- Pub. Date:
The fourth episode of The Human Division, John Scalzi's new thirteen-episode novel in the world of his bestselling Old Man's War. Beginning on January 15, 2013, a new episode of The Human Division will appear in e-book form every Tuesday.
Albert Birnbaum was once one of the biggest political talk show hosts around, but these days he's watching his career enter a death spiral. A stranger offers a solution to his woes, promising to put him back on top. It's everything Birnbaum wants, but is there a catch? And does Birnbaum actually care if there is?
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
Related collections and offers
About the Author
JOHN SCALZI is the author of several SF novels including the bestselling Old Man's War sequence, comprising Old Man's War, The Ghost Brigades, and the New York Times bestselling The Last Colony. He is a winner of science fiction's John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and he won the Hugo Award for Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, a collection of essays from his popular blog Whatever. His latest novel, Fuzzy Nation, hit the New York Times bestseller list in its first week on sale. He lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter.
JOHN SCALZI is one of the most popular SF authors of his generation. His debut Old Man's War won him the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His New York Times bestsellers include The Last Colony, Fuzzy Nation,and Redshirts (which won the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Novel), and 2020's The Last Emperox. Material from his blog, Whatever, has also earned him two other Hugo Awards. Scalzi also serves as critic-at-large for the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter.
Read an Excerpt
Episode Four: A Voice in the Wilderness
Albert Birnbaum, the "Voice in the Wilderness" and once the fourth most popular audio talk show host in the United States, told his car to ring his producer. "Are the numbers in?" he asked when she answered, not bothering to introduce himself, because, well. Aside from the caller ID, she would know who he was the second he opened his mouth.
"The numbers are in," Louisa Smart said, to Birnbaum. He imagined her at her desk, headset on, mostly because he almost never saw her in any other context.
"How are they?" Birnbaum asked. "Are they good? Are they better than last month? Tell me they are better than last month."
"Are you sitting down?" Smart asked.
"I'm driving, Louisa," Birnbaum said. "Of course I'm sitting down."
"You're not supposed to be driving yourself," Smart reminded him. "You've had your manual driving license pulled. If you get pulled over and they check your car's trip monitor and see you have the autodrive off, you're going to get it."
"You're my producer, Louisa," Birnbaum said. "Not my mom. Now quit stalling and give me the numbers."
Smart sighed. "You're down twelve percent from last month," she said.
"What? Bullshit, Louisa," Birnbaum said.
"Al, why the hell would I lie to you?" Smart asked. "You think I like listening to you panic?"
"That's gotta be bullshit," Birnbaum continued, ignoring Smart's comment. "There's no possible way we can lose one listener in eight in a single goddamn month."
"I don't make up the numbers, Al," Smart said. "I just tell you what they are."
Birnbaum said nothing for a few seconds. Then he started hitting his dashboard, making him swerve on the road. "Shit!" he said. "Shit shit fuck shit shit shittity shit!"
"Sometimes it's amazing to me that you talk for a living," Smart said.
"I'm off the clock," Birnbaum said. "I'm allowed to be inarticulate on my own time."
"These numbers mean that you're down by a third for the year," Smart said. "You're going to miss your ad guarantees. Again. That means we're going to have to do another set of make-goods. Again."
"I know how it works, Louisa," Birnbaum said.
"It means we're going to finish the quarter in the red," Smart said. "That's two quarters out of the last three we're down. You know what that means."
"It doesn't mean anything other than we make sure we're in the black next quarter," Birnbaum said.
"Wrong again," Strong said. "It means that Walter puts you on his watch list. And when Walter puts you on the watch list, you're one step away from cancellation. Then that 'Voice in the Wilderness' bit of yours won't just be a clever affectation. You really will be out in the cold."
"Walter's not going to cancel me," Birnbaum said. "I'm his favorite talk show host."
"You remember Bob Arrohead? The guy you replaced? He was Walter's favorite, too," Smart said. "And then he had three bad quarters in a row and he was out on his ass. Walter didn't build a multibillion media empire by being sentimental about his favorites. He'd cancel his grandmother if she had three red quarters in a row."
