Apr 6 2011 1:00pm

Chicken Little

Gateways: Original Stories Inspired by Frederik PohlPlease 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?”

Brautigan nodded.

“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 . . .

One sale.

“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.”

3. emptyset
i enjoyed the wandering story, with a smart, sharp finish. great story i'll be thinking on for some time. thank you!
4. Wey
This is beautiful, blossoming. Like a small detail taken from a
great, classic painting and zooming in: Just to reveal a picture as rich
and original in texture and detail as the first one.

Thanks for this, and weave on... :)
5. Bahumat
*Wow*, Cory. This is a whole new level of concept from you. Well damn done.
6. Aloisio Junior
Really, really good stuff here.. The concept is.. disturbing.. impressive.. good!
7. Inky
Awsome story Cory. A scary good blend of character, concept, and creativity.
8. kalsangikid
This is the most polished story by Mr. Doctorow I've ever read and, I think, my new favorite. Thank you for writing this, sir.
9. CaptainK
You've read Franken Fran haven't you?
10. sk1
Well told story; I would like to read more of this style.

Thanks for sharing.

seth johnson
11. seth

Just wanted to say I'm excited that Pohl has another book coming out. Thanks for the heads-up. He's among my favorite three authors.

12. Greg323
Wow. The implications are staggering enough that I'm going to have to read it again, just to catch all the nuances. Thanks for another winner Cory.
13. Nagi
But whose hubris, I wonder?
14. orange
Loved it... Fantastic writing in every aspect of the words!
15. Jjjj
Cory, I've liked everything I've read of yours, but this is now my fave.
Hank Roberts
16. hankroberts
No download link? have to cut and paste from six pages to get this into a text file? GACK!

Anyone have a pointer to a better copy?
Hank Roberts
17. hankroberts
Oh, well, text clipping out of the 'print' link, then clipedit to export to text, then TextSoap to clean up the text, then PorDiBle conversion to Palm file. Duh.
18. Anthroguy
Noticed that the real estate agent and the secretary at Ate were the only characters that were racially marked, whereas all the other characters their race was unmentioned. Why was that?
Irene Gallo
19. Irene
Hankroberts: We do not have download rights on reprints, only on original stories.
20. Gerry__Quinn
Great story. Went in an unexpected direction at the end, and in retrospect I am not entirely convinced by that - if Buhle wanted the narrator for something outside of his job at Ate, why beat around the bush for the whole story? Still, I liked it a lot. Don't understand the title, though.
Tony Hill
21. waterwingz
So did I miss the part where Tor no longer makes these stories available eBook formats ? Kind of a pain - now I have to print to PDF and email to the free service on Amazon for a Kindle version. Takes all of 30 seconds so its mostly just annoying.
22. Laurent Jegou
23. nancym
Oh Cory, I adore you so. I’ve been reading you since the late great Science Fiction Age; I don’t like all your stories, but love they way they make me a little nervous and sometimes disturbed.

You dump us into the most insane futures I’ve never dreamed of, without an instruction sheet or a lifejacket, and expect us to be smart, swim & catch up. Sometimes it pisses me off. I freaking love that.

Thank you!
24. Kere
Christ, this was excellent.
I am a relatively new reader of your stories (the only other one I've read is Shannon's Law, which I also loved)
I really enjoyed the bits of imagination - the moss-anticipation feel in the Living Room and the Swiss Family Robinson bridges...
Thank you so much
26. j.s.
So what would the one thing in six years have been that actually was sold to a vat person? And what could possibly sell to the vat people, who could have everything and every service? What would still be a unique and pleasantly suprising experience? Simple. Vat people would have to figure large in the environment of other vat people. They would be each other's peers. They could not control one another or they would not be where they were. And they would have plenty of time to get bored. So Ate corporation would sell interactions with other vat people. The saturday night poker game. This would let them test their skills against one another. The Ate corporation would provide the service of a level playing field on which the vat people could pit their wits and skills in games in which only vat people were players.
27. Thomas Brookside
I'm a little confused by this story.

There appear to be TWO bioweapons described in it. Buhle's weapon makes people perfectly understand risk. The narrator's weapon is - or was - called "Clarity". But what that weapon does is not clearly described.

It's almost as if it should have been mentioned earlier in the story, as we're getting to know the narrator's personal history. Was that in an earlier draft, perhaps? Was it cut?

Because it comes out of nowhere at the end of the story and I'm not sure what it does.

Is it the reverse of the Buhle weapon? Does it make you want to pursue the option that will have the highest value for you, regardless of risk or cost? Is that why everyone who took it went to prison?

I'm just trying to work out what Buhle is trading for, and why he'd want to take it, and what makes it different from the drug he's already got access to.
28. MRP
@Thomas Brookside - I was thinking the same thing! Yes, this is definitely a snazzy story, smartly written, engaing, but feel like I missed something that was implied. Little lost here.
29. spockrock
@MRP and Thomas Broadside, is it possible that buhl and company had no significant knowledge of what happened during the original clarity test and it kind of just prevents society from holding you back from what you ultimately desire, regardless of what you must do to accomplish that, and, taking the opportunity to finally sell something to a Vat person, accepts the sale and talks buhl into wanting to take clarity, assuming that it would help him achieve an even greater status, though Leon intends to trick him and possibly use this opportunity to prevent buhl from achieving his dreams? I don't know I stayed up about 6 hours later than I intended to just reading and thinking about this story so this could be the ramblings of a tired sf reader but maybe brainstorm with me some and we can figure it out?
30. teleny parrish
I'm tossing out my hardcopy of this story.

Not because I don't like it, but because it's gotten hard to read. In the homeless shelter, it was one of the things that kept me full of hope: the lavish details of a life more luxurious than one can imagine, then taking that world into the realm of possibilities, ideas, to a grand climax.

I'm so glad I read this. It informs my own writing, my dreams of a better life. And yes, I'm sure that if Clarity were to exist, I still would love to take it.
31. Dre

This was awesome.

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