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The Incrementalists

Steven Brust

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  Who Took the First Incremental Step



  Who Keeps Making Things

  A Little Better


  The authors would like to thank our families for putting up with us while things went onto the page and not so much with the real world. Thanks to Dr. Flash Gordon for medical advice, Steve Dutton for the hospitality, Sarah at The Palms, and to Emma Bull, Tim Cooper, Pamela Dean (who went above and beyond with translations to the Jacobin), Marissa Lingen, Bruce Schneier, Adam Stemple, Will Shetterly, and Pat Wrede for many helpful comments. Mark A. Mandel helped with some linguistic questions. Nancy Hanger did a wonderful job copyediting the manuscript, for which we are grateful. Thanks to Jennifer Melchert for additional proofreading. Thank you also to Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden for the amazing fourteen-hour editing marathon and the stew. Several Incrementalists were sufficiently cooperative to make up for those who weren’t. Without your help, this wouldn’t have gotten off the ground.


  Title Page

  Copyright Notice



  1. You Entering Anything?

  2. You Can Do That?

  3. That’s Backwards Too

  4. Young Blood Is So Important

  5. What Else Can I Get You?

  6. You’ve Been Meddled With

  7. In the Barren Sucking Wasteland

  8. How’s the Head?

  9. We Can Do Better

  10. A More Reasonable Question

  11. The Easy Way

  12. Raggedy Ann

  13. Keep Walking

  14. Love Is Only a Game

  15. Staying Matters

  16. Cracks Like Lightning

  17. What We Can Do

  18. Unpleasant Personality Traits

  19. One Equals Zero

  20. Spiked

  Books by Steven Brust and Skyler White

  About the Authors



  You Entering Anything?


  From: [email protected]

  To: [email protected]

  Subject: Celeste

  Tuesday, June 28, 2011 10:03 am GMT - 7

  You’ve all been very patient since Celeste died. Thanks. Since no one responded on the forum, I’m asking here before I go ahead: I think I’ve finally settled on a recruit for her stub. If some of you want to look it over, the basic info is the hemp rope coiled on the bottom branch of the oak just west of my back gate.

  There. That finished what I had to do; now I could be about earning my living. I put the laptop in its case, left my house, and drove to The Palms. Just like anyone else going to work. Ha.

  Greg, the poker room manager, said, “You’re here early, Phil. No two-five, just one-three.”

  “That’s fine,” I said. “Put me down for when it starts.”

  Greg nodded. He always nodded a little slowly, I think so as not to risk dislodging his hairpiece. “We have an open seat in the one-three if you want it,” he added.

  “I’ll wait, thanks. How’s the boat?”

  “It’s still being a hole to sink money into. But I should have it working again by August. Going to take the kids out and teach them to run it.”

  “Why, so they can burn out the engine again?”

  “Don’t even joke about it. But if I ever hope to water-ski, I’m going to have to.…”

  Five minutes later I disengaged and went to 24/7, the hotel café, to relax until the game started.

  While I waited, I drank coffee and checked my email.

  From: [email protected]

  To: [email protected]

  Subject: Re: Celeste

  Tuesday, June 28, 2011 6:23 pm GMT

  Looks good to me, Phil. I have no problem with you going to Arizona to do the interview.

  I hit Reply.

  From: [email protected]

  To: [email protected]

  Subject: Re: Celeste

  Tuesday, June 28, 2011 11:26 am GMT - 7

  The World Series of Poker is going, so this is a good time for my sugar spoon and a bad time for me to go to Phoenix. Feel like crossing the pond? Or finding someone else to do the 1st interview? I’ll still titan. Or we can put it off a week; there’s no hurry, I suppose.

  I hit Send and closed my laptop as I felt someone looming over me.

  “Hey, Phil.”

  “Hey, Captain.”

  Richard Sanderson, all 350 pounds of him, slid into the booth. We’d exchanged a lot of money over the years, but I was glad to see him. He said, “Phil is here before noon. Must be WSOP week.”

  “Uh-huh. Which now lasts a month and a half. You entering anything?”

  “I tried the fifteen hundred buy-in seven stud and got my ass kicked. That’s all for me. You?”

  “No. The side-games are so full of guys steaming from the event, why bother?”

  “No shit. I played the fifteen-thirty limit at the Ballaj last night, had three guys who were on tilt before they sat down.”

  “Good game?”

  “Hell of a good game.”

  “How much did you lose?”

  “Ha-ha. Took about twelve hundred home.”

  “Nice work. Next time that happens, call your buddy.”

  “If I ever meet one, I will.”