"I could make it alone if I had to," Birnbaum said. "Run a lean, mean operation on my own. It's totally possible."
"That's what Bob Arrohead does now," Smart said. "You should ask him how that's working out for him. If you can find him. If you can find anyone who knows how to find him."
"Yes, but he doesn't have you," Birnbaum said. He was not above base flattery.
And Smart was not above throwing it back in his face. "And if you get canceled and leave SilverDelta, neither will you," she said. "My contract is with the company, not with you, Al. But thank you so much for the attempted head pat. Where are you, anyway?"
"I'm heading to Ben's soccer match," Birnbaum said.
"Your kid's soccer match doesn't start until four thirty, Al," Smart said. "You need to lie better to someone who has your calendar up on her screen. You're going off to meet the groupie you met at the Broadcasters Association meeting, aren't you?"
"I don't know who you're talking about," Birnbaum said.
Smart sighed, and then Birnbaum heard her count to five, quietly. "You know what? You're right. I'm not your mother," she said. "You want to bang some groupie, again, fine with me. Just bear in mind that Walter is not going to be as free with the hush money when you're two quarters in the red as he was when you were his top earner. And remember that you have no prenup, and Judith, unlike your second wife, is not stupid, but you might be, which is how she maneuvered you into not having a prenup. I hope the validation of your middle-aged ego and three minutes of exercise is worth it."
"I treasure these calls, Louisa," Birnbaum said. "Especially your subtle digs at my sexual technique."
"Spend less time banging groupies and more time on your show, Al," Smart said. "You're not fading because your politics have suddenly gotten unpopular. You're fading because you're getting lazy and bored. You get lazy and bored in this business, and guess what? You're out of the business. And then the groupies dry up."
"Thanks for that image," Birnbaum said.
"I'm not kidding, Al," Smart said. "You got a quarter to turn it around. You know it and so do I. You better get to work." She disconnected.
They caught up to him as he was heading out of the lobby of the hotel. "Mr. Birnbaum," the young man said to him.
Birnbaum held up his hand and tried to keep walking. "Can't sign autographs now," he said. "I'm going to be late for my kid's soccer match."
"I'm not here for an autograph," the young man said to him. "I'm here with a business proposition."
"You can direct those to my manager," Birnbaum said, yelling back to the young man as he blew past. "That's what I pay Chad to do: field business propositions."
"Down twelve percent this month, Mr. Birnbaum?" the young man called out to him as he headed into the revolving door.
Birnbaum took the entire circuit of the revolving door and came back to the young man. "Excuse me?" he said.
"I said, 'Down twelve percent?'" the young man said.
"How do you know about my numbers?" Birnbaum said. "That's proprietary information."
"A talk show host who spends as much time as you do linking to leaked documents and video shouldn't need to ask a question like that," the young man said. "How I know your numbers isn't really the important thing here, Mr. Birnbaum. The important thing here is how I can help you get those numbers up."
"I'm sorry, I have no idea who you are," Birnbaum said. "As a corollary to that, I have no idea why I should care about or listen to you."
"My name is Michael Washington," the young man said. "On my own, I am no one you should particularly care about. The people who I represent, you might want to listen to."
"And who are they?" Birnbaum said.
"A group who knows the advantage of a mutually beneficial relationship," Washington said.
Birnbaum smiled. "That's it? Are you serious? A shadowy, mysterious group? Look, Michael, I may get traction on conspiracy theories from time to time — they're fun and the listeners love 'em. It doesn't mean I think they actually exist."
"They're neither shadowy nor mysterious," Washington said. "They simply prefer to remain anonymous at this point."
"How nice for them," Birnbaum said. "When they're serious about whatever thing it is they want, and they have names, they can talk to Chad. Otherwise you're wasting my time and theirs."
Washington offered Birnbaum his card. "I understand entirely, Mr. Birnbaum, and apologize for taking up your time. However, once you have your meeting with Walter tomorrow, if you change your mind, here's how you can reach me."
Birnbaum didn't take the card. "I don't have a meeting scheduled with Walter tomorrow," he said.
"Just because you don't have it scheduled doesn't mean you're not going to have it," Washington said. He waggled the card slightly.
