Nera waited for Malka in the big outer living room of 534a.tower5.loverslump.frankfurt.de — Jörg's place. It had been six months since Nera was last here. Four months ago, she'd forced herself to stop watching and commenting.
She used to sleep in this room. Then it was spare, full of light from the big window, vintage Ikea daybeds and electric lamps and side tables. Jörg used to scavenge them, fill cracks in the pasteboard and pine with archaic wood-goo. Now a forest of columns of fungus blocked the light. They were as wide as trees, crimson and magenta and burnt-sienna. They smelled like sausage. Tomas must be growing them, beta-testing gene splices. It was the kind of thing he'd do.
Jörg was in the library — she'd checked, scanning the party before she arrived. He was talking to some guy named Sergei Balduri. Nera's services weren't offering many predictions about whether she'd like this Sergei. No weightings available for intellectual stimulation, stabilized admiration, social usefulness, practical alliance — nothing, except that they'd be good in bed together (with 89% compatibility — as hUBBUB summarized, "Run That Bunny Down!"). He was 45, three years older than Nera, rated in the 500s at Moody's and Snopes and in the 700s at hUBBUB. Nera only had a 453 at hUBBUB.
Anyway, she'd gestured that window closed. She didn't want to stand around in the middle of the party with a glazed expression, watching an ex-boyfriend in another room over in-eye. Instead she was standing around with a glazed expression trying to catch up on work. Colette had messaged her:
Sabine needs a breakdown on what the historical construction style is really going to mean for energy impact. It needs to be better than canned agent estimates, because Slow Growth and Big Frankfurt are trying to pull us into their bullshit ideological fight. Sabine has friends at the AutieGirls collective who can get us some custom-evolved estimates, but you know what they're like — they're going to have a million super-literal questions. Can you figure it out?
It was insane, in Nera's opinion, to be doing 1990s-style artisanal re-creationist construction — steel frame and drywall — three kilometers above ground. If they just printed bamboo and carbon thread out of compost like everyone else, the rest of the project might still get slagged for showboating, but at least their energy use wouldn't be over the top. But it wasn't Nera's decision. Nera was lucky to be involved at all.
She heard Malka's theme song before she saw her. Nera had Moody's Clamor service on audio, and its theme song for Malka was a peppy, sizzling cryohaka beat — up-to-the-minute, fun, powerful, a little out of Nera's league. Moody's had their relationship pretty well down, in other words. Nera closed her in-eye windows.
"Hey," Malka said. She was in a short-sleeved ocean t-shirt (rolling waves, blues and greens) and matte black slacks. It suited her.
"Hey babe," Nera said, maybe a little too cheerful. She wondered, for the nth time, what Malka's services played in Malka's ears for Nera's theme song.
A woman in a sparkly blue chador pushed between them, followed by an old white guy in a top hat. They were arguing in Bäyerish. When Nera focused on them, Clamor played something dark, ominous, and classical: they were trouble. They threaded through the fungus columns.
"So, that guy Jörg's talking to?" Malka said.
"Yeah?" Nera said. She wondered if she was blushing — it was apparently obvious to Malka that she'd be watching Jörg. Did all her commenters know, too?
"He works for money," Malka said.
"He what?" Nera felt a hint of queasy vertigo.
"I know, weird." Malka smiled. "Come on, let's go meet him." She winked, and her fingers flickered in the air. The green of an incoming flashed in the lower right corner of Nera's vision, and with a flick of her tongue she pulled Malka's message open: Come on, princess, let's get this over with. Malka meant seeing Jörg again.
Malka set off towards the library, and Nera followed. At the base of a deep purple column, a little blond boy stuffed strips of fungus into his mouth. He examined his hands while he chewed. For him, Clamor played turn-of-the-century pop: sweet and bouncy U.S.-Anglo music from Nera's parents' childhood. As her eyes lingered on him, her infospace started whispering: Torsten Hughes, 6 years old, born in Edinburgh, Scotland —
Nera looked away to shut it up, resisting the urge to google his parents. She took some fungus herself — soft and spongey, red as blood. It tasted like bratwurst, the texture of angel's-food cake.
They paused as a flock of nine- and ten-year-old kids pushed past them, chattering in Chinese, none of them Chinese: tongue-slaved to some server. There never used to be kids at these parties. But who knew where kids went or why, nowadays? When Nera was a kid, you knew where kids were during the day. They were in school. Or with their parents. Torsten Hughes's parents were probably across town at some other party. They probably had him on a kidcam. They probably just deputized whoever was dumb enough to stop and talk to him.
