Authors: Daniel Verastiqui
First Edition, April 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Verastiqui
All Rights Reserved
Published in the United States of America
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places,
and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used
fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, persons living, dead,
or synthetic, is purely coincidental.
Cover design by Lauren Ellis. belovedwebdesign.com
Cover artwork by Elizabeth Swift-Petrae.
“I don’t know how to stop
Vinestead. I don’t know if we can actually reach our goal of bringing that
scumbag corporation to its knees. They’re so many and we are so few. But that
doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight. Come tonight, they will mourn the dead if they
are not dead themselves. People will see what happens when you take up the
wrong side of the fight.”
It’s the softest of whispers that demand the most attention.
Frank Gattis had been standing at the back
of the break room on thirty-seven stirring his coffee when he first noticed the
feed slowing down. The tiny whisperer in his left ear usually let out a steady
monologue, telling him in short, stilted sentences the latest happenings in the
city, what the clowns in Washington were up to, and how his stock portfolio
expected to fare over the coming day. When current events grew stale, the feed
turned more social, bringing him updates from personal and professional
networks in the form of status messages and location pings. All day, without
pause or variance of tempo, the whisperer spoke to Frank, keeping him perpetually
linked to the world.
Only the biggest news stories could slow
down the feed.
As a senior aggregator for Banks Media
Productions, Frank was responsible for seeking out and delivering such stories.
Although he spent every moment of every day gathering content to send up the
pipe, he was always on the lookout for the big one, the undiscovered stone that
could shatter the calm water of the feed and make the other media houses sit up
and take note. The ripples would make The White Line out of Atlantic City throttle
its political news and tales of corruption in East Coast gaming. Lincoln
Continental out of Umbra would ease its incessant technobabble just long enough
to turn an ear to Banks Media.
Even the lesser feeds operating in small
towns or on college campuses would fall silent, their engineers’ fingers at the
ready to copy, paste, and rebrand whatever news they might hear from one of the
big three media houses.
This time, though, it was Banks Media who
was slowing down, stalling stories of corporate influence and Hollywood gossip
in anticipation of a ripple from some far-off stone. Whatever was happening out
there in the ether, it was big enough for Donato Banks to bring the entire BMP
feed to a relative standstill.
It was enough to distract Frank from the
task he had been sent to do.
The other aggregators in the break room
sensed the ebb before the surge too. There were a dozen of them sitting around
with their coffees and donuts, discussing the plentiful but ultimately unusable
content they had gathered over the weekend. The group was largely middle-ladder
types, those who had been at the company a few years but who hadn’t broken a
story large enough to get them invited up to the fiftieth floor as Frank had.
They traded leads and talked of sports until one by one, they all quieted.
Their mouths held on aborted words as their
heads cocked to the left in unison.
Frank watched it play out, watched two-dozen
eyeballs scan back and forth as if they were reading the news instead of
hearing it in their heads. The resulting silence allowed him to zero in on his
own whisperer, to pick out that soft rustle endlessly reverberating in his ear.
A soundbite of President Hadden speaking at an anti-MX rally cut out abruptly.
Breaking on White Line Media:
2015.11.09.0605. James Perion. Dying. Cancer.
The ocean had receded, but with those words,
it returned as a giant wall of water ready to wash the beach clean.
The message repeated twice and then the feed
dove headfirst into the Perion Synthetics hashtag, dredging up recent news
stories about the company and reaction from industry pundits.
Panic may have spread through other break
rooms throughout the country, but not on the thirty-seventh floor of the Banks
Media Productions Tower. These were professional aggregators, men and women
whose job it was to stay calm in the face of an earth-shattering calamity.
Instead of fleeing before the tsunami, they took the time to calmly but quickly
gather their beach towels and umbrellas and head back to their cars.
The crowd stood as one.
Frank stepped forward and put a hand on the
shoulder of the man in front of him. When Cameron Gray looked up, Frank winked
Cell phones appeared from pockets; furtive
calls went out to stock brokers as the feed slipped into the financial hashes,
turning its focus to pre-market trading. Those without personal investment in
Perion Synthetics began narrating into their slivers, the small tabs of metal
embedded in their wrists that acted as a PDA, and for aggregators, as their
primary recording device. Others pulled leather covers from their palettes to
view the BMP feed in graphical format; photos and videos scrolled in an endless
loop down the vibrant screens.
Once the last aggregator had filed out,
Frank removed his hand.
“That’s okay,” said Cameron. “It’s only the
biggest news story of the year, but I’m sure whatever you have to say is more
The cocky little shit with the throwback
skater haircut and unnecessarily tight button-up had no idea what was about to
fall into his lap. And yet, Donato Banks had taken a personal interest in him,
had decided it was worth his time and effort to mold the mid-grade aggregator
with more forced bravado than brains into something better.
“You don’t deserve what’s about to happen to
you, kid,” said Frank, shaking his head. “But orders are orders, so I’m gonna
take you upstairs anyway. Leave your orange juice; Banks will shit if you spill
it on his leather.”
Frank dropped his coffee in a trashcan on
the way out of the break room. Despite the many conversations spilling from the
offices around him, he heard Cameron’s footsteps keeping pace. They stepped
into the elevator at the end of the hall.
“Fifty,” said Frank. “No stops.”
