Troubador theusindependent

Manfred Macx is on the run. His grey-eyed fate is in hot pursuit, blundering after him through divorce court, chat room, and meetings of the International Monetary Emergency Fund: it’s a merry dance he leads her. But Manfred isn’t running away: he’s discovered a mission. He’s going to make a stand against the laws of economics in the ancient city of Rome. He’s going to mount a concert for the spiritual machines: he’s going to set the companies free, and break the Italian government.

In his shadow, his monster runs, keeping him company, never halting.

Manfred enters Europe through an airport that’s all twentieth-century chrome and ductwork, barbaric in its decaying nuclear-age splendor. He breezes through customs and walks down a long, echoing arrival hall, sampling the local media feeds. It’s November, and, in a misplaced corporate search for seasonal cheer, the proprietors have come up with a final solution to the Christmas problem: a mass execution of plush Santas and elves. Bodies hang limply overhead every few meters, feet occasionally twitching in animatronic death, like a war crime perpetrated in a toy shop. Corporations don’t understand mortality, Manfred thinks, as he passes a mother herding along her upset children. Their immortality is a drawback when dealing with the humans they graze on: they lack insight into one of the main factors that motivates the meat machines. He’ll have to do something about that.

The free media channels here are as dense and richly self-referential as anything he’s seen in America. The accent’s different, though. Luton, London’s fourth satellite airport, speaks with an annoyingly bumptious twang, like an Australian with a plum in its mouth. Hello, stranger! Is that a brain in your pocket or are you just pleased to think me? Ping Watford Informatics for the latest in bluetooth modules and cheesy motion picture references.

He turns the corner and finds himself squeezed up against the wall between the baggage reclaim office and a crowd of drunken Belgian tractor-drag fans, while his left goggle is trying to urgently tell him something about the railway infrastructure of Columbia. The fans wear blue face paint and chant something that sounds ominously like the ancient British war-cry, Wemberrrly, Wemberrrly, and they’re dragging a gigantic virtual tractor-totem through the webspace analogue of the arrivals hall. He takes the reclaim office instead.

As he enters the baggage reclaim zone, his jacket stiffens and his glasses dim: he can hear the lost souls of suitcases crying for their owners. The eerie keening sets his own accessories on edge with a sense of loss, and for a moment he’s so spooked that he nearly shuts down the thalamic-limbic shunt interface that lets him feel their emotions. He’s not in favor of emotions right now, with the messy divorce proceedings and the blood sacrifice Pam is trying to extract from him; he’d much rather emotions had never been invented. But he needs the maximum possible sensory bandwidth to keep in touch with the world, so now he feels it in his guts every time his footwear takes a shine to some Moldovan pyramid scheme. Shut up, he glyphs at his unruly herd of agents: can’t even hear myself think!

"Hello sir, have a nice day, how may I be of service?" the yellow plastic suitcase on the counter says chirpily. It doesn’t fool Manfred: he can see the Stalinist lines of control chaining it to the sinister, faceless cash register that lurks below the desk, agent of the British Airport Authority corporate bureaucracy. But that’s okay. Only bags need fear for their freedom in here.

"Just looking," he mumbles. And it’s true. Due to a not entirely accidental cryptographic routing feature embedded in an airline reservations server, his suitcase is on its way to Mombasa, where it will probably be pithed and resurrected in the service of some African cyber-Fagin. That’s okay by Manfred–it only contains a statistically normal mixture of second-hand clothes and toiletries, and he only carries it to convince the airline passenger profiling expert systems that he isn’t some sort of deviant or terrorist–but it leaves him with a gap in his inventory that he must fill before he leaves the EC zone. He needs to pick up a replacement suitcase so that he has as much luggage leaving the superpower as he had when he entered it: he doesn’t want to be accused of trafficking in physical goods. At least, that’s his cover story–and he’s sticking to it.

There’s a row of unclaimed bags in front of the counter, up for sale in the absence of their owner. Some of them are very battered, but among these is a rather good quality suitcase with integral induction-charged rollers and a keen sense of loyalty: exactly the same model as his old one. He polls it and sees not just Glonass, but a GPS tracker, a gazetteer the size of an old-time storage area network, and an iron determination to follow its owner as far as the gates of hell if necessary. Plus the right distinctive scratch on the lower left side of the case. "How much for just this one?" he asks the bellwether on the desk.