When Nera and Malka were teenagers, back in the tumult of '33, they'd helped remake the world, cheering each other on long before they ever met in person. They were commenters on each other's video streams, that year when everyone was phoning in earring footage of eviction standoffs, food riots, praise-ins, convoys, patentbreaking spontos. Later, when they'd finally met in person at Uni, they'd charged across the mensa to fall into each other's arms.
"Are you following Sven?" Malka asked, as Nera caught up.
"Sven from the old days? Sven who was in the Pie Squad?" The Pie Squad happyslapped statist politicians with cream pies, assassination-style, in '33-'36. Sven was a beauty, and Malka had been sleeping with him in Berlin, when her tribe unfirewalled the national surveillance network.
"Yeah, that Sven," Malka said. "He's fallen apart since then. He gets in fights, drinks, won't work, takes things uninvited — he's in the red, nobody will feed him but the kitchens, and the Security Committee is talking about calling a vote for deportation, gang work, or dosing him on moodies…"
"Oh shit," Nera said.
"Yeah," Malka said. "It's a mess. I was commenting for a while, rooting for him, asking him to shape up, but he's so bitter — now I'm really just watching for the trainwreck value. It's sad."
Through the kitchen: Schwarzwälders at the bar, Bavarians around the fridge, and Finns and Peruvians cooking something loudly at the grill. There was a purple flash at the corner of Nera's vision. Did she want to contribute some of her energy ration to the barbecue? No. She did not.
Why had Malka brought up Sven? Was it some kind of warning, about the limits of old loyalties? An uncomfortably high proportion of Nera's ratings hinged on Malka's yes-votes. That had gotten her accepted into Cambergerstrasse project. And if that would only go well, it ought to break her into the mid-500s, maybe beyond.
How was it Malka's life had kept growing after Uni, while Nera's stayed like a potted plant? At sixteen, they had both driven party shuttles, done megaphone duty, matchmaker, and groupie work with union shop stewards and farmhands, in the Work For Love campaign to keep German agribusiness from collapsing. Now, at 42, Malka was an industrial facilitator with an 803 on hUBBUB. When she posted about shortages, Frankfurt's entire ratings landscape shifted.
Nera had spent the last two decades mostly just partying, media-surfing, commenting on other people, and doing pick-up jobs pulled from the services — enough to keep her ratings out of the gutter. Couriering a package across town, stopping to help fix lunch at a buffet, visiting with some officially at-risk lonelies (work most people hated but Nera often didn't mind, so a big ratings win), getting babysitting-delegated, bit-part acting in flash dramas, gardening, or just hauling crap from place to place. That life was soothing: waking up at one party, spending the day drifting and doing whatever Frankfurt told her to do, whatever her services predicted would help her ratings (and assured others she could handle)… ending up at some other party and going to sleep in some comfortable nook — with or without some new friend vouched for by hUBBUB.
"Maximize joy," that was the old slogan of '33, the byword of the Free Society. Nera had thought that that was what she was doing.
When they entered the library, Clamor played Jörg's theme song — brassy, sexy, big-band Montevideo jazz. At two-meters-oh-five, Jörg towered over Sergei. He had shaved his skull except for a long blond queue, down to his hips. He was dressed in brown, a crisp new leather sleeveless vest — it must have come from a printer, too new to be vintage salvage, but it sure looked real — and leggings. On his hard, broad triceps there was a new lifebrand tattoo — the pyramid-eye of Illuminatus, above the steaming spoon of De Gustibus and the bicycle of Ergo. He was keeping up three lifebrands! With that and neighborhood stuff and leading the rez committee for this floor of tower5, he must be clocking thirty contrib hours a week. He had to be in the 1100s by now.
Her hands were stained red from the stupid sausage mushroom.
Jörg's eyes widened. "Nera!" His broad face spread into a grin, a cascade of wrinkles. He saw her hands. "So what do you think of Tomas's garden?"
