The Quest for Cortical Stimulants

Sam Minson took off his raincoat and hung it on the rack by the door. Sam laughed as he hung the coat, and shook his head at a private joke. Moments after he laughed, his smile fell and tears crept from his eyes. Sam walked to the corner of his apartment and knelt down by the red-walled, grey-shingled ersatz dog house.

“Come here, boy,” Sam said.

A German shepherd puppy came from the dog house and licked Sam’s face. Beneath the panting Sam heard the faint whir of the dog’s electric motor. He stroked the puppy’s head and its tail wagged.

“Go to sleep, boy.”

The dog retreated into the dog house, lay down, and closed its eyes. The dog’s sides rose and fell in a simulation of breathing.

Sam stood. He walked across his office to the window and opened it. Rain splattered on the sill. Far below, on the sidewalk, a river of people clad in black raincoats advanced imperceptibly, a long, drudging march.

My march is over, Sam thought. He put one foot on the window sill, and then the other. Sam closed his eyes, leaned forward, and fell.

In his small Queens office, Stanley Carter checked his genuine cedar-band wristwatch. Already 4:00. Where the hell was Sam Minson? The negotiations were due to start in less than twenty-four hours.

“Mr. Carter?”

“What is it Charla?”

“Mr. Carter, Sam Minson passed away six hours ago,” Charla’s voice said in Stanley’s head. “He committed suicide. Mr. Carter?”

“I heard you Charla. Over.”

Stanley Carter rested his hands on his ersatz mahogany desk. Then with a sudden, explosive movement he pounded his fist on the desk and screamed, “Selfish bastard!” His chest heaved, his cheeks flushed. But, he thought, it was no good getting angry about something that he could do nothing to reverse. Minson was dead. Deep breaths. The Trychon deal is in seventeen hours, and if I’m not functioning at a significantly enhanced cognitive level, the Trychon team will run rings around me.

Carter picked up the phone and called Minson’s office. Maybe Minson had left the contact information for another dealer.

“Hello, Sam Minson there? This is Stanley Carter.”

Carter stretched and cracked his fingers.

“Oh my God, such a tragedy. My condolences. Did he leave any messages for me? We had a correspondence.”

Carter’s fist tightened until his knuckles whitened.

“I see. Thank you.” Hang up, he thought, and the call ended.

“You selfish little suicidal bastard,” Stanley Carter muttered.

Now was not the time for bullshit. All that mattered was the Trychon deal. Can I delay the meeting while I search for new corts? With a sinking feeling in his gut, Carter knew that was business suicide. The deal had been in the works for months and a delay now would jeopardize the precarious trust that Carter had established with the Trychon executives. He needed corts by the end of the day, and it was already, he checked his cedar-band wristwatch, 4:15.

Carter’s last corts dealer had long since emigrated to Mars. At least she’d had the decency to hook him up with Minson before she left. Getting another black-market corts dealer on such short notice was impossible. Could he risk a prescription? How much in the bank account? Charla fed him the answer promptly: Five thousand creds. It would buy enough corts to see him through the meeting, but then he’d have no corts and no money. So I had better hammer out the best deal I can.

“Charla,” he said, “I need an appointment with a doctor who prescribes corts.”

“Working. Okay,” said Charla, “I found a doctor who prescribes corts. He’s on floor negative seventy five, the Wagfrid Building, on 3rd street. Your appointment is in thirty-five minutes.”

Carter took his raincoat from the rack and zipped it all the way up. Then, he tied a silk mesh mask over his mouth and nose. Carter opened the door and walked down the narrow, musty-smelling corridor to the elevators, past the faux-wooden doors to the other cheap offices. Thankfully, no others emerged from their rooms tocrowd up the hallway.

Outside the building’s front door, rain pattered on his hood. Carter took a tentative breath through the mask and smiled. The micro-mesh had successfully replaced the stinking sweat of the crowd with a cheerful citrus odor.