"Ninety euros," it says placidly.

Manfred sighs. "You can do better than that." In the time it takes them to settle on seventy-five, the Hang Sen index is down fourteen point one six points and NASDAQ climbs another two point one. "Deal." Manfred spits some virtual cash at the brutal face of the cash register and it unfetters the suitcase, unaware that Macx has paid a good bit more than seventy-five euros for the privilege of collecting this piece of baggage. Manfred bends down and faces the camera in its handle. "Manfred Macx," he says quietly. "Follow me." He feels the handle heat up as it imprints on his fingerprints, digital and phenotypic. Then he turns and walks out of the slave market, his new luggage rolling at his heels.

A short train journey later, Manfred checks into a hotel in Milton Keynes. He watches the sun set from his bedroom window, an occlusion of concrete cows blocking the horizon. The room is functional in an overly naturalistic kind of way, rattan and force-grown hardwood and hemp rugs concealing the support systems and concrete walls behind. He sits in a chair, gin and tonic at hand, absorbing the latest market news and grazing his multichannel feeds in parallel. His reputation is up 2 percent for no obvious reason today, he notices; odd, that. When he pokes at it he discovers that everybody’s reputation–everybody, that is, who has a publicly traded reputation–is up a bit. It’s as if the distributed internet reputation servers are feeling bullish about integrity. There’s a global honesty bubble brewing.

Manfred frowns, then snaps his fingers. The suitcase rolls toward him. "Who do you belong to?" he asks.

"Manfred Macx," it replies, slightly bashfully.

"No, before me."

"I don’t understand that question."

He sighs. "Open up."

Latches whir and retract: the hard-shell lid rises toward him and he looks inside to confirm the contents.

The suitcase is full of noise.

It’s night in Milton Keynes, sunrise in Hong Kong. Moore’s law rolls inexorably on, dragging humanity toward the uncertain future. The planets of the solar system have a combined mass of approximately 2 x 1027 kilograms. Around the world, laboring women produce forty-five thousand babies a day, representing 1023 MIPS of processing power. Also around the world, fab lines casually churn out thirty million microprocessors a day, representing 1023 MIPS. In another ten months, most of the MIPS being added to the solar system will be machine-hosted for the first time. About ten years after that, the solar system’s installed processing power will nudge the critical 1 MIP per gram threshold. Beyond that, singularity: a vanishing point beyond which extrapolating progress becomes meaningless. The time remaining before the intelligence spike is now down to double-digit months. . . .

Aineko curls on the pillow beside Manfred’s head, purring softly as his owner dreams uneasily. The night outside is dark: vehicles operate on autopilot, running lights dipped to let the Milky Way shine down upon the sleeping city. Their quiet, fuel-cell powered engines do not trouble Manfred’s sleep. The robot cat keeps sleepless watch, alert for intruders: but there are none, save the whispering ghosts of Manfred’s metacortex, feeding his dreams with their state vectors.

The metacortex–a distributed cloud of software agents that surrounds him in netspace–is as much a part of Manfred as the society of mind that occupies his skull; his thoughts migrate into it, spawning new agents to research new experiences, and at night they return to roost and share their knowledge.

Welcome to the early twenty-first century, human.

Manfred is dreaming of an alchemical marriage. She waits for him at the altar in a strapless black gown, the surgical instruments gleaming in her gloved hands. "This won’t hurt a bit," she explains as she adjusts the straps. "I only want your genome; the extended phenotype can wait until . . . later." Blood-red lips, licked: a kiss of steel, then she presents the income-tax bill. "You’re quite extraordinary, you know: with a thousand more like you, we could abolish the budget deficit, bring back the cold war, let the good times roll again."

There’s nothing accidental about this dream. As he experiences it, microelectrodes in his hypothalamus trigger sensitive neurons. Revulsion and shame flood him at the sight of her face, the sense of his vulnerability. Manfred’s metacortex, in order to facilitate his divorce, is trying to decondition his strange love. It has been working on him for weeks, now–but still he craves her whiplash touch, the humiliation of his wife’s control, the sense of helpless rage at her unpayable taxes, demanded with interest.