"It stinks," she said. "I'm going to smell like wurst for a week." She turned her attention decidedly to Sergei. Bristling eyebrows, dark eyes, a strong nose plummeting straight from a raised bridge — a Dravidian-Slavic mix. His hair was a black ear-length mop, his shirt flowing blue silk opening to show the softness of his throat. Maybe she should run that bunny down. No predictions from Clamor, though, so no audio. When she focussed on Sergei, all she heard was the party around her.
Malka and Sergei kissed cheeks. "Nera wanted to meet the guy who works for money," she said.
"Oh, thanks, nice wingman work there, Malka," Nera said, mock-outraged. "Make me look like a total banker." Jörg and Malka simultaneously strangled a laugh. "What? Oh —"
Sergei inclined his head in a gracious nod and smiled. "You have gotten it in one."
"I didn't mean it like — you're a banker?" Nera sent an urgent message to her mouth to stop talking, but apparently it had to go by carrier pigeon. "Literally? Is that even legal?"
"Oh Nera, come on," Malka said, laughing. "Do you read anyone's page before you meet them?"
"It's definitely legal," Jörg said, "Outlawing money exchange would lead to even more extreme distortions in our metrics than we've got." His fingers flicked, his eyes briefly on a point above her head, and more incoming green pinged at the corner of her vision, but she wasn't going to read his goddamn footnotes in the middle of the party. "The Free Society doesn't compete on force or fiat, it outperforms on joy. Wherever there's a reversion to the money economy, that's a signal of a deficit of either trust, satisfaction ability, or information flow. It's better to let that signal manifest rather than –"
"All right, all right," Malka said, patting Jörg on the shoulder. Jörg smiled his goofy grin.
Startlingly — though his theme song blared out pulse-warming and strong, and though he still had the fine glint of gold stubble on his chin, and smelled as good as ever — Jörg was a bore. Maybe it was because of the Cambergerstrasse project. Now that she finally had a hold on something solid, Nera didn't feel intimidated by Jörg's footnotes anymore, or jelly-kneed with longing. It was like a tight band around her chest had been loosened, and she could breathe.
She grinned, and turned to Sergei. "What do you even buy with money any more?"
"Are you kidding?" Sergei smiled. He cupped his hands, enclosing a swarm of mites. They glinted, swift and metallic; in the darkness, you could see tiny flares of laser communications. "These need gallium, tantalum, rubidium… delicate nano components you can only make in orbit…" He opened his hands, and the mites wisped away. "Nobody mines rubidium in the Sudan just to impress their friends or make a lifebrand quota. Right? China doesn't send up taikonauts to low orbit to get a good rating at hUBBUB…"
"I thought the metals could be salvaged out of old gear," Nera said, shocked.
"Oh no," Jörg said. "Not enough of them, not for years. Probably every pre-2030 laptop and cell phone in Europe outside of deep landfill has been recycled by now, but we're way past that point, and back to extraction. There's a robust debate in the import-export committee wiki…" More little green footnotes, flashing like the mites' lasers.
"Always need more mites," Malka said drily. "How else are we going to be sure not to miss any neighbor picking her nose…"
Nera felt the queasiness return. How had she not known this? What the hell had they had a revolution for anyway, if they were all living on the backs of wage-slaves in Africa again? Should she say that? As she hesitated, she saw the brass flash of a neutral comment in the corner of her vision. People were following this conversation; she should be careful. Nera didn't have many regular followers, and most of them were friendly mutuals, plus some contextuals (who usually were more interested in Jörg or Malka or others of her buzzier friends), and a few tourists from overseas who'd picked her at random. But there were always the inevitable drive-bys when she did something truly bloat. Her savvy rating wasn't the best anyway; all she needed was a spike in buzz on a collapse in savvy.
"Did you two see that Nera's a signer on a construction request-for-comment?" Malka asked. Nera couldn't tell if she was being supportive — trying to help Nera land Sergei in the sack — or catty, or just maneuvering off the topic of Sergei's job before Nera put her foot in it.
"Oh yeah?" Jörg said, his eyes twinkling. He honestly had no idea. These last four thrilling months, she'd been planning, facilitating, consensus-building, detail-checking — things she'd done in '33, things she'd forgotten she missed. Clearly, Jörg hadn't paid any attention. She'd had to force herself to stop following him — it had never occurred to him to follow her.
