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.”
Leon’s life was all about discipline. He’d heard a weight-loss guru once explain that the key to maintaining a slim figure was to really “listen to your body” and only eat until it signaled that it was full. Leon had listened to his body. It wanted three entire pepperoni and mushroom pizzas every single day, plus a rather large cake. And malted milkshakes, the old-fashioned kind you could make in your kitchen with an antique Hamilton Beach machine in avocado-colored plastic, served up in a tall red anodized aluminum cup. Leon’s body was extremely verbose on what it wanted him to shovel into it.
So Leon ignored his body. He ignored his mind when it told him that what it wanted to do was fall asleep on the sofa with the video following his eyes around the room, one of those shows that followed your neural activity and tried to tune the drama to maximize your engrossment. Instead, he made his mind sit up in bed, absorbing many improving books from the mountain he’d printed out and stacked there.
Leon ignored his limbic system when it told him to stay in bed for an extra hour every morning when his alarm detonated. He ignored the fatigue messages he got while he worked through an hour of yoga and meditation before breakfast.
He wound himself up tight with will and it was will that made him stoop to pick up the laundry on the stairs while he was headed up and neatly fold it away when he got to the spacious walk-in dressing room attached to the master bedroom. (The apartment had been a good way to absorb his Ate signing bonus—safer than keeping the money in cash, with the currency fluctuations and all. Manhattan real estate was a century-long good buy and was more stable than bonds, derivatives or funds.) It was discipline that made him pay every bill as it came in. It was all that which made him wash every dish when he was done with it and assiduously stop at the grocer’s every night on the way home to buy anything that had run out the previous day.
His parents came to visit from Anguilla and they teased him about how orga nized he was, so unlike the fat little boy who’d been awarded the “Hansel and Gretel prize” by his sixth-grade teacher for leaving a trail behind him everywhere he went. What they didn’t know was that he was still that kid, and every act of conscientious, precise, buttoned-down finicky habit was, in fact, the product of relentless, iron determination not to be that kid again. He not only ignored that inner voice of his that called out for pizzas and told him to sleep in, take a cab instead of walking, lie down and let the video soar and dip with his moods, a drip-feed of null and nothing to while away the hours—he actively denied it, shouted it into submission, locked it up, and never let it free.
And that—that—that was why he was going to figure out how to sell something new to the man in the vat: because anyone who could amass that sort of fortune and go down to life eternal in an ever-expanding kingdom of machines would be the sort of person who had spent a life denying himself, and Leon knew just what that felt like.
The Lower East Side had ebbed and flowed over the years: poor, rich, middle-class, superrich, poor. One year the buildings were funky and reminiscent of the romantic squalor that had preceded this era of light-speed buckchasing. The next year, the buildings were merely squalorous, the landlords busted and the receivers in bankruptcy slapping up paper-thin walls to convert giant airy lofts into rooming houses. The corner stores sold blunt skins to trustafarian hipsters with a bag of something gengineered to disrupt some extremely specific brain structures; then they sold food-stamp milk to desperate mothers who wouldn’t meet their eyes. The shopkeepers had the knack of sensing changes in the wind and adjusting their stock accordingly.
Walking around his neighborhood, Leon sniffed change in the wind. The shopkeepers seemed to have more discount, high-calorie wino-drink; less designer low-carb energy food with FDA-mandated booklets explaining their nutritional claims. A sprinkling of for rent signs. A construction site that hadn’t had anyone working on it for a week now, the padlocked foreman’s shed growing a mossy coat of graffiti.
Leon didn’t mind. He’d lived rough—not just student-rough, either. His parents had gone to Anguilla from Romania, chasing the tax-haven set, dreaming of making a killing working as bookkeepers, security guards. They’d mistimed the trip, arrived in the middle of an econopocalytpic collapse and ended up living in a vertical slum that had once been a luxury hotel. The sole Romanians among the smuggled Mexicans who were de facto slaves, they’d traded their ability to write desperate letters to the Mexican consulate for Spanish lessons for Leon. The Mexicans dwindled away—the advantage of de facto slaves over de jure slaves is that you can just send the de facto slaves away when the economy tanks, taking their feed and care off your books—until it was just them there, and without the safety of the crowd, they’d been spotted by local authorities and had to go underground. Going back to Bucharest was out of the question—the airfare was as far out of reach as one of the private jets the tax-evaders and high-rolling gamblers flew in and out of Wallblake Airport.
From rough to rougher. Leon’s family spent three years underground, living as roadside hawkers, letting the sun bake them to an ethnically indeterminate brown. A decade later, when his father had successfully built up his little bookkeeping business and his mother was running a smart dress shop for the cruise ship day-trippers, those days seemed like a dream. But once he left for stateside university and found himself amid the soft, rich children of the fortunes his father had tabulated, it all came back to him, and he wondered if any of these children in carefully disheveled rags would ever be able to pick through the garbage for their meals.
The rough edge on the LES put him at his ease, made him feel like he was still ahead of the game, in possession of something his neighbors could never have—the ability to move fluidly between the worlds of the rich and the poor. Somewhere in those worlds, he was sure, was the secret to chipping a crumb off one of the great fortunes of the world.
“Visitor for you,” Carmela said. Carmela, that was the receptionist’s name. She was Puerto Rican, but so many generations in that he spoke better Spanish than she did. “I put him in the Living Room.” That was one of the three boardrooms at Ate, the name a bad pun, every stick of furniture in it an elaborate topiary sculpture of living wood and shrubbery. It was surprisingly comfortable, and the very subtle breeze had an even more subtle breath of honeysuckle that was so real he suspected it was piped in from a nursery on another level. That’s how he would have done it: the best fake was no fake at all.
“Who?” He liked Carmela. She was all business, but her business was compassion, a shoulder to cry on and an absolutely discreet gossip repository for the whole firm. “Envoy,” she said. “His name’s Buhle. I ran his face and name against our dossiers and came up with practically nothing. He’s from Montenegro, originally, I have that much.”
“Envoy from whom?” She didn’t answer, just looked very meaningfully at him.
The new vat-person had sent him an envoy. His heart began to thump and his cuffs suddenly felt tight at his wrists. “Thanks, Carmela.” He shot his cuffs.
“You look fine,” she said. “I’ve got the kitchen on standby, and the intercom’s listening for my voice. Just let me know what I can do for you.”
He gave her a weak smile. This was why she was the center of the whole business, the soul of Ate. Thank you, he mouthed, and she ticked a smart salute off her temple with one finger.
The envoy was out of place in Ate, but she didn’t hold it against them. This he knew within seconds of setting food into the Living Room. She got up, wiped her hands on her sensible jeans, brushed some iron-gray hair off her face, and smiled at him, an expression that seemed to say, “Well, this is a funny thing, the two of us, meeting here, like this.” He’d put her age at around forty, and she was hippy and a little wrinkled and didn’t seem to care at all.
“You must be Leon,” she said, and took his hand. Short fingernails, warm, dry palm, firm handshake. “I love this room!” She waved her arm around in an all-encompassing circle. “Fantastic.”
He found himself half in love with her and he hadn’t said a word. “It’s nice to meet you, Ms.—”
“Ria,” she said. “Call me Ria.” She sat down on one of the topiary chairs, kicking off her comfortable Hush Puppies and pulling her legs up to sit cross-legged.
“I’ve never gone barefoot in this room,” he said, looking at her calloused feet—feet that did a lot of barefooting.
“Do it,” she said, making scooting gestures. “I insist. Do it!”
He kicked off the handmade shoes—designed by an architect who’d given up on literary criticism to pursue cobblery—and used his toes to peel off his socks. Under his feet, the floor was— warm? cool?—it was perfect. He couldn’t pin down the texture, but it made every nerve ending on the sensitive soles of his feet tingle pleasantly.
“I’m thinking something that goes straight into the nerves,” she said. “It has to be. Extraordinary.”
“You know your way around this place better than I do,” he said.
She shrugged. “This room was clearly designed to impress. It would be stupid to be so cool-obsessed that I failed to let it impress me. I’m impressed. Also,” she dropped her voice, “also, I’m wondering if anyone’s ever snuck in here and screwed on that stuff.” She looked seriously at him and he tried to keep a straight face, but the chuckle wouldn’t stay put in his chest, and it broke loose, and a laugh followed it, and she whooped and they both laughed, hard, until their stomachs hurt.
He moved toward another topiary easy chair, then stopped, bent down, and sat on the mossy floor, letting it brush against his feet, his ankles, the palms of his hands and his wrists. “If no one ever has, it’s a damned shame,” he said, with mock gravity. She smiled, and she had dimples and wrinkles and crow’s-feet, so her whole face smiled. “Do you want something to eat? Drink? We can get pretty much anything here—”
“Let’s get to it,” she said. “I don’t want to be rude, but the good part isn’t the food. I get all the food I need. I’m here for something else. The good part, Leon.”
He drew in a deep breath. “The good part,” he said. “Okay, let’s get to it. I want to meet your—” What? Employer? Patron? Owner? He waved his hand.
“You can call him Buhle,” she said. “That’s the name of the parent company, anyway. Of course you do. We have an entire corporate intelligence arm that knew you’d want to meet with Buhle before you did.” Leon had always assumed that his work spaces and communications were monitored by his employer, but now it occurred to him that any system designed from the ground up to subject its users to scrutiny without their knowledge would be a bonanza for anyone else who wanted to sniff them, since they could use the system’s own capabilities to hide their snooping from the victims.
“That’s impressive,” he said. “Do you monitor everyone who might want to pitch something to Buhle, or . . .” He let the thought hang out there.
“Oh, a little of this and a little of that. We’ve got a competitive intelligence subdepartment that monitors everyone who might want to sell us something or sell something that might compete with us. It comes out to a pretty wide net. Add to that the people who might personally be a threat or opportunity for Buhle and you’ve got, well, let’s say an appreciable slice of human activity under close observation.”
“How close can it be? Sounds like you’ve got some big haystacks.”
“We’re good at finding the needles,” she said. “But we’re always looking for new ways to find them. That’s something you could sell us, you know.”
He shrugged. “If we had a better way of finding relevance in mountains of data, we’d be using it ourselves to figure out what to sell you.”
“Good point. Let’s turn this around. Why should Buhle meet with you?”
