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Novel:
vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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vCity 1.0
Chapter 27

"Commerce is naturally adverse to all the violent passions; it loves to temporize, takes delight in compromise, and studiously avoids irritation."

-- Alexis de Tocqueville --

 

Well, I was not going to stay in my pajamas this Monday morning, that was clear.

Revved up the PC this morning to check on the vote count. No doubt about it, the forces in favor of the banning gained in strength and padded their 51% margin. If Lee Ward is smart, she’ll pull the site tomorrow to squeeze the last bit of revenue out of it, then redesign it, then repost it.

My diablito informed me that I had a 1A priority e-message. Those are pretty rare. There are only fifty or so people in the entire world who I have tagged as 1A.

It was from the Big Boss. A meeting in his office at 09:00. Also attending would be the Chief Operating Officer, the Chief Financial Officer, the Chief Information Officer, David Smythe-Johnson, and my own boss.

"What are you doing?" my wife asked me, astonished.

"I’m putting on a tie."

"I can see that. Are you going to a funeral?"

"Hopefully not."

"Well, what’s wrong then?"

"Nothing’s wrong. I have to go to a meeting, that’s all."

"Oh. Who are you meeting with?"

"Nobody important. Not to change the subject, but how come you aren’t leaving for work?"

"I have a doctor’s appointment this morning, so I figured I go in later."

"What’s the matter?"

"Nothing, it’s just a check-up."

"Oh."

My wife and I looked at each other for a moment. Somehow, each of us had figured out that the other one was lying. But neither of us knew why. The moment passed.

"It’s your 43rd birthday in two days," she said, inspecting me. "Where do you want to go for your birthday dinner?"

"Maybe some place in Adams Morgan. We haven’t been there in a while."

"That Jamaican place you like?"

"Yeah, that sounds good. Or surprise me."

"Okay. You look very nice in a suit."

"Thanks," I grimaced. Compliments always spelled big trouble. "You look good in pajamas."

 

Alexandra Touissant is one of the nicest women I’ve ever known. According to legend, for seventeen years she has been Executive Assistant and Chief Secretary for the Office of the Chairman and CEO. She is the rock; we are the river.

"Hi Alex," I say, trying to sound cheerful. I’ve never been in HQ on a Monday morning; somehow despite the light-filled interior, the building seems vaguely grim and depressing.

"Doctor, what a pleasure it is to see you again." Ever since I have known her, she has always delighted in calling me ‘Doctor’, as if that meant anything. Perhaps it is just that she prefers to call people by their titles on the assumption that memorizing their names is a waste of time. "How is your wife Eliza?" she adds. So much for that theory.

"She’s doing fine, thank you very much. And you?"

"Fine, thank you."

"Well, that all sounds fine, doesn’t it? So, what’s up?"

Alex adjusts her glasses. "You have a 9 o’clock with the others."

"I know that, Alex, strangely enough -- that’s why I’m here."

"Oh Doctor, you are so funny sometimes."

"Am I? So, what’s going on?"

"They don’t tell me what’s going on."

"Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean you don’t know."

At this remark, she looks at me. Or through me. As if I have seen too much, and must now be regretfully eliminated by the Empire.

"Hhmph," she says. "Not this time." She will not budge, there is no use for the river to try to erode her.

"Okay," I say, retreating. "I guess I’ll find out soon enough."

Waiting in the outer office is difficult. My mind likes to range over the possible reasons for my attendance. The problem is: none of them are good.

Cynthia Stillaman shows up, my boss, the President of our company, which itself is a wholly owned subsidiary of the corporation. The most profitable one, I might add. She looks grim and determined this morning. Her pale white face is even paler and whiter than usual. With her jet-black close-cut hair, small nose, green eyes, and jutting jaw she looks like a Patrick Nagel girl ravaged by the passage of time, with crows’ feet wrinkles and a tight-stretched look that hints at one too many cosmetic surgeries and one too many marriages.

"What are you doing here?" she hisses.

"I was invited," I reply tersely. She is evidently not in a good mood.

"I know that. I mean, why?"

"I don’t know. It doesn’t bode well."

She looks at me intently, then relaxes a little bit, even manages to paste a wan smile on her face. "Don’t worry about it. I’m sure they just want to ask you a few questions about operations."

I nod agreeably, believing her not at all. Information doesn’t flow that way and she knows it. If someone had some questions, they would just e-mail them or pick up a phone. This isn’t about information, it’s about options and decision making. Or about imminent reorganization.

