Above the Silicon Valley, a Dark Angel hinted at untold powers and Nick Aubrey was beginning to regret that he had come along for this ride.
“You are familiar, of course, with the work of Abraham Maslow,” Meekman said.
Nick wanted to think more about the villagers of Fanaye Dieri, or about the bread crumbs Monty’s hint about bugs deliberately strewn in the system—but evidently those lines of the conversation had evaporated. OK then; Nick would talk about Maslow. The name evoked memories of a college girlfriend, a tall psychology major with strawberry-blonde hair. Nick’s first love: she had had freckled breasts and sharp wit and passionate sense of justice. Why had they ever broken up?
“Maslow’s the one with the theory about the hierarchy, right?” Nick said. “How did it go? Need food, need shelter, need achievement. . .”
Monty seemed pleased with Nick’s answer.
“At the most basic level, people need food, shelter, sex. Once their biological needs have been met, more subtle social needs present themselves—for companionship, stability, love, a feeling of belonging. And once these needs have been met, people need achievement, a sense that they have accomplished something. Their sense of self is actualized by the regard of others.”
“Fascinating,” Nick said. He knew there was a reason he had broken up with that girlfriend.
“At the highest level of human development are self-actualized people,” Meekman said. “Those who have attained a perfect indifference to the scorn or acclaim of the rest of the world. There are fewer and fewer people at each successive level of development, so the whole of humanity makes a pyramid, with self-actualized people at the peak.”
“Gotcha,” Nick said. “Like the TransAmerica Building.”
“How far up Maslow’s pyramid would you say you are, Nick?”
Nick thought. He didn’t care about cars, clothing, social standing, achievement basically he didn’t care about anything. Outside of a vague and very faint hope that he would someday reunite with Bartlett, the only things that interested him were lifting weights and drinking beer.
“I guess I’m at the top,” Nick said. “Self-actualized.”
Monty looked at Nick with lowered, pitying eyes.
“Oh no no no no no,” he said, like a songbird instructing its young. “No no no no no. No, Nick you have a long way to go until you’re self-actualized. No no no.”
“Well then maybe I misunderstood the concept,” Nick said. “Can we talk about getting me down from this mountain in time to get to the airport?”
“Let me give you an example of some self-actualized people. Albert Einstein. Abraham Lincoln. Bill Gates. Saddam Hussein. Alexander the Great. Adolf Hitler. Henry David Thoreau. George Soros. Mahatma Gandhi. Rupert Murdoch. Michael Eisner. Napoleon. The directors of the Cali cocaine cartels and the Russian Mafias. Alan Greenspan. And myself.”
“What about the Pillsbury Dough Boy?” Nick said. “He seems pretty self-satisfied.”
It was pointless, of course, to use sarcasm on Monty. Once he got going there was no stopping him.
Monty said, “Understanding Maslow’s pyramid is the first step in understanding how the world works. Understand the pyramid and you’ll understand why oil, weapons, and cocaine are the three greatest commodities in international trade.”
“Do the guys at the top have a dating service and get together to play Scrabble like they do in Mensa?”
“We play, yes. But to we who are self-actualized there’s only one game worth playing: Rule the Roost. The object is to make the other players cry, ‘yield’. And, of course, to do so stylishly.”
“So that’s your idea of fun,” Nick said. “Who’s winning?”
“Gates is winning on paper. Hussein has the most style points. Eisner is my biggest threat, especially if he hooks up with the cocaine cartels. But I’m winning.”
“Eisner? The chairman of Walt Disney is your biggest threat to world domination? By selling drugs?”
“The Television Reform act of 1984, by which Ronald Reagan gave America’s children over to the care of the Telescreen, was the most significant political act of the twentieth century, and I include Hiroshima and the decoding of DNA as political acts. Reagan blew the locks on the door that separated the nursery from the whorehouse, and Eisner rushed in first. Under Eisner, television has perfected the way it brainwashes children into the modern cult of sex, violence, fear and individual entitlement— which will make religion, family, and government moot within a generation. Disney’s children have grown up addicted to Little Mermaids, Michael Jordan, suburbia, MTV, and ABC news. All Disney needs now is a narcotic supply to complete its portfolio of dopamine enhancers and he’ll have an army of two hundred million of the best fed, best educated people in the world eating out of his hand. That’s why he’ll cut a deal for a narcotics supply. The Cali cartels also provide a more risk-free route to atomic weapons than the Russian Mafias do. Eisner and Disney have a very compelling game plan.”
