Monday, March 12, 2018

Query 1.03: Early Bird

7:30 sharp and Py’s leather soled shoes scraped the surface of Cain’s short, stiff carpet. Even at the top of the tower they expected the stuff to be bland and last forever. It had taken a few quirky double steps to align his footfalls with the chime of the half hour, but Py knew the effect would not be lost on Cain who was occasionally a smartass and practically the inventor of the dramatic entrance.

Py liked Cain, which is more than most can say about their boss. He was easy to talk to. Easy to jest with. More than that though, Py liked the raw competence with which Cain navigated the world. It was that duality of playfulness and proficiency that made Cain unpredictable. But while jest was his hobby, serious was clearly his profession. The man was a jaguar with a ball of yarn. Cute, until he’s hungry...or annoyed. Or thirsty. Or until the moon was full. Or until he didn’t have his gilded bag of crackers. Cain was cute until it was too late. Cute until he was behind you in the darkness and you realized you were all out of yarn.

It was all too clear that this was a predator's lair. Pictures on the wall displayed him with giant trophy fish, thundering race cars, and peaking, majestic summits. Every picture showed a man possessed of a fierce competitive essence. Even a picture of Cain simply lounging in a recliner suggested that no other person could lounge more effectively than Cain.

Cain was only just beginning to show signs of age. His black, slightly thinning hair adorned a head fixed firmly atop a fit, strong body. Cain would often peer over the top of thin, black glasses he used mostly for reading, but clearly enjoyed for the weight of experience and power they invoked. He had a strong square jaw where fine lines had appeared on the forehead and at the corners of his bright amber eyes. Cain’s mouth always seemed to contain the promise of a smile and that almost-smile was present now. This Vitruvian Man was wrapped in a charcoal suit Py suspected was worth more than the entirety of his own wardrobe. Cain’s unshakable confidence - the untouchable confidence of a man with a set of invincible, contract negotiated, corporate artifacts. The Golden Handcuffs: benefits, payments, immunities, indulgences, and other things Py could only guess at. Things designed to ensure Cain’s loyalty should anyone ever try to poach Vergeron’s most able employee. And of course, the Golden Parachute, requiring Vergeron to pay an exorbitant amount should they ever need Cain to go away. Py suspected that should Cain ever need to leave it would be quite the show. A flashy fun adventure starring Cain jumping from a plane with a cocktail in one hand, a cigar in the other, and lesser people all around him, screaming as they plummeted to an inevitable stop.

Cain had himself a corner office and, without question, one of the best views Delphi had to offer. Rather than start the conversation, Py walked over and gazed out into the vast cityscape.

Vergeron had the distinction of sitting at the peak of the commercial district, a testament to what money and the material sciences could accomplish when put together. From a distance the Vergeron tower looked to be a perfect ovoid, a shining egg, looking over Delphi in silent elegance. Inviting, yet aloof. The tuxedo you rented for your brother's wedding or the pearl necklace everyone could afford, but still makes you feel, for a moment, like aristocracy. This was the image Vergeron had worked hard to invoke: sleek, spotless, smooth, and safe, bereft of the hesitation and terror innovation so often inspired in the masses. The great egg’s exterior lattice superstructure was rumored to be made of a single sculpted piece of high density, translucent polymer that focused all sunlight into a series of photovoltaic solar cells that powered not only everything Vergeron related, but some unknown amount of Delphi’s infrastructure. The black polymer had an eerie appearance despite the architects best efforts to maintain the otherwise comforting shell. The efficiency with which the polymer captured light created an unnatural black, a void, impossible to understand if you haven't seen it with your own eyes. Even in the darkest of night the spider web of black could be noticed by its absence, any windows illuminated from the inside flying like diamonds set in space, hovering strangely.

New Delphi was a tremendous example of starting from scratch. Huge sections of the city had been burned and abandoned during the height of Rapture. In time, great monuments and parks had been erected to honor the memory of the contemporary folk heros of the great plague. The unfortunate consequence of any disaster and subsequent restructuring is the violent, predatory consumption of land. Like any fresh carcass, the apex of the food chain will devour the most desirable parts and leave the gristle for the vultures. Bulldozers and cranes pressed the few remaining occupants into the ‘nobody-cares-where’ as towering megacorps formed New Delphi, taller and shinier than in any part of its history. Other, smaller bits of corporate architecture speckled the horizon until there were none at all, coming to the shadowed mass of muted blacks and browns that was Old Town.