He was ready for this one. “We have a track record of designing products that suit people in his . . .” Talking about the vat-born lent itself to elliptical statements. Maybe that’s why Brautigan had developed that annoying telegraph talk.
“You’ve designed one such product,” she said.
“That’s one more than almost anyone else can claim.” There were two other firms like Ate. He thought of them in his head as Sefen and Nein, as though invoking their real names might cause them to appear. “I’m new here, but I’m not alone. We’re tied in with some of the finest designers, engineers, research scientists . . .” Again with the ellipsis. “You wanted to get to the good part. This isn’t the good part, Ria. You’ve got smart people. We’ve got smart people. What we have, what you don’t have, is smart people who are impedance-mismatched to your organization. Every organization has quirks that make it unsuited to working with some good people and good ideas. You’ve got your no-go areas, just like anyone else. We’re good at mining that space, the no-go space, the mote in your eye, for things that you need.”
She nodded and slapped her hands together like someone about to start a carpentry project. “That’s a great spiel,” she said.
He felt a little blush creep into his cheeks. “I think about this a lot, rehearse it in my head.”
“That’s good,” she said. “Shows you’re in the right line of business. Are you a Daffy Duck man?”
He cocked his head. “More of a Bugs man,” he said, finally, wondering where this was going.
“Go download a cartoon called ‘The Stupor Salesman,’ and get back to me, okay?” She stood up, wriggling her toes on the mossy surface and then stepping back into her shoes. He scrambled to his feet, wiping his palms on his legs. She must have seen the expression on his face because she made all those dimples and wrinkles and crow’s-feet appear again and took his hand warmly. “You did very well,” she said. “We’ll talk again soon.” She let go of his hand and knelt down to rub her hands over the floor. “In the meantime, you’ve got a pretty sweet gig, don’t you?”
“The Stupor Salesman” turned out to feature Daffy Duck as a traveling salesman bent on selling something to a bank robber who is holed up in a suburban bungalow. Daffy produces a stream of ever more improbable wares, and is violently rebuffed with each attempt. Finally, one of his attempts manages to blow up the robber’s hideout, just as Daffy is once again jiggling the doorknob. As the robber and Daffy fly through the air, Daffy brandishes the doorknob at him and shouts, “Hey, bub, I know just what you need! You need a house to go with this doorknob!”
The first time he watched it, Leon snorted at the punchline, but on subsequent viewings, he found himself less and less amused. Yes, he was indeed trying to come up with a need that this Buhle didn’t know he had—he was assuming Buhle was a he, but no one was sure—and then fill it. From Buhle’s perspective, Leon figured, life would be just fine if he gave up and never bothered him again.
And yet Ria had been so nice—so understanding and gentle, he thought there must be something else to this. And she had made a point of telling him that he had a “sweet gig” and he had to admit that it was true. He was contracted for five years with Ate, and would get a hefty bonus if they canned him before then. If he managed to score a sale to Buhle or one of the others, he’d be indescribably wealthy.
In the meantime, Ate took care of his every need.
But it was so empty there—that’s what got him. There were a hundred people on Ate’s production team, bright sorts like him, and most of them only used the office to park a few knickknacks and impress out-of-town relatives. Ate hired the best, charged them with the impossible, and turned them loose. They got lost.
Carmela knew them all, of course. She was Ate’s den mother.
“We should all get together,” he said. “Maybe a weekly staff meeting?”
“Oh, they tried that,” she said, sipping from the triple-filtered water that was always at her elbow. “No one had much to say. The collaboration spaces update themselves with all the interesting leads from everyone’s research, and the suggestion engine is pretty good at making sure you get an overview of anything relevant to your work going on.” She shrugged. “This place is a show room, more than anything else. I always figured you had to give creative people room to be creative.”
He mulled this over. “How long do you figure they’ll keep this place open if it doesn’t sell anything to one of the vat-people?”
“I try not to think about that too much,” she said lightly. “I figure either we don’t find something, run out of time and shut—and there’s nothing I can do about it; or we find something in time and stay open—and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“I think of it as liberating. It’s like that lady said, Leon, you’ve got a sweet gig. You can make anything you can imagine, and if you hit one out of the park, you’ll attain orbit and never reenter the atmosphere.”
“Do the other account execs come around for pep talks?”
“Everyone needs a little help now and then,” she said.
Ria met him for lunch at a supper club in the living room of an eleventh floor apartment in a slightly run-down ex-doorman building in Midtown. The cooks were a middle-aged couple, he was Thai, she was Hungarian, the food was eclectic, light, and spicy, blending paprika and chilis in a nose-watering cocktail.
There were only two other diners in the tiny room for the early seating. They were another couple, two young gay men, tourists from the Netherlands, wearing crease-proof sports jackets and barely there barefoot hiking shoes. They spoke excellent English, and chatted politely about the sights they’d seen so far in New York, before falling into Dutch and leaving Ria and Leon to concentrate on each other and the food, which emerged from the kitchen in a series of ever more wonderful courses.
Over fluffy, caramelized fried bananas and Thai iced coffee, Ria effusively praised the food to their hosts, then waited politely while Leon did the same. The hosts were genuinely delighted to have fed them so successfully, and were only too happy to talk about their recipes, their grown children, the other diners they’d entertained over the years.
Outside, standing on Thirty-fourth Street between Lex and Third, a cool summer evening breeze and purple summer twilight skies, Leon patted his stomach and closed his eyes and groaned.
“Ate too much, didn’t you?” she said.
“It was like eating my mother’s cooking—she just kept putting more on the plate. I couldn’t help it.”
“Did you enjoy it?”
He opened his eyes. “You’re kidding, right? That was probably the most incredible meal I’ve eaten in my entire life. It was like a parallel dimension of good food.”
She nodded vigorously and took his arm in a friendly, intimate gesture, led him toward Lexington. “You notice how time sort of stops when you’re there? How the part of your brain that’s going ‘what next? what next?’ goes quiet?”
“That’s it! That’s exactly it!” The buzz of the jetpacks on Lex grew louder as they neared the corner, like a thousand crickets in the sky.
“Hate those things,” she said, glaring up at the joyriders zipping past, scarves and capes streaming out behind them. “A thousand crashes upon your souls.” She spat, theatrically.
“You make them, though, don’t you?”
She laughed. “You’ve been reading up on Buhle then?”
“Everything I can find.” He’d bought small blocks of shares in all the public companies in which Buhle was a substantial owner, charging them to Ate’s brokerage account, and then devoured their annual reports. There was lots more he could feel in the shadows: blind trusts holding more shares in still more companies. It was the standard corporate structure, a Flying Spaghetti Monster of interlocking directorships, offshore holdings, debt parking lots, and exotic matryoshka companies that seemed on the verge of devouring themselves.
“Oy,” she said. “Poor boy. Those aren’t meant to be parsed. They’re like the bramble patch around the sleeping princess, there to ensnare foolhardy knights who wish to court the virgin in the tower. Yes, Buhle’s the largest jetpack manufacturer in the world, through a layer or two of misdirection.” She inspected the uptown-bound horde, sculling the air with their fins and gloves, making course corrections and wibbles and wobbles that were sheer, joyful exhibitionism.
“He did it for me,” she said. “Have you noticed that they’ve gotten better in the past couple years? Quieter? That was us. We put a lot of thought into the campaign; the chop shops have been selling ‘loud pipes save lives’ since the motorcycle days, and every tiny-dick flyboy wanted to have a pack that was as loud as a bulldozer. It took a lot of market smarts to turn it around; we had a low-end model we were selling way below cost that was close to those loud-pipe machines in decibel count; it was ugly and junky and fell apart. Naturally, we sold it through a different arm of the company that had totally different livery, identity, and everything. Then we started to cut into our margins on the high-end rides, and at the same time, we engineered them for a quieter and quieter run. We actually did some preproduction on a jetpack that was so quiet it actually absorbed noise, don’t ask me to explain it, unless you’ve got a day or two to waste on the psycho-acoustics.
“Every swish bourgeois was competing to see whose jetpack could run quieter, while the low-end was busily switching loyalty to our loud junk mobiles. The competition went out of business in a year, and then we dummied-up a bunch of consumer protection lawsuits that ‘forced’ ”—she drew air quotes—“us to recall the loud ones, rebuild them with pipes so engineered and tuned you could use them for the woodwinds section. And here we are.” She gestured at the buzzing, whooshing fliers overhead.
Leon tried to figure out if she was kidding, but she looked and sounded serious. “You’re telling me that Buhle dropped, what, a billion?”
“About eight billion, in the end.”
“Eight billion rupiah on a project to make the skies quieter?”
“All told,” she said. “We could have done it other ways, some of them cheaper. We could have bought some laws, or bought out the competition and changed their product line, but that’s very, you know, blunt. This was sweet. Everyone got what they wanted in the end: fast rides, quiet skies, safe, cheap vehicles. Win win win.”
An old school flier with a jetpack as loud as the inside of an ice blender roared past, leaving thousands scowling in his wake.
“That guy is plenty dedicated,” she said. “He’ll be machining his own replacement parts for that thing. No one’s making them anymore.”
He tried a joke: “You’re not going to send the Buhle ninjas to off him before he hits Union Square?”
She didn’t smile. “We don’t use assassination,” she said. “That’s what I’m trying to convey to you, Leon.”
He crumbled. He’d blown it somehow, shown himself to be the boor he’d always feared he was.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I guess—look, it’s all kind of hard to take in. The sums are staggering.”
“They’re meaningless,” she said. “That’s the point. The sums are just a convenient way of directing power. Power is what matters.”
“I don’t mean to offend you,” he said carefully, “but that’s a scary sounding thing to say.”
“Now you’re getting it,” she said, and took his arm again. “Drinks?”
The limes for the daiquiris came from the trees around them on the rooftop conservatory. The trees were healthy working beasts, and the barman expertly inspected several limes before deftly twisting off a basket’s worth and retreating to his workbench to juice them over his blender.
“You have to be a member to drink here,” Ria said, as they sat on the roof, watching the jetpacks scud past.
“I’m not surprised,” he said. “It must be expensive.”