Nick had to admit that as far as sociological theories went, this one explained a lot.
“What about you?” Nick said. “Where’s your bomb? Where’s your army? How can you expect to rule the world without an army?”
“Not rule the world. The game is rule the roost. To deny your opponent what he wants.”
“Ah,” Nick said. “That explains Saddam’s style points. Because Bush didn’t get two terms, the only thing he wanted.”
“Some day Saddam may be acknowledged as the greatest military strategist of all time,” Monty said.
Nick thought that was a reach.
“I’ll grant him political style points,” he said. “But military strategist? No way. Saddam’s boxed into a corner. His army is decimated.”
“Subedai,” Monty said, significantly. “His maneuvers are still studied at West Point.”
Monty was baiting him, another favorite conversational ploy.
“OK, I’ll bite,” Nick said.
“Ghengis Khan’s most able general. Subedai perfected the feint, the false attack to lure the enemy’s forces where he wanted them. Then he did as he pleased with his prisoners—which usually meant conscripting them into his own army.”
Why was Nick even having this conversation? What were they even talking about?
“The Gulf War was a feint?” he said. “Give me a break.”
As Nick spoke, Monty clambered atop a guardrail post. There he stood, like an Olympic diver on the high platform, with his feet pointing ahead touching each other and his arms at his sides. Beyond the guardrail the ground tapered steeply down one or two yards to a chiseled edge. Roll off that and it was fifty stories straight down.
“What would you do,” Monty said, while looking northeast from his perch to Devil’s Mountain thirty miles away, “if you had a programmable biological weapon that could put millions of the world’s best soldiers under your command, but no way to deliver that weapon?”
Nick himself had no especial fear of heights. On the other hand he was no daredevil. Harold Lloyd movies with breathtaking stunts filmed atop unfinished skyscrapers literally made him shiver—as if someone had taken fingernails to a dusty chalkboard.
“Hmmmmm. . . . .” Nick said, refusing to acknowledge that Monty was one good gust of wind from certain death. “What would I do if had a programmable biological weapon that could put millions of the world’s best soldiers under my command, but no way to deliver that weapon? Let’s see, what would Subedai do? Would I attack Kuwait?”
Intellectually Nick knew the importance of maintaining sang-froid. But exactly how was he supposed to disregard this demonstration of ice-water in Monty’s veins? However Nick did it, he had to act cool. To do otherwise would be tacky, like pointing out to Titanic’s gallant orchestra that the barky, she was a-goin’ down. It would be tantamount to ceding the game on the opening play.
“Stylish, isn’t it? ” Monty chirped from his aerie. “Even Gates was impressed.”
Maybe Nick hadn’t given Monty enough credit. Perhaps he was a syphilitic madman. Not only was he walking on a trapeze without a net, he apparently also believed that he was playing a real-life board game with Saddam Hussein, Ghengis Khan, and Bill Gates. Nevertheless this was turning out to be an amusing conversation—if you ignored the fact that it might end in free-fall at any moment.
“How about you?” Nick asked. “How are you going to rule the roost?”
“That will be revealed to you if it becomes appropriate,” Monty said.
With those words the spell broke. The sun was starting to slip behind the mountain ridge that rose behind them, and the air was getting chilly. Nick was about to force the issue when he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, something moving. About fifteen or twenty yards to Nick’s right, at the far end of the parking lot, two bicyclists had stopped and dismounted. A man an a woman, both in spandex and clearly in great physical shape, took off their helmets and riding gloves. As if choreographed, both of them shook their heads, then ran hands through long shiny blond hair, his as long as hers. Venus and Adonis: for a moment Nick couldn’t take his eyes of them, and he had to force himself to remember his train of thought.