Aineko watches him from the pillow, purring continuously. Retractable claws knead the bedding, first one paw then the next. Aineko is full of the ancient feline wisdom she uploaded into him when mistress and master were exchanging data and bodily fluids. Aineko is more cat than robot these days. Aineko knows that Manfred is experiencing nameless neurasthenic agonies, but really doesn’t give a shit about that as long as the power supply is clean and there are no intruders.

Aineko curls up and joins Manfred in sleep, dreaming of laser-guided mice.

Manfred is jolted awake by the hotel room phone shrilling for attention.

"Hello?" he asks, fuzzily.

"Manfred Macx?" It’s a human voice, with a gravelly east-coast accent.

"Yeah?" Manfred struggles to sit up. His mouth feels like the inside of a tomb and his eyes don’t want to open.

"My name is Alan Glashwiecz, of Smoot, Sedgwick Associates. Am I correct in thinking that you are the Manfred Macx who is a director of a company called, uh, agalmic dot holdings dot root dot one eight four dot ninety-seven dot A-for-able dot B-baker dot five, incorporated?"

"Uh." Manfred blinks and rubs his eyes. "Hold on a moment." When the retinal patterns fade he pulls on his glasses and powers them up. "Just a second now." Browsers and menus ricochet through his sleep-laden eyes. "Can you repeat the company name?"

"Sure." Glashwiecz repeats himself patiently. He sounds as tired as Manfred feels.

"Um." Manfred finds it, floating three tiers down an elaborate object hierarchy. It’s flashing for attention. There’s a priority interrupt, an incoming lawsuit that hasn’t propagated up the inheritance tree yet. He prods at the object with a property browser. "I’m afraid I’m not a director of that company, Mr. Glashwiecz. I appear to be retained by it as a technical contractor with non-executive power, reporting to the president, but frankly this is the first time I’ve ever heard of this company. However, I can tell you who’s in charge if you want."

"Yes?" The attorney sounds almost interested. Manfred figures it out; the guy’s in New Jersey, it must be about three in the morning over there.

Malice–revenge for waking him up–sharpens Manfred’s voice. "The president of is root.184.97.201. The secretary is, and the chair is All the shares are owned by those companies in equal measure, and I can tell you that their regulations are written in Python. Have a nice day, now!" He thumps the bedside phone control and sits up, yawning, then pushes the do-not-disturb button before it can interrupt again. After a moment, he stands up and stretches, then heads to the bathroom to brush his teeth, comb his hair, and figure out where the lawsuit originated and how a human being managed to get tangled up in his web of robot companies.

While he’s having breakfast in the hotel restaurant, Manfred decides that he’s going to do something unusual for a change: he’s going to make himself temporarily rich. This is a change because Manfred’s normal profession is making other people rich. Manfred is an agalmic entrepreneur, a specialist in giving good ideas away for free to people who can do things with them. Manfred doesn’t believe in scarcity or zero-sum games or competition–his world is too fast and information-dense to accommodate primate hierarchy games. However, his current situation calls for him to do something radical: something like making himself a temporary billionaire so he can blow off his divorce settlement in an instant, an octopus escaping a predator by vanishing in a cloud of its own ink.

Pam is chasing him partially for ideological reasons–she wants to harness his powerhouse to the creaking bandwagon of her fedgov employers, an asset to the nation–but also because she feels that she owns him, and the last thing any self-respecting dom can tolerate is rejection by her slave. Pam is a born post-neoconservative, a member of the first generation to grow up after the close of the American century. Driven by the need to fix the decaying federal system before it collapses under a mound of Medicare bills and decaying infrastructure, she’s willing to use self-denial, entrapment, predatory mercantilism, dirty tricks, any tool that boosts the bottom line. She doesn’t understand Manfred, jetting around the world on free airline passes, making strangers rich, somehow never needing money. She can see his listing on the reputation servers, hovering around thirty points above IBM: all the metrics of integrity, effectiveness, and goodwill value him above even that most fundamentalist of open-source computer companies. And she knows he craves her through tough love, wants to give himself to her completely. So why is he running away?