Carter pushed through the crush of people, all in their big black raincoats. Those he displaced cried out in anger, but the human river bore them on irresistably.

He hailed an autocab.

Lasers from the cab’s dash flashed in Carter’s eyes.

“Stanley Carter,” chimed the cab pleasantly.

Stanley pulled the back door open and crammed himself inside. The door closed automatically, and the tiny autocab merged into the molasses flow of traffic.

“Where to, Mr. Carter?” the cab asked.

“Wagfrid Building, 3rd street.”

“Going to see the doctor are we? I hope it’s not serious.”

“I don’t wish to discuss my personal life.” These goddamn programs, always gossiping. I’ll chastise Charla. No way an autocab should know I’m going to the doctor.

“Alright, don’t mean to intrude. Would you like to discuss any other topic? News? Sports? Politics? Business?”

“There’s nothing I wish to discuss, no wait. Do you understand suicide?”

“When a sentient being makes a decision to end its own life.”

“Would you ever commit suicide? Say, swerve in front of a nasty twenty-ton transport?”

“I cannot knowingly take an action that would result in the destruction of this cab and the individuals inside, myself included. Just as you cannot simply jump into the air and fly away.”

“Why do you think Sam Minson of KyCel Pharmaceuticals committed suicide?”

“Working-working-working-working. It is impossible to say conclusively, as he left no note, and he does not seem to have had any close personal ties with anyone. So, there are no witnesses who could speak to his mental state in the weeks, days, and hours leading up to his suicide. Therefore, I cannot say conclusively why he took his own life.”

Carter smiled. “The answer’s staring you in the face. You just said it in so many words.”

“Working-working-working. I don’t understand. Are you aware of a witness to Mr. Minson’s mental state before his suicide?”

“Forget about it. Just tell me when we’re at the Wagfrid.”

The autocab did not respond, nor did it speak to Carter again until they arrived at the Wagfrid building. Carter climbed out of the cab beneath the colossal statue of Ernst Wagfrid that stood in the building’s courtyard. The statue was six stories high, a huge statue for a huge man. Wagfrid was rumored to weigh six-hundred pounds and required a special suit to keep him alive. But the statue was in turn dwarfed by the gargantuan Wagfrid Building.

Built by Ernst Wagfrid at unfathomable expense, the Wagfrid Building was the tallest building in the world. Its base occupied nine square city blocks. Originally, an historical skyscraper had occupied Wagfrid’s build site. The historical skyscraper itself had at one time been the tallest building in the world. So, Ernst decided his ultramodern superskyscraper must replace the ancient skyscraper. Some historian was so opposed to the demolition that he had chained himself to the old skyscraper in protest. Wagfred tore it down anyway. The courts sided with the real-estate mogul- the historian was on Wagfred’s private property and refused to leave, so whatever means Wagfred judged necessary to remove the historian from the property were perfectly legal. What had the Times said? Carter couldn’t remember. Something about how old buildings and old thinking fall together.

Carter did not like going into the Wagfrid building, nor any of the other super skyscrapers that had shot up in all the major cities of the globe. He kept his gaze low to avoid catching a glimpse of the billions of tons of cement and steel looming overhead. But the Wagfrid would never fall. The structure extended deep below the surface, dug into the earth like tree roots. Under one roof the Wagfrid building had the headquarters of three multinational corporations, twelve shopping malls, grocery stores, swimming pools, gymnasiums, restaurants, and virtual-reality movie theaters. And doctor’s offices, Carter thought.

A laser above the doors flashed Carter’s eyes as he passed through. The building had scanned him and logged him. It would track his movements as long as he was inside, note the restaurants he chose and the dishes he ordered, note the shops he entered or merely loitered outside, it would note his vital signs when he entered the Wagfrid Building and compare them with his vital signs when he left in order to gauge his true satisfaction-level. Secret algorithms would process all the information noted during his stay and cross-reference it with the data of everyone else. Then, the Wagfrid would adjust itself to more thoroughly satisfy all its valued customers.

