Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

The Invisible Hand Rolls the Dice

At 35,000 feet over the Indian Ocean, Lee Pao Nelson paused to re-evaluate his life. There was plenty of tangible evidence to score himself by. It was his thirtieth birthday, and here he was in first class, a piquant glass of merlot on the tray table in front of him, leather upholstery underneath him, his understated Joseph Abboud suit shrugging off the wrinkles. Most people would have felt smug to be sitting in the market segment he had achieved. And yet the clicking of stylus against screen across the aisle was a torture of indignity. The overweight man in seat 3B was hunched over his notebook, daytrading intently on the personality market — where Lee, despite all his achievements, was not yet listed.

Defiantly flipping open his own notebook, Lee checked today’s styles to find if he needed to upgrade anything before landing. His personal shopbot was recommending a new watch with a holographic orrery display. Before he could decide whether it would add to his ensemble, the flashing email icon distracted him.

WE HAVE WHAT YOU DESIRE glowed in his in-box, in defiance of the best spam filters available. He deleted it irritably and tried to concentrate on a way of customizing the watch to display his individuality, taste, and access to information. Consumption took more skill and attention every day. If only he were publically traded he would be able to deduct the cost of a true personal shopper, not just a bot that could only respond to trends. He could set trends then. In fact, he would be expected to.

WE HAVE WHAT YOU DESIRE, the email materialized again in his in-box. He stared at it, a little insulted that such a downmarket come-on had gotten through to him twice. His stylus hovered over the delete box, but somehow, when he clicked, it was on “open.”

An entrancing face stared out from his screen through a veil of visible pixels. It was a cheap, poorly resolved video clip, but that only seemed to enhance the mystery of her expression. She had Asian features, pearl-skinned and waiflike, and there was unmistakable apprehension in her look, as if she saw and recognized Lee as her destiny. Then she looked down shyly and a smile touched her lips, almost too subtle to be sure it was there. In it, Lee glimpsed the wisdom of generations of captive women shaped by cruel custom to excel in ancient arts of delighting and easing men. The combination of vulnerability and knowing seized his heart and a portion of his anatomy considerably below that.

The face was gone almost as soon as he saw it and was replaced with some tinny Asian music and the cover of a catalog of mail-order women. These deliteful Asian ladies will fill you home with satisfaction, the ad copy went. Lee clicked through page after page of thumbnail photos, searching for the waif he had seen so briefly.

The man in 3B closed his notebook cover with a satiated sigh. Lee quickly changed screens to make it look like he was doing work. “That was a good session,” Mr. 3B said.

“Oh?” Lee said absently. “Who were you trading?”

“You wouldn’t recognize them. I get ’em before they’re household names. The up-and-comers — you know, media personalities, politicians, hedge fund managers. High risk, high reward. You traded?”

It was just a conversation opener, Lee told himself, not a calculated putdown. “No,” he said casually. “How about you?”

“Since I was eleven years old,” 3B said. “I was one of those Young Entrepreneur picks.”

Lee felt a slow burn of hatred.

“At fourteen, I founded a company that pioneered ME2ME commerce, cutting out the aggravation of dealing with other people. By the time I was nineteen, I’d paid off my parents’ initial investment. I haven’t owed the old bag and goat a thing since then.”

Lee was still struggling to repay his own parents’ investment — not that they pressed him for it. They seemed to think it was all a gift, all those diapers and hockey lessons and premium schools. It made Lee guilty whenever he saw them, to know how bad a return they had gotten.

“I’ve issued a dividend every year since my IPO,” the man went on — then without asking, pointed his business card at Lee’s notebook and beamed him the information. “Check out my web page.”

When 3B lurched up to weave down the aisle to the bathroom, Lee took the chance to look him up. He felt a malicious satisfaction to see the man had a “sell” rating from Morgan Stanley. He’d been counting on Lee not to do the research.

Back to the problem of the watch, Lee racked his brains for some distinct characteristic to set his watch apart, some creative individual touch. Something that wouldn’t bring disrepute on his market segment or skew his profile or make him less employable. A message blinked into being in his in-box: THE WATCH IS NOT WHAT YOU DESIRE.

