How dare he call me a coward! she fumed silently. I'm not afraid of Natch. I'm just practical, that's all. I know I only have to put up with him for eleven more months. She called up her apprenticeship contract for the thousandth time and reread the clause on compensation, hoping as always to catch a glimpse of some previously unknown loophole. But the letters floating before her eyes hadn't changed: Jara would receive nothing except room and board until the end of the four-year term, at which time her shares matured. She blinked hard, and the illusory text on the surface of her retinas vanished.

Jara gave one last wistful glance at her apartment and opened another multi connection. Multivoid swallowed her empty walls and regurgitated Natch's metropolitan windows. The fiefcorp master was nowhere to be found, but Jara was in no mood to track him down. He had to be here somewhere, or she would have never made it into the building. Jara threw herself down on the couch and waited.

Five minutes later, Horvil materialized in the room wearing the same mixture of bonhomie and bafflement he always wore. 'Towards Perfection,' he greeted his fellow apprentice amiably as he plopped down in Natch's favorite chair. It was actually a chair-and-a-half, but still barely wide enough to accommodate Horvil's considerable bulk. 'Who's ready to wallow around in the mud? I know I could use a good wallow right about now.'

Jara frowned, wondering whether Horvil had concocted some algorithm to make even his virtual clothes look disheveled. 'That makes one of us,' she said.

The engineer yawned and sat back in his chair with a smile. 'Stop being so dramatic, Princess. If you don't want to be here, go home. What's Natch going to do? Cancel your contract? Fire you?'

Jara extended her finger into an accusatory position by reflex. She lowered it when she realized she had nothing to say.

And then Natch returned.

Neither apprentice saw the fiefcorp master come in, but now there he stood with his arms crossed and his eyes glaring. For once, he was not pacing, and this made Jara nervous. When Natch chose to focus all that kinetic energy on some concrete goal instead of stomping it into oblivion, mountains moved. Jara examined the gorge in her stomach and came to a sudden realization: she was afraid of Natch.

'We're going to the top of the bio/logics market,' he announced. 'We're going to be number one on Primo's.'

Horvil put his feet up on the coffee table. 'Of course we are,' he said breezily. 'We've been over this shit before. Market forces, fiefcorp economics, blah blah blah. It's inevitable, ain't it?'

Natch closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them, his gaze fixed on a spot of nothingness hovering midway between the two apprentices. Jara suddenly felt transparent, as if the world had gained presence at her expense. 'You don't understand, Horvil,' he said. 'We're going to be number one on Primo's, and we're going to do it tomorrow.'


The two apprentices sat stiffly, afraid to move. Jara wondered if she had stumbled onto the set of an old- fashioned drama by mistake, with Natch playing the part of the Mad Capitalist Who Went Too Far. Or maybe the fiefcorp master was starring in a farce instead. Number one on the Primo's bio/logic investment guide tomorrow?

'Impossible,' said Jara. 'You can't just press a button and will yourself to the top of Primo's. It's all impartial, rules-based. They've got strict formulas that nobody knows except the senior interpreters.'

Natch regarded her with a stare he might have given a less-evolved subspecies of humanity. 'And?'

'Don't be ridiculous, Natch. They sift through ten thousand bio/logic programs a day, and every decision they make affects the hierarchy. You can't predict Primo's rankings. And don't give me that look-you can't rig them either. People have tried.' She turned to Horvil, aiming her index finger at his bulbous nose. 'Come on, Horvil-you know about Primo's as well as I do. They're not accountable to anyone.'

The engineer stretched his arms out over his head, suspended them there momentarily, then sent them crashing down onto his commodious lap. 'Primo's: impartial because we have to be,' he quoted the company's official slogan. 'Your biollogic systems depend on us, from hearts and lungs to stocks and funds. '

Natch might well have been a video clip in pause mode. He gave no outward sign he had even been listening to his apprentices' exchange.

'All right,' spat Jara, anxious to break the tension in the room. 'I suppose you have some brilliant plan to make this happen.'

The fiefcorp master began to pace once more. 'Of course I do,' he replied, stone-faced. 'Now, as you know, today we're scheduled to release NiteFocus 48, our biggest-and best product this year.'

Jara thought about debating the best portion of his statement, but changed her mind and leaned back in the sofa. Horvil was one of the best engineers in the business, but Jara knew from experience he got sloppy when he worked long hours. NiteFocus 48 would have its share of bugs and inconsistencies, like any program bred of human thought.

'Well, guess who else is planning a product launch this week,' continued Natch.

Jara's heart skipped a beat. 'Don't tell me the Patel Brothers are finally releasing NightHawk 73,' she said.

The fiefcorp master nodded. 'The same.'

Jara frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. With that kind of competition, how in the world did Natch expect to top the market this week of all weeks? The Patel Brothers had dominated the number one rating on Primo's for the past two and a half years. They were widely perceived to be unbeatable. Of course, this hadn't stopped Natch from confronting the Patels head-to-head on a variety of programs over the past few months-on the contrary, the challenge spurred him to new heights of competitive frenzy. He plotted their release schedules on graphs of three, four and five dimensions. He hunted down even the deadendingest rumors about Frederick and Petrucio Patel.

And now, it seemed, after feeling the occasional prick of Natch's jabs on the Primo's battlefield-a loss of a point here, a pre-empted product launch there-the Patel Brothers had finally accepted the challenge of their younger rival. Releasing NightHawk in the same week as NiteFocus was a direct assault.

Horvil was unperturbed by this latest turn of events. 'Why are you two so worried?' he said, trying unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn. 'We've put a lot of work into NiteFocus. It's good code. I'm not afraid to go up against the Patels.'

'So then, what do we do?' asked Natch. His tone of voice indicated it was a rhetorical question.

Jara scowled. She knew where this was heading. 'If anybody but you asked me that question, I would say, We both launch our products on the Data Sea, and may the best company win.'

The fiefcorp master gave her one of his wolfish grins, the kind that had little to do with humor. On some alternate plane of existence, Natch's audience howled in gleeful anticipation. 'You think I'm afraid to go up against the Patels.'

'I just don't like pulling these dirty tricks of yours. We're number six on Primo's, in a field of thousands. Why can't you be happy with that?'

Natch stopped in mid-stride and gave his apprentice a piercing look. 'Happy with failure?' he said incredulously, as if she had suggested joining one of the creeds and devoting his life to poverty. 'Happy with this?' He gestured wildly around him at what seemed to Jara to be a pretty nice flat. Natch's apartment had enough space for both living and working quarters, with room left over to entertain. Not only that, but it boasted real and programmable windows, as well as a lush garden of daisies right smack in the middle of the place. Maybe Natch's apartment paled in comparison to the lunar estates of the big tycoons, but at least it was decorated.

Jara composed herself. 'Natch, number six on Primo's isn't failure,' she said. 'Most programmers spend their whole lives trying to crack the top ten. We've gotten here in thirty-six months. Thirty-six months, Natch! Primo's has been around for almost seventy years, and nobody's ever done it as fast as we have. Horvil, where were we a year ago today?'

The engineer focused his attention inward for a split-second, the tell-tale sign of a brain angling for information on the Data Sea. 'Sixty-two,' announced Horvil momentarily. 'The year before that, four hundred

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