Jim Allchin walks hurridly past his secretary toward his office, his head down, a floppy hat pulled low over his face. The secretary glamces furtively at him, trying unsuccessfully to hide a grin. "Jim? Bill's waiting in his office. He'd like for you to come straight up as soon as you get in."
Oh, God, Allchin thinks: even the secretaries have heard. "Thanks, Sally," He says with a faint nod. He enters his office, closes his door, and throws his hat and coat onto a chair. He desperately wants to leave the door closed all day, the phone off the hook, and immerse himself in something artificial (Asheron's Call?) but knows that he can't ignore a summons from the Chief Technologist. He hopes against hope that that asshole Ballmer won't be there but he knows he will be. Ballmer never could resist a good crucifixion. Jim looks around his office: he's been here long enough to make the place comfortable, a little home away from home. He wonders how many boxes he'll need to pack his personal belongings. He sighs, tries to stand a little straighter, and walks out.
Bill's office is an odd mix of neat and chaos, as always. The space immediately adjacent to his chair and workstation is piled high with papers but the rest of the office looks like an advertisement for an upscale furniture store. Its obvious which parts Bill uses and which parts he doesn't. Jim tries to avoid looking crestfallen at the sight of Ballmer, seated in his usual overstuffed chair. He looks like a bear waiting for a meal.
Bill is standing beside his desk, looking out the window. He turns when Jim enters the room and nods a greeting. He's obviously applying those stress management techniques the PR people have been insisting he learn: five years ago he'd have been flying around the room like a butterfly on steroids, waving his arms and intimidating mere mortals in his usual style. But age and parenthood and weekly sessions with coaches have moderated his behavior, at least a little, and for once Jim is grateful. That's his first mistake, letting that little tiny bubble of hope out of it's cage.
Bill gets right to the point: "Jim, I've been reading about that speech you gave. Did you actually say that open source software is un-American?" Ballmer snickers.
Jim feels that traitorous little bubble of hope change, transform: it was really desperation, camouflaged. He wonders if he'll be sick on Bill's carpet. "Oh, the damn press," he hears himself say. "You know how they work, twisting things around." He feels as though he's in a dream: his mouth is working, his body is acting, but his mind seems to be detached as though it were watching a performance. He finds himself wondering how it will turn out.
Bill nods; he does indeed know. At least, he thinks he does. "They recorded the speech, I imagine."
Oh, Christ, Jim thinks, I'm gonna throw up on the Chairman's carpet!
"Of course they filmed it," Ballmer says with a grin. "They record everything, don't they, Jim? Just waiting for one little mistake."
Jim gulps, trying desperately to hold his stomach in check. He succeeds in keeping his breakfast down but it seems to need to come out. If not one end, then the other. He clenches his butt muscles doggedly, feeling his stomach rumble.
"Sure they do," agrees Bill. His face changes, grows somehow darker and more menacing. There's only so much that coaching can do, apparently, and he's already tired of the little game. His pale hands, once bony but now in middle age growing a bit puffy, rest on the back of a chair, the knuckles white under the pale skin. "What on Earth were you thinking, Jim?"
Allchin shrugs dejectedly, his eyes searching for answers in the carpet. Hope, despair, anger: all have fled the scene in much the same way as animals flee ground zero before an earthquake. God, he feels so alone! Is this what Judgement Day will be like? He shudders involuntarily. "I don't know," he says haltingly. "I mean, these people just do this for free! What the hell is that, anyway?"
Ballmer snorts. That's the only word for it: snort. Like a bull when it first sees the red cape waving just beyond the reach of its horns. Bill glances at him, then turns his attention back to Allchin. "They're having a field day with this," he points out. "It was an idiotic thing to say, and they know it."
Allchin nods, his eyes still on the floor. He can't bring himself to look at them, especially Ballmer, sitting there smugly in his chair, his hands folded in his lap. Jim realizes that at the moment he's entertainment, nothing more; like that chick in the Star Wars movie when she went into the blob's hideout to rescue Han Solo and they all knew who she was and were just waiting for her to make her move. He thinks, reaching back... Carrie Fisher, or something like that. They had to tape her boobs so they wouldn't bounce around too much on camera. He replays the scene in his mind...
