NEW JERSEY, SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
With eager screams of hunger, little Ted Vandeveer drove his parents from their bed.
Dottie slipped a rubber-coated spoon between the infant's lips. Baby Ted blew out his chubby cheeks. Porridge spurted across the table.
Dottie scanned the mess. Her eyelids flicked upward meaningfully.
"Where's the au pair?" Van hedged.
"She didn't come in last night."
Van rose from his white plastic chair, and fetched a white paper towel. With the wisdom of experience, Van tore off a second towel for Ted to use as backup. Van still felt giddy inside his mansion's bright new kitchen. The new kitchen featured deep steel sinks, thick red granite counters, and a chromed fridge the size of a bank vault. When he'd signed up for a house renovation, Van hadn't known that New Jersey contractors were so enthusiastic.
At least, Van thought, Dottie approved of the changes in their house. The mansion's original kitchen had been a nightmare straight out of H. P. Lovecraft. Dottie's new kitchen was now the only place in the Vandeveer home where the plumbing worked properly.
On a corner of the new stove, a small TV played WNBC out of New York City. Van had hooked the set to a pair of rabbit ears. The township of Merwinster, New Jersey, lacked cable television. This was a serious blow to the Vandeveers, who were dedicated fans of Babylon 5, Red Dwarf, and The X-Files. But Mondiale was the little town's biggest employer, and Mondiale was in the broadband Internet business. Mondiale despised all cable TV outfits.
Van toweled up the baby's spew. Baby Ted enjoyed this fatherly attention. He kicked his chubby feet and emitted a joyous string of syllables.
"He said 'dada,' " Van remarked.
Dottie yawned and stirred the baby's porridge, propping her head on one slender hand. "Oh, Derek, he's just babbling."
Van said nothing. As a telecom expert, Van knew definitely that his son's vocalizations had contained the phonemes "dada." Technically speaking, Van was absolutely correct. However, he had learned never to argue with Dottie about such things.
Van dropped the dirty towel into a shiny kick-top wastebasket. He sat again in his plastic picnic chair, which popped and squeaked under his bulk. Van accepted this embarrassment quietly. He knew that it was all his own fault. He, Dr. Derek Vandeveer, famous computer scientist, owned a decaying Victorian mansion that had no proper furniture.
Historical Merwinster, New Jersey, was a gabled, colonial village, woody and surrounded by horse farms. It also boasted the third-biggest clump of fiber optics on America's Eastern Seaboard. Merwinster was a superb place for advancing high-tech research. Van routinely put in sixty-hour weeks inside the Mondiale R&D lab, so he was forced to live in the town.
Dr. Dottie Vandeveer spent her days in Boston, at the Smithsonian Astrophysics Lab. Van had bought the two of them a house in Merwinster because it seemed wrong to Van for his baby, their new third party, to have no home. Besides, Van had to do something practical with his money. Van was making money, and not just a lot of money. Van was the VP for Research and Development at Mondiale. Van was making a weird amount of money.
The TV muttered through a headache commercial, obscuring baby Ted's eager slurps from Dottie's rubber spoon. Van tapped at his trusty ThinkPad and checked the titles of the 117 pieces of e-mail piled up for him behind Mondiale's corporate firewall. With an effort, Van decided to ignore his e-mail, at least until noon. Because Dottie was home with him. Dottie was sleeping with him, and lavishing her sweet attentions on him. Dottie was cooking and cleaning and changing diapers. Dottie was wandering from room to dark decaying room inside the Vandeveer mansion, and wrinkling her brow with a judgmental, wifely look. Today, furnishing the house had priority.
So far, in his rare moments outside of the Mondiale science lab, Van had managed to buy a crib, a playpen, a feeding chair, a Spanish leather couch, a polished walnut table for the breakfast nook, a forty-six-inch flat-screen digital TV with DVD and VCR, and a nice solid marital bed. Van had also installed a sleek, modern Danish bedroom suite upstairs, for Helga the au pair girl. Helga the au pair girl was Swedish and nineteen. Helga had the best-furnished room in the Vandeveer mansion, but she almost never slept in.
According to Dottie, when she and Helga were alone together in Boston, the girl was always gentle, very sweet to the baby, and was never into any trouble with men. But in quiet little Merwinster, Helga went nuts. Helga was hell on wheels with the local computer nerds. She was a man-eater. The geeks were falling for blond Swedish Helga like bowling pins. Van sometimes wondered if he should charge them lane fees.
