Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Face Value

News of the disappearance of inventor Felix Frey spread through the Air with electric ease. It was exactly the kind of distraction I needed. There are only so many quaint old thefts and counterfeit scams I can pluck from policing archives while my girlfriend Billie works in her studio, adjusting facial nerves, muscles, and skin cells to fit her clients’ desires. I seized the unfolding news thread and followed the distraction it promised back to the source.

Frey tinkered on the fringe of many fields, laboring until recently in abject obscurity. Two days earlier, he had announced a breakthrough that threatened to overturn society as radically as the matter transmitter had two generations ago. Or rather, he had announced the announcement of a breakthrough: In forty-eight hours, he said, he intended to provide a proof of concept demonstration live to the Air, so all could see the wonder he had wrought. His hyperbole had gained little traction at first, but now, with his disappearance just hours before the planned demonstration, everything he had said took on a whole new significance.

Even in the midst of a crisis, Frey was a flamboyant self-promoter. His last missive before vanishing off the face of the Earth was, “They have come for me, as I knew they would.”

Then a bump came for me from the Inspector. I honestly can’t say that I expected it, but hope springs eternal in my peacekeeper breast.

“Does the name Felix Frey mean anything to you, PK Sargent?” he asked.

“I’m following the story now. They’re saying he’s been kidnapped.”

“In a manner of speaking. I arrested him this morning.”

That was unexpected. “What did he do?”

“I don’t honestly know, yet.”

“Ah.” This was going to be an interesting one. “I’ll be there in two shakes, Inspector.”

“You really mustn’t call me that.”

“Tell me what I should call you, then. Peacekeepers keep the peace: they don’t arrest people before they’ve done anything wrong.”

He had no reply to that, or if he did he chose not to share it with me. I left Billie a quick message to apologize for leaving, hurried to the booth nearest her studio, and was in Cambridge two minutes later.

***

I never understood the benefit of Peacekeeper HQ finding a new home every week. Wherever, it looked the same, and it was full of the same people, too, thanks to d-mat. Only the air changed. In Cambridge, the air smelled of the Wash and sounded like gulls. I had a sudden hunger for fish fingers but resisted the urge to order some from a fabber on the way.

Felix Frey was in Suite 5, sitting opposite the Inspector. He was much smaller than he appeared in the Air and older with it, sporting an old-fashioned suit and bushy moustache, and hair that was thinning at the crown. Lines radiated like cracks from the corner of his eyes. He projected a restless, fidgety energy, from the tips of his tapping fingers to the shuffling dance of his shoes. Like a stage magician, he didn’t benefit from close examination.

Frey glanced up as I entered the suite, and kept on looking up, right up to my face.

“Who is this, now?” he asked. “Do you plan to beat the secret out of me?”

“On the contrary,” said the Inspector. “PK Sargent is an admirer of yours. She’s come to witness your demonstration.”

I didn’t know anything of the sort. Working out what the Inspector wanted me for was half the fun.

“I told you,” Frey said, “I cannot show you anything here—”

“I understand perfectly. We will relocate to your laboratories. Just the three of us.”

Frey froze in the act of standing, as though sensing a trap. Or perhaps the exact opposite, an opportunity. For an instant he was completely still.

“My announcement—”

“I will record what transpires for posterity. You may release it afterward, if you wish.”

“Don’t think to do me any favors, PK Forest. The future will not be kind to you.”

The Inspector betrayed not the slightest uncertainty. That would have been impossible, even if he felt any. His face was literally a mask, frozen from birth by Möbius Syndrome. Only with conscious effort could he display any emotion at all.

“Let’s worry about the future when it’s closer to being the past,” he deadpanned, indicating that I should go first and the inventor walk between us. I did as I was told, feeling as though I was intruding on a long and bitter conversation.

***

The home of the mysterious invention was in Brunei, where dusk cast everything in muted tones. Felix Frey owned a private booth, so we stepped directly from the bright-mirrored interior into a space that looked less like a laboratory than a disorganized, open-plan living room. Couches and tabletops heavily laden with paper notebooks and curious artifacts stood in higgledy-piggledy fashion under a high, raftered ceiling. The walls were louvered on three sides, allowing what breeze there was to mingle with the air within. Mosquitoes wandered freely. I dialed up my antihistamine levels and fought the urge to slap.