“You can’t buy your way in,” she said. “You have to work it off. It’s a co-op. I planted this whole row of trees.” She waved her arm, sloshing a little daiquiri on the odd turf their loungers rested on. “I planted the mint garden over there.” It was a beautiful little patch, decorated with rocks and favored with a small stream that wended its way through them.
“Forgive me for saying this,” he said, “but you must earn a lot of money. A lot, I’m thinking.”
She nodded, unembarrassed, even waggled her eyebrows a bit. “So you could, I don’t know, you could probably build one of these on any of the buildings that Buhle owns in Manhattan. Just like this. Even keep a little staff on board. Give out memberships as perks for your senior management team.”
“That’s right,” she said. “I could.”
He drank his daiquiri. “I’m supposed to figure out why you don’t, right?”
She nodded. “Indeed.” She drank. Her face suffused with pleasure. He took a moment to pay attention to the signals his tongue was transmitting to him. The drink was incredible. Even the glass was beautiful, thick, hand-blown, irregular. “Listen, Leon, I’ll let you in on a secret. I want you to succeed. There’s not much that surprises Buhle and even less that pleasantly surprises him. If you were to manage it . . .” She took another sip and looked intensely at him. He squirmed. Had he thought her matronly and sweet? She looked like she could lead a guerrilla force. Like she could wrestle a mugger to the ground and kick the shit out of him.
“So a success for me would be a success for you?”
“You think I’m after money,” she said. “You’re still not getting it. Think about the jetpacks, Leon. Think about what that power means.”
He meant to go home, but he didn’t make it. His feet took him crosstown to the Ate offices, and he let himself in with his biometrics and his pass phrase and watched the marvelous dappled lights go through their warm-up cycle and then bathe him with their wonderful, calming light. Then the breeze, and now it was a nighttime forest, mossier and heavier than in the day. Either someone had really gone balls-out on the product design, or there really was an indoor forest somewhere in the building growing under diurnal lights, there solely to supply soothing woodsy air to the agency’s office. He decided that the forest was the more likely explanation.
He stood at Carmela’s desk for a long time, then, gingerly, settled himself in her chair. It was plain and firm and well made, with just a little spring. Her funny little sculptural keyboard had keycaps that had worn smooth under her fingertips over the years, and there were shiny spots on the desk where her wrists had worn away the granite. He cradled his face in his palms, breathing in the nighttime forest air, and tried to make sense of the night.
The Living Room was nighttime dark, but it still felt glorious on his bare feet, and then, moments later, on his bare chest and legs. He lay on his stomach in his underwear and tried to name the sensation on his nerve endings and decided that “anticipation” was the best word for it, the feeling you get just beside the skin that’s being scratched on your back, the skin that’s next in line for a good scratching. It was glorious.
How many people in the world would ever know what this felt like? Ate had licensed it out to a few select boutique hotels—he’d checked into it after talking with Ria the first time— but that was it. All told, there were less than three thousand people in the world who’d ever felt this remarkable feeling. Out of eight billion. He tried to do the division in his head but kept losing the zeroes. It was a thousandth of a percent? A ten thousandth of a percent? No one on Anguilla would ever feel it: not the workers in the vertical slums, but also not the mere millionaires in the grand houses with their timeshare jets.
Something about that . . .
He wished he could talk to Ria some more. She scared him, but she also made him feel good. Like she was the guide he’d been searching for all his life. At this point, he would have settled for Brautigan. Anyone who could help him make sense of what felt like the biggest, scariest opportunity of his entire career.
He must have dozed, because the next thing he knew, the lights were flickering on and he was mostly naked, on the floor, staring up into Brautigan’s face. He had a look of forced jollity, and he snapped his fingers a few times in front of Leon’s face.
“Morning, sunshine!” Leon looked for the ghostly clock that shimmered in the corner of each wall, a slightly darker patch of reactive paint that was just outside of conscious comprehension unless you really stared at it. 4:12 am. He stifled a groan. “What are you doing here?” he said, peering at Brautigan.
The man clacked his horsey teeth, assayed a chuckle. “Early bird. Worm.”
Leon sat up, found his shirt, started buttoning it up. “Seriously, Brautigan.”
“Seriously?” He sat down on the floor next to Leon, his big feet straight out ahead of him. His shoes had been designed by the same architect that did Leon’s. Leon recognized the style.
Brautigan scratched his chin. Suddenly, he slumped. “I’m shitting bricks, Leon. I am seriously shitting bricks.”
“How did it go with your monster?”
Brautigan stared at the architect’s shoes. There was an odd flare they did, just behind the toe, just on the way to the laces, that was really graceful. Leon thought it might be a standard distribution bell curve. “My monster is . . .” He blew out air. “Uncooperative.”
“Less cooperative than previously?” Leon said. Brautigan unlaced his shoes and peeled off his socks, scrunched his toes in the moss. His feet gave off a hot, trapped smell. “What was he like on the other times you’d seen him?”
Brautigan tilted his head. “What do you mean?”
“He was uncooperative this time, what about the other times?”
Brautigan looked back down at his toes.
“You’d never seen him before this?”
“It was a risk,” he said. “I thought I could convince him, face to face.”
“I bombed. It was—it was the—it was everything. The compound. The people. All of it. It was like a city, a theme park. They lived there, hundreds of them, and managed every tiny piece of his empire. Like Royal urchins.”
Leon puzzled over this. “Eunuchs?”
“Royal eunuchs. They had this whole culture, and as I got closer and closer to him, I realized, shit, they could just buy Ate. They could destroy us. They could have us made illegal, put us all in jail. Or get me elected president. Anything.”
“You were overawed.”
“That’s the right word. It wasn’t a castle or anything, either. It was just a place, a well-built collection of buildings. In Westchester, you know? It had been a little town center once. They’d preserved everything good, built more on top of it. It all just . . . worked. You’re still new here. Haven’t noticed.”
“What? That Ate is a disaster? I figured that out a long time ago. There’s several dozen highly paid creative geniuses on the payroll here who haven’t seen their desks in months. We could be a creative powerhouse. We’re more like someone’s vanity project.”
Leon wondered if he’d overstepped himself. Who cared? “Brutal doesn’t mean untrue. It’s like, it’s like the money that came into this place, it became autonomous, turned into a strategy for multiplying itself. A bad strategy. The money wants to sell something to a monster, but the money doesn’t know what monsters want, so it’s just, what, beating its brains out on the wall. One day, the money runs out and . . .”
“The money won’t run out,” Brautigan said. “Wrong. We’d have to spend at ten-ex what we’re burning now to even approach the principal.”
“Okay,” Leon said. “So it’s immortal. That’s better?”
Brautigan winced. “Look, it’s not so crazy. There’s an entire unserved market out there. No one’s serving it. They’re like, you know, like communist countries. Planned economies. They need something, they just acquire the capacity. No market.”
“Hey, bub, I know just what you need! You need a house to go with this doorknob!” To his own surprise, Leon discovered that he did a passable Daffy Duck. Brautigan blinked at him. Leon realized that the man was a little drunk. “Just something I heard the other day,” he said. “I told the lady from my monster that we could provide the stuff that their corporate culture precluded. I was thinking of, you know, how the samurai banned firearms. We can think and do the unthink-and undoable.”
“Good line.” He flopped onto his back. An inch of pale belly peeked between the top of his three-quarter-length culottes and the lower hem of his smart wraparound shirt. “The monster in the vat. Some skin, some meat. Tubes. Pinches of skin clamped between clear hard plastic squares, bathed in some kind of diagnostic light. No eyes, no top of the head where the eyes should be. Just a smooth mask. Eyes everywhere else. Ceiling. Floor. Walls. I looked away, couldn’t make contact with them, found I was looking at something wet. Liver. I think.”
“Yeesh. That’s immortality, huh?”
“I’m there, ‘A pleasure to meet you, an honor,’ talking to the liver. The eyes never blinked. The monster gave a speech. ‘You’re a low-capital, high-risk, high-payoff long shot, Mr. Brautigan. I can keep dribbling sums to you so that you can go back to your wonder factory and try to come up with ways to surprise me. So there’s no need to worry on that score.’ And that was it. Couldn’t think of anything to say. Didn’t have time. Gone in a flash. Out the door. Limo. Nice babu to tell me how good it had been for the monster, how much he’d been looking forward to it.” He struggled up onto his elbows. “How about you?”
Leon didn’t want to talk about Ria with Brautigan. He shrugged. Brautigan got a mean, stung look on his face. “Don’t be like that. Bro. Dude. Pal.”
Leon shrugged again. Thing was, he liked Ria. Talking about her with Brautigan would be treating her like a . . . a sales target. If he were talking with Carmela, he’d say, “I feel like she wants me to succeed. Like it would be a huge deal for everyone if I managed it. But I also feel like maybe she doesn’t think I can.” But to Brautigan, he merely shrugged, ignored the lizardy slit-eyed glare, stood, pulled his pants on, and went to his desk.
If you sat at your desk long enough at Ate, you’d eventually meet everyone who worked there. Carmela knew all, told all, and assured him that everyone touched base at least once a month. Some came in a couple times a week. They had plants on their desks and liked to personally see to their watering.
Leon took every single one of them to lunch. It wasn’t easy—in one case, he had to ask Carmela to send an Ate chauffeur to pick up the man’s kids from school (it was a half day) and bring them to the sitter’s, just to clear the schedule. But the lunches themselves went very well. It turned out that the people at Ate were, to a one, incredibly interesting. Oh, they were all monsters, narcissistic, tantrum-prone geniuses, but once you got past that, you found yourself talking to people who were, at bottom, damned smart, with a whole lot going on. He met the woman who designed the moss in the Living Room. She was younger than he was, and had been catapulted from a mediocre academic adventure at the Cooper Union into more wealth and freedom than she knew what to do with. She had a whole Rolodex of people who wanted to sublicense the stuff, and she spent her days toying with them, seeing if they had any cool ideas she could incorporate into her next pitch to one of the lucky few who had the ear of a monster.
Like Leon. That’s why they all met with him. He’d unwittingly stepped into one of the agency’s top spots, thanks to Ria, one of the power-broker seats that everyone else yearned to fill. The fact that he had no idea how he’d got there or what to do with it didn’t surprise anyone. To a one, his colleagues at Ate regarded everything to do with the vat-monsters as an absolute, unknowable crapshoot, as predictable as a meteor strike.
