06 Social Networks
“Gawd I love them fat!”
Keelut looked at his colleague: he was one millimetre of cotton away from penetrating the dancer who was sitting on his lap. The folds of fat on the dancer’s legs and stomach made her look – given the context – like a rutting elephant seal. Keelut glanced at the bouncer to see if there was going to be any trouble.
Without intending to, Keelut caught the hopeful smile of a dancer. She had long, sandy blond hair which was braided in the Russian style. With her pert butt and slender frame, she was by no means a conventional beauty. But her fair skin was unblemished and she had all of her teeth. Keelut found her attractive.
When the dancer noticed Keelut looking at her, she smiled brightly. After a moment, she looked away. If she was trying to be coquettish she failed. She had the manner of someone who had been picked on but whose spirit had never broken. The dancer’s vulnerability made her less attractive to Keelut. But at the same time he liked its compliment: persistence.
The dancer caught his eye again. Keelut decided to meet her. He approached her indirectly, by walking along the perimeter of the room, rather than trying to wend his way through the maze of small tables that lay on the direct path between him and her. He paused to examine the dancer when he got to within two steps of her. She was wearing a ragged dress and hand-woven sandals. The castaway look had been in fashion since that play about Long Beach Island. The style struck him as impractical, particularly in wintertime, but there was no question that in this context it worked.
The dancer said, “Sit here.” She grabbed the strap of his sabertache and lightly tugged, encouraging him to sit down. He did not sit down. She let her hand fall into her lap. He gestured for her to accompany him to the Patron’s Lounge. She nodded assent, and smiled to herself. He extended an arm to help her stand up.
Keelut walked slightly ahead of the dancer, hoping that no one from work noticed with whom he was leaving and to where they were going. It was one thing to be seen in the company of a high-priced Inuit courtesan, and quite another to be seen with a skinny, low class WASP. The Director of the Institute where he worked was very conservative; it was best that there be no gossip.
The entrance to the Patron’s Lounge was discrete but well guarded. If there had been doubt about Keelut’s rank he would have been asked for his papers. He possessed enough trappings of nobility – a saber, a school tie and an expensive suit – that he was allowed to enter the Lounge unchallenged. The moment he did so he slowed his pace to allow the dancer to catch up to him. When she did, he clasped her left hand with his right. He led her to a semicircular couch beside an unused, small stage.
Keelut spoke first, “What’s your name?”
“That doesn’t sound like a stripper name.”
“It isn’t, its my real name.”
“Are you any relation? I mean, to the Andersons.” He was making small talk; he was certain she was a nobody.
“Yeah. My great-grandfather is the Anderson.”
“You mean the head of the Merchant House?”
She nodded her head twice.
Her claim to noble status puzzled him. The Anderson’s had inter-bred with Tlingit, Unanga and Yupik, so were mostly broad shouldered, dark haired and swarthy. This dancer had light hair, grey-green eyes and a slight frame. Were her low-class features recessive traits? Was she genetically engineered? Looks were only part of the mystery. The bigger question was why, if noble, was she here at all? She must have been shunned
Keeluk said, “I’m an Okpik. I’m surprised we haven’t met before. My family goes to all of the Anderson balls.”
“Mine doesn’t.” She spoke these words not to him, but to his sword, an emblem of status, which he had layed carefully on the couch beside them.
The knowledge that she was of higher rank than he was – although shunned by her family – left things in an indeterminate state.
“Why did you take me to the Patron’s Lounge?” Tanya asked.
Keelut put his left hand on her thigh. She stiffened. After a moment she relaxed slightly, but remained tense. He looked at her, trying to capture the feeling of power he usually felt when alone with a dancer. She didn’t look away.
He picked up his drink as if that was the reason his hand was retreating from her thigh. “Where are you from?” he asked.
“I was born in Barrow, but I grew up in Fairbanks. I’ve been living in Inuvik for the last 5 years”, the dancer replied.