From outside came a much more insistent buzzing sound: drones—the eyes of the Air—seeking a closer view.

“What are we doing here?” I bumped the Inspector as Frey practically danced across the room, scattering and clattering in his haste to prove how clever he was.

“I received an anonymous tip-off that Frey is planning to destabilize the OneEarth government.”

“Seriously? So how will letting him do this help? Showing us is the same as showing the world, in the end.”

“It makes a difference that we are here,” he sent back. “We represent the status quo, upon which war has been declared. To battle honorably, one must look one’s enemy in the eye.”

A loud crash cut off our surreptitious conversation. Frey had knocked over a heavily loaded stool while bearing a large, boxy fabber in both arms toward us.

“Clear that table,” he instructed, pointing with his chin.

I complied, taking more care than I possibly needed to. Frey’s scribblings were illegible both to my eyes and to my lenses, and the artifacts looked like nothing so much as burned tree roots. Failed experiments, perhaps.

“The fundamental reality of our economy, thanks to d-mat,” the inventor lectured us as he plugged the fabber into a power outlet and warmed it up, “is that any material thing except for people can be copied into the Air and recreated at will, ad infinitum. Some would have it that we are thus liberated from wage slavery and scarcity, but I believe that we remain as trapped as ever—trapped by rampant consumption fueled by limitless supply.”

The machine beeped in readiness. Frey opened it and invited us to look inside.

“This is a standard fabricator,” he said, using the old fashioned term that my great-aunt preferred. “Please observe that the operational seals are intact and that it is disconnected from any form of data transmission. Yes?”

I assured him that this did certainly seem to be the case.

He scampered off again, bent low into a wooden chest, and returned with a narrow ingot of silvery metal in the palms of his outstretched hands.

“Take this,” he said to me.

The metal was cool to the touch and, when I hefted it, surprisingly light.

“Do you recognize it?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “If I’d known there was going to be a quiz, I would’ve brushed up on my chemistry.”

“You have already passed.” Frey beamed at me. “This element is entirely novel. I am the first to isolate it and hence to comprehend its peculiar nature.”

“Which is . . . ?”

My prompting foreshortened any further boasting.

“Place it into the fabricator,” he said, ushering me forward. “Thus and so. Please now close the door and instruct the machine to scan its contents.”

I pushed the necessary buttons, then stepped back to watch.

The fabber whirred to itself for a moment. Then it beeped and the door opened. Frey gestured for me to look inside.

The fabber was empty.

“Where did it go?” I asked.

Frey winked, but didn’t answer the question. “Now, ask the fabricator to make you a copy of the ingot it just scanned.”

Puzzled, I shut the door and did as I was told. After another minute’s wait, the machine beeped once more.

Inside, nothing but the merest wisp of vapor.

Frey watched me with his hands folded in front of him, radiating an air of deliberate understatement. Like a conjurer announcing his coup de grace, he said, “I have discovered a material that cannot be scanned or copied.”

I wasn’t going to supply the applause because I genuinely didn’t see what the fuss was about.

“What’s the point of that? Something that can’t be d-matted is about is about as useful as . . . as . . .”

I struggled to find a suitable simile. Coals to Newcastle? An icebox in Antarctica? Bandages on a mummy?

“Useful as money,” supplied the Inspector, only he wasn’t agreeing with me.

“Exactly,” said Frey with a gracious inclination of his head. “I have re-invented money.”

“What?” I said. “Why?”

I felt as shocked as if someone had announced the return of internal combustion engines or AIDS.

“Think about it, PK Sargent.” Frey’s lecturing tone resumed. “Humans are by nature creators and traders. Language, society, economy, laws—all exist because of our evolved capacity to pool invention. We drive to better the world around us and in the process better ourselves.

“But some inventions are more dangerous than others, and the fabber is the most dangerous of them all. It gives us everything we desire, allowing the infinite replication of anything we want. It should unfetter our innate creativity, making inventors of us all. But how do we really use it?”

He placed both hands atop the boxy machine, as though speaking from a lectern.

“We endlessly propagate the familiar. Why make something better when something good enough already exists? There is no incentive to innovate, because nothing—including novelty—has any value anymore. Newness is steadily drowning under sameness. Abundance has eroded our sense of value until all things are equally worthless.”

“Uh, and money fits in where, exactly?” I prompted him again.

