them for seeing this through to now, and the whole thing will be published between covers by Tor Books once it's in the can.
Thanks again -- and keep watching the junkyards!