Apr 6 2011 1:00pm
Please enjoy this reprint from Gateways, edited by Elizabeth Anne Hull, an anthology of original stories inspired by science fiction great Frederik Pohl. Pohl’s latest novel, All the Lives He Led, comes out on April 12th from Tor Books.
The ﬁrst lesson Leon learned at the ad agency was: nobody is your friend at the ad agency.
Take today: Brautigan was going to see an actual vat, at an actual clinic, which housed an actual target consumer, and he wasn’t taking Leon.
“Don’t sulk, it’s unbecoming,” Brautigan said, giving him one of those tight-lipped smiles where he barely got his mouth over those big, horsey, comical teeth of his. They were disarming, those pearly whites. “It’s out of the question. Getting clearance to visit a vat in person, that’s a one-month, two-month process. Background checks. Biometrics. Interviews with their psych staff. The physicals: they have to take a census of your microbial nation. It takes time, Leon. You might be a mayﬂy in a mayﬂy hurry, but the man in the vat, he’s got a lot of time on his hands. No skin off his dick if you get held up for a month or two.”
“Bullshit,” Leon said. “It’s all a show. They’ve got a brick wall a hundred miles high around the front, and a sliding door around the back. There’s always an exception in these protocols. There has to be.”
“When you’re 180 years old and conﬁned to a vat, you don’t make exceptions. Not if you want to go on to 181.”
“You’re telling me that if the old monster suddenly developed a rare, fast-moving liver cancer and there was only one oncologist in the whole god-damned world who could make it better, you’re telling me that guy would be sent home to France or whatever, ‘No thanks, we’re OK, you don’t have clearance to see the patient’?”
“I’m telling you the monster doesn’t have a liver. What that man has, he has machines and nutrients and systems.”
“And if a machine breaks down?”
“The man who invented that machine works for the monster. He lives on the monster’s private estate, with his family. Their microbial nations are identical to the monster’s. He is not only the emperor of their lives, he is the emperor of the lives of their intestinal ﬂora. If the machine that man invented stopped working, he would be standing by the vat in less than two minutes, with his staff, all in disposable, sterile bunny suits, murmuring reassuring noises as he calmly, expertly ﬁtted one of the ten replacements he has standing by, the ten replacements he checks, personally, every single day, to make sure that they are working.”
Leon opened his mouth, closed it. He couldn’t help himself, he snorted a laugh. “Really?”
“And what if none of the machines worked?”
“If that man couldn’t do it, then his rival, who also lives on the monster’s estate, who has developed the second-most-exciting liver replacement technology in the history of the world, who burns to try it on the man in the vat—that man would be there in ten minutes, and the ﬁrst man, and his family—”
Brautigan made a disappointed noise. “Come on, he’s a quadrillionaire, not a Bond villain. No, that man would be demoted to nearly nothing, but given one tiny chance to redeem himself: invent a technology better than the one that’s currently running in place of the vat-man’s liver, and you will be restored to your ﬁne place with your ﬁne clothes and your wealth and your privilege.”
“And if he fails?”
Brautigan shrugged. “Then the man in the vat is out an unmeasurably minuscule fraction of his personal fortune. He takes the loss, applies for a research tax credit for it, and deducts it from the pittance he deigns to send to the IRS every year.”
Brautigan slapped his hands together. “It’s wicked, isn’t it? All that money and power and money and money?”
Leon tried to remember that Brautigan wasn’t his friend. It was those teeth, they were so disarming. Who could be suspicious of a man who was so horsey you wanted to feed him sugar cubes? “It’s something else.”
“You now know about ten thousand times more about the people in the vats than your average cit. But you haven’t got even the shadow of the picture yet, buddy. It took decades of relationship-building for Ate to sell its ﬁrst product to a vat-person.”
And we haven’t sold anything else since, Leon thought, but he didn’t say it. No one would say it at Ate. The agency pitched itself as a powerhouse, a success in a ﬁeld full of successes. It was the go-to agency for servicing the “ultra-high-net-worth individual,” and yet . . .