“That which cannot be reproduced in a fabber is by definition a scarce resource,” he said with saintly patience. “Scarcity begets value. Value provokes desire. Desire motivates creation. Creation undoes stagnation.”

“Just like that?”

“You think me naïve.” His attitude only grew more self-assured. “The irony pleases me. I have named my discovery jejunium, after the Latin for hunger. Like paper notes or electronic data in the past, it will be a symbolic representation of what we truly value.”

I glanced at the Inspector, wanting him to put the crazy man straight. The world wasn’t drowning in crap just because we could make anything we wanted. If anything, there was less crap, since what a fabber made, it could also recycle. Archeologists would be sifting through the rubbish heaps of the twentieth century for centuries to come. Did Frey really want us to go down that path again?

“Tell me more about the material,” the Inspector said.

“Jejunium.”

“Yes. You called it an element, not a compound or an alloy, but I thought there were no elements left to discover.”

“It took physicists one hundred and fifty years,” Frey said, “to advance from Rutherford’s confirmation of the nucleus to the invention of the fabricator. What have we achieved since then? Mere cataloguing! The element I have discovered is indeed new to science, and the details of its creation must remain secret, or else its value will be eroded.”

“So you alone intend to control the means of production,” said the Inspector, strolling among the scattered tables and chairs. He always walked when he thought. “Have you anticipated global demand? Can you make enough to meet it?”

“I have secured a reliable means of manufacture.”

“Restrained, of course. One wouldn’t want to flood the market.”

“Indeed not.”

“May I see another sample?”

Frey left his podium and rummaged in the chest.

“You seem unconcerned by security,” the Inspector said as he took possession of a second ingot, identical to the first. The box was presumably full of them. “Do you have provisions in mind for when this material is revealed to the world?”

When? I scowled. Surely the Inspector wasn’t taking Frey seriously.

“Naturally I have,” the inventor said, looking pleased. “I have also devised a system of denominations and exchanges for when the first transactions occur, and I will ask the public for designs to ensure the coins have cachet beyond their material value. I intended to announce these measures after the initial unveiling—which I hope to proceed with now. You have seen my demonstration and heard my argument. Do you have any objections?”

The Inspector considered the ingot impassively for a moment, moving not a muscle, not a hair. Then he raised his gaze to look at me.

“What do you think, PK Sargent?”

“I think he’s crazy,” I said without hesitation.

“You believe his claims lack substance?”

“No. I just don’t think we need money. Or banks, or taxes, or loan sharks, or inflation, or any of the other nonsense that goes with it.”

“Is that your only objection?”

“Well, yes. It’s a pretty big one.”

“But our friend here is not actually breaking the law, since making one’s own currency is no longer a criminal offence.” He stopped and tapped his chin with the index finger of his right hand. “I am wondering now if I made a mistake. The tip-off I received was unmistakably a warning, but perhaps not to me. Perhaps I should have taken Mister Frey into protective custody rather than placed him under arrest.”

“Perhaps you should have,” said Frey. “For some time I have anticipated an attack like this. I have many competitors, not to mention enemies in the OneEarth administration.”

“I can see why,” the Inspector said, waving the ingot in one hand. “Very well. I see no reason to prevent you from announcing your discovery to the world at large. I will release the recording and allow you to broadcast live from now on.”

The inventor fairly capered with delight, while I could only glare at the Inspector even harder. First opening himself up to criticism, then practically admitting that he was wrong. What next—retirement to pursue a life of chartered accounting in Frey’s Brave New Old World?

But while I was eyeballing the Inspector, something very strange happened: His face changed. It was a subtle thing, little more than a tilt of the head, so his left eye came forward slightly, and a slight widening of both his eyes, all while staring unblinkingly back at me.

I raised my eyebrows questioningly, and he did it again, turning slightly so it wouldn’t be so obvious to Frey, who was fussing about with his fabber.

It was a nod, with emphasis. An encouragement.

Go on, he was telling me. Go on.

Go on what, I wanted to say. But didn’t.

When the man with the frozen face makes an expression like that, it’s up to me to work out what it means.

***

Now, I may not be the brightest spark in the campfire, but I am very tall. I spend all of my time looking down at short people looking up at me. I don’t think of it as a strength. You could even say it’s a disability, sometimes. It’s certainly something that I have had to find ways to accommodate, physically and psychologically.