Birnbaum left without taking it and without looking back at Washington.
He was late for Ben's soccer match. Ben's team lost.
Birnbaum wrapped up his morning show and was texting his new toy about the possibility of another hotel get-together when he looked up from his PDA and saw Walter Kring, all six feet ten inches of him, standing right in front of him.
"Walter," Birnbaum said, trying not to lose composure at the sight of his boss.
Kring nodded toward Birnbaum's PDA. "Sending a message to Judith?" he asked.
"Pretty much," Birnbaum said.
"Good," Kring said. "She's a great lady, Al. Smartest thing you ever did was marry her. You'd be an idiot to mess with that. You can tell her I said so."
"I'll do that," Birnbaum said. "What brings you down here to the salt mines today, Walter?" SilverDelta's recording studios were on the first two floors of the company's Washington, D.C., building; Walter's offices took up the whole of the fourteenth floor and had a lift to the roof for his helicopter, which he used daily to commute from Annapolis. The CEO of SilverDelta rarely dropped below the tenth floor on any given day.
"I'm firing someone," Kring said.
"Pardon?" Birnbaum's mouth puckered up as if he'd sucked on a block of alum.
"Alice Valenta," Kring said. "We just got the numbers in for the quarter. She's been down too long and she's not coming back up. Time to move on. And you know how I feel about these things, Al. Firing people isn't something you farm out. You should be able to shoot your own dog, you should be able to fire your own people. It's respectful."
"I agree entirely," Birnbaum said.
"I know you do," Kring said. "It's Leadership 101."
Birnbaum swallowed and nodded, suddenly having nothing to say.
"I'm just glad you haven't made me come down here on your behalf, Al," Kring said, leaning over him in a way that he probably couldn't help, being two meters tall, but which made Birnbaum impressively aware just how much he was the beta dog in this particular situation. It took actual force of will not to avert his eyes. "You wouldn't do that to me, would you?" Kring said.
"Of course not, Walter," Birnbaum said. He actually turned on his performance voice to say it, because if he used his normal voice, it would have cracked.
Kring straightened up and clasped Birnbaum on the shoulder. "That's what I like to hear. We should do lunch sometime. It's been far too long."
"I'd like that," Birnbaum lied.
"Fine," Kring said. "I'll have Jason set it up. Sometime next week, probably."
"Great," Birnbaum said.
"Now, you'll have to excuse me, Al," Kring said. "Not every meeting I'm having today is going to be as nice as the one we've having." Birnbaum nodded his assent and Kring wandered off without another word, down the hall to Studio Eight, soon to be Alice Valenta's former work space.
Birnbaum waited until Kring was out of sight and simultaneously exhaled and shuddered. He reached into his pants pocket, ostensibly to retrieve his vehicle fob but in reality to check if he had spotted himself.
Birnbaum's PDA vibrated, alerting him to an incoming text. It read, When do you want to meet? Birnbaum started writing back that under further consideration, another hotel meet-up wouldn't work this week, when he realized the text hadn't come from his new toy. He backtracked the text.
Who is this? he wrote, and sent.
It's Michael Washington, was the reply.
How do you know this PDA? Birnbaum sent. It was his private PDA; he was under the impression that the only people who knew the number were Judith, Ben, Louisa Smart and the new toy.
The same way I knew which hotel you were at with that woman who is not your wife, said the response. You should focus less on that and more on how to save your job, Mr. Birnbaum. Do you want to meet?
They met at Bonner's, which was the sort of wood-paneled bar that people making entertainment shows used when politicians had meetings with shadowy figures.
"Before we do or say anything else, I need to know how you know so much about me," Birnbaum said as Washington sat in his booth, not even bothering with the pleasantries. "You know both my personal and professional business in a way no one else in the world knows or should know."
"Louisa Smart knows," Washington said, mildly.
"So you're getting the information from her?" Birnbaum said. "You're paying my producer to spy on me? Is that it?"
"No, Mr. Birnbaum," Washington said. "After ten years you should know your producer better than that."