Others arrive. There is "Koosh" Paddel, the COO. A short, stubby, balding white man in his early fifties with enormous quantities of energy. His favorite saying is that what he lacks in intelligence he makes up for with sheer determination. I believe him. Not a man with which to trifle. Trailing behind him, and even shorter, is Sue Tran, our CFO. She is birdlike; no detail is too insignificant to escape her notice. Smythe-Johnson follows, a tall, thin white boy with a permanently tired, hang-dog look on his face. Last but not least to show up is our CIO, "Sledge" Hamner, a towering, impressive black man who might easily have been a professional football player had he had not blown out a knee in his sophomore year in college. He chose a life of crime instead as a white collar info-weenie.

Alex weaves in and out of the waiting area, mysteriously vanishing into the inner sanctum and returning out again, back and forth, checking on whether Big Boss is ready or not to receive his colleagues.

Finally we are ushered in to the office, a pleasant, darkly furnished interior that bespeaks of calm and rationality. Like a bank, perhaps, or a library study. Sitting at his desk looking over some paperwork is the Man himself, looking very gray and distinguished, impeccably dressed. He reminds me somewhat of Alastair Cooke, only thinner and with sharper edges. Behind him a large, tinted window reveals the splendid panorama of the verdant Reston countryside on a sunny day in July.

"Have a seat," he says to all of us, waving at the chairs and couches spread before him in a semi-circle. "Anybody for coffee or tea?"

"I’ll take some coffee," I volunteer.

He looks at me and points over to a bar in the corner of the office. "Help yourself."

I stand up, glad to relieve the tension. I am never very comfortable in a suit, anyway. I look around at the others. "Anybody want anything?"

They stare at me in surprise, as if normal polite social behavior were somehow out of place here. Suddenly I gain an insight into why David Smythe-Johnson, and probably others, considers me an irrelevancy to be ignored. These are powerful people for whom favors are routinely dispensed by others. It’s a foolish paradigm, the master and the servant, a social relic of a bygone era when people rather than machines provided labor. My offer to do someone a favor is misinterpreted as the obsequious behavior of a servant. But there cannot be servants here, in a closed-door meeting. Hence the confusion.

"Nobody wants coffee but me?" I repeat, with mock surprise.

No reply.

"Okay," I say, shrugging my shoulders. I move off to get a mug of the freshly made java -- by the smell of it, a Kenya roast. The hell with it. If they don’t want to adjust to the coming of the new world disorder, then let them sit in the past. It makes no difference. History moves with the unpredictable force of a hurricane and one can flee or prepare for it and enjoy the show. But one cannot wish it away.

Turning back to my seat, I catch a glimpse of the old man sitting at his desk. His eyes show that he is amused. He understands where the others do not.

The meeting begins, and everyone takes out a note pad or an electronic notebook except me. I found out years ago that taking notes was a distraction from listening. About the only good it does is to keep the hands occupied. There are several items on the agenda and none of them have anything to do with me -- projected alliances, legislation pending in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the Russian parliament, projected release dates for the latest software packages, a new advertising campaign, blah, blah, blah. I am glad to have the coffee, it is keeping me from dozing off into a stupor.

"All right," says the Chairman with finality. "Now, onto other business. Dr. Green, welcome to the parade."

"A pleasure to be here," I reply, lying.

"Dr. Green, this morning I received a phone call from the White House. Is there any reason in particular why you have decided not to return their phone calls?"

"I was told not to, sir."

"Oh? Who told you that?"

I look over at Smythe-Johnson. "Dave told me to refer all phone calls to him."

"Is that right?" asks the Chairman.

Smythe-Johnson shrugs. "This recent flap with the Bahamian content is a touchy issue."

"Ah yes," says the Chairman, "we'll get to that in a minute. Well, as it happens, I talked to the Vice-President this morning, and to get to the heart of the matter, he is very interested in what is going on with the Internet city simulation. The White House wants to set up a blue ribbon panel, and they want you, Dr. Green, to be part of the commission."

The Wheel turns. Big time.

"They want me specifically?" I ask. My voice sounds very tiny. An octave higher and I'd be doing Mickey Mouse (Trademark, Disney Corporation).

"That's what he said."

"To do what?"

The Chairman shrugs. "It isn't set up yet. Who cares?"

"With all due respect, sir, I like the job I have now." I steal a glance over at my boss; like the rest of them, she is mortified that I should even be questioning the Man.

"Of course I understand that, son," he says in a paternal dismissal, as if I had told him that what I really wanted to be when I grew up was an astronaut. "But you have to look at it from the corporation's point of view. We need all the contacts we can get with this administration. And having you there would be a real plus."

"This panel would report to the Office of the Vice-President?"

"I think so."

"The OVP is worth a bucket of warm spit." I steal another glance over at my boss; like the rest of them, she is now dead and pushing up daisies.

"Probably less with inflation," replies the Man evenly. "Still, that's where you need to be, for now."

"Are you asking me, or telling me?"

"Well, since you put it that way, I'm telling you."

"You're giving me a direct order to take an extended leave of absence?"

"Yes."

"With full pay?"

"Yes."

"In that case, I accept."