I imagine it’s the same as if you lost your legs, say. You’d spend every waking moment thinking about how to cope, while watching people who still have legs go about their business so easily. Because you’d be bitter—at least I would be—and you’d be imagining what life would be like were circumstances otherwise.

Which leads me to the Inspector. Born with a face that doesn’t work, he’s been at a disadvantage his entire life, at least until he met Billie, my face-sculpting girlfriend. Having to strain to hold his own in non-verbal exchanges explains why he’s so good at Inspecting. He has to work so hard to open the book of his own face that he can understand ours more easily than we can.

When it came to Frey . . . well, the Inspector knew I thought the man was full of nonsense. I had said as much, with vocal chords and everything. What I hadn’t said to the Inspector was how disappointed I was in him. You don’t arrest someone without a reason, not normally, and even if you do, you don’t cave in and admit it so easily. You trust your instincts and pursue the case as far as you possibly can. You certainly don’t admit your mistakes in public. That’s just tedious for everyone.

All this was going through my mind at that moment, and it was written on my face in ways that the Inspector could read perfectly well.

Go on. Tell me. That’s what his expression was telling me.

Go ahead and say it.

All right, I thought, if you really want me to . . .

“This is pointless.”

My voice echoed harshly in the cluttered room.

“Pardon?” the Inspector said.

You heard me, I wanted to say, but he gave me the nod again, so I repeated what I had said, adding a little more into the bargain, since he wanted it so badly.

“This is completely pointless. I don’t understand why we’re here.”

“Well,” he said, “the successful reintroduction of money would fundamentally destabilize society . . .”

“You don’t really think anyone’s actually going to use it, do you? Everything we want will still come out of a fabber. It’ll still be free.”

“But what about original ideas?” asked Frey. “What about things that cannot come from a fabricator because they don’t exist yet?”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Like your fancy metal. And who paid you to make that? No one. You did it because you wanted to do it.”

The Inspector tapped his teeth with the tip of his right index finger. “PK Sargent has an interesting point,” he said. “What motivated you to make the attempt in the first place, since there exists no guarantee that any invention will find an eager reception? I believe you are familiar with how it feels to have your work rejected.”

Frey flushed a deep crimson. “The world’s appetite for novelty has been stunted by a diet of homogeneity—”

“Whether that is so or not, the question remains. What drives anyone to invent in a culture that can create in a moment’s notice everything it thinks it desires? If not money, then . . . ?”

Frey knew the answer, but he wasn’t ready to admit it. Old people like him often aren’t.

“Fame,” I said.

“Yes,” said the Inspector, snapping his fingers as though I had just given him a profound revelation. “Yes, indeed. Fame, popularity, notoriety—call it what you will. Being noticed is something you can’t make in a fabber. When someone is watching a football game, they can’t be watching you, Mister Frey. Could this be why we’re really here, why those drones are buzzing around outside? Could this jejunium of yours be less about shaking up the world than making you a more prominent part of it as it is?”

“What you’re suggesting is preposterous,” Frey spluttered with high indignation.

“Is it?” I said, joining in the game. I liked where this was going. “I bet it was you who placed that anonymous warning. Getting yourself arrested by the PKs is a sure way to make people pay attention. Well, it worked. We noticed, Mister Frey, only we’re not idiots. It’s not our job to make you look better.”

“But the metal,” he said in growing desperation. “How do you explain that?”

“There you must have shown true ingenuity,” the Inspector allowed him. “Some substances by law cannot be fabricated: poisons, for instance, or radioactive materials. Perhaps you used one of these, suspended in a lightweight, transparent material of novel design, to make it seem completely solid. An aerogel, say, that reacts on contact with the air. When each ingot is scanned, the fabber omits the offensive material, leaving the aerogel behind. The aerogel decrepitates into smoke on contact with the air. We saw it in the second instance—the merest puff, but enough to give the game away.” He waggled the ingot Frey had given him like a scolding finger. “Clever, and likely to survive a cursory examination. Hardly revolutionary, though.”

“Radioactive, you say?” I stared worriedly at my hands where they had touched the ingot.

“Or poisonous.” The Inspector tossed it with a metallic thunk onto the nearest table. “Perhaps I was right to arrest you after all, Mister Frey. Endangering the life of a peacekeeper is a serious crime.”

That broke him.

“It’s not dangerous, I swear,” he said, physically sagging. Even his moustache drooped. “The metal is a stable isotope of element 142, which is normally highly unstable. That I discovered. The aerogel I found in an old materials archive.”