“You didn’t drive me all the way up here to give me this little Kissinger’s eye view of global power relations,” Nick said to Monty, taking his eyes off the New Gods. “You want something from me. I don’t know what it is, but you’re not going to get it without a little honesty. Tell me your strategy for winning Rule the Roost.”
“Stand beside me,” Monty said, and indicated the next post, six feet to the right of his own.
Backing out was impossible now: Nick had come here for information, and it was obvious that he wasn’t going to get it without passing this first test. Monty had issued a challenge, and dread or no dread, Nick was going to have to pick it up. He stepped forward and placed his hand on the thigh-high post.
“How nice of you to invite me up,” he said.
He focused his eyes on the spot where he was going to put his feet, and before he knew it he was crouching there. Quickly he stood erect, keeping his gaze straight ahead across miles of air to Mission Peak, from whence Europeans had first seen the mirror view and proclaimed God’s salvation to the indifferent bay.
“Chuckie Johnson was fired today,” Monty said. “Your project will be discontinued after the next stable build of the source tree.”
There it was. All this talk about a global conspiracy of self-actualizers had been a goof. Nick had been taken up to the mountains simply to be whacked. But why was Monty doing the hit? Nick turned his head to the left and saw Monty slowly, silently, raise his arms from his sides until they were straight across, like Christ’s on Sugarloaf above Rio de Janeiro.
Nick turned his gaze one more to the front, but was distracted by something out of the right corner of his eye. He couldn’t believe it. The two perfect Aryans, as if playing “Simon Says” with Nick and Monty, had clambered atop guardrail posts at the far end of the lot and were raising their arms as well. Despite the spandex and the distance, Nick could see the size and symmetry of the man’s muscles, right down to his abs—and the woman’s form was, in its own way, even more remarkable.
“I am offering you the position of Corporate Fellow of Digital MicroSystems,” Monty said. “You will be special assistant to me, to work on projects at Digital MicroSystems Laboratories, Incorporated. The salary is two hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars per annum.”
“Jesus,” Nick said. His thighs began to tremble. He imagined Harold Lloyd stepping off a girder into thin air fifty stories above Times Square, catching himself on shoestring.
“Let’s jump, Nick.” Monty said. “Have faith. We can fly if you touch your finger to mine.”
The blood pounded in Nick’s temples as he found himself involuntarily lowering his head to look to where the earth met the sky at the cliff edge. Infinitely below was a pile of boulders. Nick imagined his own and Monty’s bodies lying atop the rubble, like tiny little Sistine dolls with arms outstretched, index finger to index finger, separated by a breath.
“You first,” Nick said.
“I have with me a bonafide offer, signed by Scott Beckwith. If you accept, ten million dollars, net of taxes, will be deposited today in account that has already been set up in your name. And you will receive bonuses at regular intervals.”
Nick’s legs weakened worse than before and for a moment his field of vision went completely black. Everything had happened just the way Carl had said it would: Johnson fired, Docudisc canceled, and Nick offered preposterous sums of money to accept a position for which he was probably not qualified—all wrapped in Monty’s thesis that the chairman of the Walt Disney Corporation was personally responsible for modern narcissism and the general shape of late twentieth century capitalism.
“That’s my job title,” Nick asked, weakly. “‘Special Assistant to Monty Meekman?’ At ten million down and two hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars a year?”
“Why? Why me?”
“Genius is innate; it cannot be taught, only shaped. You are not a genius, but you have a genius for certain kinds of fluid algorithms.”
“Bullshit,” Nick said.
“Don’t seek flattery Nick; it’s beneath you. If I went to the trouble to learn the names of the Fanaye-nabay don’t you think I’ve read your code? We both know what you’re good at, and we both know how good you are. Now, do you want the chance to really use your talent, or do you want to spend the rest of your life writing Novell emulators? That’s the choice before you: spend the rest of your life coding Novell emulators, or come with me to design the most complex and beautiful objects in the history of human creation.”
“With no interference from the Software Architecture Review Committee, I assume?”