Sergei's eyes had the telltale drift-to-the-right of someone googling something. "You're building a music space on the 300th, on Cambergerstrasse…"
"Well, I'm a minor player," Nera said. "The big wheel is Sabine Heuspross, the music historian? She's a major scholar in late-twentieth-century U.S. alternative music. Originally we wanted to do it specialized on Washington, DC punk, late 1980s? But we got major flak from the Niederrad punks –"
"Oh right." Jörg nodded. "You don't want to tangle with them." It was unbelievable — all this time, she'd imagined him forced to see her in a new light, not just as this bubblehead drifter who'd wandered in at a party one night and stayed to warm his bed. She'd imagined the loverslump crowd talking about her. She'd imagined Jörg's fanboy commenters teasing him, giving him credit for her transformation: "Jörg can't even sleep with bubbleheads without turning them into prosocial contributors! Our brother over here ejaculates impulsiveness suppressants!"
"Yeah?" asked Sergei. "A lot of clout?I don't really follow re-creationists…"
"They're not exactly re-creationists," Jörg said.
"Yeah, that's the problem!" Malka said. "Punk is like a religion in Niederrad. They're the authentic inheritors of the true flame, they don't need any academic poseurs butting in…"
"So… we switched to Seattle grunge," Nera said. "Same general period, less contentious. There's an academy for original grunge ensembles and karaokists in Stuttgart, but all we've got are re-enactors up here. I mean, so far. If we get approved — it ought to change."
"The 300th, though? Isn't it a little high up for a performance space?" Sergei said. "That's quite a climb…"
"Especially for hauling steel girders," Malka said, pursing her lips.
"It's big, too," Jörg said. He stroked a hand in the air, scrolling through the plans.
"It's not all performance space, it's also party and squat," Nera said. She saw a flutter of brown flashes, three negative comments in a row, in the corner of her vision.
"Wow," Sergei said. "Are you guys going to reserve it to live in yourselves at all, or is it going straight to general squatright?"
"We don't know yet," Nera said. She felt her chest tighten again. It would be so good to live there with the project group! But they'd been accumulating disses — not that many people cared about 20th century music, and everyone cared about energy and airspace.
Malka looked sour. Maybe she regretted bringing the topic up. "What do you think?" she asked Jörg.
Jörg nodded. "It's good, it's good. People should take risks. Good to see you stretching, Nera."
Nera felt a stab of anger. She slid open a message tray with her tongue and fingered a message to Malka: Porky jesus, he's patronizing!
Malka shrugged, looked away. "Back to the banker thing, Sergei," she said, "since Nera did bring it up. I get why you work with money — it still makes a lot of the world go round. You take Frankfurt's various exports and patents and Swiss bank accounts and whatever, and buy us whatever we can't make here. I get that, and I get why it would be a high-rep job; we need it, and most people would find it boring. But you told me you worked for money — not just with money." She crossed her arms beneath her breasts, where her top shimmered electric blue. "Why?"
Sergei smiled the long-lipped, eyebrow-cocked smile of someone who is amused in advance at the reaction they're about to get. "I like money," he said.
"What, you mean, like, physical money?" Malka said. "Like you collect coins and bills? That's cool, I guess."
"No," Sergei said. "I mean I like money. I like exchange. Abstracted exchange. Simplicity. You give me something, I give you something. We're quits. You don't have to decide what kind of person I am, if you like me, how distant I am from you in social space. We could be masked strangers in a privacy zone. You want something from me, you give me money. I don't care who you are. I don't care what you want it for."
Comments were flashing in, but Nera didn't stop to read them. Queasy, she thought of the hunch of her father's shoulders in his starched white uniform and red tie, behind the florist counter at the supermarket. She recalled the burn of tear gas at the back of her throat, the sound of shattering windows.
Jörg looked like he was the proud owner of a performing dog; Malka, like she was equally disgusted and turned on. Or maybe a little more turned on.
"Huh," Malka said. "'Masked strangers in a privacy zone'…? You know the 'raw swingers'? They hook up with strangers for sex with their services totally turned off. No peeking at comments or reviews or social map — so they have no idea if it's going to be a total nightmare, right? That's the point, I guess, part of the thrill. They've got this whole thing about how it's so much better when it does work, because of the risk and the authenticity and whatever. So are you saying this is like that, Sergei? You do stuff just for a marker of hoarded value… you don't even know why. You don't know what the effect of your actions are, what you're contributing towards, or what people will say…"
"Pink Floyd: Money." Credit: jah~ off n on
"All you know is you want the money," Nera said.