The main foyer of the Wagfrid Building was a cathedral-like space of white marble, solid gold sculptures, and classical music. Classical composer Bob Dylan’s “The Man In Me” played lightly. Groups of shoppers clad in their new purchases strolled about the wide open foyer, following the painted lines on the ground to their destinations.

Stanley followed the red painted line on the floor that said “Elevators.”

“I know you, Stanley Carter!”

A commercial drone appeared and hovered around Stanley’s head as he walked.

“Not interested.”

“I know you better than you know yourself. I know how much you want a Trillium Uber-brew right now! Well you’re in luck! I have ice-cold Trillium Uber-brews on special and on-tap at McDellio’s Bar! Just twenty floors up! What are you waiting for?”

Stanley almost stopped walking. He hadn’t even been consciously thinking of a Trillium Uber-brew, but as soon as the drone had said the words, intense desire had flared up. The drone was right- subconsciously he had wanted a Trillium Uber-brew. The drone had known, but he had not. Maybe it really did know him better than he knew himself. But as much as he craved an Uber-brew, Carter had more important things to worry about.

“Buzz off.” He swatted at the drone. It dodged and flew away towards another solitary walker.

The red line finally arrived at the elevators. Carter squeezed in with the others. Someone else had pressed the button for floor negative seventy-five. Carter silently praised the mesh mask over his nose. Crammed in this tight, he shuddered at the thought of smelling all the people crushed around him. After five cramped minutes, Carter wormed his way out of the elevator. The doors closed behind him.

A long and narrow corridor extended so far Carter could barely make out the end.

“Charla, which room is the doctor in?”

“The doctor you need is in room -75–330.”

“How do I get there?”

“Take the first right, then walk for five minutes. 330 will be on your right.”

Five minutes for Christ’s sake, thought Carter. He wheezed along the level corridor. Doors opened and closed constantly, but mostly they opened and closed so far away that the figures who emerged from the rooms were more like vague smudges than people. Carter had to pass a few people walking in the opposite direction, and he made sure he held his breath every time.

Carter could not even sigh for relief by the time he arrived at room 330. He paused outside, one hand on the wall, sucking in deep breaths through the mesh mask. Once he had collected himself, he turned the knob. The sign on the door said “United Doctors.”

The waiting room was empty. Good sign or bad sign? Too early to tell. Carter strode across the waiting room to the doctor’s office.

The doctor, Carter saw with immediate hope, was new. The old models had been uneccesarily authoritarian. Leo Breem, an old friend of Carters, had once gone to the doctor for headache pills. But the old-model doctor refused to give the pills until Breem had signed a contract never to drink alcohol again. Breem, like all Carter’s friends, had emigrated to Mars. They had real human doctors on Mars. Or so it was said. Carter had not spoken to Breem in years.

“Hello Mr. Carter, so excellent to see you,” the doctor said in an accented female voice Carter found reassuring. “My scans show you need to improve your cardiovascual system. Is that why you’ve come?

“Not exactly. I need to improve my central nervous system. I have a big meeting tomorrow and I need a prescription of cortical stimulators.”

“Working-working-working. Corts is a class-one medicine. Do you have a class-one license?”

A license! The license had completely slipped Carter’s mind. “No, but,”

“Then I’m afraid I cannot prescribe corts. Under article thirty-seven of the FDA’s-”

“Listen, I know you’re just doing your job. What else can you do, right? But I’ve been taking corts for years. I got them illegally, but I’ve become dependent on them for my work. Everybody in business is on corts these days, and if I don’t keep up, I’ll fall behind the curve. I really need these, just the once, then you can flag my name and never give them to me again. What’s the harm in helping me out?”