With a frisson of paranoia, Lee clicked on the message, and it took him back to the catalog of women. He shook his head, admiring the company’s marketing software in spite of himself. He paged through, looking at faces — pleading, brazen, dull, glamorized faux Western — but none with the ineffable Asian mystery that had gripped him. The message was right, he thought; the watch was not what he desired. The lack of something had him in an itchy state of vacillation and restlessness, unable to land.

There was a search box at the bottom of the screen. He typed, “I want” but did not finish, and did not send the message. He was not sure what to search for.

YES, I KNOW. The words appeared in his in-box. YOU WANT.

“I want to see her again,” Lee typed.

YOU SHALL.

“When?”

TONIGHT. ALL HER LIFE HAS BEEN PREPARATION FOR THIS NIGHT.

A tug of yearning made his thighs hot and his palms clammy. “Where?”

PETALS. RANGOON SKYMALL. 9:00.

“How much?”

There was a slightly disapproving pause. WE ARE NOT IN THE PROSTITUTION BUSINESS, MR. NELSON.

Blushing in spite of himself, Lee typed, “Then what?”

WE SELL LIFE FULFILLMENT. TO HAVE WHAT YOU DESIRE YOU MUST GIVE MORE THAN MONEY.

What more was there?

The answer flashed onto his screen in the form of a sales contract. Scanning it quickly, Lee decided it was an immigration scam. He would sign a declaration of his intention to marry the woman provided. Within a month he could cancel the contract with no obligation, but by then she would presumably be settled in one of the countries in his pocketful of citizenships. His unspoken reward was a month of her companionship.

There was something altruistic in it, he thought as his stylus wavered over the “Reject” box. She must be fleeing something, whatever caused that alluring glow of anxiety in her face. Instinctively, he knew it would not be simple. She was in danger, some third-world danger he could not understand — something inscrutable and exotic. It had to explain the urgency of the marketing.

Caution told him not to get involved. It could entangle him with international smugglers, identity thieves. The thought was distasteful . . . and thrilling. Ten minutes ago, his future had seemed mapped out before him. His stock options would vest, and he would settle down. First would come the house in a gated community and, with it, major appliances. He would trade in his neglected Maserati for a family armored vehicle. There would come the backyard swimming pool, the European ski vacations, the entertainment center, the exercise room, all the major life acquisitions. And the dogged work to pay for it all, to stay ahead, not to fail . . .

How many chances would he get to do something risky, shady, out of character — in fact, to be a hero?

He typed, “Will it be . . .”

IT WILL BE HER, the answer came. YOU HAVE BEEN MATCHED BY OUR SOFTWARE DOWN TO LEVEL 8. SUCH A DEEP MATCH IS UNUSUAL.

Marketing shtick, he knew. At the same time, he had sensed an affinity, like a key fitting in a lock. High risk, high reward. He felt reckless and brave as he clicked on the “Accept” box and pressed his thumbprint on the scanpad to seal the contract. THANK YOU FOR DOING BUSINESS WITH DIGITAL DESTINY, INC. flashed cornily on the screen. Lee settled back with the smile of an unfooled but satisfied customer. The publically traded Mr. 3B was on his third Vodka Blitz; Lee felt a deep sense of superiority. He might not be listed on the personality exchange, but he now had a rendezvous with a woman who would fit him like a Speedo.

• • • •

Lee’s business meeting that afternoon was in one of the finance capital towers of Rangoon. He had been there many times but had no idea what it looked like from the outside. It was not necessary to go outside to get there from the air terminal; it was connected via the immense skymall. After showing his Proof of Insurance at the immigrations booth (passports were passé; liability was all local nations cared about), Lee flagged down an electric rickshaw. It whisked him through bright corridors lined with Harrods and Gap stores. They passed a towering atrium featuring one of the Kipling’s colonial-revival theme parks, where Burmese children in pink plastic pith helmets rode mechanical elephants, and a chorus line of costumed Gurkhas sang “On the Road to Mandalay.” At last they arrived at the lobby of the business tower, where an actual façade from Angkor Wat had been shipped in and reassembled, stone by stone, to frame the elevator doors. Lee rode to the forty-seventh floor.

