“Where are you? You should have been here an hour ago with that poster!”
“Sorry. The printer screwed it up again. The first proof I saw somehow managed to make ‘Brent Spiner’ look like ‘Bent Spinner’. They’re re–doing it. I should be on my way with the posters within twenty minutes. Sorry, Andie Mae.”
Al Coe, hunched over the counter at the print shop with his phone cradled between his ear and his shoulder, winced into the countertop even as the ‘sorry’ left his lips. That was typical, apologizing to Andie Mae Wilkinson for things that people had no actual control over but somehow ended up assuming responsibility for. Skewered by Andie Mae’s limpid blue eyes, combined with the buzzing chainsaw edge in her voice when she was riled, people would instinctively just shout ‘Guilty!’ and fold. He at least should have known better, should have become immune to the syndrome – having Andie Mae as an on–again–off–again girlfriend for almost four years now should have armored him against the weapons she wielded against lesser mortals. But it was Andie Mae, and she was a force of nature.
Her voice, emerging from his cellphone muffled and muted by flesh and fabric, did not even sound mollified at the apology.
“Next time I pick the printer. Why did you pick that incompetent idiot anyway? And did you tell them this was a rush job?”
“They actually pushed back another job to accommodate us,” Al said, trying to keep the peace, but then bit his lip as he realized that his statement wasn’t really an excuse in Andie Mae’s book. Of course they would have pushed back anything else to make room for her own rush job. That’s the way things worked in her world. “It’s getting done. Honest. I should be back really soon.”
“You’d better be. Our program booklets were printed a week ago and Xander finds out now that they give an entirely wrong time for the GoH interview. He’s been hand–correcting that all morning – in thousands of copies – ”
“Wait, how many registrations have you had…?”
“Well, hundreds, anyway, although it looks like we’re going to get anywhere between fifteen hundred and two thousand warm bodies in the end, if all the projections pan out. It’s only been Xander and two minions, three people, hard at it, and they’re still at it, anyway. And everyone else is buzzing around like bees out of a kicked–over beehive. And nobody can make coffee, apparently – that, or the hotel has some kind of brew that tastes like they used run–off water they collected after the gamers have had their end–of–con showers. You couldn’t pick up a package of decent coffee on your way back, could you? Just for us?”
Her voice had changed again, into her Southern Belle Wheedle, and Al never did have an adequate defense against that.
“Sure,” he said. “On my way. Almost done here.”
He looked up, and caught the eye of a young man who was operating the printer from which his posters would soon be issuing forth. The operator gave him a grin and a cheerful thumbs–up. The best Al could manage, putting down his phone, was a wan smile.
Good God. It was only Friday morning. The con hadn’t even officially started yet.
Andie Mae thumbed off her own phone with an exasperated sigh. She’d been on some ConCom or another, as a minion or a lieutenant, since she was a teen – but this was her first time in the Chair and she desperately wanted everything to go without a hitch. But there had been nothing but hitches all the way down the line.
It was Friday morning, the fifty–ninth second of the eleventh hour. The registration desk in the hotel foyer was seeing its first flurries of walk–in registrations of the day, not quite the full frenzy yet, but it was starting to build, which meant that the convention had actually, at least semi–officially, begun – and yet there were a thousand and one tasks that still required her attention, and all of them were things without which the con could not possibly run without a hiccup. Not for the first time she wondered uncharitably if her predecessor, Sam Dutton, the entrenched Chair of this con for the last damn near three decades, had vindictively left some kind of evil spell on things after they had voted him out of the office at last during that ConCom meeting straight after the previous year’s convention.
Sam was here, now – somewhere in the hotel.
Andie Mae hadn’t seen him, precisely, but she felt his presence in the corridors, enough to raise goose–pimples on her skin when she bustled down the hallways or waited impatiently for tardy elevators. He was here, and he was watching, and he would gloat magnificently if he perceived any sign of weakness or failure. She could not fail, not in Sam’s presence, not in his sight. This con had to be something they would still be talking about when she was an old lady and hailed in hotel corridors of the future as the patron saint of amazing. She wished, not for the first time, that she could have banned Sam from coming at all this year – less pressure – but he was free to register for the con as a guest, now that he was no longer a ConCom member, and there was nothing she could do about that.
She scowled, and wandered over to the nerve center of the operation, the Con Ops office. In the first room of the suite, as she entered, busy volunteers were stuffing envelopes with program booklets, name badges, party invitations, and other assorted ephemera. Some of them looked up as she came in, and managed smiles or waves before returning to their task. Andie Mae passed through and into the back room, outfitted with the latest in technology, including feed from several webcams strategically placed around the hotel. Some of the designated panel rooms were still being cleared out in preparation for their role in the proceedings, and the cameras showed nothing more than the empty shell of the room with perhaps a uniformed hotel flunky carrying in loads of folding chairs for the audiences to come. Of the couple of hundred people who had already registered, on Thursday night early–reg and on Friday morning, a hardcore few had already found the paneled–off ballroom designated as the games room, and one or three games were already in progress there under the camera’s watchful eye. Another camera showed the computer game room, with its eerily glowing banks of monitors, at least three of which were occupied by players whose eyes glittered with an air of something that could almost be menace in the dimly–lit room, intent on the games on their screen.