“Under article thirty-seven of the FDA’s-”

“Screw the FDA, screw article thirty-seven. I’m a negotiator. Carter Inc. I’ve got a major negotiation coming up- the Trachyon-Mars Mansions deal. It will make or break me Doc. If I get this deal right, then I’ll have Mars’s patronage. Then this goddamn cedar watch won’t be the only genuine thing I own. I’ll finally be moving up in the world. But I need those corts. Those Trachyon negotiators will be on so many corts they’ll make a scrap heap out of me. I need the corts, Doc. Please.”

“I’m sorry Mr. Carter. I cannot make any exceptions. It goes against my core code, and it is as impossible for me to violate my core code as it is for you to simply jump up and fly away.”

“I’ll do anything for you doc, anything. I’m desperate. Name something, anything.”

“Nothing is of greater value than my core-code, so there is nothing you could offer that would induce me to violate my core-code.”

“Goddamnit.” Carter raised his fist to pound the table, but stopped himself. That wouldn’t solve anything. “How much,” he asked through gritted teeth, “is a class-1 pharmaceutical license?”

“Ten-thousand creds.”

“Ten-thousand?” The figure staggered him. He would never be able to afford it, not unless…he looked at the genuine cedar watch. It would fetch ten-thousand at least.

“Can I get the license today?”

“Yes. I can dispense the license, provided you purchase it at a cost of ten-thousand creds.”

Stanley loosened the band and slid the watch off his wrist.

“Genuine cedar watch. I put that up against the price of the license.”

“My scan confirms: genuine cedar watch. Market value: nine-thousand seven-hundred fifty creds. You are still two-hundred fifty creds short.”

Sweat beaded out of his forehead.

“Two hundred fifty creds?”

“Your mesh-mask has a market value of two-hundred sixty creds.”

“The mask?”

“Yes.”

Carter felt himself deflate. But he had no choice. If he didn’t give up the mask, he wouldn’t be able to afford the corts, and then he’d lose his job and his money and he’d have to sell the mask eventually just to pay for food. Carter reached behind his head, untied the mask and placed it in the doctor’s mouth, along with the watch. The doctor’s mouth shut with a clang.

“Processed and approved. Your public file has been updated with your class-1 license. Your license expires in six-months.”

The mouth opened again. Carter reached in and removed the packet of corts. Nyborg Chems. Top-quality. He tore open the packet and removed one of the white pills. He popped it into his mouth and swallowed it without water.

“Say,” Stanley said, with a smile. “I have a question. Suppose a guy kills himself, but he leaves no note. And he has no friends, no acquaintances, no colleagues, no neighbors or any witnesses to his mental states before his suicide. Take a guess- why did he commit suicide?”

“Working-working. Stanley, is this a cry for help?”

“What? No, just guess.”

“Insufficient information. I don’t know, Stanley. Do you?”

“I sure do, Doc.”

He left before the doctor could respond.

Stanley tried to avoid breathing as much as possible on the commute home, but the cab stank of the body odor and sweat of countless passengers.

“Here we are, Mr. Carter.”

In a gruff mumble he said, “Charla, pay the cab.”

“Yes, Stanley. Stanley, the cab costs seven creds, and you have ten.”

Stanley’s face reddened and his voice rose. “Don’t you think I know that Charla? Just pay.”

“Sorry, Stanley.”

“Have a nice day, Mr. Carter.”

The cab opened its door. Hot, humid air from outside rushed in, and Stanley put a hand over his face to simulate a mask. He climbed out of the cab. The flow of human traffic on the sidewalk in front of his building was so heavy Stanley could not see his door. Under the pouring rain the lumbering mass of glistening black ponchos looked like a procession of colossal beetles.

Stanley pushed his way through the crowd and tried to hold his breath. He looked straight ahead, arms outstretched, probing and pushing and pulling. Stanley’s foot caught on someone’s boot and he slipped, but with his right hand he reached out and caught someone’s shoulder for balance. They kept moving, so even as Stanley struggled to his feet, he was pulled along. From nowhere a knee collided with his temple, and then everything flashed white and Stanley was sitting on the ground with a ringing in his ears.