“Army brat?”, he asked.
Tanya looked at Keelut’s sword and nodded.
“Where do your parents live?” he asked.
“Mom’s in Yellowknife”, she replied.
“What about your father?”
“He’s just been deployed to Peace River. At least that’s what we’ve been told.”
“Poor man”. Keelut spoke without thinking. He had heard rumours of the terrible slaughter that was happening on the southern front. There was a moment of embarrassed silence. He looked around the empty Lounge wondering what to say next. When he looked back at Tanya he saw that she was looking at him full on. It was only he who was embarrassed. His faux pas, if anything, had made her more self-assured.
“What do you think of the undeclared war with Alberta?” she asked.
Her emphasis on the word ‘undeclared’ revealed her political leaning: she was a pacifist. Fair enough. Only aristocrats wanted this war, though right now she and he were not so far apart in their views. Even the high born were being drafted now. Not that he really feared the draft – he was a scientist, he would never see the front. Keelut’s view of the war was materialistic. He thought of the broken machinery that surrounded him in his lab at the Institute: all sorts amazing devices that no longer worked because Alaska had no access to certain strategic materials. “I think defeating Alberta is the Republic’s only chance. We need their technology and resources.”
Tanya smiled ruefully, “That’s exactly why we’re loosing.” She spoke these words so definitively the conversation ended.
When the next song began she gave him a lap dance, which was perfunctory not so much because she was going through the motions but because the uncertainty between them persisted. He was more respectful than most of her clients and he thought her as attractive as any of his peers, but they were separated by class and ethnicity.
Tanya began a second dance. Keelut gestured for her to stop. She sat down beside him. In an attempt to strike up conversation she said, “Did you know there are no Patron’s Lounges in Alberta?”
He nodded affirmatively as he replied, “Alberta is a different world. Discrimination on the basis of rank is illegal. There are no Patrons, at all.”
“What do you think of that, as a man whose rank lets him wear a sword?” , she asked. He saw the hint of a smile in her eyes. He did not rise to her bait. Because of his work, he thought long and seriously about this topic. He said, “I think class distinctions are holding the Republic back.”
These words were easy to say, and Keelut mostly believed them, but he knew full well that it was easier to talk about change than implement it. The Table of Ranks favoured him both at work and here in the Patron’s Lounge. He looked at the dancer dispassionately. Because he was a noble and she was shunned, he could do anything to her, up to and including rape, and get away with it provided he didn’t cause her to bleed, or die. He thought of once again putting his hand onto her inner thigh, at the point where her ragged dress broke into two triangular folds of material and then … Tanya was watching him intently. Keelut placed his hands on his lap, and then shuffled in his seat. Tanya smiled with relief.
“Where do you work?” she asked.
“At the Fort. I’m a computer programmer with the Ministry of Information.”
“I didn’t know there were any computers left to program.”
“I’m working on one that was found at the Burnaby dig. Have you heard about it?”
“I know about the dig. I study archeology at the University. But nothing first-hand. Have you found anything interesting?”
“A few things. We only booted the computer up for the first time today That’s why my team is here celebrating.”
“What do you expect to find?”
“Poems. Military secrets. That sort of thing.”
He nodded. “There are a bunch of poems by Shakespeare, Yeats and Keats that we know exist but have been lost. The computer contains a database …”
“Its a social networking site.” She gave him an uncomprehending look so he qualified, “Its a dating service – a kind of electronic bulletin board where unmarried adults posted profiles, and sent each other messages.”
“People used to court using bulletin boards on computers?”
He nodded. “There was no privacy in the Digital Age. It was all right out there for millions to see.”
“But they did send each other poems, just like we do now?” she asked hopefully, distressed at the crassness of 21st century manners.
He nodded, “Exactly. We’ve already found a half-dozen fragments.”
“Can you recite one?”
“I can.” That afternoon he’d spent so much time analyzing one verse he’d memorized it.