The prospective franchisee, Abdul Yousefi, turned out to be an austere, business-suited sheik with a dark beard and thick, black-rimmed glasses. Lee shook his hand, then greeted the financier, Anatoly Rubichek, a beefy Romanian in sunglasses with a rose-red pimple on his chin. Gangster, Lee thought behind his smile. The success of the business had attracted a kind of character he preferred not to deal with; but capital was capital.

“Take a load off this,” Rubichek said jovially, holding out his wrist. On it was a watch with a holographic orrery display. “It is, as you Yanks say, planetary, man.”

Lee tried to strike just the right note of interest and sophisticated disdain, while silently blessing his stars that he had not bought the watch. He had to reprogram his shopbot.

“I expect Mr. Lee is quite familiar with such things,” the sheik said in impeccable Oxford English.

“Nelson,” Lee corrected him.

“Pardon me. You are American, then?”

Always a difficult question. “Originally,” Lee said. “Now, who knows?” He shrugged, smiling.

“Yes, indeed,” Yousefi said thoughtfully. “Who does know?”

An office assistant entered with a tray of Turkish coffee, herb tea, and chai — drinks prepared according to the specifications entered on each man’s notepad and automatically broadcast in answer to the room’s wireless LAN query. Lee used the interruption to tap into the web and retrieve the files he would need. When the pleasantries were over, he was ready to launch his sales pitch.

He always started with a short video. The room lights dimmed and one wall filled with a series of images invoking the anxieties of the postnational world: denuded hillsides, squalid slums, rioting extremists, flooded coasts, lootings and shootings. A woman’s voice said, “The world is such a dangerous place. How can I know my property will be safe and my children will grow up? Who can I turn to? Who can I trust?” The sounds of violence and disorder reached a crescendo, succeeded by silence and blackness. Then the screen lit with an aerial shot of a sylvan lake. The camera swooped down, birdlike, between autumnal hills and over tranquil water, to show a grandfather and child fishing, all to the familiar strains of the World Church’s theme song, “Someone Loves You,” heard in daily ads on television sets worldwide. The calm, melodious voice of the Church’s spokesman, Dr. Bob, said, “You have a friend here. You’ll always have a friend at the World Church.”

The video never failed to move Lee. He was that rare thing, a salesman who actually believed in his product. He knew, rationally, that the wise and fatherly Dr. Bob was a fictional construct with a carefully crafted biography; he had even participated in the panicky strategy sessions when the actor who played him died in a Mexican motel. At a deeper level, it didn’t matter. What Dr. Bob symbolized was what counted. Belonging, trustworthiness, support.

The video went on to show impressionistic glimpses of life in World Church franchise communities: childcare centers, health clubs, diet groups, creativity retreats, addiction recovery clubs. There were the ceremonies to mark life transitions — welcomings for babies, marriages, funerals — all within a tolerant, multiethnic community. It showed congregations in the Caribbean, Central America, Africa, Indonesia, harmoniously celebrating the same beautiful traditions, free of ancient prejudice and passion.

When the video ended, Lee waited for Abdul Yousefi’s reaction, but the Arab was silent. In a tone that didn’t break the mood, Lee said, “You see, our product is contentment.”

The sheik said, “A life of no risk.”

“Well, we can’t make any express warranties. But —” Lee handed over the beautifully designed print packet outlining the company’s church-related products — “in here you’ll find information on our Sheltering Arms insurance program. It’s the most comprehensive you can buy.”

Still Yousefi said nothing. It was making Lee nervous; there was quite a lot riding on this meeting, and it would be seen as a test of his skills. Expansion into the Middle East was one of the World Church management’s top priorities. It was the only major market they had not yet penetrated.

“Our package has been designed with the most exhaustive market research in the industry,” Lee said. “We test every product to make sure it is what people really want from their church.”

“What about God?” Yousefi said unexpectedly.

“We find that varies with the franchise area,” Lee said. “Some congregations prefer a God, others don’t. We go with the community norm, determined by polling. But it’s our policy to keep God-references low-key and generic. In keeping with our multicultural mission.”

“Ah,” Yousefi said. “McGod.”

Lee smiled. He did not find it insulting to be compared to a fabulously successful global corporation. “In the demographic we’re aiming at, the cultural contrasts have already been smoothed out. I mean, they all grow up watching CNN and Disney, no matter where they’re from.”