No wonder they all stayed away from the office.
Ria met him in a different pair of jeans, these ones worn and patched at the knees. She had on a loose, flowing silk shirt that was frayed around the seams, and had tied her hair back with a kerchief that had faded to a non-color that was like the ancient New York sidewalk outside Ate’s office. He felt the calluses on her hand when they shook.
“You look like you’re ready to do some gardening,” he said.
“My shift at the club,” she said. “I’ll be trimming the lime trees and tending the mint patch and the cucumber frames all afternoon.” She smiled, stopped him with a gesture. She bent down and plucked a blade of greenery from the untidy trail edge. They were in Central Park, in one of the places where it felt like a primeval forest instead of an artful garden razed and built in the middle of the city. She uncapped her water bottle and poured water over the herb—it looked like a blade of grass— rubbing it between her forefinger and thumb to scrub at it. Then she tore it in two and handed him one piece, held the other to her nose, then ate it, nibbling and making her nose wrinkle like a rabbit’s. He followed suit. Lemon, delicious and tangy.
“Lemongrass,” she said. “Terrible weed, of course. But doesn’t it taste amazing?” He nodded. The flavor lingered in his mouth.
“Especially when you consider what this is made of—smoggy rain, dog piss, choked up air, and sunshine, and DNA. What a weird flavor to emerge from such a strange soup, don’t you think?”
The thought made the flavor a little less delicious. He said so.
“I love the idea,” she said. “Making great things from garbage.”
“About the jetpacks,” he said, for he’d been thinking.
“Are you utopians of some kind? Making a better world?”
“By ‘you,’ you mean ‘people who work for Buhle’?”
“I’m a bit of a utopian, I’ll admit. But that’s not it. You know Henry Ford set up these work camps in Brazil, ‘Fordlandia,’ and enforced a strict code of conduct on the rubber plantation workers? He outlawed the Caipirinha and replaced it with Tom Collinses, because they were more civilized.”
“And you’re saying Buhle wouldn’t do that?”
She waggled her head from side to side, thinking it over. “Probably not. Maybe, if I asked.” She covered her mouth as though she’d made an indiscreet admission.
“Are—were—you and he . . . ?”
She laughed. “Never. It’s purely cere bral. Do you know where his money came from?”
He gave her a look.
“Okay, of course you do. But if all you’ve read is the official history, you’ll think he was just a finance guy who made some good bets. It’s nothing like it. He played a game against the market, tinkered with the confidence of other traders by taking crazy positions, all bluff, except when they weren’t. No one could outsmart him. He could convince you that you were about to miss out on the deal of the century, or that you’d already missed it, or that you were about to walk off onto easy street. Sometimes, he convinced you of something that was real. More often, it was pure bluff, which you’d only find out after you’d done some trade with him that left him with more money than you’d see in your whole life, and you face-palming and cursing yourself for a sucker. When he started doing it to national banks, put a run on the dollar, broke the Fed, well, that’s when we all knew that he was someone who was special, someone who could create signals that went right to your hindbrain without any critical interpretation.”
“Oh yes. Very. In another era they’d have burned him for a witch or made him the man who cut out your heart with the obsidian knife. But here’s the thing: he could never, ever kid me. Not once.”
“And you’re alive to tell the tale?”
“Oh, he likes it. His reality distortion field, it screws with his internal landscape. Makes it hard for him to figure out what he needs, what he wants, and what will make him miserable. I’m indispensable.”
He had a sudden, terrible thought. He didn’t say anything, but she must have seen it on his face.
“What is it? Tell me.”
“How do I know that you’re on the level about any of this? Maybe you’re just jerking me around. Maybe it’s all made-up—the jetpacks, everything.” He swallowed. “I’m sorry. I don’t know where that came from, but it popped into my head—”
“It’s a fair question. Here’s one that’ll blow your mind, though: how do you know that I’m not on the level, and jerking you around?”
They changed the subject soon after, with uneasy laughter. They ended up on a park bench near the family of dancing bears, whom they watched avidly.
“They seem so happy,” he said. “That’s what gets me about them. Like dancing was the secret passion of every bear, and these three are the first to figure out how to make a life of it.”
She didn’t say anything, but watched the three giants lumber in a graceful, unmistakably joyous kind of shuffle. The music—constantly mutated based on the intensity of the bears, a piece of software that sought tirelessly to please them— was jangly and poplike, with a staccato one-two/onetwothreefourfive/one-two rhythm that let the bears do something like a drunken stagger that was as fun to watch as a box of puppies.
He felt the silence. “So happy,” he said again. “That’s the weird part. Not like seeing an elephant perform. You watch those old videos and they seem, you know, they seem—”
“Resigned,” she said.
“Yeah. Not unhappy, but about as thrilled to be balancing on a ball as a horse might be to be hitched to a plow. But look at those bears!”
“Notice that no one else watches them for long?” she said. He had noticed that. The benches were all empty around them.
“I think it’s because they’re so happy,” she said. “It lays the trick bare.” She showed teeth at the pun, then put them away. “What I mean is, you can see how it’s possible to design a bear that experiences brain reward from rhythm, keep it well-fed, supply it with as many rockin’ tunes as it can eat, and you get that happy family of dancing bears who’ll peacefully coexist alongside humans who’re going to work, carrying their groceries, pushing their toddlers around in strollers, necking on benches—”
The bears were resting now, lolling on their backs, happy tongues sloppy in the corners of their mouths.
“We made them,” she said. “It was against my advice, too. There’s not much subtlety in it. As a piece of social commentary, it’s a cartoon sledgehammer with an oversize head. But the artist had Buhle’s ear, he’d been CEO of one of the portfolio companies and had been interested in genomic art as a sideline for his whole career. Buhle saw that funding this thing would probably spin off lots of interesting sublicenses, which it did. But just look at it.”
He looked. “They’re so happy,” he said.
She looked too. “Bears shouldn’t be that happy,” she said.
Carmela greeted him sunnily as ever, but there was something odd.
“What is it?” he asked in Spanish. He made a habit of talking Spanish to her, because both of them were getting rusty, and also it was like a little shared secret between them.
She shook her head.
“Is everything all right?” Meaning, Are we being shut down? It could happen, might happen at any time, with no notice. That was something he— all of them—understood. The money that powered them was autonomous and unknowable, an alien force that was more emergent property than will.
She shook her head again. “It’s not my place to say,” she said. Which made him even more sure that they were all going down, for when had Carmela ever said anything about her place?
“Now you’ve got me worried,” he said.
She cocked her head back toward the back office. He noticed that there were three coats hung on the beautiful, anachronistic coat stand by the ancient temple door that divided reception from the rest of Ate.
He let himself in and walked down the glassed-in double rows of offices, the cubicles in the middle, all with their characteristic spotless hush, like a restaurant dining room set up for the meals that people would come to later.
He looked in the Living Room, but there was no one there, so he began to check out the other conference rooms, which ran the gamut from super-conservative to utter madness. He found them in the Ceile, with its barn-board floors, its homey stone hearth, and the gimmicked sofas that looked like unsprung old thrift-store numbers, but which sported adaptive genetic algorithm–directed haptics that adjusted constantly to support you no matter how you flopped on them, so that you could play at being a little kid sprawled carelessly on the cushions no matter how old and cranky your bones were.
On the Ceile’s sofa were Brautigan, Ria, and a woman he hadn’t met before. She was somewhere between Brautigan and Ria’s age, but with that made-up, pulled-tight appearance of someone who knew the world wouldn’t take her as seriously if she let one crumb of weakness escape from any pore or wrinkle. He thought he knew who this must be, and she confirmed it when she spoke.
“Leon,” she said. “I’m glad you’re here.” He knew that voice. It was the voice on the phone that had recruited him and brought him to New York and told him where to come for his first day on the job. It was the voice of Jennifer Torino, and she was technically his boss. “Carmela said that you often worked from here so I was hoping today would be one of the days you came by so we could chat.”
“Jennifer,” he said. She nodded. “Ria.” She had a poker face on, as unreadable as a slab of granite. She was wearing her customary denim and flowing cotton, but she’d kept her shoes on and her feet on the floor. “Brautigan,” and Brautigan grinned like it was Christmas morning.
Jennifer looked flatly at a place just to one side of his gaze, a trick he knew, and said, “In recognition of his excellent work, Mr. Brautigan’s been promoted, effective today. He is now manager for Major Accounts.” Brautigan beamed.
“Congratulations,” Leon said, thinking, What excellent work? No one at Ate has accomplished the agency’s primary objective in the entire history of the firm! “Well done.”
Jennifer kept her eyes coolly fixed on that empty, safe spot. “As you know, we have struggled to close a deal with any of our major accounts.” He restrained himself from rolling his eyes. “And so Mr Brautigan has undertaken a thorough study of the way we handle these accounts.” She nodded at Brautigan.
“It’s a mess,” he said. “Totally scattergun. No lines of authority. No checks and balances. No system.”
“I can’t argue with that,” Leon said. He saw where this was going.
“Yes,” Jennifer said. “You haven’t been here very long, but I understand you’ve been looking deeply into the organizational structure of Ate yourself, haven’t you?” He nodded. “And that’s why Mr. Brautigan has asked that you be tasked to him as his head of strategic research.” She smiled a thin smile. “Congratulations yourself.”
He said, “Thanks,” flatly, and looked at Brautigan. “What’s strategic research, then?”
“Oh,” Brautigan said. “Just a lot of what you’ve been doing: figuring out what everyone’s up to, putting them together, proposing organizational structures that will make us more efficient at design and deployment. Stuff you’re good at.”
Leon swallowed and looked at Ria. There was nothing on her face. “I can’t help but notice,” he said, forcing his voice to its absolutely calmest, “that you haven’t mentioned anything to do with the, uh, clients.”
Brautigan nodded and strained to pull his lips over his horsey teeth to hide his grin. It didn’t work. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s about right. We need someone of your talents doing what he does best, and what you do best is—”
He held up a hand. Brautigan fell silent. The three of them looked at him. He realized, in a flash, that he had them all in his power, just at that second. He could shout BOO! and they’d all fall off their chairs. They were waiting to see if he’d blow his top or take it and ask for more. He did something else.