  We bantered a little more until they called him for the one-three no limit game. I opened my laptop again, and Jimmy had already replied, saying that he didn’t feel like going to Phoenix (made sense, seeing as he lives in Paris), but he’d be willing to nudge the recruit to Las Vegas for me. I wrote back saying that’d be great, and asking him to get her to 24/7 at The Palms on Thursday afternoon.

  Then I took out my copy of No Limits by Wallace and Stemple and reviewed the section on hand reading until they called my name for the two-five. I bought in for $500 and took seat three. I knew two of the other players but not the rest, because I didn’t usually play this early in the day and because there were a lot of people in town for the WSOP.

  I settled in to play, which mostly meant looking at my hand and tossing it away.

  I have a house not far from The Palms. I have stayed in many houses, apartments, condos, hotels, boarding rooms, sublets. I’ve lived in many places. But nowhere feels like home quite as much as a poker table. I watched the other players, making mental notes on how they played. I picked up a small pot on an unimproved ace-king, and wondered if the finger-tap from the Asian woman in seat one meant she’d missed the flop.

  Sometime in the next couple of days, I was going to see whether Celeste’s stub would work with Renee, and if it did, whether we might have a chance to not tear each other apart and maybe even do a bit of good. That was important; but it wasn’t right now. Right now, it was only odds and cards. And right now is always important.

  A couple of hours later, I was all in with two kings against ace-queen. The flop came ace-high, and I was already reaching in my pocket for another buy-in when I spiked a king
on fourth street and doubled up. I’d have taken it as an omen, but I’m not superstitious.


  From: [email protected]

  To: [email protected]

  Subject: Meeting with Jorge at RMMD in NYC

  Tuesday, June 28, 2011 1:06 pm GMT - 7

  Ren, I hate to spring this on you, and I know I said I wouldn’t ask you to travel anymore, but we need you in New York on Friday. The PowerPoint deck looks great, but Jorge has concerns about the audio component of the user interface. I’d like to have you there to field his questions. Get flight details etc from Cindi.

  I chose Twix for anger control and Mountain Dew for guts, but nothing in the rows of vending machines between my cubicle and my boss’s office looked like lucky, or even wheedle. I bought Snickers as a bribe, and ate the first Twix bar on the way upstairs.

  I poked my head around Liam’s office door, decorated since Memorial Day for the Fourth of July in silver tinsel and tiny plastic flags. He waved me in, tipped so far back in his ergonomic chair that a dentist could have worked comfortably. Liam laughed and said, “I understand,” and “She’s not going to like that,” into his phone headset, and winked at me.

  I ate the other Twix bar.

  “Okay, let me know. Thanks.” Liam pulled off his headset and waggled his eyebrows in the direction of the Snickers. “Is that for me?”


  “Because you love me?”

  “That depends,” I said, but it didn’t really, and Liam knew it. I slid the candy bar across his empty desk. “Working in a paperless office is different from not working, you know,” I told him.

  He grinned and ate half the Snickers in one bite. “I hate to do this to you, I really do.”

  “Then don’t. You don’t need me in New York.”

  “I’m guessing you have a date for Friday.”

  “I’m guessing you’re worried about the cost estimates.”

  “It’s an awful lot to propose spending on a feature they didn’t request.”

  “They would have written it into the requirements if they bothered to read their own research. I did. They need this. Jesus. Is the air at the top of the corporate ladder so thin it’s killing off brain cells? Don’t either of you remember what happened last time?”

  Liam opened the bottom drawer of his desk and produced a giant peanut butter jar full of darts. I scooted my chair out of firing range and shut the door to reveal the big-eyed baby chick in an Easter bonnet Liam had snagged from Cindi’s previous decorating campaign.

  “Who’s the guy?” Liam lofted a dart at the pastel grotesque.

  “Someone new. He’s making me dinner.”

  “I’ll buy you dinner. After the meeting—Eden Sushi, very posh.”

  “I’ve had sushi with Jorge before.” I held up my hands like a scale. “Cold fish in bad company. Homemade gnocchi with a hot guy. Gosh, Liam, how’s a girl to choose?”

  Easter Chicken suffered a direct hit to her pert tail feathers.

  “Move your date to Saturday.”

  “Can’t,” I mumbled. “He’s in a band.”

  The dart fell onto the carpet as Liam let out a wheezy whoop. “Is the air in your blues clubs so smoky it’s killing off brain cells?” He leaned back in his chair far enough and laughed long enough for a molar extraction. Which I considered providing. “Don’t you remember what happened last time?”

  “One bad guitarist boyfriend isn’t a pattern of poor dating choices, but half a million dollars in post-prototype changes should have turned Jorge into a research fetishist. Have you tried just reminding him?”

  “He specifically asked me to bring you.”

  “Oh, come on.”

  “Sorry. But I can’t really say no, can I?”

  “What, to your boss? Who would do such a thing?”

