“Is this your first trip to the city?”
Chloe turned. The man who had entered the darkened room was an almost ridiculously apt embodiment of “tall, dark, and handsome.” He was at least six-three, solidly built with a powerful jaw, and deeply tanned, almost Mediterranean skin. His hair was very brown, not quite black, combed neatly across a head beset with surprisingly soft brown eyes. He was younger than Chloe had suspected, given his position in the Six, but these days people simply seemed to look younger longer. Either it was something in the air, or the rumors about nanobots that could repair tissue (in those who could afford them) were true. Gossip sheets said Parker Barnes had been born before the turn of the millennium, but he looked mid-forties, tops — a trim, well-maintained mid-forties at that.
“No. I grew up here.”
“How old are you? You don’t look old enough to have ‘grown up’ anywhere other than where you live now.”
Chloe tried a sly smile, knowing it was important to play the part rather than just looking it.
“Never ask a girl her age.”
Barnes smirked, then sat in a black leather seat behind a slim table in the room’s center. The table was black and made of something synthetic — probably Plasteel — and looked nothing like a conference room desk, a meeting desk, or anything else. It was barely two feet across and looked more like a long espresso bar than anything else.
Barnes tapped the desk’s surface and Chloe’s resume came up. Only, it wasn’t precisely a resume. A resume was something you created yourself to fool people. The form Barnes was looking at had been added to by Chloe, but its hard data had come directly from whatever information source O had that the rest of the world didn’t. Everyone had access to Crossbrace, of course — but O, it seemed, had some sort of next-level access. If you were going to become the NAU’s biggest sex company, it helped to have the advantage of knowing exactly what your customers wanted.
“Twenty,” said Barnes. He looked up. “That’s younger than what we normally hire for these positions.”
“When did you lose your virginity?”
Chloe blushed. That wasn’t good. She was asking this man to hire her into one of the most prestigious sex jobs in existence — the kind of job that could make girls world famous, command exorbitant engagement fees if they shifted to Enterprise instead of staying Directorate, and launch large popular careers in music and entertainment if they had talent — and the one thing a high-class resort girl couldn’t be was shy.
“I could look it up, you know,” Barnes said, smiling slightly, holding his finger above the table’s Crossbrace-enabled surface. The room’s somber, temple-like feel made his playful look seem out of place. The lights were low, banked in a ring fifteen feet or so above their heads, and cast a muted, grayish hue. The walls were a dark gray as well, steel smooth. Five feet above the lights, girls writhed on glass-bottomed tables, more scenery than anything.
“I was nineteen.”
They seemed to know Chloe’s sexual history beyond her work as a glass table girl at O’s island resort’s lower tier. There were rumbles that Crossbrace’s imminent successor — the so-called “Beam” network — would take data-gathering to new levels while enhancing immersion and connectivity for its users. O probably had a leg up on Beam access, too.
“So you’ve only been sexually active for a year.”
“Almost two,” said Chloe, a tad defensively. “It was right after I turned nineteen. I’m nearly 21 now.”
Barnes nodded, unreadable. Chloe stood with her arms in front of her narrow waist, blue-green eyes turning toward the floor as if dragged there, long, dark brown hair billowing in her peripheral vision. Barnes, in his expensive gray suit and red band tie, was watching her with something like amusement, in the neighborhood of playful condescension — an amused look that said he knew she was in over her head but was willing to play along.
“Chloe,” he said.
Chloe looked up.
Barnes set his foot on a chair opposite him and gave a small shove. The chair scooted two feet from the table. “Have a seat.”
Chloe exhaled, then sat.
She’d been to the city before, yes. But it had been 10 years since Chloe had left District Zero and the protective North American Union lattice on a mecca to the first of her vacation island homes with her mother. The island lattices were much smaller and more vulnerable (not much more than shields, really), and being back under the main lattice made Chloe feel like she was back in the womb, safe with the world’s only stable government and the place every barbarian in the Wild East wanted to invade and loot. They’d never be able — not even if they could marshal their decimated resources enough to amass an army — but that didn’t change their desire. And Chloe wasn’t just in DZ, she was at O’s headquarters, the company that had employed her mother for two decades and Chloe for nearly a year.