Malka nodded. "Pure greed, no connections, heedless of consequences. That's it? It's a kink? Like a… sick thrill?"
Sergei laughed. To his credit, he looked a little discomfited. "I guess you could look at it like that."
"Oh, don't underplay it," Jörg said. "Sergei — you've written about this. It's a philosophy." Nera glanced at him, and she recognized his expression. A year ago she would have called it an eager openness — his fascination with the unending variety of people and ideas Frankfurt's flow brought bobbing to his door. But she'd been in his collection of flotsam. Drifter Nera, banker Sergei, autie-genius Tomas, the Finns and Peruvians grilling in the kitchen; they all ended up part of Jörg's menagerie, and by means of them all, he somehow ended up rating as a life-artist instead of a pompous, lecturing do-gooder.
"Well," said Sergei. "Okay. I think it's more than just kinky." He glanced sidelong at Malka. "Money is… clean. It severs connections. That's not always a bad thing. You say you know what the effect of your actions are. But you don't really know — you don't trace them all in detail. You don't have time. You just go with the consensus. With fashion."
"Sure, sure, ratings and fashion are all we have," Malka said. "That's not a new argument or anything, and we are all concerned, I'm sure, with the plight of the low-rated. Nera has done quite a bit of visiting with at-risk lonelies, did you know that? But money seems like a weird solution to that problem, doesn't it?"
"No," he said, and there was a little bit of a quiver in his voice that made Nera wonder what history it pointed to, "no, it doesn't. With money, poverty is empty of meaning. It's not a judgement on your life and works. It doesn't mean no one likes you, that you're obnoxious or boring. If you're poor in a money economy, you know what you need to do: make money. It's not as… wounding."
"That's stupid," Nera said. Jörg and Malka turned to look at her, eyebrows raised — her voice was too loud, too harsh. Her heart was beating fast. "It's dead easy to get your ratings up when they fall. Your services tell you how."
"Your services tell you how," Sergei retorted. "You have skills, you're charming. You're rated as trustworthy. People want you to babysit their kids. Carry their packages. Cook their food. It's not that easy for everyone."
"Well I don't understand what you're saying," Nera said, flushing. "If people, or the networks, don't trust someone to watch kids or cook food — well, there's probably a good fucking reason for that then! There are other things they can do instead that are contributive. This is ridiculous. You want to return to a world where you can — I don't know, push people off bridges and as long as you can steal some jewelry and convert it into cash, you get to have everything you want?"
"I don't think that's quite what Sergei means," Jörg said. The zookeeper interposing himself between two fighting animals.
"I'm not saying we should go back to just having money," Sergei said, smiling uncertainty. "Not only. But it's — freeing. It's like — maybe sometimes you don't need to know what something's for. You don't always need to be beholden to people, to have all these tribes and affiliations. All these people arguing about what to do, imposing on you. Don't you get tired of the politics? Of being second-guessed, of… positioning everything? Maybe it's just that I've travelled quite a bit, and the world beyond Frankfurt and the Free Society Zone is different. Not maybe better, but… yeah, freer, in some ways. In China and the 'Stans, you know…"
"Yeah, I know," Nera said, "you can get baby hookers there with your precious money, and plenty of privacy."
There was a beat. Sergei's smile vanished. Jörg lost his patronizing zookeeper look.
Malka looked as if she'd bitten into something rotten. "Nera, cool it. That's an awful thing to say."
"Well, how do you know?" Nera said, her blood pounding in her ears. "How do you know what he does with his freedom, with his rubidium, out there where people have to work or die…" A flurry of brown flashes in the corner of her vision. The vultures descending on her comment space. Then a few gold, positive comments.
"He's doing all that for Frankfurt — " Malka said.
"Fuck that," Nera said.
Sergei raised his eyebrows, tried a smile. Malka and Jörg exchanged a glance. Their fingers twitched. Discussing what to do with problem Nera.
Her ears burned. Fine. She'd lost her cool.
She was quivering with anger, and she couldn't open her jaw to say hey, I'm sorry, I know you don't mean it like that, I've had a bad day. The comments were splotching into her vision like shit bombs. But she couldn't open her mouth.
The cryohaka beat hissed and rumbled, repetitive, slick, and meaningless. Malka put her hand on Sergei's shoulder.
Nera turned and walked away.