  From: [email protected]

  To: [email protected]

  Subject: Your Flight Info

  Tuesday, June 28, 2011 5:46 pm GMT - 7

  Hi Ren! Jorge’s PA just called me, and he’s going to Vegas for some poker festival. So guess what?!? So are you! All the Friday AM flights are full, so I bought your ticket for Thursday. You’re staying at The Palms.

  Have fun!

  There’s just no vending machine voodoo for this sort of day. I went home for ice cream.


  From: [email protected]

  To: [email protected]

  Subject: Renee

  Wednesday, June 29, 2011 12:49 am GMT

  Her flight arrives Thursday early afternoon. She’s got a gift coupon for 24/7 Café bigger than her per diem, but no telling when she’ll use it.

  I cashed out around nine, posting a decent win, and went home to log it, check my email, and seed the Will Benson meddlework. I could imagine Oskar being all sarcastic about it: “Great work, Phil. Six dozen signs that won’t use quotation marks for emphasis. That makes the world tons better.” Fuck him. I hate quotation marks used for emphasis.

  When I’d finished seeding, I checked our forum and added some noise to an argument that was in danger of acquiring too much signal. Then I watched some TV because I was too brain-dead to read, and much too brain-dead to graze. The Greek unions were striking, Correia beat the Blue Jays in spite of Encarnación’s two homers. I hadn’t recorded the game because no one cares about interleague play except the owners. When I felt like I was going to fall asleep in front of the TV, I turned it off and went to bed.

  Wednesday was a good day: poker treated me well, and after a pro forma hour hunting for switches for Acosta, I just relaxed. The most exciting thing on TV was Jeopardy!, so I reread Kerouac’s On the Road. I wish I’d met him. I wish I’d met Neal Cassady. I almost did, once, in San Francisco, but I got into a fender bender at Scott and Lombard and never made it to the party.

  From: [email protected]

  To: [email protected]

  Subject: Renee!

  Thursday, June 30, 2011 3:55 am GMT

  Phil, I just happened to come across some of Renee’s background.

  What are you trying to pull?

  Funny. Jimmy “just happened” to come across some of Renee’s background, like I “just happened” to raise with two aces. And what was he doing up at that hour?

  Well, I’d meet her sometime tomorrow, and decide then. When dealing with the group, especially Salt (myself included), it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission. Tomorrow would be a busy day: I needed to talk to Jeff the cook and Kendra the waitress, and I had to prep the café before Renee got in.

  I went to bed and dreamed of high seas.


  I couldn’t get the wi-fi in my room to work, but I had a nice apology gift certificate from Liam for the hotel café, so I went downstairs with my netbook and nooked into one of the high-backed booths. I ordered matzo ball soup because I thought it was funny to find it on a casino menu, but I worried about it as soon as the waitress left. Theirs might be good. Maybe even as good as my nana’s, but it didn’t stand a chance against my memory of hers. I flagged the waitress down and changed my order to a veggie burger, which would have offended my grandmother to her beef-loving soul. Then I opened Google Reader.

  It was late for lunch and early for dinner, so I had the place mostly to myself when he walked in looking like all the reasons I’ve never wanted to go to Vegas. He wore a ball cap pulled down over predator’s eyes in an innocent face, and I couldn’t tell whether the hunt or the hunted was real. Still, there’s no conversation you want to have with a tall, dark and handsome man who sidles up to your table in the café of a Vegas hotel. I knew better. I put my earbuds in, and I didn’t look up.

  “Hi,” he said, like he just thought of it.

  I unplugged only my left ear, and slowly, like it hurt me. “Sorry?”

  “Hi,” he said again with one of those smiles that means “I play golf!”

  “Um, hi.” I touched the molded plastic of the earpiece to my
cheek, but he kept a hand on the backrest of the chair beside me. He squatted next to it, graceful on his back foot, bringing us eye-level, and I stowed every detail to bludgeon Liam with.

  “I know you’re not looking for company, but when I travel I’m always curious where the locals eat. Just wanted to let you know you’ve found it. There’s no better bowl of soup in town.”

  “Good to know,” I said. Liam would actually feel guilty about this.

  “But if you want a drinkable cup of coffee, you have to get out of the hotels.”

  “I don’t drink coffee.”

  “You’ll be okay then, as long as you’re only here a day or two.”

  “Because you drive tea-drinkers out of Vegas with pitchforks?”

  “Oh, no. We just leave them to starve.”

  The serious nod that accompanied his starvation of the caffeine-adverse made me laugh. Maybe all the earnest was a game. I was pretty sure I could see a dimple twitching under the edge of his mustache.

  “I will leave you alone if you want,” he said. “I’m just talking to you on a theory.”