“What about pre-existing religions?” Yousefi asked. “Do you ever encounter resistance from them?”

“Chain religions are constantly being accused of driving mom-and-pop churches out of business. Our research shows it’s simply not true. They have their market, we have ours. Look, Christianity is a wonderful religion if you’re downtrodden and depressed about it. Islam is great if you’re downtrodden and angry. We’re not targeting the downtrodden. The World Church is for the overachievers, the shareholders in society.”

Yousefi raised one eyebrow. “Is it expensive to join?”

“We go on a percentage-of-income basis.” Lee had learned it was best not to mention the exact percent at first. “It’s very advantageous to our members because we have an investment in their success and do all we can to promote their advancement.”

“How do you do that?”

“To begin with, our services reduce the stressful distractions of home life. We give members a nurturing, affirmative social network. And then, for members who opt for it, we will provide suggested courses of action in dilemmas, based on customized risk-benefit analysis.”

“Like the astrological advice in the paper?” Yousefi’s voice was ironic.

“No! This is based on actuarial science.”

Yousefi shook his head in disbelief. “Pardon me, these concepts are very . . . Western. Do you offer no morals, no precepts to guide a person’s action?”

Personally, Lee found commandments a turn-off, but some customers wanted them. “Our press has pulled together some compilations of the best Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist precepts,” he said. “They are the ones our polls showed to have the highest positive ratings, cross-culturally. You’ll find a catalog in your packet.”

The sheik rose from his chair. Lee noticed that his drink was untouched — not a good sign. He seemed to be struggling with some internal problem. Lee wondered if he should launch into the profit-margin figures, but some instinct told him to stay quiet.

With his back turned, Yousefi said, “I cannot believe this is right — that this is the way we should worship.”

With his alligator boots on the coffee table, Rubichek the financier spoke up. “You can’t argue with success, Sheik. The company’s got a rocket up its ass.”

Lee agreed with his point, though not with his vulgar choice of metaphors. “We have 439 franchises in thirty-three countries, with more opening at a rate of three a month. Our stock has split twice in two years. Our profits are —”

Yousefi turned an impaling gaze on him. “That proves your price. Not your value.”

Earnestly, Lee said, “You don’t have to take my word for our value, Mr. Yousefi. You can look to a force beyond our power. We cannot manipulate that force, or falsify it.”

“What force?” Yousefi said.

“The market. The market is perfectly rational, perfectly informed. It cannot be fooled. It has weighed us in the scales against all other human enterprise, and has found us valuable. It is the one verdict you can truly believe.”

There was a short silence as Yousefi gazed at his clasped hands. “My apologies, Mr. Nelson,” he said at last. “I had taken you for a man without faith.” He sat down again with a resigned expression. “The fact is, my government believes it is in the state’s interest to prevent the security needs of our middle class from finding political expression. We need to deflect their demands, so that the free market may continue to enrich us.”

“Good,” said Rubichek. “Then tax-exempt status won’t be a problem.”

“I believe not,” Yousefi said. “It will be a public service.”

They dived into the details then. Lee was feeling giddily elated, a voice in his head singing, I did it! By the time they pressed their biometric signatures to the contract and Rubichek broke out the caviar and martinis, Lee barely needed the alcohol to feel that the world was going his way.

His mood lasted as he strolled out into the mall afterwards, waving off the rickshaw drivers. Before him, a glass-roofed atrium stretched away into hazy distance, six stories high with palm trees growing down the middle. And every floor was lined with bright and bustling shops. As he walked along the promenade, invisible lasers caught his retina scan and empty walls lit up with ads geared to his Lifetime Purchasing Record. It made him feel at once unique — he was proud of his LPR — and at one with the great community of shoppers.

It was in places like this that he could feel the numinous presence of the market all around him, the great collective mind and will that rewarded the deserving and punished the uncompetitive. The shops were beginning to decorate for some local festival modeled on the American Christmas. You could practically hear a global heartbeat: the majestic, seasonal ebb and flow of commerce, marking off time and business cycles. Life itself was a series of seasons, each with its own colors, theme songs, and logos. There was a time for every purchase under heaven.