“Nice working with ya,” he said. And he turned his back on the sweetest, softest job anyone could ask for. He said adios and buena suerte to Carmela on the way out, and he forced himself not to linger around the outside doors down at street level to see if anyone would come chasing after him.
The Realtor looked at him like he was crazy. “You’ll never get two million for that place in today’s market,” she said. She was young, no-nonsense, black, and she had grown up on the Lower East Side, a fact she mentioned prominently in her advertising materials: a local Realtor for a local neighborhood.
“I paid two million for it less than a year ago,” he said. The 80 percent mortgage had worried him a little but Ate had underwritten it, bringing the interest rate down to less than 2 percent.
She gestured at the large corner picture window that overlooked Broome Street and Grand Street. “Count the for sale signs,” she said. “I want to be on your side. That’s a nice place. I’d like to see it go to someone like you, someone decent. Not some developer”—she spat the word like a curse—“or some corporate apartment broker who’ll rent it by the week to VIPs. This neighborhood needs real people who really live here, understand.”
“So you’re saying I won’t get what I paid for it?”
She smiled fondly at him. “No, sweetheart, you’re not going to get what you paid for it. All those things they told you when you put two mil into that place, like ‘They’re not making any more Manhattan’ and ‘Location location location’? It’s lies.” Her face got serious, sympathetic. “It’s supposed to panic you and make you lose your head and spend more than you think something is worth. That goes on for a while and then everyone ends up with too much mortgage for not enough home, or for too much home for that matter, and then blooey, the bottom blows out of the market and everything falls down like a soufflé.”
“You don’t sugarcoat it, huh?” He’d come straight to her office from Ate’s door, taking the subway rather than cabbing it or even renting a jet-pack. He was on austerity measures, effective immediately. His brain seemed to have a premade list of cost-savers it had prepared behind his back, as though it knew this day would come.
She shrugged. “I can, if you want me to. We can hem and haw about the money and so on and I can hold your hand through the five stages of grieving. I do that a lot when the market goes soft. But you looked like the kind of guy who wants it straight. Should I start over? Or, you know, if you want, we can list you at two mil or even two point two, and I’ll use that to prove that some other loft is a steal at one point nine. If you want.”
“No,” he said, and he felt some of the angry numbness ebb. He liked this woman. She had read him perfectly. “So tell me what you think I can get for it?”
She put her fist under her chin and her eyes went far away. “I sold that apartment, um, eight years ago? Family who had it before you. Had a look when they sold it to you—they used a different broker, kind of place where they don’t mind selling to a corporate placement specialist. I don’t do that, which you know. But I saw it when it sold. Have you changed it much since?”
He squirmed. “I didn’t, but I think the broker did. It came furnished, nice stuff.”
She rolled her eyes eloquently. “It’s never nice stuff. Even when it comes from the best showroom in town, it’s not nice stuff. Nice is antithetical to corporate. Inoffensive is the best you can hope for.” She looked up, to the right, back down. “I’m figuring out the discount for how the place will show now that they’ve taken all the seams and crumbs out. I’m thinking, um, one point eight. That’s a number I think I can deliver.”
“But I’ve only got two hundred K in the place,” he said.
Her expressive brown eyes flicked at the picture window, the for sale signs. “And? Sounds like you’ll break even or maybe lose a little on the deal. Is that right?”
He nodded. Losing a little wasn’t something he’d figured on. But by the time he’d paid all the fees and taxes—“I’ll probably be down a point or two.”
“Have you got it?”
He hated talking about money. That was one thing about Ria is that she never actually talked about money—what money did, sure, but never money. “Technically,” he said.
“Okay, technical money is as good as any other kind. So look at it this way: you bought a place, a really totally amazing place on the Lower East Side, a place bigger than five average New York apartments. You lived in it for, what?”
“Most of a year. And it cost you one percent of the street price on the place. Rent would have been about eleven times that. You’re up”—she calculated in her head—“it’s about eighty-three percent.”
He couldn’t keep the look of misery off his face.
“What?” she said. “Why are you pulling faces at me? You said you didn’t want it sugarcoated, right?”
“It’s just that—” He dropped his voice, striving to keep any kind of whine out of it. “Well, I’d hoped to make something in the bargain.”
“For what?” she said, softly.
“You know, appreciation. Property goes up.”
“Did you do anything to the place that made it better?”
He shook his head.
“So you did no productive labor but you wanted to get paid anyway, right? Have you thought about what would happen to society if we rewarded people for owning things instead of doing things?”
“Are you sure you’re a real estate broker?”
“Board certified. Do very well, too.”
He swallowed. “I don’t expect to make money for doing nothing, but you know, I just quit my job. I was just hoping to get a little cash in hand to help me smooth things out until I find a new one.”
The Realtor gave a small nod. “Tough times ahead. Winds are about to shift again. You need to adjust your expectations, Leon. The best you can hope for right now is to get out of that place before you have to make another mortgage payment.”
His pulse throbbed in his jaw and his thigh in counterpoint. “But I need money to—”
“Leon,” she said, with some steel in her voice. “You’re bargaining. As in denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. That’s healthy and all, but it’s not going to get your place sold. Here’s two options: one, you can go find another Realtor, maybe one who’ll sugarcoat things or string you along to price up something else he’s trying to sell. Two, you can let me get on with making some phone calls and I’ll see who I can bring in. I keep a list of people I’d like to see in this ’hood, people who’ve asked me to look out for the right kind of place. That place you’re in is one of a kind. I might be able to take it off your hands in very quick time, if you let me do my thing.” She shuffled some papers. “Oh, there’s a third, which is that you could go back to your apartment and pretend that nothing is wrong until that next mortgage payment comes out of your bank account. That would be denial and if you’re bargaining, you should be two steps past that.
“What’s it going to be?”
“I need to think about it.”
“Good plan,” she said. “Remember, depression comes after bargaining. Go buy a quart of ice cream and download some weepy movies. Stay off booze, it only brings you down. Sleep on it, come back in the morning if you’d like.”
He thanked her numbly and stepped out into the Lower East Side. The bodega turned out to have an amazing selection of ice cream, so he bought the one with the most elaborate name, full of chunks, swirls, and stir-ins, and brought it up to his apartment, which was so big that it made his knees tremble when he unlocked his door. The Realtor had been right. Depression was next.
Buhle sent him an invitation a month later. It came laser-etched into a piece of ancient leather, delivered by a messenger whose jetpack was so quiet that he didn’t even notice that she had gone until he looked up from the scroll to thank her. His new apartment was a perch he rented by the week at five times what an annual lease would have cost him, but still a fraction of what he had been paying on the LES. It was jammed with boxes of things he hadn’t been able to bring himself to get rid of, and now he cursed every knickknack as he dug through them looking for a good suit.
He gave up. The invitation said, “At your earliest convenience,” and a quadrillionaire in a vat wasn’t going to be impressed by his year-old designer job interview suit.
It had been a month, and no one had come calling. None of his queries to product design, marketing, R&D or advertising shops had been answered. He tried walking in the park every day, to see the bears, on the grounds that it was free and it would stimulate his creative flow. Then he noticed that every time he left his door, fistfuls of money seemed to evaporate from his pockets on little “necessities” that added up to real money. The frugality center of his brain began to flood him with anxiety every time he considered leaving the place and so it had been days since he’d gone out.
Now he was going. There were some clean clothes in one of the boxes, just sloppy jeans and tees, but they’d been expensive sloppy once upon a time, and they were better than the shorts and shirts he’d been rotating in and out of the tiny washing machine every couple days, when the thought occurred to him. The two-hundred-dollar haircut he’d had on his last day of work had gone shaggy and lost all its clever style, so he just combed it as best as he could after a quick shower and put on his architect’s shoes, shining them on the backs of his pants legs on his way out the door in a gesture that reminded him of his father going to work in Anguilla, a pathetic gesture of respectability from someone who had none. The realization made him oof out a breath like he’d been gut-punched.
His frugality gland fired like crazy as he hailed a taxi and directed it to the helipad at Grand Central Terminus. It flooded him with so much cheapamine that he had to actually pinch his arms a couple times to distract himself from the full-body panic at the thought of spending so much. But Buhle was all the way in Rhode Island, and Leon didn’t fancy keeping him waiting. He knew that to talk to money you had to act like money— impedance-match the money. Money wouldn’t wait while he took the train or caught the subway.
He booked the chopper-cab from the cab, using the terminal in the backseat. At Ate, he’d had Carmela to do this kind of organizing for him. He’d had Carmela to do a hundred other things, too. In that ancient, lost time, he’d had money and help beyond his wildest dreams, and most days now he couldn’t imagine what had tempted him into giving it up.
The chopper clawed the air and lifted him up over Manhattan, the canyons of steel stretched out below him like a model. The racket of the chopper obliterated any possibility of speech, so he could ignore the pilot and she could ignore him with a cordiality that let him pretend, for a moment, that he was a powerful executive who nonchalantly choppered around all over the country. They hugged the coastline and the stately rows of windmills and bobbing float-homes, surfers carving the waves, bulldozed strips topped with levees that shot up from the ground like the burial mound of some giant serpent.
Leon’s earmuffs made all the sound—the sea, the chopper— into a uniform hiss, and in that hiss, his thoughts and fears seemed to recede for a moment, as though they couldn’t make themselves heard over the white noise. For the first time since he’d walked out of Ate, the nagging, doubtful voices fell still and Leon was alone in his head. It was as though he’d had a great pin stuck through his chest that finally had been removed. There was a feeling of lightness, and tears pricking at his eyes, and a feeling of wonderful obliteration, as he stopped, just for a moment, stopped trying to figure out where he fit in the world.
The chopper touched down on a helipad at Newport State Airport, to one side of the huge X slashed into the heavy woods—new forest, fastgrowing carbon sinkers garlanded with extravagances of moss and vine. From the moment the doors opened, the heavy earthy smell filled his nose and he thought of the Living Room, which led him to think of Ria. He thanked the pilot and zapped her a tip and looked up and there was Ria, as though his thoughts had summoned her.
She had a little half smile on her face, uncertain and somehow childlike, a little girl waiting to find out if he’d be her friend still. He smiled at her, grateful for the clatter of the chopper so that they couldn’t speak. She shook his hand, hers warm and dry, and then, on impulse, he gave her a hug. She was soft and firm too, a middle-aged woman who kept fit but didn’t obsess about the pounds. It was the first time he’d touched another human since he left Ate. And, as with the chopper’s din, this revelation didn’t open him to fresh miseries—rather, it put the miseries away, so that he felt better.