"Good. I'll have human resources draw up the paperwork, you can start your leave next Monday. Now, regarding the Internet city, it seems we have a problem."

"Sir?"

He nods to Smythe-Johnson. "David?"

The hawk-nosed, dog-faced man with the steely grey eyes looks at me with great embarrassment, as if he were about to tell me that my fly was open. "We're on track to pull the link on the Bahamian content, right?"

"It looks that way."

Koosh Paddel interrupts. "Excuse me, but what the hell is this Bahamian content?"

Smythe-Johnson stretches a palm outwards towards me, as if handing me responsibility for the explanation.

"He's referring to a server-array located in the Bahamas," I explain to the COO. "It contains pretty graphic virtual reality pornography sold at $30 a site visit."

"Oh, that," says Paddel quickly. "Okay, never mind."

"So, you think we're on track to pull the link?" repeats Smythe-Johnson.

"Yes."

"Well, we can't."

A monstrous silence descends upon the room, a silence so profound that it might just as well have been the sound of one hand clapping.

"I don't understand," I hear myself say. Wow, a near out-of-body moment.

"I talked to Roberto Canseco this morning, and he's pretty upset."

"Why?" I ask. "What does he have to do with it?"

"Apparently one of his companies owns that content and the servers and the bank and probably about half of the Bahamas, too," replies Smythe-Johnson nervously, looking at the rest of us. "That's confidential information, by the way, so don't go spreading it around. Also, for your ears only, his group has plans to introduce similar material on ten new sites throughout the Internet."

"How much money are we talking about, David?" asks the Chairman politely.

"Between $40 and $50 million already, with projected revenues in the hundreds of millions."

"Jesus," somebody says, "maybe we should look into it."

"Not a good idea," says Smythe-Johnson, shaking his head. "The only thing that's keeping us all safe from the NSA right now is the fact that we are not profiting directly from this. That, and the fact that we are attempting to remove it."

"So then calling a referendum was a smart thing to do?" says my boss.

"To keep the government at bay, yes," says Smythe-Johnson. "However, we're caught between a rock and a hard place here, because if we don't pull the link then we'll have more trouble than a dog has fleas, and if we do pull the link then we'll be facing a very stiff lawsuit from Literati Inc."

"On what grounds?" I ask.

"Unfair practice, restraint of trade, a grab-bag of possible bullshit."

"David," warns the Chairman.

"Sorry. Any number of possible dubious claims revolving around the fact that we have seventy million viewers to which we won't give him fair access. All of which would have to be answered, possibly even defended. But that isn't really the dangerous part."

"What is?" asks Paddel.

"Well, Canseco is a stockholder. A very big stockholder, almost 5% of our class B, and that's just what is listed. He could easily own more through surrogates. He doesn't need to sue us to rock our boat. Just dump his stock. He could start a bear run on us simply by doing that and floating rumors."

"That would not do at all," sighed the Chairman. "So, Dr. Green, this is your brainchild. What's the solution?"

Everybody looks at me. Oh right, I think, give me the easy ones.

"Permission to speak frankly, sir?"

"Absolutely," replies the Chairman easily. "I insist upon it."

"Okay," I answer quickly, before he changes his mind. I address my comments directly to him because he is the one that will be making the final decision anyway. That, and the fact that it is impossible to address a group of people simultaneously and effectively without the Internet. "First of all, we seem to be stuck in the middle of two very powerful opposing forces. So the obvious strategy would be to sidestep the battle, and get them to oppose each other directly."

"Hmm-hmm," he says.

"Secondly, we need to examine just how powerful they really are, and what their motives really are. If you know their mass and their velocity and can predict their acceleration, then you can figure out where they might end up. Like billiard balls."

"Hmm-hmm," says the Chairman, looking very non-committal. I steal a glance at the rest of them and they are all looking at me as if I just recently arrived from another planet. Oh well. In for a pence, in for a pound.

"Now, let's focus on the government first, and more generally, the forces in favor of removing virtual pornography from the Internet. The NSA's DTS currently has the authority to fine, jail, or seize assets of people and corporations who violate federal comm laws. Mostly those statutes refer to encryption, however. There is a section on making obscene and pornographic material available to minors, which we are not doing. There is also language that prohibits abetting transmission of obscene or pornographic material. The U.S. government would have an exceedingly difficult case trying to prove that. Furthermore, since the content is located outside the U.S., it isn't even clear that this is under their jurisdiction. But at any rate, if they attacked us, they'd have to take on all twenty-three internetworks and hundreds of access providers, which they're not about to do."

"Now, the reason why the DTS is waving its stick and shouting is that the administration is feeling political pressure from the family rights activists and other puritan groups. That's a smokebomb, because DTS knows damn well that accessing content over the Internet is a pro-active, individual event. In short, puritans could simply ignore evil if they chose to. So what's the government's real interest in all of this? It's got to be revenue. I think if we dig deep enough, we'll find out that the real concern is coming from the Federal Revenue Disservice."