Credit: David D. Muir
Nera's dad was a florist. Her mom was a pharmacist, who moved up to managing process architecture generation for a chain of drugstores. They'd immigrated as kids, from the Balkans, to a rich, safe, First World, EU country: Germany. For their parents — Nera's grandparents — Germany was a hard and lonely heaven. Long hours, disapproving looks from the neighbors, the officious and unmusical language, refugee paperwork. But safe. No snipers on the rooftops, no land mines in the soil. Computers in every house, fresh fruit from South America and New Zealand in the shop on the corner. Fitness clubs and GPS cell phones, and softly humming BMWs in the streets.
Nera's father used to tell her about their summer trips back to the Balkans: fields of sunflowers, dappled forests, bomb craters from the last century, villages of half-built houses. Parties long into the night, rich homemade food and aunts fussing over you. But he never took Nera back there.
He worked long hours. Her mother, once Nera was in school, worked even longer hours. Nera's prototypical memory of her: hunched over a tablet, late at night, in a curvy, designer orange leather chair by the front parlor window.
Her father, at least, had the flowers, which you could touch and smell, and the customers, who were sometimes — rarely — enthralled by the flowers' beauty. But those were brief moments in a day filled with sneers; with bitching coworkers and an angry, disapproving boss. His German was perfect, he was punctual and polite, he cheered the Frankfurter Fussballclub and drank Hefeweizen. But they acted as if he didn't understand, couldn't think, and didn't belong. He kept arriving every day to cut and bundle and ring up flowers, through an ulcer and graying hair and a permanent, heartbreaking, conciliatory flinch-smile. Because it was his job.
Nera's mother was more assertive, slicker, better at claiming her place in Germany. She rose through the ranks. She was rewarded with weekends shuffling numbers, running simulations, and playing office politics over instant messaging. She was proud of her work. She was glad when she could prove that her candidate process had evolved better than her rivals'. It was all ephemeral. At best, it meant a few more shoppers loaded a few more plastic tubes and bottles of chemicals into their shopping carts in a few more narrow, fluorescent-lighted aisles. She gave her life over to that.
That, and money, and a place in the system promised by the state. The state would educate their child. It would care for them when they were sick, when they were old. If they could not find work, it would feed and clothe them for a while, while they looked for work. The state would defend them from violence. It would protect from theft all the things they acquired: the tablet computers and phones and leather chairs, the shapely anodized aluminum pans hanging above the induction stove in their beautiful open-plan kitchen/living room. In exchange for these protections, they would feed the state with taxes. And for food, for electricity, for clothes, for videos, for the internet, for rented cars and ice skates and piano lessons, they would feed the market a constant stream of money.
It was a bargain. We will give you our lives; we will spend our lives obediently doing things we wouldn't choose, things that probably do not really matter to anyone. And in return we will get money. And money will take care of us.
The United States of America defaulted on its debt in 2026, destroying the dollar. The Euro Zone bet on propping up its banks the following year, and lost its bet. Martial law kept the shaken house in order another year, until the pandemics hit, and the soldiers fled the cities. Nera was ten the hungry year that super-resistant TB and goose flu kept everyone home. She was already on Tribes then. She already had people around the world and around the block who she could count on for help even if they'd never met, even though it was all guesswork and the crudest of relational metrics on Tribes, not predictive at all. Her parents, who had never made the transition from Facebook and LinkedIn, did not understand why strangers were dropping off food.
Nera's parents knew that the state had betrayed them. They knew that their savings had vanished, that the promises of health care and support in old age had turned out to be lies. They never understood that the market had betrayed them as well. Even though their money had stopped being worth anything, they kept looking for a money that would be worth something: yuan, or Swiss francs, or real solid gold, or the virtual-gold currencies of fantasy games which briefly, perversely, served as the world's lingua-franca medium of exchange.
They never understood what their grandparents had known: that the only thing you could trust was people.
They didn't understand why Nera was in the streets in '33.
They died looking for jobs and money, trying to find a way back, trying to find someone to sell their lives to.
"Protest March in Frankfurt." Credit: Andreas Helke
Flashes of brown, brown, brass, brown. One last consoling flash of gold.
Back in the kitchen, dry-mouthed, Nera forced herself to send an answer: I'm sorry, I just needed to get away from that bullshit banker.