“And we haven’t sold anything since.” Brautigan said it without a hint of shame. “And yet, this entire building, this entire agency, the salaries and the designers and the consultants: all of it paid for by clipping the toenails of that fortune. Which means that one more sale—”
He gestured around. The ofﬁces were sumptuous, designed to impress the functionaries of the fortunes in the vats. A trick of light and scent and wind made you feel as though you were in an ancient forest glade as soon as you came through the door, though no forest was in evidence. The reception desktop was a sheet of pitted tombstone granite, the unreadable smooth epitaph peeking around the edges of the old-fashioned typewriter that had been cunningly reworked to serve as a slightly less old-fashioned keyboard. The receptionist—presently ignoring them with professional verisimilitude—conveyed beauty, intelligence, and motherly concern, all by means of dress, bearing, and makeup. Ate employed a small team of stylists that worked on all public-facing employees; Leon had endured a just-so rumpling of his sandy hair and some carefully applied fraying at the cuffs and elbows of his jacket that morning.
“So no, Leon, buddy, I am not taking you down to meet my vat-person. But I will get you started on a path that may take you there, someday, if you’re very good and prove yourself out here. Once you’ve paid your dues.”
Leon had paid plenty of dues—more than this blow-dried turd ever did. But he smiled and snufﬂed it up like a good little worm, hating himself. “Hit me.”
“Look, we’ve been pitching vat-products for six years now without a single hit. Plenty of people have come through that door and stepped into the job you’ve got now, and they’ve all thrown a million ideas in the air, and every one came smashing to earth. We’ve never systematically cataloged those ideas, never got them in any kind of grid that will let us see what kind of territory we’ve already explored, where the holes are . . .” He looked meaningfully at Leon.
“You want me to catalog every failed pitch in the agency’s history.” Leon didn’t hide his disappointment. That was the kind of job you gave to an intern, not a junior account exec.
Brautigan clicked his horsey teeth together, gave a laugh like a whinny, and left Ate’s ofﬁces, admitting a breath of the boring air that circulated out there in the real world. The receptionist radiated matronly care in Leon’s direction. He leaned her way and her ﬁngers thunked on the mechanical keys of her converted Underwood Noiseless, a machine-gun rattle. He waited until she was done, then she turned that caring, loving smile back on him.
“It’s all in your work space, Leon—good luck with it.”
It seemed to Leon that the problems faced by immortal quadrillionaires in vats wouldn’t be that different from those facing mere mortals. Once practically anything could be made for practically nothing, everything was practically worthless. No one needed to discover anymore— just combine, just invent. Then you could either hit a button and print it out on your desktop fab or down at the local depot for bigger jobs, or if you needed the kind of fabrication a printer couldn’t handle, there were plenty of on-demand jobbers who’d have some worker in a distant country knock it out overnight and you’d have it in hermetic FedEx packaging on your desktop by the morning.
Looking through the Ate ﬁles, he could see that he wasn’t the last one to follow this line of reasoning. Every account exec had come up with pitches that involved things that couldn’t be fabbed—precious gewgaws that needed a trained master to produce—or things that hadn’t been fabbed—antiques, one-of-a-kinds, fetish objects from history. And all of it had met with crashing indifference from the vat-people, who could hire any master they wanted, who could buy entire warehouses full of antiques.
The normal megarich got offered experiences: a ticket to space, a chance to hunt the last member of an endangered species, the opportunity to kill a man and get away with it, a deep-ocean sub to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. The people in the vat had done plenty of those things before they’d ended up in the vats. Now they were metastatic, these hyperrich, lumps of curdling meat in the pickling solution of a hundred vast machines that laboriously kept them alive amid their cancer blooms and myriad failures. Somewhere in that tangle of hoses and wires was something that was technically a person, and also technically a corporation, and, in many cases, technically a sovereign state.
Each concentration of wealth was an efﬁcient machine, meshed in a million ways with the mortal economy. You interacted with the vats when you bought hamburgers, Internet connections, movies, music, books, electronics, games, transportation—the money left your hands and was sieved through their hoses and tubes, ﬂushed back out into the world where other mortals would touch it.