“Are you ready?” she said, once the chopper had lifted off.
“One thing,” he said. “Is there a town here? I thought I saw one while we were landing.”
“A little one,” she said. “Used to be bigger, but we like them small.”
“Does it have a hardware store?”
She gave him a significant look. “What for? An ax? A nailgun? Going to do some improvements?”
“Thought I’d bring along a doorknob,” he said.
She dissolved into giggles. “Oh, he’ll like that. Yes, we can find a hardware store.”
Buhle’s security people subjected the doorknob to millimeter radar and a gas chromatograph before letting it past. He was shown into an anteroom by Ria, who talked to him through the whole procedure, just light chatter about the weather and his real-estate problems, but she gently steered him around the room, changing their angle several times, and then he said, “Am I being scanned?”
“Millimeter radar in here too,” she said. “Whole-body imaging. Don’t worry, I get it every time I come in. Par for the course.”
He shrugged. “This is the least offensive security scan I’ve ever been through,” he said.
“It’s the room,” she said. “The dimensions, the color. Mostly the semiotics of a security scan are either you are a germ on a slide or you are not worth trifling with, but if we must, we must. We went for something a little . . . sweeter.” And it was, a sweet little room, like the private study of a single mom who’s stolen a corner in which to work on her secret novel.
Beyond the room—a wonderful place.
“It’s like a college campus,” he said.
“Oh, I think we use a better class of materials that most colleges,” Ria said, airily, but he could tell he’d pleased her. “But yes, there’s about fifteen thousand of us here. A little city. Nice cafés, gyms, cinemas. A couple artists in residence, a nice little Waldorf school . . .” The pathways were tidy and wended their way through buildings ranging from cottages to large, institutional buildings, but all with the feel of endowed research institutes rather than finance towers. The people were young and old, casually dressed, walking in pairs and groups, mostly, deep in conversation.
“That’s the head office. Most of them doing medical stuff here. We’ve got lots of other holdings, all around the world, in places that are different from this. But we’re bringing them all in line with HQ, fast as we can. It’s a good way to work. Churn is incredibly low. We actually have to put people back out into the world for a year every decade, just so they can see what it’s like.”
“Is that what you’re doing?”
She socked him in the arm. “You think I could be happy here? No, I’ve always lived off campus. I commute. I’m not a team person. It’s okay, this is the kind of place where even lone guns can find their way to glory.”
They were walking on the grass now, and he saw that the trees, strangely oversized red maples without any of the whippy slenderness he associated with the species, had a walkway suspended from their branches, a real Swiss Family Robinson job with rope railings and little platforms with baskets on pulleys for ascending and descending. The people who scurried by overhead greeted each other volubly and laughed at the awkwardness of squeezing past each other in opposite directions.
“Does that ever get old?” he said, lifting his eyebrows to the walkways.
“Not for a certain kind of person,” she said. “For a certain kind of person, the delightfulness of those walkways never wears off.” The way she said “certain kind of person” made him remember her saying, “Bears shouldn’t be that happy.”
He pointed to a bench, a long twig-chair, really, made from birch branches and rope and wire all twined together. “Can we sit for a moment? I mean, will Buhle mind?”
She flicked her fingers. “Buhle’s schedule is his own. If we’re five minutes late, someone will put five minutes’ worth of interesting and useful injecta into his in box. Don’t you worry.” She sat on the bench, which looked too fragile and fey to take a grown person’s weight, but then she patted the seat next to him, and when he sat, he felt almost no give. The bench had been very well built, by someone who knew what she or he was doing.
“Okay, so what’s going on, Ria? First you went along with Brautigan scooping my job and exiling me to Siberia—” He held up a hand to stop her from speaking and discovered that the hand was shaking and so was his chest, shaking with a bottled-up anger he hadn’t dared admit. “You could have stopped it at a word. You envoys from the vat-gods, you are the absolute monarchs at Ate. You could have told them to have Brautigan skinned, tanned, and made into a pair of boots, and he’d have measured your foot size himself. But you let them do it.
“And now, here I am, a minister without portfolio, about to do something that would make Brautigan explode with delight, about to meet one of the Great Old Ones, in his very vat, in person. A man who might live to be a thousand, if all goes according to plan, a man who is a country, sovereign and inviolate. And I just want to ask you, why? Why all the secrecy and obliqueness and funny gaps? Why?”
Ria waited while a pack of grad students scampered by overhead, deep in discussion of telomeres, the racket of their talk and their bare feet slapping on the walkway loud enough to serve as a pretense for silence. Leon’s pulse thudded and his armpits slicked themselves as he realized that he might have just popped the bubble of unreality between them, the consensual illusion that all was normal, whatever normal was.
“Oh, Leon,” she said. “I’m sorry. Habit here—there’s some things that can’t be readily said in utopia. Eventually, you just get in the habit of speaking out of the back of your head. It’s, you know, rude to ruin peoples’ gardens by pointing out the snakes. So, yes, okay, I’ll say something right out. I like you, Leon. The average employee at a place like Ate is a bottomless well of desires, trying to figure out what others might desire. We’ve been hearing from them for decades now, the resourceful ones, the important ones, the ones who could get past the filters and the filters behind the filters. We know what they’re like.
“Your work was different. As soon as you were hired by Ate, we generated a dossier on you. Saw your grad work.”
Leon swallowed. His résumé emphasized his grades, not his final projects. He didn’t speak of them at all.
“So we thought, well, here’s something different, it’s possible he may have a house to go with our doorknob. But we knew what would happen if you were left to your own devices at a place like Ate: they’d bend you and shape you and make you over or ruin you. We do it ourselves, all too often. Bring in a promising young thing, subject him to the dreaded Buhle Culture, a culture he’s totally unsuited to, and he either runs screaming or . . . fits in. It’s worse when the latter happens. So we made sure that you had a good fairy perched on your right shoulder to counterbalance the devil on your left shoulder.” She stopped, made a face, mock slapped herself upside the head. “Talking in euphemism again. Bad habit. You see what I mean.”
“And you let me get pushed aside . . .”
She looked solemn. “We figured you wouldn’t last long as a button-polisher. Figured you’d want out.”
“And that you’d be able to hire me.”
“Oh, we could have hired you any time. We could have bought Ate. Ate would have given you to us—remember all that business about making Brautigan into a pair of boots? It applies all around.”
“So you wanted me to . . . what? Walk in the wilderness first?”
“Now you’re talking in euphemisms. It’s catching! Let’s walk.”
They gave him a bunny suit to wear into the heart of Buhle. First he passed through a pair of double-doors, faintly positively pressurized, sterile air that ruffled his hair on the way in. The building was low-slung, nondescript brown brick, no windows. It could have been a water sterilization plant or a dry goods warehouse. The inside was good tile, warm colors with lots of reds and browns down low, making the walls look like they were the inside of a kiln. The building’s interior was hushed, and a pair of alert-looking plainclothes security men watched them very closely as they changed into the bunny suits, loose micropore coveralls with plastic visors. Each one had a small, self-contained air-circ system powered by a wrist cannister, and when a security man helpfully twisted the valve open, Leon noted that there were clever jets that managed to defog the visor without drying out his eyeballs.
“That be enough for you, Ria?” the taller of the two security men said. He was dressed like a college kid who’d been invited to his girlfriend’s place for dinner: smart slacks a little frayed at the cuffs, a short-sleeved, pressed cotton shirt that showed the bulge of his substantial chest and biceps and neck.
She looked at her cannister, holding it up to the visor. “Thirty minutes is fine,” she said. “I doubt he’ll have any more time than that for us!” Turning to Leon, she said, “I think that the whole air supply thing is way overblown. But it does keep meetings from going long.”
“Where does the exhaust go?” Leon said, twisting in his suit. “I mean, surely the point is to keep my cooties away from,” he swallowed, “Buhle.”
It was the first time he’d really used the word to describe a person, rather than a concept, and he was filled with the knowledge that the person it described was somewhere very close.
“Here,” she said, and pointed to a small bubble growing out of the back of her neck. “You swell up, one little bladder at a time, until you look like the Michelin man. Some joke.” She made a face. “You can get a permanent suit if you come here often. Much less awkward. But Buhle likes it awkward.”
She led him down a corridor with still more people, these ones in bunny suits or more permanent-looking suits that were formfitting and iridescent and flattering.
“Really?” he said, keeping pace with her. “Elegant is a word that comes to mind, not awkward.”
“Well, sure, elegant on the other side of that airlock door. But we’re inside Buhle’s body now.” She saw the look on his face and smiled. “No, no, it’s not a riddle. Everything on this side of the airlock is Buhle. It’s his lungs and circulatory and limbic system. The vat may be where the meat sits, but all this is what makes the vat work. You’re like a gigantic foreign organism that’s burrowing into his tissues. It’s intimate.” They passed through another set of doors and now they were almost alone in a hall the size of his university’s basketball court, the only others a long way off. She lowered her voice so that he had to lean in to hear her. “When you’re outside, speaking to Buhle through his many tendrils, like me, or even on the phone, he has all the power in the world. He’s a giant. But here, inside his body, he’s very, very weak. The suits, they’re there to level out the playing field. It’s all head games and symbolism. And this is just Mark I, the system we jury-rigged after Buhle’s . . . accident. They’re building the Mark II about five miles from here, and half a mile underground. When it’s ready, they’ll blast a tunnel and take him all the way down into it without ever compromising the skin of Buhle’s extended body.”
“You never told me what the accident was, how he ended up here. I assumed it was a stroke or—”
Ria shook her head, the micropore fabric rustling softly. “Nothing like that,” she said.
They were on the other side of the great room now, headed for the doors. “What is this giant room for?”
“Left over from the original floor plan, when this place was just biotech R&D. Used for all-hands meetings then, sometimes a little symposium. Too big now. Security protocol dictates no more than ten people in any one space.”
“Was it assassination?” He said it without thinking, quick as ripping off a Band-Aid.
Again, the rustle of fabric. “No.”