"Then how are you doing it? Are you with the government? Our government? Someone else's?" Birnbaum unconsciously slipped into his paranoid rhetoric mode, which brought him much fame in earlier years. "How extensive is the surveillance web on me? Are you monitoring people other than me? How high up does this go? Because I swear to you, I will follow up on this, as far up as it goes. At the risk to my own life and freedom."
"Do you really believe there is a government conspiracy against you, Mr. Birmbaum?" Washington said.
"You tell me," Birnbaum said.
Washington held out his PDA. "Your PDA," he said.
"What about my PDA?" Birnbaum said.
"Give it to me for a moment, please," Washington said.
"You bugged my PDA?" Birnbaum exclaimed. "You're tapped into the network at the root!"
"Your PDA, please," Washington said, still extending his hand. Birnbaum gave it to him, with some trepidation. Washington took it, made a few wiping motions, pressed the screen and then handed it back to Birnbaum. He looked at it, confused.
"You're showing me the Voice in the Wilderness 'gram," he said.
"Yes," Washington said. "The free 'gram you give out so people can listen to your show and then send text or voice comments, along with location tags so you know where the comments are from, geographically, when you read or play them on air. Which means your 'gram has the ability to send and receive audio and also track your movements. And because you had it built cheaply by flat-rate coders who make their money banging out 'grams like yours fast and sloppy, it's incredibly easy to hack into."
"Wait," Birnbaum said. "You used my own 'gram against me?"
"Yes," Washington said. "You get what you pay for with coders, Mr. Birnbaum."
"What about Walter?" Birnbaum said. "You said I would have a meeting with him and I did. How did you know that?"
"The monthly numbers were in," Washington said. "The quarter was ending. There were show hosts who have been lagging. Kring is famous for firing people face-to-face. So I made a guess. Work the odds, Mr. Birnbaum, on the chance you might see Walter Kring today. And since I put the suggestion into your head that you'd have a meeting, any encounter you might have would qualify. After that, it just took monitoring your PDA to catch you after the 'meeting' took place."
Birnbaum put his PDA away, a certain look on his face.
Washington caught it. "You're disappointed, aren't you," he said. "That I'm not from the government. That there's not a global conspiracy following you."
"Don't be stupid," Birnbaum said. "I already told you that I don't personally go in for that stuff." His expression was unchanged.
"I do apologize," Washington said. "I'm sorry I'm not more nefarious or well connected into the murky corners of national and global politics."
"Then who are you?" Birnbaum said.
"As I've told you before, I represent a group who wants to offer you a solution to your current set of problems," Washington said.
Birnbaum almost asked, Who are your clients, really? but was distracted by what Washington said. "And what exactly is my problem?"
"Namely, that you're shedding listeners at an accelerating rate on your way to becoming a has-been in the national political conversation," Washington said.
Birnbaum thought about arguing that assertion but realized that would not actually get him any answers, so he let it go. "And how do your friends propose to fix that?" he asked instead.
"By suggesting a topic for you to consider," Washington said.
"Is this a bribe?" Birnbaum asked. "A payment for espousing a certain view? Because I don't do that." He had in fact done it, once or twice or ten or more times, in deals that were in point of fact often negotiated at Bonner's. Birnbaum squared it with his morals by figuring they were usually things he was likely to say anyway, so what he was doing was merely illegal, not unethical. However, one always led with being nonbribable. It gave those attempting to bribe a sense of accomplishment.
"There is no money to be exchanged," Washington said.
Birnbaum made that face again. Washington laughed. "Mr. Birnbaum, you have more than enough money. For now, at least. What my clients are offering is something much more valuable: the ability to not only climb back up to the position of fame and personal power that you held not too long ago, but to exceed it. You were the number four audio talker in the land once, although not for very long. My clients are offering you a chance to go to number one and stay there, for as long as you want to be there."
"And how are they going to manage that?" Birnbaum wanted to know.
"Mr. Birnbaum, I assume, given your profession, you know who William Randolph Hearst was," Washington said.
Excerpted from "The Human Division #4: A Voice In The Wilderness"
Copyright © 2013 John Scalzi.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
About the Author,
Tor Books by John Scalzi,