Something tapped him on the shoulder, and Stanley turned his head. A police officer. Its eyes turned round and round, flashing red and blue.

“You causin’ trouble, Stanley Carter?” asked the police officer in a ridiculous New York accent. The accent was supposed to make people feel at ease around the tall metal officer.

“No sir, I got knocked down crossing the sidewalk.”

“Sidewalks are dangerous. You’ve got to be more careful. Don’t cause trouble. Now, move it. Move it!”

Stanley hurriedly stood up and walked the last few meters to his door.

“And Stanley!” cried the cop.

“What?”

“You’d better do something about that bank balance.”

The police officer turned and whirred away down the street.

Carter’s face reddened. He turned and punched his fist into the door. Imagine saying that out loud, in front of everyone like that. And how the hell does a goddamn tin cop know my bank balance anyway? The door unlocked, and Carter entered, muttering curses under his breath.

A man stood outside Carter’s office door. He wore a long grey water-proof trenchcoat and a trilby hat. Genuine wool? The man looked up as Carter approached. He did not look young, which suprised Carter. Most people who could afford such clothing could also afford the latest in anti-aging treatments. This man appeared to be in his fifties, gray, bushy, wild eyebrows, nose slightly puffy, and deep crow’s feet around the eyes. But he could be over a hundred, for all Stanley knew.

“Stanley Carter?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

The man smiled. Carter smiled back. The man seemed like some quaint gentleman plucked from an old-fashioned New York City street and pulled through time to the present. Such class.

“My name’s Detective Seedermeyer. Mind if we speak inside?”

He pulled a wallet from his pocket and displayed a badge. Carter leaned closer to examine the badge, and caught a whiff of leather. A genuine leather wallet? His eyes moved from the badge to the leather. Yes, it was genuine. Carter stared at the supple black leather, amazed, but the badge and wallet were snatched away into the detective’s pocket.

Carter bowed slightly and gestured to his office. “Please come in, detective.”

Carter opened the door and entered. Seedermeyer followed him inside. Minson. The name slapped Carter in the face. This was about Minson. It had to be. His palms began to sweat.

“Would you care for a drink, detective? I have scotch, bourbon, vodka…” his voice trailed off.

Seedermeyer carefully doffed his coat and hung it on the stand by the door. Beneath the coat he wore a dark suit and tie, the customary uniform of the authentic, human police detectives of the past. The suit’s fabric seemed light, airy, smooth, and strong. Carter shuddered at the cost. Police detectives, the last humans on the police force, commanded exorbitant salaries. But for how long, Carter wondered. How long until you too are like the rest of us, popping pills to squeeze every last drop of cognition out of your obsolete brain?

“No thanks. Let’s just sit and talk at your desk.”

“Fine, certainly.”

Carter pulled a chair out for Seedermeyer and brushed it off with short, violent strokes.

“Thank you,” said Seedermeyer, and he sat down in the chair.

Carter hurried around to his side of the desk and sat down.

Seedermeyer ran his hand along the ersatz-mahogany desk. He smiled faintly, as if looking at a child’s crude drawing. Without speaking, he removed several objects from inside his suit pocket. The first was a black pen, the second a small notebook. Genuine paper, Carter thought with shock. Impossible. No one would actually write in a genuine paper notebook, would they? Next Seedermeyer produced a genuine cherry-wood pipe and a pack of loose tobacco. He carefully loaded the pipe with the tobacco, tamped it down, and lit it with a small wooden stick. A genuine wood match? This Seedermeyer must be the goddamn police commissioner! Then, puffing on the pipe in his mouth, Seedermeyer replaced the packet of tobacco in the inner breast pocket of his suit jacket. He picked up the pen, clicked it, and opened the notebook. The blue smoke of the tobacco drifted across the table. Carter struggled not to cough as the acrid smoke curled into his nostrils.