She wasn’t interviewing for a table girl job. If Chloe got the job, she wouldn’t be performing like the girls on the glass above them were performing right now. Instead, Chloe would be servicing O’s biggest clients, tasked with making sure the world’s foremost sexual connoisseurs left satisfied. So yes … it was all a bit intimidating.
“It’s okay if you’re nervous,” Barnes said. “It’s actually good if you don’t come off as untouchable. Our clients usually want to feel that they’re breaking new ground, so to speak, and that they’re affecting you as much as you are affecting them. Now, you’ve been working tables on Voyos, yes?”
Chloe had been on Voyos Island forever, but only performing on glass for about nine months. She nodded.
“Well, it’s not like that, you understand. If you want to work as an escort in the actual spa — and believe me, Voyos’s spa is about as exclusive as our spas get, and the spas themselves are at the top of our offerings — it’s not just about rote sex.” He stopped, tapped his desk. “You’ve worked with men on the tables?”
“Well, when you do that, you’re almost a decoration for the people in the rooms, and that changes what you do. So for example, when I look up —” They looked toward the room’s ceiling, watching a naked blonde pressed to the glass as her partner slid his cock inside her from behind, both laying flat to provide the best view. “— do I get hard? Eventually, I suppose, if I sit and stare at them fucking, but mostly it’s part of the background. The most beautiful people in the world, screwing above me, and I barely see it. There are other conference rooms with horizontal cells, girls push themselves against them like windows. But for all of us who work here — and the same goes for the vacation islands outside the lattice — performers are pieces of art more than anything else. The Six can be in a meeting discussing profits and one of our male performers will pull out of a girl he’s fucking along one of the conference room walls, and she’ll press her face to the glass and he’ll cum in her mouth, splattering the glass. And we’ll see it, but we’ll barely see it. Or rather: we see it and appreciate it as beautiful, but the whole thing has become normalized for us. That’s how it is in the spas. The real action — dick and pussy, as it were — happens back in the rooms. When you’re working your table above people eating dinner, you can be mechanical, but that will never fly as an escort. If you’re with a client, you must be present; you need to move and moan and know how to deliver optimum pleasure to the organ between the ears, not just the one between the legs. So: if you’re demure? If it doesn’t seem like you’re cranking out another day on the job? Well, that can be good in an escort.”
Chloe nodded. She wasn’t shy; she’d been having sex with men and women she barely knew or didn’t know at all (or just with herself) in exchange for universal credits for almost a year. A sex working mother could numb a girl to the shame so many people, even today, still had about sex. Reservations she felt had to do with the position’s prestige and the fact that she, Chloe, had hiked up her ovaries enough to apply for it. Her mother had been happy as a table girl, model and escort in her own right, but she’d never been an escort at an O spa. The idea was absurd. Nicole Shaw was attractive and sexy and had earned plenty of credits since joining Enterprise, but O escorts were beyond elite. Everything at O was exclusive, but the spa girls? Well, they were best of the best. Chloe even being here was ballsy to the point of arrogance. She was a normal girl, naturally attractive in an age where so many people had artificial enhancements, and could move with a rhythm that she felt both above the collar and below the belt. But Barnes was right: Chloe was 20, with barely 18 months of carnal experience under her belt. Even her mother had asked her just who in the hell she thought she was.
“I have to be honest with you,” Barnes said. “I don’t think your chances are good. We usually agree to see legacy girls as a courtesy to their parents. This interview is, more than anything, a thank-you to your mother for all her time with O. But you’re too young. You can’t know what you’re doing well enough to please our most elite clients.”
“I’m good,” Chloe said. “Give me a chance, and I’ll show you.”