Dottie put the baby's yellow goop aside and got up to make toast and eggs. Van took rare pleasure in watching Dottie cooking for him. Dottie was not a natural cook. However, she had memorized an efficient routine for the creation of breakfast. Dottie fetched the brown eggs out of their recycled-paper carton and cracked them on the edge of the white blue-striped bowl, hitting the same spot on the rim, precisely, perfectly, every single time.
This sight touched something in Van that he lacked all words for. There was something silent and dark and colossal about the love he had for Dottie, like lake water moving under ice. The pleasure of watching her cooking was much like the secret pleasure he took in watching Dottie dress in the morning. Van loved to watch her, nude, tousled, and bleary, daintily attacking all her feminine rituals until she had fully assembled her public Dottieness. Watching Dottie dressing touched him even more than watching Dottie undressing.
Baby Ted was eleven months old. Ted had some major abandonment issues. Deprived of his mommy and his rubber spoon, Ted jacked his chubby knees in his high chair, with a wild, itchy look. Van watched his baby son intensely. The baby was of deep interest to Van. With his shock of fine fluffy hair and his bulging potbelly, baby Ted looked very much like Van's father-in-law, a solemn electrical engineer who had made a small fortune inventing specialized actuators.
Baby Ted packed a scream that could pierce like an ice pick. However, Ted changed his mind about howling for his mother. Instead, he picked intently at four loose Cheerios with his thumb and forefinger. Van sensed that picking up and eating a Cheerio was a major achievement for Ted. It was the baby equivalent of an adult landing a job.
Van ran his fingers through his thick sandy beard, still wet from the morning shower. He set his ThinkPad firmly aside to confront an unsteady heap of magazines. Junk-mail catalog people had gotten wind of Van's huge paycheck. For them, a computer geek with a new house and new baby was a gold mine.
Van didn't enjoy shopping, generally. Van enjoyed mathematics, tech hardware, cool sci-fi movies, his wife's company, and bowling. However, shopping had one great advantage for Van. Shopping made Van stop thinking about Nash equilibria and latency functions. Van had been thinking about these two computer-science issues for three months, seriously. Then for two weeks very seriously, and then for the last six days very, very seriously. So seriously that even Dottie became invisible to him. So seriously that sometimes Van had trouble walking.
However, Van's network-latency analysis had been successfully completed and written up. The white paper would be widely admired by key members of the IEEE, and cordially ignored by the Mondiale board of directors. So Van had given himself some time off.
Dottie, slim and delicious and barefoot, was silently reading the instructions that came with her new toaster oven. Dottie always read all the instructions for everything. Dottie always studied all the safety disclaimers and even the shrink-wrap contracts on software.
Back at MIT, classmates at the lab had teased Dottie about her compulsive habits. Van, however, had noticed that Dottie never made the dumb beginner's mistakes that everybody else made. Dottie was pleased to have this quality of hers recognized and admired. Eventually Dottie wrote her own vows and then married him.
Van leafed through slick colorful pages and discovered a Fortebraccio task lamp. The designer lamp looked both spoonlike and medical. It had the robust, optimistic feeling of a vintage Gene Roddenberry Star Trek episode. It rocked totally.
Van ripped the lamp's page from the catalog, and dumped the rest into the recycling bin at his elbow. Van's next catalog was chock-full of chairs. Van, his attention fully snagged now, settled deeply into the problem at hand. He was sitting uncomfortably in a lousy plastic picnic chair, one of a set of six that he had bought on a hasty lunch break at the nearest Home Depot. That situation just wouldn't do.
Dottie repeated herself. "Derek! You want seven-grain bread or whole wheat?"
Van came to with a start. "Which loaf has more in the queue?"
"Uhm, the whole wheat loaf has more slices left."
"Give me the other one." Logically, that bread was bound to taste better.
As a serious programmer, Van used an Aeron chair at his work. The Aeron was in some sense the ultimate programmer's working chair. The Aeron was the only chair that a hard-core hacker lifestyle required. Van hunched his thick shoulders thoughtfully. Yet, a family home did require some domestic chairs. For instance, an Aeron lacked the proper parameters for breakfast use. Spattered baby food would stick inside the Aeron's nylon mesh.
Van winced at the memory of the three FBI guys who had shown up at his Merwinster mansion, seeking his computer security advice. The FBI G-men had been forced to sit in Van's white plastic picnic chairs. The Bureau guys hadn't said a word about the plastic chairs-they just drank their instant coffee and took thorough notes on yellow legal pads-but they got that dismissive FBI look in their eyes. They were reclassifying him as a mere informant rather than a fully qualified expert. That wouldn't do, either.