The reason he’s running away is entirely more ordinary. Their unborn daughter, frozen in liquid nitrogen, is an unimplanted ninety-six-hour-old blastula. Pam’s brought into the whole Parents for Traditional Children parasite meme. PTC are germ-line recombination refuseniks: they refuse to have their children screened for fixable errors. If there’s one thing that Manfred really can’t cope with, it’s the idea that nature knows best–even though that isn’t really the point she’s making. One steaming fight too many and he kicked back, off to traveling fast and footloose, spinning off new ideas like a memetic dynamo and living on the largesse of the new paradigm. File for divorce on grounds of irreconcilable ideological differences. No more whiplash-and-leather sex.

Before he hits the TGV for Rome, Manfred takes time to visit a model airplane show: it’s a good place to be picked up by a CIA stringer, and besides, DIY spy drones are hot shit this decade. Add microtechnology, cameras, and neural networks to balsa-wood flyers and you’ve got the next generation of military stealth flyer. The gig is happening in a decaying edge-of-town supermarket that rents out its shop floor for events like this; its emptiness is a sign of the times, ubiquitous broadband and expensive gas. (The robotized warehouse next door is, in contrast, frenetically busy, packing parcels for home delivery. Whether they telecommute or herd in meatspace offices, people still need to eat.)

Today, the food hall is full of people. Eldritch ersatz insects buzz menacingly along the shining empty meat counters without fear of electrocution: big monitors unfurled above the deli display cabinets show a weird, jerky view of a three-dimensional nightmare, painted all the synthetic colors of radar. The feminine hygiene galley has been wheeled back to make room for a gigantic plastic-shrouded tampon five meters long and sixty centimeters in diameter–a microsat launcher and conference display, plonked here by the show’s sponsors in a transparent attempt to talent-spot the up-and-coming engineering geeks.

Manfred’s glasses zoom in and grab a particularly fetching Fokker triplane that buzzes at face height through the crowd: he pipes the image stream up to one of his web sites in real time. The Fokker pulls up in a tight Immelman turn beneath the dust-shrouded pneumatic cash tubes that line the ceiling, then picks up the trail of an F-104G. Cold War Luftwaffe and Great War Luftwaffe dart across the sky in an intricate game of tag. Manfred’s so busy tracking the warbirds that he nearly trips over the fat white tube’s launcher-erector.

"Eh, Manfred! More care, s’il vouz plait!"

He wipes the planes and glances round. "Do I know you?" he asks politely.

"Amsterdam, two years ago." The woman in the double-breasted suit raises an eyebrow at him and his social secretary remembers her for him, whispers in his ear.

"Annette, from, Arianespace marketing?" She nods and he focuses on her. Still dressing in the last-century retro mode that confused him the first time they met, she looks like a Kennedy-era secret service man: cropped bleached crew-cut like an angry albino hedgehog, pale blue contact lenses, black tie, narrow lapels. Her earrings are cameras, endlessly watching. "I remember. That cafe in Amsterdam. What brings you here?"

"Why–" her wave takes in the entirety of the show– "this talent show, of course." An elegant shrug and a wave at the orbit-capable tampon. "We’re hiring this year. If we re-enter the launcher market, we must employ only the best. Amateurs, not time-servers, engineers who can match the very best Singapore can offer."

For the first time, Manfred notices the discreet corporate logo on the flanks of the booster. "You out-sourced your launch vehicle fabrication?"

Annette explains with forced casualness: "Hotels were more profitable, this past decade. The high-ups, they cannot be bothered with the rocketry, no? Things that go fast and explode, they are passé, they say. Diversify, they say. Until–" Her expression says it all. Manfred nods; her earrings are recording everything she says, due-dilligence monitoring.

"I’m glad to see Europe re-entering the launcher business," he says seriously. "It’s going to be very important when the nanosystems conformational replication business gets going for real. A major strategic asset to any corporate entity in the field; even a restaurant chain."

Her laugh sounds like glass bells chiming. "And yourself, mon cher? What brings you to the Confederacion? You must have a deal in mind."

"Well." It’s Manfred’s turn to shrug. "I was hoping to find a CIA agent, but there don’t seem to be any here today."

