Preamble: This newest story, The Profiteers, is a four-part serial. If fond of homonyms feel free to consume with a glass of orange juice and buttered toast.
First however is a bit of positive review news I've been slow to catch up on -- from Alex Friedman's April review of Idiot's Mask: "The first thing I noticed...was how little the author sacrifices his prose for the lengthy world building exposition of other science fiction writers. Mr. Brown's worlds are vibrant, fantastic, and alien while at the same time remaining relatable and wholly embedded within the character's perception." Isn't that nice? The novella is downloadable in a variety of formats from Smashwords and is also available for Amazon Kindle.
(The new serial begins beneath the fold.)
by Cheeseburger Brown
(This is the first post in a multi-part serial, consisting of the first three chapters of the story.)
"Meet me for a pop. It's business."
That was Dennis. Bloody Dennis. Dennis only called when he wanted something.
Against my better judgement I took the train to Toronto to talk. We met in a pub in Liberty Village. I got us a table. I knew he'd be late.
I was screwing around with my phone when he came. "Miles," he said. "How the hell are you?" I bumbled my phone down and awkwardly slid out from behind the little table. We shook hands. His handshake was dry and tight and sure. A really winning handshake.
He rambled a bit to open. Golf and opportunities. Names I should've recognized but didn't with whom he'd rubbed elbows. Dennis smiled a lot.
I glanced at my phone. "So what've you got going on now, Dennis?"
"Right down to business. I respect that. You're a no-nonsense guy. Let's get on with it, right?"
I adjusted my beer on the coaster and smiled a bit but said nothing. Dennis plunged ahead.
"I'm putting something together. It's going to blow the doors off everything I've ever done before. I want you in at the ground floor. Can you appreciate that? It's not for nothing. You're a smart guy. Let me level with you. I'm going to need you to source and run some coders."
"Yeah. You can do that?"
"Of course you can. You're the man, Miles. That's why I'm coming to you first. I want you to manage that shit. It's an important part but it's not important-important. But I'm starting a cloud company."
"You're starting a cloud company and code isn't important-important?"
"Did I say I? Because I meant we."
I raised a brow. He sat back a bit and spread his hands.
"Here's the thing. I can't give you my pitch until I know you're in."
"I can't tell you if I'm in if you don't tell me the idea."
The waitress wanted to know if we wanted another round. I looked at Dennis. Dennis nodded. "Oh yeah," he said to her. "On me," he said to me. "Listen," he whispered once she'd gone, "this is a unique industry we're breaking into."
"Which industry, Dennis?"
Beer came out my nose. I coughed and dabbed at my face with a napkin. "I'm sorry?"
"Fuck you," said Dennis. "You heard me, Miles. I can't say more without a non-disclosure signed."
Dennis leaned aside and opened his briefcase. He straightened again and laid down a typed page on his lawyer's letterhead. From his jacket he withdrew a pen. He sat back and took a sip of his drink with studied indifference.
"Fuck you," I said.
"Fuck you," he replied into his pint, eying me over the rim.
I signed the damn paper. He whisked it away into his briefcase and leaned forward conspiratorially. "You're going to love this," he promised.
2:22The investors were in Brampton. We drove in Dennis' car, because my car is sensible and affordable so Dennis felt it wouldn't make the right impression. His car is Bavarian and warms your bum electrically. The hood is like a mirror. Clouds smeared along its lines.
"Don't be tentative," he told me. "Everything's for sure. That's how investors need to hear it put, Miles. Right?"
"Don't spook the money."
"They need stuff simple. No verbal asterisks. Not a single caveat." He pulled into a driveway. The parking brake croaked as he yanked it up. "Come on, they're waiting."
It was an unassuming house. We climbed the steps to the porch, straightening our suits. He thumbed the doorbell. He stretched out his mouth and did lip exercises like an actor or a singer. "I know you love details, Miles," he said without looking at me, "and that's why I need you, but now's not the time. Let's be easy on the details today. Broad strokes. Right?"
Somebody's dog was barking. I looked vaguely in its direction and then back at Dennis. "Sure, Dennis. Whatever you say."
He smoothed his jowls and spit his gum into the geraniums. The door opened. Dennis grinned.
I was introduced to young Vedmohan and his uncles. I shook their big brown hands. Then Vedmohan led us all into the dining room to sit around the dining room table. As we shuffled into our seats Dennis leaned his head toward mine while unbuttoning his jacket, prompting me on the men's names from left to right: Jagjeevan, Tathagata, Faraz.