Turning away from the balcony overlooking the atrium, his eye caught a Lexus ad, and he checked furtively to see who it was aimed at. There was no one nearby but a gaggle of teenagers and a cleaning woman. A kiosk that had been hawking Nikes to the teens transformed into a De Beers display as his eyes swept past it. Secretly delighted, he pretended not to notice. He walked away down a busy corridor, transforming the walls with his presence, drawing envious glances. The glorious sense of power was quickly eroded by puzzlement. Pausing before a drugstore where a panel enticed him to buy an upscale brand of cocaine, he took out his notebook. Either his LPR had gotten mixed up with someone else’s or something had happened.

The explanation was in his in-box. He stared at the message, barely able to breathe. Half an hour ago, he had been approved for listing on the personality exchange.

It was a chasmic event. It had catapulted him into a whole new market segment, and the advertisers had found out before he had. Henceforth, untold capital would be his. He would have a worth, a market value. Swelling with elation, he started to jot down things he would have to do. Send out a press release. Circulate his résumé. Call his parents and offer them some options.

And then his eye fell on the last entry in his To Do list for the day: Petals, 9:00. It was as if the exhilarating slope had turned to ice underneath him. The risk he had taken earlier that day, when he had been a mere private individual, was yawning before him. He could not shack up with a woman ordered off the Internet — not Lee Pao Nelson, Publically Traded. Investors would be searching out information about him. The disclosure laws meant his life, his finances, would be an open book. He had to buy her off, cover her up.

His mind raced ahead as his stylus hovered over the screen. If he tried to track down Digital Destiny and cancel the contract, he would just draw attention to it. No, the buyoff had to be an untraceable cash deal, and then he could claim the purchase had gotten on his LPR by mistake. Such things happened, random IP address flukes. But he would have to make the rendezvous and hand over the cash himself.

He checked to see what hotel he was booked at, and immediately realized it wouldn’t do. It was a hotel appropriate for his old persona, not for the new man he had become. He sent out his shopbot to get him a new reservation. A woman with shopping bags pushed past him to get into the drugstore, and he nearly shouted at her, “Can’t you see what respect I am due? Just look at these ads around me!”

He had not expected success to be so stressful.

• • • •

The Rangoon skymall had so many wings that the architects had differentiated them by themes for the orientation of lost shoppers. Passing through that evening — on foot, because he was too jazzed to sit — Lee saw the Self-Improvement wing, the Medieval wing, and the Space wing before arriving at his destination, the Vietnam War wing, where Petals was located. With mirrorshades to block the retina scans, a layer of latex over his fingerprints, and his notebook set to “anonymous,” he was no longer preceded by expensive ads, mockingly showing all he stood to lose. It gave him an eerie sense of unreality. Without identity, he was reduced to the state of the elemental animals: He had no credit, no history, no achievements, no life.

The nightclub was six stories high and six stories deep, but even so, there was a long line of people waiting to get in. It snaked out into the mall courtyard, where the walls were draped with camouflage netting incongruously decorated with Christmas lights, and a tank teetered precariously over a fiberglass embankment, as if about to crash down on the waiting crowd. Standing there, watching the glass elevator go up and down the windowed stories of the club, Lee felt distracted; his thoughts flew about like malarial mosquitoes, unable to focus or concentrate.

He had always assumed he would get married to someone custom-designed for his lifestyle. Her résumé would be educated and professional. She would be able to carry on a cocktail conversation and run a household with precision. He pictured her in a pastel business suit, perfectly made up, perfectly organized, a colleague ready to manage the procreational portion of his life.

The mental image left him feeling hungry; he checked his watch. 8:54. It was tantalizing standing out here, watching people enjoying themselves inside the glass walls, unable to get in. It left him in a consuming state of mind.

By 9:05, the line seemed not to have moved, and he began to fret at his inaction. After another five minutes of vacillation, he left his place in line and went to the door, where a Burmese hostess in a spandex dress stood barring the way.

“Reservation?” she asked him.

“No — that is, I don’t know. I was supposed to meet someone at 9:00. Maybe she made the reservation.”

“Her name?”