Malka's response was a long time coming. Nera pulled open a window and watched the three of them. Jörg leaned towards Sergei, laughed his abrupt booming laugh. Sergei smiled. Malka stood a little stiff, but intent, listening, her hands twitching. Clamor had a theme song now for Sergei — harsh, almost atonal, like grunge guitars playing Schönberg. Apparently she'd given it enough data, now, to figure her and Sergei out.
Finally, among the brown flashes, Malka's green:
Nera, I'm really sorry. I'm pulling my support on reliability and trust. I care about you, but you keep doing things like this — attacking poor Sergei, who's doing important work… wallowing in glory from the good old days… risking my rep on Sabine Heuspross's ego-splurge. It's ridiculous. I liked it better when you were just drifting. Let's not talk for a while.
On hUBBUB, Nera's aggregate rating was now 358.
In her queue: messages from drive-by ratings advisors, attracted by her sharp plunge. They'd have suggestions for her; probably they'd want her to shift her friendships around, invest in relationships with other narrow-minded ideological assholes like herself. That would improve her numbers. Also in her queue: a lot of private messages from friends worried about her behavior, and a couple of random gig offers. She scrolled to the gold comments in her comment stream. They were from drunk losers who liked the idea of baby hookers, or conspiracy-theory ravings from incoherent, bitter old Thirty-three'ers.
Incoming, from Colette:
Um, Nera, I don't know how to say this so I'll just say it. We all know it's really important to keep ratings up when the project's in such a risky place. It doesn't really cohere for us, to have RFC signers who are under 400 at hUBBUB. I'm sorry, I know it's a pile-on, but it's really best if you take a break. You've done good work and we'll still vouch for that. Maybe later when things are more stable, you can get involved again. I'll find someone else to talk to the Autie Girls. Really sorry.
She checked hUBBUB again: still 358, and for a few crazy seconds she thought that getting booted from the Cambergerstrasse team would have no effect — maybe people hated the project that much? But it was just lag. Soon she was down to 302 on hUBBUB, 288 on Moody's, 268 on Snopes.
Tears stung in her eyes, so that the crisp in-eye windows were overlaid on a a blurry world. She rubbed her eyes, angry. Now the Schadenfreude voyeurs who got off on watching the tragic, weeping de-rated would swarm.
She scrolled to the last gold comment in her comment stream.
I read what you said on a kidfilter so maybe I don't understand it all. But I agree with you. Money was dumb. People shouldn't be able to make other people play with them just because they have points in that kind of game. I'm asking my parents to delegate you. I'm in the fungus room if you want to play.
Sure enough, one of the gig offers was a babysitting offer from Torsten's parents.
Credit: Toban Black
"Hi Torsten," she said brightly, squatting down. "What do you want to play?"
He was slouched against a fungus pillar, his eyes blank, whole body twitching — shoulders, chin, elbows jerking — playing some in-eye game. He blinked, his vision cleared, and he looked at her cautiously. His cheeks were stained red from sausage mushroom.
She wiped her palms on her knees. There was a kid's version of Clamor, he could probably hear that she was less trustworthy than before. "We could play tag, or I could tell you a story…"
"Are you really sad?" he said. "I'd be sad if that happened to me."
She blinked. He was looking at her as if he was wondering if she was about to lose it. Should she shrug it off, reassure him? Who wanted a sad babysitter?
But they used to say, in the revolution: we take our allies where we find them.
"Yeah," she said. "I'm sad."
Torsten stood up. "Why did they do that? Weren't they your friends?"
She shrugged. "I said some dumb things."
He frowned, and nodded. A grim expression. She remembered her mother, looking up from the orange leather chair when Nera wanted to play, smiling falsely, returning to her tablet. "Nera, I have to work." She remembered knowing that that was what adult life was like.
Any ratings consultant would tell her she needed to sound apologetic now, not defiant, or she was going to get de-rated further.
But she could see Torsten bracing himself to live in this world they'd made.
"What happened to me, Torsten… it wasn't okay," she said. "My friends made a mistake. Your friends should stick by you always."
Torsten looked up and grinned. He looked enormously relieved. He reached out and took her hand. "I'm hungry," he said.
"You've been eating the mushrooms though," she said.
"They're kind of yucky."
"I know a yummy soup place straight up from here, if you can climb."
Torsten puffed his chest out. "I can climb great."
She smiled. His small hand folded in hers, warm and confident. "Let's go play," she said.