The distance between them had narrowed enough that he did not feel intrusive when he carefully placed his hand on her left thigh, just above her knee, far below the jagged hemline of her dress. She did not flinch.
Instead she cupped his hand in hers.
He recited the fragment with a voice that was so quiet it was almost a whisper,
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
Keelut had closed his eyes when quoting. When he opened them he realized that Tanya looked beautiful in the red-yellow glow of the flickering candlelight.
The moment had stretched into a minute when they were interrupted by a bouncer, who said something to Tanya. The bouncer left and Tanya spoke, “Keelut, I’m next on the main stage. Are you going to wait for me?” Her voice was tentative, not craven. She wasn’t pushing her product, she was asking.
He looked at his watch. He was already late: his rooming house had a 10:00 p.m. curfew. He shook his head, no. She frowned in an exaggerated way.
He said, “If I find any more good poetry fragments you’ll be the first to know.”
“That would be grand.” She smiled. She chastely held his hand in hers. This intimate gesture was not part of her act.
As Keelut paid Tanya he deliberated about asking for her card. He wanted to call on her and ask her out in a proper way, but a ranked society is full of constraints: noble men rented strippers, they did not date them. He could not get past that. So instead of asking for her calling card, he placed one of his into the middle of the wad of money with which he paid her. She enumerated the bills carefully but gave no indication she noticed his card. She pecked him on the cheek, thanked him for reciting the beautiful poem, and was gone.
“Jason, what’s up with the shit-eating grin?” Keelut asked. It was an effort for Keelut to sound jocular.
“My 8-bit chip worked”, Jason replied.
“The one you’ve been whittling in Hangar 3?”
“Don’t be such an ass. And don’t talk to me like that. I’m your boss now.”
Although Jason’s promotion annoyed Keelut, what really bothered him was the work Jason did to get that promotion. Keelut said as caustically as he could, “Jason, did it ever occur to you that poplar wood is not an appropriate material for a central processing unit?”
“You know full well that if Alaska had a better technological base we’d be doing my project differently.”
“What are you two gentlemen talking about?” The Director had arrived without either of them noticing. Today, as on all days, he wore a finely woven, blue woolen suit, a starched white shirt, shiny dark leather shoes, and a tie from the Crescent school.
Keelut spoke pre-emptively, “Jason was bragging about how his 8-bit chip is working without using any electronics at all.”
If the Director noticed the venom in Keelut’s voice, he ignored it. “Jason has a right to be proud: its a big triumph for our team”. Jason smiled.
“Indeed” Keelut agreed, with his most neutral voice.
“But I’m not here to chat with you, Mr. Okpik.” The Director turned his back to Keelut so that he could face Jason full on. He said, “Mr. Ungalaaq, I’d like to meet with you in my office for a moment. I have some personnel questions.” They left together.
Keelut left the lab in the opposite direction from his superiors, in order to take a short cut back to his office. When he arrived he saw that this morning he would have no peace: his academic sponsor, the Chair of the University of Inuvik Classics Department, hovered beside his desk. The Chair wore a faded yellow sweater vest, woolen jacket and pants, all made of very expensive, but well-worn materials. He wasn’t poor, but he was shabby.
The Chair addressed Keelut as he shook his hand. “Good morning, Mr. Okpik. Have you found anything yet?” He sat down in front of Keelut’s computer terminal.
Keelut hesitated to answer.
“Tell me about one of your poetry fragments” The Chair had a way of incrementally extracting information from the people with whom he spoke.
Keelut took a seat in front of his computer terminal, but still hesitated to answer. Although the Chair was a supporter of Keelut’s work, he was a political animal. Keelut took care about what he said to him and how. “I’m not certain where to begin”, he said.
“How about with a user name?”.
“The profile I’ve been reconstructing has the user name Capitalist Hero”.