Cameron brought his wrist to his mouth as
the elevator began to rise. “Hashtag: Vinestead,” he said, instructing his
whisperer to focus on stories related to the ubiquitous and maligned
“Checking up on the competition?” asked
“Just trying to beat everyone to the
endgame,” said Cameron. “If this story turns out to be true and James Perion
really is dying of cancer, then you know at some point it’s all going to lead
back to Vinestead. And I’m going to be there. Waiting.”
The kid was sharp. Vinestead was where Frank
would have gone had Banks not tasked him with bringing Cameron to his office.
Pretty much any story worth feeding about Perion Synthetics would have a
footnote related to their biggest competitor, Vinestead International. Their
rivalry was more than a political ploy by James Perion to distance himself from
Vinestead CEO Arthur Sedivy and his no-morals, all-profit business practices;
it was personal as well.
Frank flashed on the memory of Perion and
Sedivy appearing on a national news show to speak out against the threat of
Chinese cyber-attacks. Both had been united against a common enemy, but somehow
their prepared remarks had turned into a debate about corporate responsibility
and whether companies served the people or the shareholders. Perion had just
raised his fist over his shoulder when the feed went to black.
The elevator doors opened to Donato Banks’
office and Frank spied the big boss standing at the floor-to-ceiling windows
watching the sun rise between the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles.
Frank led Cameron to an arrangement of leather
couches and plush chairs, but neither sat. No one sat in Donato Banks’ office
without being asked.
“I brought him,” said Frank.
“And what do you have for me so far?” asked
Donato Banks was never much for greetings.
It was the feed mentality that kept the owner and overseer of Banks Media
Productions from acknowledging that conversations usually had discreet
beginnings and endings. To him, social interaction was nothing more than a point-to-point
feed, an exchange of ideas both ongoing and uninterruptable. Talking to Banks
often meant joining a conversation already in progress.
“Excuse me?” asked Frank.
“Not you,” said Banks, turning around. “Cam,
what do you have on this Perion story?”
Frank expected Cameron to stammer some
excuse, but instead, he stepped forward and spoke to Banks as if they were
“Rich people don’t die from cancer,” he
replied. “So either Benny is full of shit, or he’s not telling us the whole
Bennett “Benny” Coker ran The White Line
media house out of Atlantic City, currently ranked third in subscribers. If he
had tagged his own name in the story’s metadata, it meant he was betting it all
on the story being true.
Banks motioned to the couches and sat down
in a chair at the head of the coffee table.
“Assume the story is true,” he said.
There was an intensity with which he stared
at Cameron, an expectant look radiating from brown eyes that were sharp and
powerful despite the lines surrounding them.
“Well, assuming Perion has a better health
plan than us, for him to die from cancer would mean he’s refusing treatment.
But why would he do that?”
Banks crossed one leg over the other.
“Follow the trail, kid. Perion goes to his
doctor, the doctor goes to the local distributor, to the national warehouses,
and small pharmacology centers. A man with his pull would end up at Feather
Medical or Cell Scientifics, and those both roll up the chain to one entity.
“Vinestead Pharma,” said Cam, his eyes
widening. He pulled out his phone and began typing out some notes. “They own
the patents on the treatments, don’t they?”
“Yes,” said Banks. “And given Perion’s
contentious relationship with Vinestead, you can see why that would be a
Cameron shook his head. “Yeah, but would
Vinestead really refuse to help him? That’s cold, even for Arthur Sedivy.”
“They’re more than willing to help out. All
Perion would have to do is submit to a Guardian Angel biochip.”
The mild excitement that had been growing on
Cameron’s face fell away. His dim eyes grew distant, perhaps imagining the back
of James Perion’s neck and the surgeon’s scalpel just a few centimeters away.
On a nearby tray, a fresh Guardian Angel biochip still in its protective case would
be waiting for insertion, its grow-wire coiled up in a small loop beside it.
Once installed in Perion’s neck, the chip would monitor the CEO’s vital
systems, and with the right patented code, help his body fight back against any
uncontrolled cell growth. And though Perion would live on, it would be with
Vinestead technology directly connected to his brain.
Cameron sighed as he came to the realization
that Perion would never allow that to happen. He would sooner face death than give
Arthur Sedivy, or anyone for that matter, the opportunity to spy on his inner
“It’s true, isn’t it?” asked Cameron. “Perion
really is dying.”
Banks nodded. “He called me last night and
told me personally. I think maybe he knew the story was going to leak.”
Frank noticed the red LED on Cameron’s
wrist. His questions had activated the recorder in his sliver, just in case. It
was a safety feature for impromptu interviews, but also handy when an
aggregator needed to be discreet.
“James Perion and I have history,” said
Banks, turning his attention to the vidscreen on the far wall. Flashy graphics
scrolled right to left, detailing the ongoing freefall of Perion Synthetics
stock. “Our relationship is one of mutual respect. He produces the most
advanced synthetic humans ever known to man, and I run the biggest media house
in the world. We’re cut from the same cloth.”
Frank knew the claim wouldn’t pass Quality
Assurance, not so long as Lincoln Continental kept crushing Banks’ subscriber
numbers. And as for Perion Synthetics, all that had come out of their secluded
beta test in the wastes of the California desert had been technology only
slightly related to synthetic humans.