Py had seen the view before and saw none of it now. He stood in a kind of parallel world, his vision blurred, the visual cortex repurposed for deep thinking. He was lost in the intellectual curiosity of the previous evening. He was tired, and still a little euphoric at the revelation that he was not only still alive, but unlikely to be contagious. Obsession dictated that a small part of his thought process linger on the idea, even while work and personal issues were pressing. The ideal scenario, in Py’s case, was a hybrid of theses many worlds. He wanted Cain to allow him to direct some portion of his time into research. It was what he’d be driving for with this meeting, whatever Cain’s intentions.

“Explain again how you ended up in police custody?” Cain asked, not looking up from the various and sundry screens and interface systems of his light-desk.

Py remained facing the window, placidly addressing Cain’s reflection rather than turn and face him directly.

“I was examining a dead body. It was all perfectly innocent, I assure you.”

“Your assurance is noted. Honestly it reminds me of the first time we met. Only there were more bodies, and fewer lawyers. You never did get the chance to examine them yourself. Forced to survive on just the coroner's report and a few tasteless press photos. I wonder if you’re not developing some kind of fetish?”

Py shrugged and turned around. Cain had put his glasses aside and looked at Py with that promised smile now full on his face. Py was glad Cain was in a good mood. It made what was coming easier. “It was sufficient to confirm my hypothesis, besides I’ve examined the symptoms in other patients, I know all too well what I would have found there.”

“Indeed!” Cain said, “And it was enough to bring you to my attention. But that is neither here nor there. You remember your assignment? You were suppose to find out why people will buy the Chronicle for a dime when they could get the Times for seven cents? “

Now that’s a bit of an oversimplification.

Py’s assignment was to discover why Hearst Communications newspaper division was outperforming NYT International’s newspaper division 2 to 1. Once he discovered the “why” Py was tasked with developing countermeasures. The assignment was a curveball, only just fitting into Py’s wheelhouse as far as expertise went, but he suspected some influence brokers from NYT’s board of directors were involved in this and that his placement at the head of the inquire was for trust reasons more than anything else. It had seemed interesting enough. Something new that Py could sink his teeth into. Interesting enough… until last night.    

Py didn’t have the answers Cain wanted. He’d only begun working the assignment when he found the body. Cain was just doing what any boss in his position would do, bring an employee to task for being distracted while on the job. Still, Py did have some information.

“The NYT machines reject transactions.” Py said.

“Which machines?” Cain asked, clearly puzzled.

“Have you ever heard of the Federal Right of Information Act?” Cain gave a little shake of his head, so Py continued. “It basically states that every person has the right to know what’s going on in the world around them. That every person should be able to get there hands on a cheap, reliable source of news. With the baby boomers gone print media saw a crisis. The only thing holding them together was the traditionalism of a bygone few who worshiped at the altar of tangible, touchable product, and with them in the ground they found they were soon to follow. Depending on which conspiracy you adhere to, the government was worried about the loss of jobs and taxable industry after machine learning had completely replaced the report writing sections of the profession.” Cain’s smile got a little wider at that. Py didn’t know for certain, but he suspected one of Cain’s first acts as Vergeron’s CEO was to negotiate the replacement of certain biological assets with robotic ones at most major news outlets. “So, news became a protected commodity. The FRI Act was an easy sell. Now the federal government provides subsidies to all printed media that can reasonably be defined as news, making possible a long list of jobs from the person who changes the ink cartridge all the way back to the guy who chops the logs. Some pessimists think that the government filtering money into the news industry might make for biased editorials. Whatever side of the fence you land on though it’s basically just a screen capture of the website distributed on an industrial scale.”

“I’ve seen the paper machines on the curb. I hadn't given much thought to why they’re there. How many people are actually buying these papers?”

“Not many… and more than you’d think. They’re popular with the homeless, good for blankets and kindling. They're popular with teachers and parents for pinatas and baking soda volcanoes. They’re popular enough that almost every machine I checked needed to be restocked.”

At least, the Chronicle needed to be restocked.  