"That is not surprising," Annette says resentfully. "The CIA think the space industry, she is dead. Fools!" She continues for a minute, enumerating the many shortcomings of the Central Intelligence Agency with vigor and a distinctly Parisian rudeness. "They are become almost as bad as AP and Reuters since they go public," she finishes. "All these wire services! And they are, ah, stingy. The CIA does not understand that good news must be paid for at market rates if freelance stringers are to survive. They are to be laughed at. It is so easy to plant disinformation on them. . . ." By way of punctuation a remarkably maneuverable miniature ornithopter swoops around her head, does a double-backflip, and dives off in the direction of the liquor display.

An Iranian woman wearing a backless leather minidress and a nearly transparent scarf barges up and demands to know how much the micro-booster costs to buy; she is dissatisfied with Annette’s attempt to direct her to the manufacturer’s WAP site, and Annette looks distinctly flustered by the time the woman’s boyfriend–a dashing young air force pilot–shows up to escort her away. "Tourists," she mutters, before noticing Manfred, who is staring off into space with fingers twitching. "Manfred?"


"I have been on this shop floor for six hours, and my feet, they kill me." She takes hold of his left arm. "If I say to you I can write for the CIA wire service, will you take me to a restaurant and buy me dinner and tell me what it is you want to say?"

Welcome to the second decade of the twenty-first century; the second decade in human history when the intelligence of the environment has shown signs of rising to match human demand.

The news from around the world is distinctly depressing this evening. In Maine, guerrillas affiliated with Parents for Traditional Children announce they’ve planted logic bombs in pre-natal clinic gene scanners, making them give random false positives when checking for hereditary disorders: the damage so far is six abortions and fourteen class action lawsuits.

The International Convention on Performing Rights is holding a third round of crisis talks in an attempt to stave off the final collapse of music licensing. On the one hand, hard-liners representing the Copyright Control Association of America are pressing for restrictions on duplicating the altered emotional states associated with specific media performances: as a demonstration that they mean business, two "software engineers" in California have been kneecapped, tarred, feathered, and left for dead under placards accusing them of reverse-engineering movie plot-lines using avatars of dead and out-of-copyright stars.

On the opposite side of the fence, the Association of Free Artists are demanding the right to perform music in public without a recording contract, and are denouncing the CCAA as being a tool of Mafiya apparachiks who have bought it from the moribund music industry in an attempt to go legit. FBI Director Leonid Kuibyshev responds by denying that the Mafiya is a significant presence in the United States.

A marginally intelligent email virus masquerading as an IRS audit has caused havoc throughout America, garnishing an estimated eighty billion dollars in confiscatory tax withholdings into a numbered Swiss bank account. A different email virus is busy hijacking people’s bank accounts, sending 10 percent of their assets to the previous victim and then mailing itself to everyone in the current mark’s address book: a self-propelled pyramid scheme in action. Oddly, nobody is complaining much. While the mess is being sorted out, business IT departments have gone to standby, awaiting an expected wave of mutant corporation tax demands.

Tipsters are warning of an impending readjustment in the over-inflated reputations market, following revelations that some u-media gurus have been hyped past all realistic levels of credibility, and the consequent damage to the junk bonds market in integrity.

The EC council of independent heads of state have denied plans for another attempt at eurofederalisme, at least until the economy rises out of its current slump. Three extinct species have been resurrected in the past month; unfortunately, endangered ones are now dying off at a rate of one a day. And a group of militant anti-frankenfood campaigners are being pursued by Interpol after they announced that they have spliced a metabolic pathway for cyanogenic glycosides into maize seedcorn destined for human-edible crops. No deaths as yet, but having to test breakfast cereal for cyanide is really going to dent consumer trust.

About the only people who’re doing well right now are the uploaded lobsters–and the crusties aren’t even remotely human.

Manfred and Annette eat on the top deck of the buffet car as their TGV barrels through a tunnel under the English Channel. Annette, it transpires, has been commuting daily from Paris; which was, in any case, Manfred’s next destination. From the show, he messaged Aineko to round up his baggage and meet him at Waterloo Station, in a terminal like the shell of a giant steel woodlouse. Annette left her space launcher in the supermarket overnight: an unfueled test article, it is of no security significance.