Of course, he didn’t know her name. He took out the cash chit he had gotten from a Swiss bank that specialized in the lucrative business of records erasure. Its surface reflected the light like a bull’s eye on her forehead, but she did not react. So he leaned close and whispered, “Digital Destiny.”

“Mr. Nelson?” she said far too loudly.

“Yes,” he whispered.

“You may enter.”

Inside, the noise was like a physical force that battled gravity. Music throbbed up his legs, lifting him; loud laughter and conversation scattered his thoughts. He went to the bar to get a drink. With a glass anchoring him down, he turned to survey the room. Though it seemed very crowded, it was difficult to tell how many people were actually there, because everywhere the view was interrupted by pillars and panels of reflective glass that multiplied and concealed the patrons. A woman in a dress of netting passed in front of a mirror, and he saw her nipples duplicated a hundred times around the room.

He took out his notebook and set it on “receive” to find out who was there. As people passed him, their own notebooks broadcast whatever information they wished him to know. He picked up a wheeling kaleidoscope of names, incomes, web addresses, business cards, marital statuses, STD ratings, sexual preferences . . . There were sexual market segments here he had never even dreamed of.

The women were as glossy as photographs, shining with a shrink-wrap of style and sophistication. He could not help but admire the packaging. But she did not belong here. She was a child of the countryside, that unknowable place beyond the mall, beyond even the laws of exchange — a place so primal there was weather. She was a creature of dreaming mist, jade, and bamboo, not acrylic and hair spray. This place violated her very being.

He set the notebook to search for faces, and photographs of the patrons in the room started flashing on his screen, but none of them was her. Satisfied she was not in the room, he went to the spiral staircase in the center of the club. For a moment he hesitated, debating which way to go, then decided on down.

A hostess greeted him on the next level, and he shouted over the din, “I’m here to meet someone. Do you know if anyone is waiting?”

She laughed. “There are a lot of people waiting. We’re all waiting.”

“Never mind,” he said.

This floor was, if anything, more obscure than the one above. Neon outlines of dancers undulated, mimicked precisely by real ones, or apparently real, their shadows made multiple by wheeling lights. The laughter and conversation had a buzzing overtone, as if piped in over strained loudspeakers. On screens around the room, projected faces laughed uproariously at jokes he couldn’t hear. He fled downward.

The drink had somehow made him thirsty, so he went to the bar and started to order when he realized the bartender was only a photo cutout advertising something. He looked around for a waitress, but no one was there, so he helped himself. It made him feel transgressive.

This floor had a minefield theme. Whenever a dancer stepped on a mine, smoke would billow from the floor and silvery confetti would rain down. Around the edges of the room, burners intermittently erupted in pillars of flame, luridly lighting nearby revelers. A group of young people were calling out to each other in Japanese, laughing in drunken hilarity. One of them came over to help herself to liquor at the bar. Lee tried to look up her name in his notebook, but she wasn’t sending. “Have you been here before?” he asked, then winced at what a lame line it sounded like.

She nodded. “Every night. I work here.”

“Oh, I thought you were with them,” he nodded at the rest of the group.

“I am. We’re all actors.”

“What are — oh, I get it. It’s like one of those murder mystery parties, right?”

“Yeah, that’s what it’s like. Exactly.”

He wanted to ask more, but she waved at him and dashed away, jumping over a burner just before it shot flame to the ceiling. He headed for the stairs. Down.

The next floor was partitioned off into booths of smoked Plexiglas enclosing red vinyl banquettes. Almost all were occupied, but he found a free one and sat down. Through the partition he could indistinctly see the booth next to him, crowded with a group of Australians (by their accents) smoking something which (by the smell) was stronger than tobacco. They were making a raucous din, but it suited Lee. It had become obvious that he was not going to find her by wandering this place. If he had known her name he could have performed a search on his notebook. But she knew his. He was going to have to broadcast it and wait for her to find him.

He set his notebook to send his name. His drink was gone. The waitress kept coming to serve the Aussies, but never even glanced at him. He drew patterns in the water rings on the red formica tabletop, slowly growing irritated. And then he looked up and saw her.