A teenage girl in a sari brought glasses of water then returned with matching file folders containing photocopies of the business plan. Vedmohan's uncles each made a slow, lazy show of flipping through the business plan, as if they might have forgotten what sort of things it described. But that wasn't possible.
To Vedmohan's sheepish smile I said, "I hear you did some work with Kim Dotcom down in New Zealand. Is that right?"
"Oh yes," he replied quickly, looking back and forth between Dennis and me. "I had a hand in the relaunch. As I'm sure Dennis has explained, Mr. Miles, cryptography is my field of focus."
"Miles is my first name actually."
"I'm so very sorry."
We chatted topically while Dennis caught the eye of the uncles. The uncles frowned with great dignity, their hands folded before them. Faraz said, "My brothers and I feel the business plan is a little light on operational detail. So we are especially glad to have the opportunity to meet you today, Miles, so you can fill us in."
"Fill you in?"
"On the details."
I kicked Dennis under the table. His nostrils flared as he worked to muffle his reaction. I forced a chuckle and shifted position. "Gentlemen, I'd be happy to."
And so I heard myself buying thinking time by relaying the pillars of Dennis' pitch: "Given that the future is longer than the past, it is inevitable that our civilization's technological prowess will eventually include the ability to travel backward in time. Or else backward time travel is impossible.
"But if backward time travel is possible and humanity does indeed have a long future the discovery is virtually assured, sooner or later. And if people are going to one day travel backward in time, it seems likely they would visit the human past to learn about their history.
"And that's where we're living now: in the human past.
"So, why don't we see time-travellers? Why did nobody show up for Stephen Hawking's time traveller's tea luncheon? The answer is obvious: they operate covertly.
"And if there really are backwards time-travellers operating covertly in our own era, they represent what may well be the last untapped highly-resourced market segment in the world."
Faraz took off his glasses and looked me in the eye. "You're telling me you want to tap a market you can't prove exists?"
"It's the very fact of what we can't prove that tells us everything we need to know," interrupted Dennis smoothly. Faraz turned to him. Dennis smiled. "Do you see what I'm saying, sir? If the existence of time-travellers can't be observed it can only be because discretion is essential to their work."
"Or that there's no such thing as time-travellers," pointed out Vedmohan gently. He seemed unsure whether he was offering a joke or an argument.
"Sure," grinned Dennis, "but then we wouldn't have any customers. And I won't lie to you: it could happen. We could set out our shingle and sit there waiting and waiting, and nobody will ever sign up. Could be. It's a distinct possibility."
He let them shift uncomfortably before continuing.
"But...if we have only a single customer -- we'll know. You follow me, right? We'll know the market is real, that it has needs, that those needs are needs we can service, and is therefore worth investing in. So that's the risk: we set up shop and wait for customer number one. And if we get him..."
Tathagata leaned forward. "We'll own the pasture, the gate, and the cows."
"You took the words right out of my mouth, sir," claimed Dennis.
Vedmohan chuckled uncertainly. "On the other hand, if this customer number one never materializes, we'll have thrown our family's money down a hole."
I expected Dennis to counter the negativity but it was Jagjeevan who spoke up next, his baritone voice amplified as it shuddered through his wide, frog-like neck. "That, my young nephew, is quite impossible."
Vedmohan turned to his uncle. "Uncle?"
"Samsara," said Jagjeevan heavily. "But to you it's maybe just a word."
Vedmohan looked down. I cleared my throat. "What does it mean, sir -- samsara?"
"It is the river whose headwaters flow into its own tail, the river in which all men flail and drown until they are purified -- liberated to join the timeless stillness of total unity."
"Reincarnation," offered Vedmohan as a gloss.
Jagjeevan pursed his lips with disdain. "Yes," he conceded, "that is the common, and facile, Western understanding. Thank you for supplying it, nephew."
Vedmohan looked down again.
"The facilitation of dharma transmission from one brahmin incarnation to the next has been a custodial duty of our family's line for millennia," Jagjeevan explained, "and while I am not prepared to draw back the veil of our most closely guarded secrets I want to show you -- and my brothers -- my confidence that this so-called market exists is not a matter of speculation or debate. It is a metaphysical and historical certainty."
It was quiet for a moment. Then Dennis spread his hands. "You heard the man," he said to the rest of us. "It's basically a risk-free opportunity."