“You’ll have total freedom of design—and a lot of money.”
“And what will I be doing to merit such generous remuneration?”
“You must accept the offer before I can tell you that.”
Nick should never even have along for the ride. From Mad Antonio’s he should have gone directly to the airport and caught the next flight out. He’d be nearly home by now, instead of getting a visceral lesson in the true meaning of the word “afraid.”
“And here’s your first opportunity for a bonus,” Monty said, nodding towards the spandex-clad mountain-bikers. “Push those vain imbeciles off their perches. They’ll never see you coming. I’ll give you two million dollars for each one.”
Nick said nothing. He could not remember how to speak.
Nick jumped backward, nearly losing his balance as he hit terra firma. Upon his perch, Monty turned to face Nick, his arms again at his side. Nick looked up at Monty like Dorothy looking up to Oz, the Great and Terrible. But not even Dorothy could have felt the terror that Nick now felt. But at least he had remembered how to speak.
“I knew you couldn’t do it, Nick,” Monty laughed. “You’re not self actualized; not yet. But the offer still stands. How about it? How would you like to reside at the very frontier, the very apogee of human knowledge?”
“You just told me that you’re locked in mortal combat with cocaine cartels and Saddam Hussein,” Nick said. “You offer me ten million dollars for no good reason at all to do a job you won’t describe. Then you make a joke about killing people for hire. Do I have ‘idiot’ stamped on my forehead?”
“The offer is genuine. It is no joke and the Fellows are no joke. You’re now one of them. Corporate Fellows have interesting jobs and very much money. None of the Fellows are working on Novell emulation, and none of them are bouncing checks. You’ve noticed, surely. ”
Yes, Nick had noticed. He had also noticed that the Corporate Fellows wore matching Star Trek tunics and watched movies without drinking beer. So far Carl had been absolutely right about Nick’s rehabilitation. He had been right about everything. Which meant, Nick was now quite sure, that Carl had been right about Monty’s role in the destruction of his career, his marriage-heck, his entire life. In compensation for which Nick was now being offered, what? the chance to run off with the Pied Piper of the nerdoids? The chance to invent the future while committing random homicide?
“Monty,” Nick said. “Shove it up your ass.”
“You’re making a mistake.”
“Well, that’s the way it is. Get down. Let’s go.”
“The instant you accept this offer I can begin to help you achieve the thing most dear to you. Decline this offer, and you’ll see what the world brings you.”
There was no mistaking the meaning of that remark. Nick had begun to recover from the tussle of wills on the guardrail posts. Monty wanted to play power games? Fine. Nick was ready to play.
“Are you threatening me?” Nick said. “I’ll smash your face, you pipsqueak. I’ll throw you off this cliff.”
“Bartlett is finding venture capital very hard to come by,” Monty said. “With ten million dollars you could provide a substantial lift to her and her colleagues.”
“I repeat: take me off this hill before I throw you off—and your shitbox car on top of you.”
“It’s a very short contract,” Monty said, as he reached into his jacket and withdrew an envelope. “It basically says that Digital MicroSystems will give you enormous sums of money, and that you will work only for the Labs—no consulting on the side, no projects of your own at home. You are free to leave the employ of the laboratory after five years; if you resign before then you will have to pay the corporation back for all monies you may have received by that time. It obliges you to total confidentiality, for as long as you live, about the projects under development at the Labs.”
“Lifetime confidentiality? Even official government secrets have expiration dates.”
“Their contracts don’t pay tens of millions of dollars. And I’m afraid that this offer expires in two minutes. You have only to say, ‘I accept,’ and I will place the contract in your hands. Sign it and the money, the Fellowship, are yours. So think about it, Nick. But don’t think too long.”
“You want me to take your money so that I can offer venture capital to Bartlett Aubrey, my own wife.”
“You can use the money however you like.”
“There are none.”
“Capital never relinquishes control,” Nick said.
An tiny smile appeared on Monty’s face, and for an instant Nick thought he was going to be congratulated for spotting the contradiction. Not a chance. With a grand gesture Monty swept his right hand out, indicating the panorama behind him.