“I see. Was this hero an industrialist, then? Perhaps he was from a noble family?”
“I don’t know. They didn’t store information about rank back then.” The Director hrmphed at the thought of such odd behaviour. Keelut continued, “But I know he styled himself as a poet.”
The Chair sat up straight in his seat. He had an entropic posture that tended toward a slouch when unattended. He asked, “Was Hero a poet?”
“I don’t think so, but he quoted famous poets frequently in his courting letters. He often took credit for penning their words himself.”
“How did you find him?”
“Shakespeare’s 76 Sonnet.”
“All of it or one stanza?”
“This stanza.” Keelut handed the Chair his note pad on which was written the words,
Why is my verse so barren of new pride,So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods, and to compounds strange?
“This is excellent news, Keelut.” The Chair was exuberant. “Please send me a copy of all of your notes. Separate the poetry fragments. They’re what I’m really interested in.”
“Give me until tomorrow. I’d like to finish my analysis of Hero. He wrote a lot of letters.”
“Very well.” The Chair departed with a quick handshake and goodbye.
Left alone at last Keelut dove into his work. Hero had sent over 7,000 letters – ten per day for two years. Keelut sorted the letters by recipient name to see if Hero had courted the entire alphabet. He never found out. His eyes were drawn to the letter Hero had written to a woman named Tanya. It took no time for Keelut to pull up her record. The profile picture was of a buxom, but skinny, bikini-clad woman stretching on the hood of a metal wagon. Her tag line was “Hot Tanya loves cars.” In the About Me section Hot Tanya wrote,
Hi, I’m a car model so that gives me high standards
What kind of car do you drive?
I’m looking for some action with a guy who wants to race through life with me on his arm.
Catch me if you can!
It took one query to determine that Hot Tanya was one of the most popular women on the site. She had received more letters than Hero had sent
Keelut opened the one letter Hero had sent to Hot Tanya. The first paragraph was the same one Hero used for all of his introductions, but true to form the second paragraph related specifically to the profile of the woman he was courting. Hero wrote, “I’m a famous writer. You’ve probably seen my work produced on Masterpiece Theatre. When I found out your name was Tanya, it made me think of the sun, so I wrote this,
”But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Hot Tanya is the sun …”
Keelut excitedly scribbled the entire fragment into his note book. When he was done he made another copy, which he carefully put into his bill-fold.
The day passed quickly. Keelut extracted over 200 unique fragments from Hero’s letters. He compiled the fragments into two categories – those he’d identified using the score of poetry anthologies scattered around his desk, and those he couldn’t.
When he had finally completed his analysis of Hero’s correspondence it was after 5:00 pm. The laboratory and surrounding offices were empty.
Keelut put on his suit jacket and overcoat, and then left. He headed straight to the Club. Tanya was not there. He asked several bouncers if they knew when she would next be working, and was told the manager who knew her schedule wouldn’t arrive until much later that evening. Keelut looked around. Each one of the dancers tried to trap his attention. He turned his back on them all.
When Keelut arrived at work the next morning he found the Chair of the Classics Department waiting by his desk. The Director of the Institute had scheduled a meeting for 9 a.m.. This was not good news: the Director had a reputation for making big decisions while in bed at night, and implementing them first thing the next morning.
Keelut and the Chair were greeted at the entrance to the Director’s offices by a butler, who took their coats and showed them in. The offices were decorated in a rich style. There was a thick rug on the floor, and the furniture was made of exotic woods. Every surface that could be burnished was.
They were shown to the ante-room, beside the Director’s personal quarters. It was lit by a large window that overlooked the delta of the Mackenzie River. Above the window was a stained glass triptych about the Passion of the Lady Diana: the first frame showed Diana’s pursuit by photographers, the second frame her escape in a metal wagon, and the third, her death. It was strange to see such an artifact in noble surroundings. The triptych was there because the building that housed the Ministry of Information had once been a pagan chapel.