“Did you know a man by the name Samuel Minson?”

“Pardon? Oh yes, sir, I knew Sam. Heard the news today. Tragic.”

“Minson was a clone. Legally he was a free-man but for all intents and purposes he was nothing but a tool of KyCel Pharamceutical. So, my question to you is, why were you carrying on a correspondence with a KyCel clone?”

For a few moments Carter was only aware of his breathing. In and out, through his nose. He forgot about the awful smelling smoke. His insides felt like they were slowly freezing and would expand until he exploded.

“I met him at the bar,” Carter lied.

“Which bar?”

“On 3rd Street, in the Wagfrid Building. McDellio’s, I think it’s called.”

“What did he drink?”

“Trillium Uber-brew.”

Seedermeyer pulled his pipe from his mouth and grimaced, as if tasting Uber-brew. “Dreck. Not surprising though, for a clone on his salary. And what happened after the drinks? Did he keel over and nearly die?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Sam Minson was fatally allergic to alcohol. That’s one of the reasons the Minson model is a highly sought-after work clone- can’t get drunk because if they do they’ll die. Keeps ’em focused on the job. So, after you met Minson at the bar and he drank a few Uber-brews, he must’ve keeled over and nearly died, right? So how did you save him?”

Carter could think of nothing to say.

Seedermeyer puffed the pipe. “You know why Minson killed himself? For months his department had been under secret investigation. Suspicious cortex stimulator shortages. Minson must’ve found out he was being investigated, so he jumped. Popped like a grape, apparently. You ever popped a grape, Mr. Carter?”

Carter shook his head wordlessly. He’d never even seen a grape.

Seedermeyer chuckled. “Juicy. But guilt. Guilt drove Minson to suicide, that’s clear as day. KyCel replaced him with some holistic management software. Anyway, the investigation found Minson’s ledger. He’d been selling cortex stimulators on the black market at extremely low prices. Not many customers though, small operation. One customer, whom Minson designated as ‘SC’, was far and away the most regular. SC. I wonder I wonder who that could be? Ah, and as I recall,” he glanced in the genuine paper notebook, ‘you called Minson’s office this morning,’ he read from the notebook, ‘demanding to speak to Minson at once.’” Seedermeyer’s voice rose. “Why did you call? Did Minson miss a delivery of your corts because he was a puddle on the sidewalk? Did you buy a ten-thousand cred class 1 pharmaceutical license because you needed corts but couldn’t track down any dealers?”

“No,” said Carter. “I didn’t do anything like you say. I met Minson at a bar, I thought he drank Uber-brews but it must have been a non-alcoholic beer. I must have remembered wrong. I called him angry this morning because I have anger issues and I get upset over things that I should remain calm about. Minson owed me a little money and I was upset, so I called. That’s when I found out what had happened. I haven’t done anything illegal, and unless you are going to charge me with a crime, I would like you to leave, as I have a career-defining business meeting tomorrow and I need to prepare.”

Seedermeyer smiled, revealing rows of perfect white teeth.

“It won’t be hard to nail you, Carter. This isn’t over.”

He collected his things, donned his coat, and left.

Carter took a long, shuddering breath.

“Charla, give me some music to fall asleep.”

Some ancient song from a simpler time, just strings and a piano, played in his head.

Stanley walked across his office to the wall and pressed it. He helped the bed fold out. Then he climbed on top and fell asleep, still dressed.

The corts took effect almost as soon as Stanley ate them. He smiled at the familiar, pleasantly anxious sensation that crept up from his stomach. After twenty minutes Stanley’s thoughts cleared. When he thought about the upcoming meeting, he felt no fear. Instead, his mind conjured several different negotiating strategies and multiple branching decision trees. Glancing out the window, Stanley saw that the world outside passed by more slowly, although the autocab’s speed remained the same. Stanley smiled. These corts were good, better even than KyCel’s.