"God damn it, Jim!" Bill's gotten excited now and he's waving his arms. His face has turned an interesting shade of purple. "You're Supersmart! You're one of the best and brightest! How could you say such a stupid fucking thing? In public? Jesus God in Heaven: do you have any idea what that makes Microsoft look like? What it makes ME look like? Damn it, do you?"
What Jim wants to say is that it couldn't possibly make things worse than that Gawd-awful tape of Bill testifying for the anti-trust trial, but he knows better than to bring that up. Hell hath no fury, and all that. But still: Bill's words remind him that he is, in fact, Super Smart. He's one of the smartest people on the planet, maybe not as smart as Bill but certainly smarter than that blowhard Ballmer. He feels the first tentative heat of anger building up and when he speaks he is a little surprised to hear himself. There's a bit of steel in his voice that wasn't there a moment ago, he thinks. "Maybe its a marketing opportunity, maybe it isn't," he says. For the first time since he walked in the room he raises his head and looks at Bill's face. "But it isn't fair. They're doing for free what we're paying hundreds of millions to do. Sure, Linux sucks -- today. Windows sucked too, the first few years. We spent a lot of money and eventually got it right. They're not spending a damn dime but sooner or later, they'll get it, too. That's not the way competition works! Where's the level playing field? Where's the investment?"
"C-c-communists?" Ballmer is laughing, his face red, his ample frame jerking spasmodically. "You called them communists!"
"It was a stupid thing to say," Bill shouts, his voice squeaking. He seems to like that phrase, especially the 'stupid' part. He likes that word and when he says it, he draws it out: 'stu-u-u-u-pid', elevating its importance, emphasizing it, rolling it on his tongue like a rich cognac chasing a fine cigar. He shakes his head as though he has given up. "Just stupid." He stares at Allchin as though evaluating him. "What the hell's the matter with you? Aren't you smart? You're supposed to be smart. We're paying you to be smart, damn it!"
Jim feels his knees wobble and puts out a hand to steady himself against the back of a chair. Whatever steel he thought he'd found has vanished and for a moment, it is all he can do to keep himself from soiling Bill's carpet. Desperately, he wishes he could sit down, just for a moment. He feels his face get hot and fights back a wetness in his eyes. They're going to kick me out, he realizes suddenly. They're not even going to let me have a box to carry my stuff out in. He sees himself shuffling down an endless hallway under the flourescent lights, his arms holding a vast assemblage of unidentifiable stuff; a Santa Claus without the goodie bag, heading for the bread line. He's carrying his Monet under one arm, and his face is red and his eyes puffy. Everyone is watching. Are you allowed to carry a Monet that way, he wonders?
"Anyone can have a bad day." He's surprise to hear his own voice. Did he just say that? He closes his eyes. Ok, two bad days, he thinks. He wonders if there's a bridge nearby. Hell, this is Seattle, he tells himself. Bridges all over the place.
Bill looks upward, as though pleading with Heaven, and rolls his eyes. He stares appraisingly at Allchin for a moment. "Fascists," he says, finally. There's a glint in his eye.
Jim is puzzled. Where did this come from? "Fascists?", he mutters softly. Who? Him? Ballmer?
"The press loves communists," Gates says. He's waving his arms again. "Goddamn pinko-loving soft headed idiots." He glares at Allchin. "You called the free software people 'communists'," he says. "They're not communists! They're fascists! Dirty little thieving fascists!"
Ballmer nods quick agreement. "That's the line, all right: I like it. A bunch of little Hitlers with their black leather and tattoos. They don't respect authority or capitalism or mom or country or anything else." He nods thoughtfully. "Yeah, we could go with that."
Gates walks around the table and jabs a finger in Allchin's face, not quite poking him in the eye. "That's what you call them from now on," he says forcefully. "Fascists. Not communists, fascists. From now on."
Jim nods, a palpable wave of relief sweeping over him, almost causing his legs to collapse beneath him. All he can think of is his office. With the door closed. "Fascists," he whispers. "They're all a bunch of little Nazis." Oh, God, he thinks: oh, God: thank You for not making me shit on Bill's carpet.