The railway buffet car is run by a Nepalese fast food franchise. "I sometimes wish for to stay on the train," Annette says as she waits for her mismas bhat. "Past Paris! Think. Settle back in your couchette, to awaken in Moscow and change onto the TGV. All the way to Vladivostok in two days." She reaches round her ears and removes her camera bugs, drops them in her breast pocket.

"If they let you through the border," Manfred mutters. Russia is one of those places that still requires passports and asks if you are now or ever have been an anti-anti-communist: it’s still trapped by its bloody-handed history. (Rewind the video stream to Stolypin and start out fresh.) Besides, they have enemies: white Russian oligarchs, protection racketeers in the intellectual property business. Psychotic relics of the failed experiment with Marxism-Objectivism. "Are you really a CIA stringer?"

Annette grins, her lips disconcertingly red: "I file dispatches from time to time. Nothing sensitive."

Manfred nods. "My wife has access to their unfiltered stream."

"Your–" Annette pauses. "She, I met? In De Wildemann’s?" She sees his expression. "Oh, my poor fool!" She raises her glass to him. "It is not, has not gone, well?"

Manfred sighs and raises a toast toward Annette. "You know your marriage is in a bad way when you send your spouse messages via the CIA, and she communicates using the IRS."

"In only two years." Annette winces. "You will pardon me for saying this–she did not look like your type?"

"I’m not sure what my type is," he says, truthfully. Sometimes he isn’t even sure he’s human any more; too many threads of his consciousness seem to live outside his head, reporting back whenever they find something interesting. Sometimes he feels like a puppet, and that frightens him because it’s one of the early warning signs of schizophrenia. Right now, the external threads of his consciousness are telling him that they like Annette, when she’s being herself instead of a cog in the meatspace ensemble of Arianespace management. "I want to be me. What do you want to be?"

She shrugs, as a waiter slides a plate in front of her. "I’m just a, a Parisian babe, no? An ingenue raised in the lilac age of le Confederacion Europée, the self-deconstructed ruins of the gilded European Union."

"Yeah, right." A plate appears in front of Manfred. "And I’m a good old micro-boomer from the MassPike corridor." He peels back a corner of the omelet topping and inspects the food underneath it. "Born in the sunset years of the American century." He pokes at one of the unidentifiable meaty lumps in the fried rice with his fork; it pokes right back. There’s a limit to how much his agents can tell him about her–European privacy laws are draconian by American standards–but he knows the essentials. Two parents who are still together, father a petty politician in some town council down in the vicinity of Toulouse. Went to the right école. The obligatory year spent bumming around the Confederacion at government expense, learning how other people live–a new kind of empire building, in place of the last century’s conscription and jackboot walkabout. No weblog or personal site that his agents can find. She joined Arianespace right out of the polytechnique and has been management track ever since: Korou, Manhattan Island, Paris. "You’ve never been married, I take it."

She chuckles. "Time is too short! I am still young." She picks up a forkful of food, and adds quietly: "Besides, the government would insist on paying."

"Ah." Manfred tucks into his bowl thoughtfully. With the birthrate declining across Europe, the EC bureaucracy is worried; the old EU started subsidizing babies, a new generation of carers, a decade ago, and it still hasn’t dented the problem. All it’s done is alienated the brightest women of childbearing age. Soon they’ll have to look to the east for a solution, importing a new generation of citizens–unless the long-promised aging hacks prove workable.

"Do you have a hotel?" Annette asks suddenly.

"In Paris?" Manfred is startled: "Not yet."

"You must come home with me, then." She looks at him quizzically.

"I’m not sure I–" He catches her expression. "What is it?"

"Oh, nothing. My friend Henri, he says I take in strays too easily. But you are not stray. Besides, it is the Friday today. Come with me and I will file your press release for the Company to read. Tell me, do you dance? You look as if you need a wild week-ending, to help forget your troubles!"

Annette drives a steamroller seduction through Manfred’s ascetic plans for the weekend. He intended to find a hotel, file a press release, then spend some time researching the corporate funding structure of Parents for Traditional Children and the dimensionality of confidence variation on the reputation exchanges–before heading for Rome. Instead, Annette drags him back to her apartment, a large studio flat tucked away behind an alley in the Marais. She sits him at the breakfast bar while she tidies away his luggage, then makes him close his eyes and swallow two dubious-tasting capsules. Next, she pours them each a tall glass of freezing-cold Aquavit that tastes exactly like Polish rye bread. When they finish it she just about rips his clothes off. Manfred is startled to discover that he has a crowbar-stiff erection; since the last blazing row with Pamela he’d vaguely assumed he was no longer interested in sex. Instead, they end up naked on the sofa, surrounded by discarded clothing–Annette is very conservative, preferring the naked penetrative fuck of the last century to the more sophisticated fetishes of the present day.