Dottie didn't know about the FBI and their discreet visits to the house. Van hadn't told Dottie about the FBI, for he knew she wouldn't approve. The interested parties from the Treasury Department and the U.S. Navy Office of Special Investigations had also escaped Dottie's notice.
This was some catalog. It had chairs made of black leather and bent chrome tubing. Chairs like baseball mitts. Chairs like bent martini glasses. Chairs cut from single sheets of pale, ripply plywood.
Dottie slid a breakfast plate before him. Dottie's new toaster oven had browned Van's toast to absolute perfection. Van had never before witnessed such perfect toast. It lacked the crude striping effect that toast got from the cheap hot wires in everyday toasters.
"Derek, can you open this?"
Van put his manly grip to an imported black jar of English jam. The enameled lid popped off with a hollow smack. There was a rush of aroma so intense that Van felt five years old. This was very good jam. This black British jam had such royal Buckingham Palace authority that Van wanted to jump right up and salute.
"Honey, this stuff is some jam."
"It's blackberry!" Dottie sang out from behind her copper frying pan. "It's your favorite!"
Even the baby was astounded by the wondrous smell of the jam. Ted's round blue eyes went tense. "Dada!" he said.
"He said 'dada' again." Van spread the happy black jam across his perfect toast.
Ted slapped his spit-shiny mitts on his feeding tray. "Dada!" he screeched. "Dada!"
Dottie stared at her son in awe and delight. "Derek, he did say it!"
She rushed over to praise and caress the baby. Baby Ted grinned up at her. "Dada," he confided. Ted was always good-natured about his mother. He did his best to mellow her out.
Van watched the two of them carrying on. Life was very good for the Dada today. Van wolfed down all eight pieces of his toast. This was a caviar among blackberry jams. "Where on earth did you find this stuff, Dots?"
"Off the Internet."
"That'll work. Can you get a case discount?"
"You want more?"
"You bet. Point, click, and ship."
Van leaned back and slid his toast-crumbed plate aside, increasingly pleased with the universe. Dottie sidled over, bearing a plate of fluffy scrambled eggs. Van lifted his fork, but then his gaze collided with yet another catalog chair. The spectacle unhinged him.
"Holy gosh, Dottie! Look at this thing. Now that's a chair!"
"It looks like a spider."
"No, it's like an elk! Look at those legs!"
"The legs, that's the most spidery part."
"It's made out of cast magnesium!"
Dottie took away Van's jar of jam. "Paging Stanley Kubrick."
No way, thought Van. Kubrick's movie 2001 was all 1968! Now that it really was 2001, all that futuristic stuff was completely old-fashioned. Van sampled his scrambled eggs. They were very tasty indeed. "Magnesium! Wow, no one in the world can tool that stuff, and now it's in chairs!"
Dottie set her own plate down, with dabs of food on it that would scarcely feed a sparrow. She heaved the restless baby from his high chair and propped him on her slender thigh. Ted was a big kid and Dottie was a small woman. Ted flopped back and forth, flinging his solid head at her like a stray cannonball. "How much does it cost?" she said practically.
"Six hundred. Plus shipping."
"Six hundred dollars for one chair, Derek?"
"But it's magnesium and polycarbonate!" Van argued. "They only weigh seven kilograms! You can stack them."
Dottie examined the catalog page, fork halfway to her tender mouth. "But this chair doesn't even have a real back."
"It's got a back!" Van protested. "That thing that grows out of its arms, that is its back, see? I bet it's a lot more fun to sit in than it looks."
Dottie poured Van fresh coffee as Ted yanked at her pageboy brown hair.
"You don't like it," Van realized mournfully.
"That's a very interesting chair, honey, but it's just not very normal."
"We'll be the first on the block to have one."
Dottie only sighed.
Van stared at the awesome chair, trying not to be surly. Six hundred dollars meant nothing much to him. Obviously Mondiale's stock wasn't at the insanely stellar heights it had been when he had bought the mansion, but any guy who bought his wife emeralds for their anniversary wasn't going to whine about a magnesium chair.
Van couldn't bear to turn the catalog page. The astonishing chair was already part of his self-image. The chair gave him the same overwhelming feeling he had about computers: that they were tools. They were serious work tools. Only lamers ever flinched at buying work tools. If you were hard-core you just went out and got them.
Copyright © 2004 by Bruce Sterling. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.