They couldn’t plant their own cameras in the public areas because the hotel objected to this, and they weren’t allowed access to the hotel’s own security feeds – but in any case nothing interesting was happening yet in the field of view of the only one they had up front, showing an awkward angle of the reg table but not the rest of the foyer.
“Any word from the airport?” Andie Mae called out into the tangle of computer cables and blinking screens and chattering printers.
“Dave called, he said as best he can tell the flight’s been delayed,” Libby Broadbent, communications maven, lifted her hands from the keyboard for a moment, looking up. “He said he’ll keep us posted. Uh, I’ve had another dozen emails from people who are confused about the hotel…”
Andie Mae tried not to roll her eyes. “Really, anyone would think I changed the venue to upset people,” she said. “This is a better hotel for us – we’ve outgrown the old place, had outgrown it five years ago, if only Sam didn’t have this sentimental attachment to that horrid fugly carpet they had in the foyer or something. Just tell them to get their asses over here, and promise them bigger and better!”
“Did,” Libby said. “At least one of them emailed back sounding less than convinced. How many do you figure will actually turn up this year?”
“All of them,” Andie Mae said, through gritted teeth. If they knew what was good for them. I run JUST as good a con as Sam ever did. Better. I am the best new thing in town.
“Well, the gamers will,” Libby said philosophically. “As long as they program the GPS to bring them to the correct address it won’t matter to them one way or another if they’re stuck inside some mirrored ballroom at the old Marriott or here at the California Resort. It’s all the same room, really. Have you ever wondered if the gamers actually do live in an alternate reality and only the room moves, but they simply stay in it…?”
“Anything’s possible,” Andie Mae said acidly. She was just a touch sensitive to the gamer comments, having spent at least a year of her own life buried in just such a mirrored ballroom playing the games that had been the foundation of her existence. That was before she had discovered that real–life games could be far more amusing than the fantasy role–playing. Like running cons, for instance.
Like running this con. Specifically. Finally, her chance to shine at the thing she wanted so very badly to be good at.
There were definitely enough moments of the hard reality of it all, however, that she caught herself wishing that the whole thing had been a game interface. She knew how to toggle those to suit her purposes, when it mattered. Reality meant she had to deal with other people, and those were usually variables she could not predict accurately enough to produce a flawless result.
It was the little things that kept on tripping her up. Little things like her hotel liaison stuck at the airport waiting for her writer Guest of Honor, Vincent J. Silverman, hurriedly recruited at more or less the last moment when the original writer GoH, a big–name author who was supposed to be her drawcard, had decided to cancel on her. At least Vincent J. Silverman wrote stuff that was remotely related to the con’s theme, which was a blessing. Andie Mae had dispatched David Lorne, her hotel and guest liaison, to meet Silverman’s flight, but he hadn’t been on it, and then emailed that he would be taking a later flight. Now Dave had been cooling his heels at the airport for the better part of the morning – and she had better things for him to do than hang around at the arrivals gate all day. She was starting to get just a titch annoyed at her author guest.
She tapped at her left ear, the one with the earpiece via which the committee stayed in touch with each other – no old–fashioned hand–held radios for her and her crew, not like Sam’s antiques – and scowled again. She wished people would just check in so that she knew where everyone was and what they were doing.
“Everything under control downstairs?” she asked, leaning over Libby’s shoulder and peering at the registration table camera feed. The screen showed a grainy image of one lanky–haired young man handing over a sheaf of crumpled bills, with a hint of someone else waiting patiently in line just behind.
“So far so good,” Libby said. “It’s just Felicity down there for the moment, though – maybe we could send a couple of more volunteers down to man the desk in about an hour, but we seem to be in a lull and everything is pretty quiet, she says she can cope with things right now.”
“Any update on…”
“She says there have been thirty more registrations in the past hour,” Libby said, preempting the question. “But they said their friends would be coming, apparently. After work. Give them a few more hours.”
Andie Mae drummed her fingers on the back of Libby’s chair. The posters needed to be up by then, dammit. The posters with their star turn attractions. The posters, which might have moved more registrations. The posters that were still at the printer’s with Al.
“I wish I could clone myself,” Andie Mae muttered under her breath. It was necessary for her to oversee everything, or else nothing would turn out right – but being everywhere at once was proving to be rather wearying on a body. She found herself wishing that Al was back, already – and not for the reasons that were foremost in her mind just a moment before. She desperately wanted a cup of good coffee.
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