But there was no easy way to touch the money at its most concentrated, purest form. It was like a theoretical superdense element from the ﬁrst instant of the universe’s creation, money so dense it stopped acting like money; money so dense it changed state when you chipped a piece of it off.
Leon’s predeces sors had been shrewd and clever. They had walked the length and breadth of the problem space of providing services and products to a person who was money who was a state who was a vat. Many of the nicer grace notes in the ofﬁce came from those failed pitches—the business with the lights and the air, for example.
Leon had a good education, the kind that came with the mathematics of multidimensional space. He kept throwing axes at his chart of the failed inventions of Ate, Inc., mapping out the many ways in which they were similar and dissimilar. The pattern that emerged was easy to understand.
They’d tried everything.
Brautigan’s whinny was the most humiliating sound Leon had ever heard, in all his working life.
“No, of course you can’t know what got sold to the vat-person! That was part of the deal—it was why the payoff was so large. No one knows what we sold to the vat-person. Not me, not the old woman. The man who sold it? He cashed out years ago, and hasn’t been seen or heard from since. Silent partner, preferred shares, controlling interest—but he’s the invisible man. We talk to him through lawyers who talk to lawyers who, it is rumored, communicate by means of notes left under a tombstone in a tiny cemetery on Pitcairn Island, and row in and out in longboats to get his instruction.”
The hyperbole was grating on Leon. Third day on the job, and the sun-dappled, ozonated pseudoforested environment felt as stale as an old gym bag (there was, in fact, an old gym bag under his desk, waiting for the day he ﬁnally pulled himself off the job in time to hit the complimentary gym). Brautigan was grating on him more than the hyperbole.
“I’m not an asshole, Brautigan, so stop treating me like one. You hired me to do a job, but all I’m getting from you is shitwork, sarcasm, and secrecy.” The alliteration came out without his intending it to, but he was good at that sort of thing. “So here’s what I want to know: is there any single solitary reason for me to come to work tomorrow, or should I just sit at home, drawing a salary until you get bored of having me on the payroll and can my ass?”
It wasn’t entirely spontaneous. Leon’s industrial psychology background was pretty good— he’d gotten straight As and an offer of a post-doc, none of which had interested him nearly so much as the practical applications of the sweet science of persuasion. He understood that Brautigan had been pushing him around to see how far he could be pushed. No one pushed like an ad guy—if you could sweet-talk someone into craving something, it followed that you could goad him into hating something just as much. Two faces of a coin and all that.
Brautigan faked anger, but Leon had spent three days studying his tells, and Leon could see that the emotion was no more sincere than anything else about the man. Carefully, Leon ﬂared his nostrils, brought his chest up, inched his chin higher. He sold his outrage, sold it like it was potato chips, over-the-counter securities, or under-the-counter diet pills. Brautigan tried to sell his anger in return. Leon was a no sale. Brautigan bought.
“There’s a new one,” he said, in a conspiratorial whisper.
“A new what?” Leon whispered. They were still chest to chest, quivering with angry body language, but Leon let another part of his mind deal with that.
“A new monster,” Brautigan said. “Gone to his vat at a mere 103. Youngest ever. Unplanned.” He looked up, down, left, right. “An accident. Impossible accident. Impossible, but he had it, which means?”
“It was no accident,” Leon said. “Police?” It was impossible not to fall into Brautigan’s telegraphed speech style. That was a persuasion thing, too, he knew. Once you talked like him, you’d sympathize with him. And vice versa, of course. They were converging on a single identity. Bonding. It was intense, like make-up sex for coworkers. “He’s a sovereign three ways. An African republic, an island, one of those little Baltic countries. On the other side of the international vowel line. Mxlplx or something. They swung for him at the WTO, the UN—whole bodies of international trade law for this one. So no regular cops; this is diplomatic corps stuff. And, of course, he’s not dead, so that makes it more complicated.”
“Dead people become corporations. They get managed by boards of directors who act predictably, if not rationally. Living people, they’re ﬂamboyant. Seismic. Unpredictable. But. On the other hand.” He waggled his eyebrows.
“On the other hand, they buy things.”
“Once in a very long while, they do.”