She was separated from him by several layers of frosted glass, but he would have known that slim form anywhere. She was looking for him anxiously, with that shade of controlled desperation that made him feel so powerful, so crucial to her. He waved, but she didn’t see him. Jolted from his seat, he found his path barred by partitions. Trying to keep her in sight, he rounded booth after booth, searching for a way through the translucent haze. Only the merest second did he lose sight of her, but when he breathlessly rounded the last corner, only a plaster cast of her was left, her face projected onto a blank white face-screen, urgently beautiful. The image faded as he watched.

Now he knew that someone was messing with him. Returning to his seat, he passed the booth where the Australians sat. They were all manikins, and their boisterous conversation was a recording.

With a sudden clarity, it occurred to him that there might not be a single genuine customer on this floor but himself. When he checked his notebook, no credit histories popped onto the screen. Just as he had expected, nothing here was authentic. Nothing but her. She, he was convinced, was real, as much a victim of this place as he was.

Down he went again. The next floor was entirely unlit. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, the room filled with a swarm of moving dots fluorescing under invisible blacklights. They seemed to be patches worn by dancers; his imagination readily filled in the bodies, but there was no way to tell for sure. He moved gingerly forward into the dark, expecting to collide with someone.

A hand touched his shoulder from behind. He wheeled around. In the dark, his eyes strained vainly, but he felt her nearby.

“Do not look at me,” she said. Her voice was soft, with an accent he could not place.

“Don’t be ashamed,” he said. She was self-conscious about her simplicity, thinking he actually wanted one of these women so perfect you could almost see the mold lines.

“Lead me out of here,” she said.

He had come to buy her off. The cash chit was a hard lump in his pocket. He could give it to her and go back to his life, leaving her without personhood.

Turning back to the steps, he said, “Follow me.” It was an insane act. He could not risk being seen with this woman, so foreign to everything about his life. What was he doing?

The explanation struck him as he set foot on the first step, and it felt like the most profound drunken revelation of his life. Sex was like commerce. Not in the superficial ways everyone could see, but on a deeper level. Both were like thermodynamic systems: They generated energy from contrast. As a battery creates electricity from reservoirs of contrasting chemicals and a water wheel generates power from contrasting levels of water, so commerce could only exist where there was difference — otherwise, what would there be to trade? Difference generated the energy that drove the flow of goods and ideas, and it was generating the sexual energy propelling him up the stairs.

He almost turned to tell her, but she said again, “Do not look at me.”

The staircase seemed much longer going up than it had coming down. He kept passing floors he could not remember, and his legs began to ache with endless effort. Ten flights, twenty — how many had he climbed?

He knew he was near the exit when the hostess in the spandex dress barred his way, demanding payment. She handed him a computer printout of his tab, and it unfolded clear to the floor. As if a mere bill could deter him. Laughing derisively, he whipped out his plutonium credit card with its half-million-dollar limit. “Do you know who I am?” he said. “I am the chosen of the market. I walk among you, a negotiable instrument made flesh!” For a moment his attention was caught, fascinated, by the reflection of his own face in the surface of the card. Then he shifted it ever so slightly, to reflect what lay behind him.

For the merest instant he saw her face, suffused with dismay. Then there was an explosion of shattering glass, as if a whole tray of crystal goblets had gone down. Whipping around, he saw that she had broken into a million pieces; they bounced and skittered across the floor. With a cry of anguish, he fell to his knees, trying vainly to gather up the glittering shards. Already people were walking through them, scattering them, crunching them into atoms.

“What got broken?” someone asked.

“My wife,” Lee said. His soulmate, his beloved, the only authentic thing he had ever purchased. The fragments sifted through his fingers. “My fragile wife,” he said.

Carolyn Ives Gilman

Carolyn Ives GilmanCarolyn Ives Gilman has been publishing fantasy and science fiction for twenty years. Her first novel, Halfway Human (Avon/EOS 1998), was called “one of the most compelling explorations of gender and power in recent SF” by Locus magazine. Her latest, Ison of the Isles, was released in 2012. Her short fiction has appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Bending the Landscape, Interzone, Universe, Full Spectrum, and Realms of Fantasy. She has twice been a finalist for the Nebula Award.

In her professional career, Gilman is a historian specializing in 18th– and early 19th-century North American history, particularly frontier and Native history. She lives in St. Louis and works for the Missouri History Museum as a historian and curator.