When the Director arrived he shook the Chair’s hand and signaled to Jason and Keelut that they should remain in their seats.
The Chair and the Director took the throne-like seats on either side of a small wooden table near the fireplace. They unconsciously adjusted their ties after they sat down. They had gone to rival schools, Crescent and Artemis. Keelut sat on a studded leather chair at the other end of the room. Jason sat between Keelut and the Director, with his back to the window. Jason was also unconsciously adjusting his school tie. Like the Director, he was an Artemis man.
Tea arrived. Once they had all been served, the Director began the meeting by saying, “Mr. Okpik, tell me about your project.”
Keelut found the Director’s feigned ignorance sinister. He replied to the Director’s question in a neutral voice, “I’m working on a social networking database.”
“That’s right, the digital palimpsest.” The Director smiled indulgently.
“How so?” asked the Chair of the Classics Department. He didn’t understand the Director’s reference to a palimpsest. The Director smiled smugly. He said, “Explain to the Chair, Mr. Okpik.”
Keelut explained, “We found a networking database on an ancient file server that had been re-purposed by the Town of Burnaby’s Revenue Department. In that sense its a palimpsest – the artifact we’re studying is hidden underneath financial records that were added later.”
The Chair frowned but did not reply.
The Director spoke next, again addressing Keelut and pointedly ignoring the Chair, “Mr. Okpik, I understand that you’re looking for Shakespeare’s lost works?”
“Not just Shakespeare. Keats, Yeats. And also poets we’ve never heard of.”
The Director waved his hand dismissively. “Tell me about the site. What is it called?
The Chair tried to catch Keelut’s eye. He was mouthing something behind the Director’s back. Keelut didn’t want to know what. He knew it didn’t matter. The Director had made a decision. Nothing Keelut said or did would change anything. He said, “The site is called Finding Snookie.”
“What’s a Snookie?” The Director’s fake smile modulated into a faint sneer.
“Its an archaic pet name”, the Chair added helpfully. He had a perplexed look on his face.
“So this site helped people find lost pets?” Once again the Director spoke to Keelut and ignored the Chair.
“Not exactly. It was a dating network”, Keelut replied.
“How did the site work?” the Director asked.
“The network was divided into two groups, “Snookies” and “Captains of Industry”, or simply “Captains”. Although there were no rules about gender, most Captains were male and most Snookies were female. The goal of the site was for Captains to catch Snookies.”.
“By ‘catch’ I assume mean initiate sexual relations? This sounds like prostitution” . The Director’s words were harsh. His sneer, however, persisted.
Keelut replied, “I don’t think it was a prostitution site. At least not explicitly. Commerce was transacted in Snookie points, not actual currency …” Keelut quickly scanned the faces of his audience before continuing. The Director and the Chair were frowning. Jason had a smirk on his face
Keelut did not complete his sentence: the Director interrupted him, “Mr. Okpik, there is no need to continue.”
The Director turned to face the Chair, and now spoke as if Jason and Keelut did not exist. “Nerrivik, I’ve been dreading this decision. Let me be blunt. I’m not against trying to find lost sonnets, but because of the War I have to prioritize projects. Jason’s project …”
“The Wooden Internet?” the Chair asked.
“Yes, that’s what some of the junior officers call it. The project is showing great promise. Just this week, in Hangar 3, we recreated the functionality of an 8-bit central processing unit using only poplar, Douglas fir, some pig iron and one pound of copper. Nerrivik, in comparison your project …” he cleared his voice with a stage Ahem. “… frankly, it’s frivolous.”
Even though the Director was senior to the Chair, they were equal in social rank. Keelut expected the Director to put more effort consoling the Chair, after killing his project. Instead the Director turned his back to the Chair, and once again recognized the existence of Jason, to whom he said, “I’ll give you a week to come up with a decommissioning plan. I have every intention of returning to this project, but after the War has been won. We’ve already discussed our plans to redeploy Mr. Okpik to Hangar 4.