The Inspector nodded. “You’re not so venal as to poison anyone to achieve your ends, then. That will serve you in good stead when your case comes before the Consensus Court.”

Frey looked startled. “You’re still arresting me? What for? You said yourself that creating money isn’t illegal.”

“It’s not about the money. You attempted to perpetrate a fraud on the scientific community.” The Inspector’s expression became very stern. “And besides, fame isn’t the only resource we can’t fabricate. There’s one other. We may spend it freely every moment of every day, but once it’s gone we can never get it back.”

“Time,” I guessed.

“Exactly, PK Sargent. Mister Frey, you invested a lot of your own in devising this scheme, and now you have wasted entirely too much of mine . . .”

The Inspector took the inventor’s arm and guided him firmly back to the d-mat booth. I followed, thinking hard about everything I had just witnessed, everything that was even now spreading out into the Air. The booth’s door slid shut, surrounding us with an infinitude of reflections. In all of them, I was visibly biting my tongue.

The booth’s lights flashed. Justice had been served, I thought, on every front but one.

***

“You lied to me,” I accused the Inspector as we left the now-infamous Frey in the hands of the Court. Here there were no drones, and the Inspector had stopped recording.

“What do you mean?” he asked with an innocence I had learned to distrust.

“You know exactly what I mean. You called to tell me that you’d arrested Frey without knowing what he’d done yet. It was either then, or when you gave that little speech about defrauding the scientific community. That face you pulled was for everyone else’s benefit, not yours. So which was it? Did you know what Frey was up to before we arrived, or did you only work it out after?”

He spared us both the indignity of prevarication.

“After.”

“And that business about this being a war, how our enemy has to be faced without delay? Frey is a media-hungry kook who’s no enemy of anyone, except himself. You can’t have been talking about him.”

“Precisely. I was talking about the person out there who is, at this very moment, working on the real thing.”

“By which you don’t mean money.”

“No.”

“So why didn’t you tell me?”

“I knew you would correctly apprehend the severity of the situation.”

That was his way of saying I was right, but that he wasn’t necessarily wrong, either.

I had worked out some of it on the way back to HQ. The rest of it fell quickly into place. Reinventing money is the least of our worries where a material that can’t be fabricated is concerned. An assassin might use a jejunium gun as a murder weapon, safe in the knowledge that it will vanish during her escape. Giving someone an artificial heart made of unfabbable material would guarantee that the recipient could never travel by d-mat again. Industrial prototypes could be sabotaged by adding a small amount of the material that would render the copying process incomplete, putting buildings and even satellites at risk . . .

The possibilities are terrifying to imagine, and far too sensitive to preserve in the recording of what happened in Frey’s laboratory, hence the Inspector’s odd charade and meaningful glances.

“I am a peacekeeper like you,” he explained. “I invited you to join me today as the voice of the status quo. You performed that role perfectly. Frey turned out to be guilty of dignifying a dangerous idea, for which he will be mildly punished. The world is better off thinking that any material like jejunium is the province of dreamers and madmen.”

“It is, right?” I asked him. “Not possible, I mean.”

He glanced at me sideways, but said nothing. Keeping me on my toes, I guess. And fair enough, too. I felt slightly foolish for trying so hard to spot Frey’s sleight of hand that I’d nearly missed the trick the real illusionist in the room was pulling.

We stopped at a line of d-mat booths. I checked the time and realized that barely an hour had passed. If I hurried, I might get home before Billie even realized I had gone.

“Well, okay,” I said. “It’s been illuminating, as always. But next time you want an assistant for one of your little performances, at least give me notice so I can get out my spangly tights.”

He made a sound that might have been a cough. “You own such things?”

“I do, from when I took ballet classes as a kid. I was three feet shorter then, so take that as a warning.”

He coughed again, and I realized that he was laughing. His face simply hadn’t caught up yet.

I left him and hurried off to Billie, wondering if we were the only people in the world to catch a glimpse of what lay behind the Inspector’s mask.

© 2013 by Sean Williams.

Sean Williams

Sean Williams

Sean Williams is a #1 New York Times bestselling author of over forty award-winning novels, one hundred short stories, and the odd odd poem. He lives in Adelaide, South Australia. His latest book is Hollowgirl, the third in the Twinmaker series.