“I made this,” he said.
Nick didn’t think he had heard him right.
“What?” he asked, still trying to comprehend the horror of his situation.
“I made this,” Monty said again. “I created the Silicon Valley.”
There was a look of rapture on his face as he began to recite the names of Silicon Valley companies: “Intel. Hewlett Packard. IBM. Advanced Micro Devices. Oracle. National Semiconductor. Silicon Graphics. Apple. Adobe. Next. All the others. All of them! Without me there would be nothing below us but a bunch of Mexicans picking fruit. All those companies, all that wealth, it all sprang from me, from my thought, from my inventions. Silicon is nothing but sand, and the Silicon Valley is nothing but my sandbox. Without Monty Meekman there would be no Silicon Valley. And you, Nick, are the one I have chosen to help me design what it will look like a hundred years from now.”
Monty was smiling from ear to ear, like the Grinch, like Pat Robertson. Nick had no doubt now: Monty was a danger to Nick, to Bartlett, to the world. Nick wished he had listened to his wife. He wished he had never met this crazy billionaire. He should have never abandoned agriculture for the intellectual seduction of systems and algorithms. But past was past, and ‘should have’ was shit. This was now, and Nick knew what he had to do. Anger was a useless emotion, a self-indulgent emotion. Carl Swirsing had been right: if anyone was going to get the better of Monty Meekman, it was going to have to be an inside job. No one but a Corporate Fellow would ever get the upper hand on this madman.
“I accept your offer,” Nick said, even as he battled the impulse to vomit.
Monty glanced at his watch.
“Right,” he said. Then he stepped off the post and placed the envelope in Nick’s hands.
Suddenly the ground beneath Nick’s feet melted away, and he had the sensation that he was falling out of the sky. At first he thought the insanity of everything Monty said had caused him to faint, but in a moment he realized that it was an earthquake.
Nick had been in earthquakes before, but he had never felt anything like this. It lasted about fifteen seconds, and the whole time he was quite certain that he was going to die. But he didn’t die, and eventually the terrible shaking ceased.
Nick looked up. Monty was standing above him, smiling.
“The world is a very predictable place, Nick,” Monty said. “Events are predictable. People are predictable. Arise.”
Once again Nick asked himself if he had lost his mind.
“How?” Nick asked. He was not expecting an answer, but Monty gave one.
“With a little knowledge of stochastic processes and strange attractors you can pretty much tell when Saratoga earthquakes are going to happen just by looking at the what the Calistoga geyser is doing, modulo the seismic data from the Heyward fault.”
Nick stood, uncertainly, like a toddler who has fallen after taking his first step.
“‘You can tell when an earthquake is going to happen to the precise minute?’ he said.
“I can tell to the exact minute with a thirty percent degree of confidence. The degree of confidence goes to ninety-nine percent if I only specify the hour. That was four point six, by the way. It felt worse because you’re standing at the epicenter.”
Monty looked increasingly serene, like a Dr. Seussian Dalai Lama.
The Lama said, “You’re not astonished by somebody who can predict a hurricane a week in advance or a lunar eclipse a hundred years in advance. Why should you be surprised that somebody can predict an earthquake a day in advance? Here’s a pen. Sign.”
Somehow the contract was still clutched in Nick’s left fist. The fist was trembling.
“Thirty percent degree of confidence?” Nick said, as the implication sank in. “Thirty percent? That earthquake could easily have come when I was standing up there. If you want to commit suicide, that’s your business. And when you play around with murdering me, well, I don’t like that.”
“The world is what it is, Nick,” Monty said. “People who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”
Only then did Nick remember the bicyclists. He looked to where they had been, but they were not there. Only their mountain bikes remained, one thrown atop the other.
“Sign the contract, Nick. You’ll be a multi-millionaire by the time we reach sea level.”
Behind him Nick heard a car approaching. He tore the envelope in half and dropped it, then turned and ran, with his arms waving in the air to flag down the rather battered Buick station-wagon rounding that was rounding the curve.
©1999-2010 John Sundman.