Afterward, he’s even more surprised to discover that he’s still tumescent. "The capsules?" he asks.

She sprawls a well-muscled but thin thigh across him, then reaches down to grab his penis. Squeezes it. "Yes," she admits. "You need much special help, I think." Another squeeze. "Crystal meth and a traditional phosphodiesterase inhibitor." He grabs one of her small breasts, feeling very brutish and primitive. Naked. He’s not sure Pamela ever let him see her fully naked: she thought skin was more sexy when it was covered. Annette squeezes him again and he stiffens. "More!"

By the time they finish, he’s aching, and she shows him how to use the bidet. Everything is crystal clear and her touch is electrifying. While she showers, he sits on the toilet-seat lid and rants about Turing-completeness as an attribute of company law, about cellular automata and the blind knapsack problem, about his work on solving the Communist Central Planning problem using a network of interlocking unmanned companies. About the impending market adjustment in integrity, the sinister resurrection of the recording music industry, and the pressing need to dismantle Mars.

When she steps out of the shower, he tells her that he loves her; she kisses him and slides his glasses and earpieces off his head so that he’s really naked, sits on his lap, and fucks his brains out again, and whispers in his ear that she loves him and wants to be his manager. Then she leads him into her bedroom and tells him exactly what she wants him to wear, and she puts on her own clothes, and she gives him a mirror with some white powder on it to sniff. When she’s got him dolled up, they go out for a night of really serious clubbing, Annette in a tuxedo and Manfred in a blonde wig, red silk off-the-shoulder gown and high heels. Some time in the early hours, exhausted and resting his head on her shoulder during the last tango in a BDSM club in the rue Ste-Anne, he realizes that it really is possible to be in lust with someone other than Pamela.

Aineko wakes Manfred by repeatedly head-butting him above the left eye. He groans, and as he tries to open his eyes, he finds that his mouth tastes like a dead trout, his skin feels greasy with makeup, and his head is pounding. There’s a banging noise somewhere: Aineko meows urgently. He sits up, feeling unaccustomed silk underwear rubbing against incredibly sore skin–he’s fully dressed, just sprawled out on the sofa. Snores emanate from the bedroom; the banging is coming from the front door. Someone wants to come in. Shit. He rubs his head, stands up, and nearly falls flat on his face: he hasn’t even taken those ridiculous high heels off. How much did I drink last night? he wonders. His glasses are on the breakfast bar; he pulls them on and is besieged by an urgent flurry of ideas demanding attention. He straightens his wig, picks up his skirts, and trips across to the door with a sinking feeling. Luckily, his publicly traded reputation is strictly technical.

He unlocks the door. "Who is it?" he asks in English. By way of reply, somebody shoves the door in, hard. Manfred falls back against the wall, winded. His glasses stop working, sidelook displays filling with multi-colored static.

Two men charge in, identically dressed in jeans and leather jackets. They’re wearing gloves and occlusive face-masks, and one of them points a small and very menacing ID card at Manfred. A self-propelled gun hovers in the doorway, watching everything. "Where is he?"

"Who?" gasps Manfred, breathless and terrified.

"Macx." The other intruder steps into the living room quickly, pans around, ducks through the bathroom door. Aineko flops as limp as a dishrag in front of the sofa. The intruder checks out the bedroom: there’s a brief scream, cut off short.

"I don’t know–who?" Manfred is choking with fear.

The other intruder ducks out of the bedroom, waves a hand dismissively.

"We are sorry to have bothered you," the man with the card says stiffly. He replaces it in his jacket pocket. "If you should see Manfred Macx, tell him that the Copyright Control Association of America advises him to cease and desist from his attempt to assist music thieves and other degenerate mongrel second-hander enemies of objectivism. Reputations are only of use to those alive to own them! Goodbye."