“Most digital currency vendors have a minimum transaction amount to offset the cost of making the transaction. A vendor must provide special authorization for any transaction that could result in a loss of income based on fees. Something NYT overlooked when they discounted the paper to compete against HC.”

“How many sales could this really cost them?”

“Not many in the direct sense. I have to imagine that word of mouth about a paper that no one can buy might be damaging to their reputation. Enough maybe to explain at least part of the discrepancy in sales, but they only discounted their paper a few days ago. Even if this was an international screw up it doesn’t factor into the data we were given.”

“Well, good to know you managed to get something done despite wasting time in police custody.” Some would have thought Cain was being dickish, and he was, but there was no malice in it. He was doing it because that’s what Cain did. Sarcasm was a social weapon and one that Cain had spent years honing to say and do things others would be crucified for even mentioning. It served him well, if money, power, and prestige where metrics for such things. Unfortunately for Cain, Py had a tried and true defence against Cain’s more sardonic tendencies - complete and total disregard.

“Productive as I could be, given the situation.”

“Alright, I’ll see the client’s informed. Anything else?”

And here we are. Moment of truth.

All last night and through much of the early morning Py had considered how best to breach the subject of his discovery. He’d asked Alice more questions and firmed up the data he had before running and rerunning simulations in his head of how this talk with Cain would go. He’d finally decided to make an appeal to expertise, his own in this case. It was one of the few things he knew Cain would respond to and certainly one of the stronger cards he could play. He just hoped it was enough.

“I had an interesting encounter last night with an undocumented toxin or pathogen. I did some research and as of now I have 34 candidates who are strong possibilities for having died of this unknown agent and another 4 who are likely in my position of having survived contact.”

Cain looked across his desk with a kind of fatherly, patient resignation. “Old habits do die hard, don’t they.”

Py ignored him and pressed forward, enthusiastic and unfazed by the not so subtle implication in Cain’s words. “Of course my first concern was to eliminate the possibility of an epidemic. Since, according to Alice, the 34 deaths occurred over a period of about 4 ½ months, I don’t think that’s the case.”

“Alice...that’s Ben’s project?”

“Yes, I’m one of the BETA users. I’d been planning on using her to analyze distribution trends for the newspaper.”

“But then you got distracted.” It was clear that Cain was doing his best to gently maneuver Py away from his latest of seemingly endless distractions. Py, for his part, was having none of it.

“I haven’t completely eliminated the possibility of disease, but now I’m leaning more toward something chemical than biological. I did find a fairly harmful toxin that’s being distributed in Delphi, although it wasn’t the one I was looking for.”

“And you deduced this how… using Alice?” Cain looked sceptical and for good reason. Py was burying the lead here, but Cain was hesitant even to entertain the idea that Py had something convincing enough to let his employee stay his current course.

“Actually you might find this interesting. Cross referencing several medical records I noticed trends in elevated anxiety, depression, disorientation, lost time, and loss of consciousness leading to several accidents and self inflicted injuries. I was able to loosely associate these symptoms with specific neighborhoods and then, more specifically, to a handful of pharmacies. The toxin in question seems to be part of a new prescription medication called cycolobensinite, distributed by Genos Pharmaceuticals. Although only medications from certain pharmacies seem to be contaminated. Given the regularity of the trend I suspect the contamination could be intentional.”

“...come again?” In all the things Py could have offered, in the incredibly tiny subset of possibilities he knew would be of interest, the head of a competitor was top of the list. Cain’s eyes had widened at the statement, his pupils had dilated, and he’d unconsciously moved forward in his seat. Py had his full attention.  

“I think different pharmacies are receiving different medications all labeled under the same name.”

“Why would they do that?”

Py couldn’t help but smile. “Well, if I were a less scrupulous version of myself, I’d say they’re attempting to skip the last year of clinical trials by running controlled experiments on the general public.”

“That’s, that’s brilliant!”

“You mean diabolical, right?”

“Yes, diabolical,” Cain waved his hand about as if shooing a fly, “and you figured this out using Alice?”

“She’s quite clever, but Alice doesn’t have everything I require. I’ll need forensics if I’m going to learn much more.”

“About the pharmaceuticals?”

“No, the other toxin. I was hoping you might indulge me and let me track this thing down.”