She put her hand on the door’s crashbar, made ready to pass into the next chamber. “I’m starting to freak out a little here, Ria,” he said. “He doesn’t hunt humans or something?”
“No,” and he didn’t need to see her face, he could see the smile.
“Or need an organ? I don’t think I have a rare blood type, and I should tell you that mine have been indifferently cared for—”
“Leon,” she said, “if Buhle needed an organ, we’d make one right here. Print it out in about forty hours, pristine and virgin.”
“So you’re saying I’m not going to be harvested or hunted, then?”
“It’s a very low probability outcome,” she said, and pushed the crash-bar. It was darker in this room, a mellow, candlelit sort of light, and there was a rhythmic vibration coming up through the floor, a whoosh whoosh.
Ria said, “It’s his breath. The filtration systems are down there.” She pointed a toe at the outline of a service hatch set into the floor. “Circulatory system overhead,” she said, and he craned his neck up at the grate covering the ceiling, the troughs filled with neatly bundled tubes.
One more set of doors, another cool, dark room, this one nearly silent, and one more door at the end, an airlock door, and another plainclothes security person in front of it; a side room with a glass door bustling with people staring intently at screens. The security person—a woman, Leon saw—had a frank and square pistol with a bulbous butt velcroed to the side of her suit.
“He’s through there, isn’t he?” Leon said, pointing at the airlock door.
“No,” Ria said. “No. He’s here. We are inside him. Remember that, Leon. He isn’t the stuff in the vat there. In some sense you’ve been in Buhle’s body since you got off the chopper. His sensor array network stretches out as far as the heliport, like the tips of the hairs on your neck, they feel the breezes that blow in his vicinity. Now you’ve tunneled inside him, and you’re right here, in his heart or his liver.”
“Or his brain.” A voice, then, from everywhere, warm and good humored. “The brain is overrated.” Leon looked at Ria and she rolled her eyes eloquently behind her faceplate.
“Tuned sound,” she said. “A party trick. Buhle—”
“Wait,” Buhle said. “Wait. The brain, this is important, the brain is so overrated. The ancient Egyptians thought it was used to cool the blood, you know that?” He chortled, a sound that felt to Leon as though it began just above his groin and rose up through his torso, a very pleasant and very invasive sensation. “The heart, they thought, the heart was the place where the me lived. I used to wonder about that. Wouldn’t they think that the thing between the organs of hearing, the thing behind the organs of seeing, that must be the me? But that’s just the brain doing one of its little stupid games, backfilling the explanation. We think the brain is the obvious seat of the me because the brain already knows that it is the seat, and can’t conceive of anything else. When the brain thought it lived in your chest, it was perfectly happy to rationalize that too—Of course it’s in the chest, you feel your sorrow and your joy there, your satiety and your hunger . . . The brain, pffft, the brain!”
“Buhle,” she said. “We’re coming in now.”
The nurse-guard by the door had apparently heard only their part of the conversation, but also hadn’t let it bother her. She stood to one side, and offered Leon a tiny, incremental nod as he passed. He returned it, and then hurried to catch up with Ria, who was waiting inside the airlock. The outer door closed and for a moment, they were pressed up against one another and he felt a wild, horny thought streak through him, all the excitement discharging itself from yet another place that the me might reside.
Then the outer door hissed open and he met Buhle—he tried to remember what Ria had said, that Buhle wasn’t this, Buhle was everywhere, but he couldn’t help himself from feeling that this was him.
Buhle’s vat was surprisingly small, no bigger than the sarcophagus that an ancient Egyptian might have gone to in his burial chamber. He tried not to stare inside it, but he couldn’t stop himself. The withered, wrinkled man floating in the vat was intertwined with a thousand fiber optics that disappeared into pinprick holes in his naked skin. There were tubes: in the big highways in the groin, in the gut through a small valve set into a pucker of scar, in the nose and ear. The hairless head was pushed in on one side, like a pumpkin that hasn’t been turned as it grew in the patch, and there was no skin on the flat piece, only white bone and a fine metalling mesh and more ragged, curdled scar tissue.
The eyes were hidden behind a slim set of goggles that irised open when they neared him, and beneath the goggles they were preternaturally bright, bright as marbles, set deep in bruised-looking sockets. The mouth beneath the nostril-tubes parted in a smile, revealing teeth as neat and white as a toothpaste advertisement, and Buhle spoke.
“Welcome to the liver. Or the heart.”
Leon choked on whatever words he’d prepared. The voice was the same one he’d heard in the outer room, warm and friendly, the voice of a man whom you could trust, who would take care of you. He fumbled around his suit, patting it. “I brought you a doorknob,” he said, “but I can’t reach it just now.”
Buhle laughed, not the chuckle he’d heard before, but an actual, barked Ha! that made the tubes heave and the fiber optics writhe. “Fantastic,” he said. “Ria, he’s fantastic.”
The compliment made the tips of Leon’s ears grow warm.
“He’s a good one,” she said. “And he’s come a long way at your request.”
“You hear how she reminds me of my responsibilities? Sit down, both of you.” Ria rolled over two chairs, and Leon settled into one, feeling it noiselessly adjust to take his weight. A small mirror unfolded itself and then two more, angled beneath it, and he found himself looking into Buhle’s eyes, looking at his face, reflected in the mirrors.
“Leon,” Buhle said, “tell me about your final project, the one that got you the top grade in your class.”
Leon’s fragile calm vanished, and he began to sweat. “I don’t like to talk about it,” he said.
“Makes you vulnerable, I know. But vulnerable isn’t so bad. Take me. I thought I was invincible. I thought that I could make and unmake the world to my liking. I thought I understood how the human mind worked—and how it broke.
“And then one day in Madrid, as I was sitting in my suite’s breakfast room, talking with an old friend while I ate my porridge oats, my old friend picked up the heavy silver coffee jug, leaped on my chest, smashed me to the floor, and methodically attempted to beat the brains out of my head with it. It weighed about a kilo and a half, not counting the coffee, which was scalding, and she only got in three licks before they pulled her off of me, took her away. Those three licks though—” He looked intently at them. “I’m an old man,” he said. “Old bones, old tissues. The first blow cracked my skull. The second one broke it. The third one forced fragments into my brain. By the time the medics arrived, I’d been technically dead for about 174 seconds, give or take a second or two.”
Leon wasn’t sure the old thing in the vat had finished speaking, but that seemed to be the whole story. “Why?” he said, picking the word that was uppermost in his mind.
“Why did I tell you this?”
“No,” Leon said. “Why did your old friend try to kill you?”
Buhle grinned. “Oh, I expect I deserved it,” he said.
“Are you going to tell me why?” Leon said.
Buhle’s cozy grin disappeared. “I don’t think I will.”
Leon found he was breathing so hard that he was fogging up his faceplate, despite the air-jets that worked to clear it. “Buhle,” he said, “the point of that story was to tell me how vulnerable you are so that I’d tell you my story, but that story doesn’t make you vulnerable. You were beaten to death and yet you survived, grew stronger, changed into this”—he waved his hands around—“this body, this monstrous, town-size giant. You’re about as vulnerable as fucking Zeus.”
Ria laughed softly but unmistakably. “Told you so,” she said to Buhle. “He’s a good one.”
The exposed lower part of Buhle’s face clenched like a fist and the pitch of the machine noises around them shifted a half tone. Then he smiled a smile that was visibly forced, obviously artificial even in that ruin of a face.
“I had an idea,” he said. “That many of the world’s problems could be solved with a positive outlook. We spend so much time worrying about the rare and lurid outcomes in life. Kids being snatched. Terrorists blowing up cities. Stolen secrets ruining your business. Irate customers winning huge judgments in improbable lawsuits. All this chickenshit, bed-wetting, hand-wringing fear.” His voice rose and fell like a minister’s and it was all Leon could do not to sway in time with him. “And at the same time, we neglect the likely: traffic accidents, jetpack crashes, bathtub drownings. It’s like the mind can’t stop thinking about the grotesque, and can’t stop forgetting about the likely.”
“Get on with it,” Ria said. “The speech is lovely, but it doesn’t answer the question.”
He glared at her through the mirror, the marble eyes in their mesh of burst blood vessels and red spider-tracks, like the eyes of a demon. “The human mind is just kinked wrong. And it’s correctable.” The excitement in his voice was palpable. “Imagine a product that let you feel what you know— imagine if anyone who heard ‘Lotto: you’ve got to be in it to win it’ immediately understood that this is so much bullshit. That statistically, your chances of winning the lotto are not measurably improved by buying a lottery ticket. Imagine if explaining the war on terror to people made them double over with laughter! Imagine if the capital markets ran on realistic assessments of risk instead of envy, panic, and greed.”
“You’d be a lot poorer,” Ria said.
He rolled his eyes eloquently.
“It’s an interesting vision,” Leon said. “I’d take the cure, whatever it was.”
The eyes snapped to him, drilled through him, fierce. “That’s the problem, right there. The only people who’ll take this are the people who don’t need it. Politicians and traders and oddsmakers know how probability works, but they also know that the people who make them fat and happy don’t understand it a bit, and so they can’t afford to be rational. So there’s only one answer to the problem.”
Leon blurted out, “The bears.”
Ria let out an audible sigh.
“The fucking bears,” Buhle agreed, and the way he said it was so full of world-weary exhaustion that it made Leon want to hug him. “Yes. As a social reform tool, we couldn’t afford to leave this to the people who were willing to take it. So we—”
“Weaponized it,” Ria said.
“Whose story is this?”
Leon felt that the limbs of his suit were growing stiffer, his exhaust turning it into a balloon. And he had to pee. And he didn’t want to move.
“You dosed people with it?”
“Leon,” Buhle said, in a voice that implied, Come on, we’re bigger than that. “They’d consented to being medical research subjects. And it worked. They stopped running around shouting The sky is falling, the sky is falling and became—zen. Happy, in a calm, even-keeled way. Headless chickens turned into flinty-eyed air-traffic controllers.”
“And your best friend beat your brains in—”
“Because,” Buhle said, in a little Mickey Mouse falsetto, “it would be unethical to do a broad-scale release on the general public”
Ria was sitting so still he had almost forgotten she was there.
Leon shifted his weight. “I don’t think that you’re telling me the whole story.”
“We were set to market it as an antianxiety medication.”
Ria stood up abruptly. “I’ll wait outside.” She left without another word.