The Director concluded with a “Good day gentlemen”, gathered up his belongings, and then retired to his office.
Keelut was given the day off. He couldn’t have worked even if he had wanted to: his laboratory was occupied by Information Security. It was just as well. For all of his curiosity about the poetry fragments he would never find, all that he could think about was Tanya.
He went for a walk. He wandered without any particular direction in mind, so eventually wound up at Liberty Square, where students were protesting the undeclared war against Alberta. The protest had been going on for days. Many of the protestors were living in a tent city. Their tents were huddled around an ancient oak tree in which sat a large, black raven. Keelut arrived just as a rally was about to start. Because of his suit, tie and saber he was initially taunted for being a war-mongering Patron. But it was not an angry crowd. Keelut’s frank curiosity and open manner caused one protestor to engage him; when that failed the rest left him alone.
He had been looking at Tanya for a minute before he saw her. She wore sneakers, jeans and a t-shirt. Her blue jacket made her grey-green eyes look aquamarine. She was standing in the front line of a chorus of protestors who were singing the hymn Give Peace a Chance. The moment she saw him, she extended her right hand to him; he grabbed it. This created an awkward moment. They both realized the gesture asked the question, which way? Because of his work, Keelut could not join the protestors, so instead Tanya stepped out of the choir to stand beside him.
“Its nice to meet you here” Keelut said once Tanya had composed herself.
“You mean its nice to meet me again, don’t you?” Tanya spoke boldly, but her body language was guarded.
Her words flustered Keelut. “Of course its nice to see you, but I mean its nice to see regular people expressing their views in public. Too often people sit back and let the nobility make all the decisions.” As he spoke, he stepped backwards, away from crowd. She followed him.
Tanya said, “I’ve been meaning to call you. But …” she let the sentence lapse. She didn’t know how to say that she hadn’t called him because she didn’t know how – or whether – to upset convention. Crossing class boundaries was asking for trouble. Even if she was on the other side of the divide simply because her mother had been shunned by her family for marrying someone genetically modified.
She asked. “Why are you smiling?”
He replied, “I was thinking about having a long lunch.”
“With me, you mean. That’s a good reason to smile.”
The square was ringed with saloons. To get better food they decided to walk several blocks to a fashionable restaurant near the Mackenzie River. The roads were muddy, so Keelut frequently found himself shielding Tanya from passing carriages. They walked close enough together that they frequently touched, but they did not hold hands. When she spoke, she spoke softly, so was difficult to hear above the street noise. Several times they stopped while she held his arm and whispered words into his ear.
When they arrived at the restaurant there was an awkward moment when the host began to seat them in the Patrons’ section. Keelut handed the host his saber, and insisted that he wanted to sit in the Common area instead.
The host kept looking at Tanya as if he couldn’t understand why a Gentleman wanted to be seen in public with her. Finally, the host accepted Keelut’s sword; he seated the couple in a large booth beside a window.
The light was shining in on an angle. Keelut sat in the shaded side of the booth while Tanya sat directly in the sunlight. To shield herself, she half-opened her parasol and placed it in the window sill. The parasol tinted her skin rose-red.
They ordered two lager beers and some comfort food. The waiter quickly arrived with their food and bill. Tanya paid before Keelut even noticed.
When the waiter withdrew, Keelut judged that his moment had come. He said, “Yesterday I found a fragment of a poem written to someone with your name.”
Tanya beamed. “Read it to me.”
Keelut removed the poem from his billfold and clasped it with both hands.
His face was close enough to Tanya’s that he could feel her breath. He read,
But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Tanya is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
There was nothing more to quote, so Keelut put down the poem and placed Tanya’s hands in his. They were still holding hands when they exited the restaurant one hour later. It was twilight. The envious moon was rising in the south. Even now, in its ascendant glory, it could not compete with the beauty of the sun.