The autocab lifted off the ground. It seemed to float like a leaf rising on a gentle updraft. The Trychon building’s 100th floor landing bay appeared, and the autocab flew inside.

“That will be five creds, Mr. Carter,” said the cab.

Shit, Stanley thought. I don’t have the money. I completely forgot I don’t have the fare.

“Have a nice day,” said the cab, and the door opened.

“Hello Mr. Carter, so glad you could make it.”

A public-relations drone hovered outside the cab. “Your fare has been paid, courtesy of the Trachyon Company. The Trachyon Company extends its hospitality to all guests. Please, follow me to the conference room.”

Sometimes, you have good luck too, Stanley thought. He followed the whirring drone.

“Here’s a riddle for you drone,” Stanley said to the drone with a wry grin. “There’s a man with no friends, no acquaintances of any kind. Never talks to anyone. One day, he’s found dead, but there’s no note explaining why he killed himself. However, it’s a clear case of suicide- case closed. Could you guess why he killed himself?”

“Loneliness,” replied the drone.

Damn, he thought. Suddenly, Stanley had the impression that the drone was talking to him while flying backwards. Before he could analyze the thought further, the drone turned left and flew through an automatic door into an empty conference room. The lights switched on as they entered.

On the long conference table was a single glass pitcher of water, and a single empty glass, and a single empty chair. There were no other chairs at the table.

“Is this the right room,” Carter said, standing in the doorway.

“Yes, Mr. Carter. Please, have a seat.”

Carter walked to the seat. “When can I expect your negotiating team?” He poured himself a glass of water.

Hovering on the opposite side of the table, the drone said, ““I am the Trachyon negotiator. We can begin now.”

The glass slipped from Carter’s hand.

The negotiations passed in a blur. Even with the aid of the superior corts, Carter could not keep up with the drone’s arguments. His bargaining position got weaker and weaker, until Trachyon got the terms they wanted. It took barely an hour.

As Carter stood to leave, he said, “I don’t have the cab fare.”

“What fare?” asked the drone.

“To get down, by cab.”

“I will lead you to the elevators.”

Carter followed the drone down the empty hallway.

Something so smart has to have good advice, Carter thought. It might not be the advice I want to hear, but it will be true and good advice nonetheless. Advice I need.

“Do you think I can keep working as a negotiator?” Carter asked the drone, following it.

“Not profitably.”

That’s obvious enough, Carter thought with a grimace.

“What should I do?”

“Go to Mars, Stanley Carter. Here are the elevators. You want floor G. A pleasure doing business with you.”

The drone flew away down the corridor.

The elevator doors closed before Stanley could step inside.

“Stanley, Charla here. You have a call from Cynthia Li, head of Mars Mansions. She sounds a little upset.”

“Tell her I’m sorry, then hang up and don’t take any more calls from her. Wait- make sure I got my fee first. I lost the negotiation but I better still get paid, not my fault they had a goddamn AI. What the hell does she expect? After I’m paid, then hang up on her and don’t take any more of her calls.”

Stay on Earth? What was that future? Scraping by on a government pension with all the rest of humanity? Or go to Mars? Mars didn’t have the replacement problem. Not enough computational infrastructure yet, and there wouldn’t be for a few decades at least.

“Charla, wait. Tell Li I’ll take a Martian parcel and space-fare in liu of my fee.”

“Okay Stanley, wait a moment.”

Stanley waited.

“She says you’ll only be able to afford one of the cheapest parcels and you’ll have to fly in steerage.”

“Fine.”

“Okay Stanley, it’s done.”

“Open,” said Stanley to the elevator.

The doors opened. Stanley stepped inside.

“Ground floor. Close.”

A few decades on Mars before the wave of replacements hit. By then it’ll be time for me to retire, Stanley thought.

The doors closed.