Cain brought his elbows up and rested them on his desk, crossing his fingers under his nose, all the better to fix Py with that same weighing gaze that Officer Logan had given him just a few hours ago.

“How sure are you?”

Py gave a snort of laughter. “As confident as a sleep deprived, massively caffeinated beta user of an experimental data engine with seeming access to an unverified corpus of medical records can be.”

Cain relaxed noticeably at that. It seemed Py’s self referential nature was enough to soothe some of his misgivings.  

“Py, Genos is a big company with a substantial lobbying power. An accusation like this could cause a lot of trouble if we're unable to prove it.”

“The test is simple if we can get samples of the medication. We probably have all of the equipment needed on-site. How you present this publicly, I leave to you and the lawyers to sort out.”

“Well said. Discretion being the best part of valor, keep this to yourself for the time being. I’ll let you know if I need anything else from you in this regard.”

“, about my project?”

Cain let out a sigh of resignation. There were few relentless enough, brave enough, and with enough capital to ask favors of Cain in the best of circumstances. Py managed it regularly.  

“Alright Py, how much is this going to cost me?”

“Given what I estimate the value of the information to be, minus legal fees, limo crackers, and my bonus, I guarantee you’ll at least break even.”

“Let me and the lawyers be the judge of that.”

“Don’t worry, I don’t want anything too extravagant. I need to analyze some samples from the alleyway. I’d like access to any police forensics, and of course, time to put everything together.”

“I’ll ask after the police forensics, but I make no promises. Send me specifies and I’ll see what I can do. Just remember that section 3 of your non disclosure/non compete is still in effect, so anything related to your own case needs to go through our attorneys, and in regard to that, you have a meeting with your lawyer in an hour. I expect you to make it.”

“I figured it was unlikely I’d escape lawyers for long anyways. I know I already asked about police forensics, but if you could try and rush my blood test, I’d really like to see that first.”

Cain started laughing. Not a snort, or gafa, or giggle, but a deep boom that filled the room and made Py want to join in. If not for the fact Py knew he was being laughed at.

“What’s so funny?”

“ really think they’ll have the results of your blood tests!?” Cain said, bringing himself under control. “Py, the city labs are months out. If you got your results this year I’d be impressed. This is one instance where your past experience is a little skewed. Just use our facilities. You’ll have everything you need by EOD and a more thorough suite of tests, besides. I recommend that’s where you start.”

Cain tapped his light-desk and a soft bluish light touched his face.

“I’ll put you in contact with a lab manager in the Underground. You can run all of your analysis tasks past him. Now, I’ve got work to be doing and so do you. In the meantime, don’t forget about the Times.”

“Alice and I are talking about it tonight.” Py said, making his way out. His mind was nowhere near the NYC assignment, but he felt it unwise not to offer Cain a farewell placation. “I have a few ideas on what might be going on.”

The door closed behind Py with a soft click, and Cain was left in the silence of his lair. He had to shake his head in amazement at the innocent destruction with which Py traveled the world.

Cain often wondered if Py was aware of the deep consequences his small musings caused, of the ripples he created, drowning lesser beings without thought. Billions of dollars, thousands of jobs, and the health of people dependant on medications from Genos Pharmaceuticals throughout Delphi, destroyed in a single mornings exercise. And all because it tangentially intersected with Py’s latest curiosity.

“Glados.” With that single word a familiar face appeared on the desk in front of him. It was a kindly face, one that had seen him through some of the more sensitive moments of Vergeron’s history. There was always a beautiful face on the floor, the exact kind of face one would imagine given Cain’s power and reputation. He was too vain for anything else. Behind that facade was Glados. Cain had terminated dozens of aides, all of them having kept more in line with this vain aesthetic, but none could do the job to his satisfaction. Until the frumpy grandmother he’d taken on recommendation inherited the mess of his many previous broken assistants and had it all in proper order by the end of her first day. Since then, Glados was as much a fixture of Cain’s day as the perfect coffee she had waiting for him every morning and the decanter of scotch that remained bottomless since her arrival. “Py has an appointment with Miss Chiller in an hour. Make sure he gets there. Ask Chiller to tie him up for a few hours. I need to verify some information. Also, put together a dossier on Genos Pharmaceuticals. And set up a meeting with Ben Whitechapel regarding Alice. I think it’s time we had a project review.”

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