Buhle rolled his eyes again. “How do you get people to take antianxiety medication? Lots and lots of people? I mean, if I assigned you that project, gave you a budget for it—”
Leon felt torn between a desire to chase after Ria and to continue to stay in the magnetic presence of Buhle. He shrugged. “Same as you would with any pharma. Cook the diagnosis protocol, expand the number of people it catches. Get the news media whipped up about the anxiety epidemic. That’s easy. Fear sells. An epidemic of fear? Christ, that’d be too easy. Far too easy.
Get the insurers on board, discounts on the meds, make it cheaper to prescribe a course of treatment than to take the call center time to explain to the guy why he’s not getting the meds.”
“You’re my kind of guy, Leon,” Buhle said.
Another one of those we’re-both-men-of-the-world smiles. “Yeah.”
“That’s the thing. We were trying it in a little market first. Basque country. The local authority was very receptive. Lots of chances to fine-tune the message. They’re the most media-savvy people on the planet these days—they are to media as the Japanese were to electronics in the last century. If we could get them in the door—”
“About a million. More than half the population.”
“You created a bioweapon that infected its victims with numeracy, and infected a million Basque with it?”
“Crashed the lottery. That’s how I knew we’d done it. Lottery tickets fell by more than eighty percent. Wiped out.”
“And then your friend beat your head in?”
The suit was getting more uncomfortable by the second. Leon wondered if he’d get stuck if he waited too long, his overinflated suit incapable of moving. “I’m going to have to go, soon.”
“Evolutionarily, bad risk assessment is advantageous.”
Leon nodded slowly. “Okay, I’ll buy that. Makes you entrepreneurial—”
“Drives you to colonize new lands, to ask out the beautiful monkey in the next tree, to have a baby you can’t imagine how you’ll afford.”
“And your numerate Vulcans stopped?”
“Pretty much,” he said. “But that’s just normal shakedown. Like when people move to cities, their birthrate drops. And nevertheless, the human race is becoming more and more citified and still, it isn’t vanishing. Social stuff takes time.”
“And then your friend beat your head in?”
“Stop saying that.”
Leon stood. “Maybe I should go and find Ria.”
Buhle made a disgusted noise. “Fine. And ask her why she didn’t finish the job? Ask her if she decided to do it right then, or if she’d planned it? Ask her why she used the coffee jug instead of the bread knife? Because, you know, I wonder this myself.”
Leon backpedaled, clumsy in the overinflated suit. He struggled to get into the airlock, and as it hissed through its cycle, he tried not to think of Ria straddling the old man’s chest, the coffee urn rising and falling.
She was waiting for him on the other side, also overinflated in her suit.
“Let’s go,” she said, and took his hand, the rubberized palms of their gloves sticking together. She half-dragged him through the many rooms of Buhle’s body, tripping through the final door, then spinning him around and ripping, hard, on the release cord that split the suit down the back so that it fell into two lifeless pieces that slithered to the ground. He gasped out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding in as the cool air made contact with the thin layer of perspiration that filmed his body.
Ria had already ripped open her own suit and her face was flushed and sweaty, her hair matted. Small sweat rings sprouted beneath her armpits. An efficient orderly came forward and began gathering up their suits. Ria thanked her impersonally and headed for the doors.
“I didn’t think he’d do that,” she said, once they were outside of the building—outside the core of Buhle’s body.
“You tried to kill him,” Leon said. He looked at her hands, which had blunt, neat fingernails and large knuckles. He tried to picture the tendons on their backs standing out like sail ropes when the wind blew, as they did the rhythmic work of raising and lowering the heavy silver coffee pot.
She wiped her hands on her trousers and stuffed them in her pockets, awkward now, without any of her usual self-confidence. “I’m not ashamed of that. I’m proud of it. Not everyone would have had the guts. If I hadn’t, you and everyone you know would be—” She brought her hands out of her pockets, bunched into fists. She shook her head. “I thought he’d tell you what we like about your grad project. Then we could have talked about where you’d fit in here—”
“You never said anything about that,” he said. “I could have saved you a lot of trouble. I don’t talk about it.”
Ria shook her head. “This is Buhle. You won’t stop us from doing anything we want to do. I’m not trying to intimidate you here. It’s just a fact of life. If we want to replicate your experiment, we can, on any scale we want—”
“But I won’t be a part of it,” he said. “That matters.”
“Not as much as you think it does. And if you think you can avoid being a part of something that Buhle wants you for, you’re likely to be surprised. We can get you what you want.”
“No you can’t,” he said. “If there’s one thing I know, it’s that you can’t do that.”
Take one normal human being at lunch. Ask her about her breakfast. If lunch is great, she’ll tell you how great breakfast is. If lunch is terrible, she’ll tell you how awful breakfast was.
Now ask her about dinner. A bad lunch will make her assume that a bad dinner is forthcoming. A great lunch will make her optimistic about dinner.
Explain this dynamic to her and ask her again about breakfast. She’ll struggle to remember the actual details of breakfast, the texture of the oatmeal, whether the juice was cold and delicious or slightly warm and slimy. She will remember and remember and remember for all she’s worth, and then, if lunch is good, she’ll tell you breakfast was good. And if lunch is bad, she’ll tell you breakfast was bad.
Because you just can’t help it. Even if you know you’re doing it, you can’t help it.
But what if you could?
“It was the parents,” he said, as they picked their way through the treetops, along the narrow walkway, squeezing to one side to let the eager, gabbling researchers past. “That was the heartbreaker. Parents only remember the good parts of parenthood. Parents whose kids are grown remember a succession of sweet hugs, school triumphs, sports victories, and they simply forget the vomit, the tantrums, the sleep deprivation . . . It’s the thing that lets us continue the species, this excellent facility for forgetting. That’s what should have tipped me off.”
Ria nodded solemnly. “But there was an upside, wasn’t there?”
“Oh, sure. Better breakfasts, for one thing. And the weight loss—amazing. Just being able to remember how shitty you felt the last time you ate the chocolate bar or pigged out on fries. It was amazing.”
“The applications do sound impressive. Just that weight-loss one—”
“Weight-loss, addiction counseling, you name it. It was all killer apps, wall to wall.” “But?” He stopped abruptly. “You must know this,” he said. “If you know
about Clarity—that’s what I called it, Clarity—then you know about what happened. With Buhle’s resources, you can find out anything, right?”
She made a wry smile. “Oh, I know what history records. What I don’t know is what happened. The official version, the one that put Ate onto you and got us interested—”
“Why’d you try to kill Buhle?”
“Because I’m the only one he can’t bullshit, and I saw where he was going with his little experiment. The competitive advantage to a firm that knows about such a radical shift in human cognition—it’s massive. Think of all the products that would vanish if numeracy came in a virus. Think of all the shifts in governance, in policy. Just imagine an airport run by and for people who understand risk!”
“Sounds pretty good to me,” Leon said.
“Oh sure,” she said. “Sure. A world of eager consumers who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Why did evolution endow us with such pathological innumeracy? What’s the survival advantage in being led around by the nose by whichever witch doctor can come up with the best scare story?”
“He said that entrepreneurial things—parenthood, businesses . . .”
“Any kind of risk-taking. Sports. No one swings for the stands when he knows that the odds are so much better on a bunt.”
“And Buhle wanted this?”
She peered at him. “A world of people who understand risk are nearly as easy to lead around by the nose as a world of people who are incapable of understanding risk. The big difference is that the competition is at a massive disadvantage in the latter case, not being as highly evolved as the home team.”
He looked at her, really looked at her for the first time. Saw that she was the face of a monster, the voice of a god. The hand of a massive, unknowable machine that was vying to change the world, remake it to suit its needs. A machine that was good at it.
“Clarity,” he said. “Clarity.” She looked perfectly attentive. “Do you think you’d have tried to kill Buhle if you’d been taking Clarity?”
She blinked in surprise. “I don’t think I ever considered the question.”
He waited. He found he was holding his breath.
“I think I would have succeeded if I’d been taking Clarity,” she said.
“And if Buhle had been taking Clarity?”
“I think he would have let me.” She blurted it out so quickly it sounded like a belch.
“Is anyone in charge of Buhle?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean—that vat-thing. Is it volitional? Does it steer this, this enterprise? Or does the enterprise tick on under its own power, making its own decisions?”
She swallowed. “Technically, it’s a benevolent dictatorship. He’s sovereign, you know that.” She swallowed again. “Will you tell me what happened with Clarity?”
“Does he actually make decisions, though?”
“I don’t think so,” she whispered. “Not really. It’s more like, like—”
“A force of nature?”
“An emergent phenomenon.”
“Can he hear us?”
“Buhle,” he said, thinking of the thing in the vat. “Clarity made the people who took it very angry. They couldn’t look at advertisements without wanting to smash something. Going into a shop made them nearly catatonic. Voting made them want to storm a government office with flaming torches. Every test subject went to prison within eight weeks.”
Ria smiled. She took his hands in hers— warm, dry—and squeezed them.
His phone rang. He took one hand out and answered it.
“How much do you want for it?” Buhle voice was ebullient. Mad, even.
“It’s not for sale.”
“I’ll buy Ate, put you in charge.”
“Don’t want it.”
“I’ll kill your parents.” The ebullient tone didn’t change at all.
“You’ll kill everyone if Clarity is widely used.”
“You don’t believe that. Clarity lets you choose the course that will make you happiest. Mass suicide won’t make humanity happiest.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Why don’t you kill yourself?”
“Because dead, I’ll never make things better.”
Ria was watching intently. She squeezed the hand she held.
“Will you take it?” Leon asked Buhle.
There was a long pause.
Leon pressed on. “No deal unless you take it,” he said.
“You have some?”
“I can make some. I’ll need to talk to some lab techs and download some of my research first.”
“Will you take it with me?”
Leon didn’t hesitate. “Never.”
“I’ll take it,” Buhle said, and hung up.
Ria took his hand again. Leaned forward. Gave him a dry, firm kiss on the mouth. Leaned back.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Don’t thank me,” he said. “I’m not doing you any favors.” She stood up, pulling him to his feet.
“Welcome to the team,” she said. “Welcome to Buhle.”
Chicken Little © 2010 CorDoc-Co, Ltd. (UK)