"Now, if that's true, what we need to do is find out what the FRS wants. Or you can step back even further, and ask yourself, how does the U.S. economy stand to gain or lose from this? The answer is simple. If you keep the content located in the United States, then its transmission within the U.S. can be taxed at U.S. rates. Furthermore, people in other nations will have to access U.S. content and deposit their telemoney in U.S. accounts. So the U.S. gains two ways."

"Now, let's focus on Canseco. His revenue projections are way off, because he's basing them on data gained from an aberration. The reason why so many people are looking at the site is because it's a novelty and because of the referendum. $30 per site visit is a very high fee. If you measure it in relative entertainment value terms, it's fair market price should be closer to $5, or $3/hour, something along those lines. He's smart to charge a high fee per site visit, though, because that industry has got to have a very high churn factor. I mean, if you've seen one, you've seen them all, if you know what I mean. So setting up ten new sites would bust the market. I'm not even sure what the real market is, to be honest with you."

"So what is Canseco really after? A fair access lawsuit would be a waste of time; the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Jurgen v. ADCI Network established that as long as Internet access itself is not denied, an individual or corporation cannot be held liable for refusing to refer to someone else's Internet address, or designing software that does not recognize certain kinds of files, unless it were a deliberate act intended to harm a business competitor. And that was a 7-2 decision, which means that Canseco would have to purchase three Supreme Court justices, which is impossible."

"But Dave is right about his capacity to make trouble, so we can't afford to piss him off, begging your pardon. So what does he want? Like any good businessman, he wants to make as much money as he can and control as much market share as he can. He sees that the growth potential of the vCity is almost unlimited and he knows that it is the strongest draw of any of the VR worlds on the Internet. What he really wants is not access to our established customer base, but access to our new customers. The ones who haven't seen a VR pornography site yet."

The Chairman held up his hand, like a policeman directing traffic. "Stop. What's the solution?"

"Have Canseco and the FRS caucus and agree to Literati Inc. setting up new content and the servers within the borders of the U.S. Make sure they put it in a fairly liberal state so that they don't get hung up on local standards problems. Or even better, have them put it in the District of Columbia, where the federal government can keep an eye on it or seize control of the situation if the local regulators get antsy. But that won't happen, because D.C. badly needs new sources of revenue. Give the TDS whatever authority it wants to oversee the proper installation of safeguards against the tender eyeballs of minors and God-fearing citizens everywhere."

The Chairman looked over at Smythe-Johnson. "David?"

The lawyer scratched his left ear. "It might be worth a try. What I can't figure out is, how do we stop people from voting to remove these things from our listings?"

"What about that, Dr. Green?" asks Big Boss.

"You don't," I reply. "That's the point. Left to itself, VR pornography is basically boring, an exercise in meaningless futility. When forbidden fruit is left in the open, it rots quickly. What makes it interesting is that other people want to get rid of it, hide it. This is the basic design principle behind the thong-bikini. What Canseco needs to understand, is that calling a referendum to ban a site is necessary to its profitability. Tell him that we'll be glad to call a referendum on each site he places into the vCity, for a fee. Tell him that what he needs to do is place only one on-line once a month, and to make sure that it has some conceptual design flaw. The content, of course, doesn't really matter."

"But won't other people start putting up pornographic content in the vCity?" asks my boss.

"Sure. But we don't have to call a referendum on everything. Or anything, for that matter. If notoriety is truly valuable, then we ought to receive some compensation for creating it."

The Chairman smiles. "Son, you're too smart for your own good."

"Then why are you marooning me on blue-ribbon nonsense?"

The smile vanishes, to be replaced by a thoughtful pursing of lips. He thinks before answering. I like that.

"Do you play Go?" he says, referring to the Japanese game of stones.

"I know of it."

"Well, learn it. And when you understand the game, then you'll understand the move."

It was a dismissal, and we left. It was just as well; my coffee had turned cold.

On the ride down on the elevator, my boss said nothing to me. She said nothing, in fact, until we reached her office.

"You're insane, Forest."

"Sanity is statistical."

"You can't talk to him like that. Jesus!"

"Oh, relax, Mamsahb. He's had so much of his ass kissed all his life, I'm sure there aren't any hairy spots left."

She looked at me curiously. "You are one son of a bitch bastard."

"I try."

"Well, I'm sorry to see you go. Who should take over running your project?"

"I don't know. That kid Darrin, maybe. He's got a bright future kissing ass."

"Okay, I'll think about it." She looks at me again with curiosity. "By the way, what does Mamsahb mean? Or dare I ask?"

"Oh, it's just an honorific title. It means Honored Madam."

next chapter

 

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