Barnes crossed his legs and leaned back, crossing his arms across his chest, surprisingly quiet eyes assessing her. Everything about this interview was designed to intimidate — the dim room, couples fucking on the glass overhead, smooth gray walls and stark room with the table and chairs as its only furniture like an interrogation, Barnes’s expensive, hand-tailored suit — though Barnes himself appeared unduly understanding. Chloe felt like he “got” her, that wasn’t how this was supposed to go.
“Let me tell you something about O, Chloe,” Barnes said. He leaned forward again, engaging her, and Chloe was reminded that, prior to joining the Six, he’d been a celebrated sex therapist renowned for making uncomfortable subjects seem comfortable. “O’s tagline, as you know, is ‘The Future of Sex.’ But the thing is, the five other founding partners and I got together not because we’re into sex, but because of our predilection for being bold, demanding more of ourselves than anyone else could have, and taking risks. Before we formed O, what we had in common was that all six of us were pushing the boundaries in our respective fields to a point where it became uncomfortable for those around us. The expression is that when others zig, you should zag, and all of us were zagging and caught a lot of flack for it. Alexa wasn’t pushing the boundaries of erotica; she was pushing the boundaries of distribution and engagement. People told her that her nobody would want sensory immersion when they read; visual experiences and reading were distinct and different. Then they said reading was dead. When sensory immersion became popular, they told Alexa she should abandon writing entirely. When her stories held their strength, people criticized Alexa for the tracking software she used to monitor her readers’ habits — how long they read, what positions their handhelds were in when they read (indicating whether they were sitting, lying down, and so on), where they started and stopped, whether their handhelds were in close proximity to others, indicating that couples read together — but it was all open source on Crossbrace and Alexa used it well. Suits were brought against her for invasion of privacy, but none stuck because she was never doing anything illegal. It was simply new, things that no one had done before. Same for me and the toys I developed, and how there were groups appropriating them for torture, or the same groups using my release techniques for brainwashing. They tried to sue me, too, but the world will always march forward and it’s the bold who will do what is unpopular in the interest of nudging the ball forward. Do you understand?”
Chloe nodded. “More or less.”
“Another way of saying it, Chloe, is that fortune favors the bold. But what no one really speaks of, even today, is that quite often, ruin also favors the bold. People looked at the six of us when we were separate and called us stupid, foolhardy … sometimes criminal. Today, now that our little joint venture in O has proven successful, those same people look at us and call us fortunate and greedy. They say that O is such a juggernaut, no one else in the industry can touch it. And it’s true. We are the largest entertainment company in the NAU, the largest manufacturer of non-infrastructure goods, and the country’s third-largest employer — not just in our cache of front-line sex workers, but in our backend support staff, administrators, our marketing department, hover drivers and mag train crews … you get the idea. Our R&D department — and nobody discuss this — is neck and neck with Xenia Labs. But whereas they are improving virtual reality experiences for business, we are surpassing those experiences for sex. They are creating neural enhancements that allow people to be stronger, faster, all sorts of things … whereas we are developing better enhancements that allow people to feel and deliver new levels of pleasure. Do you know why, Chloe?”
She shook her head.
Barnes smiled. “It’s because of demand. An implantable ocular tracking implant that eases eyestrain while processing spreadsheets is functional, but an implantable ocular tracking implant that makes sexual partners appear more attractive and makes their movements electric is exciting. Our customers don’t demand function in the way our competitors do. O’s customers demand exhilaration. Our experiences are better because they must be. Better-resolution porn holos. Better interaction environments with better visors and tactile gloves, so you can feel the pleasant soak of interior flesh as your fingers slide into a pussy inside digital space no differently than if you were doing it for real. People will always pay for better experiences when those experiences make them harder or wetter. It’s the ideal spot on the demand curve — enough desire to command our prices and volume, but not so much desire as to be illegal.”
Chloe stared at Barnes, wondering if she should say anything.
Barnes continued. “I’m telling you this because you are very pretty, but ‘pretty’ is a dime a dozen. And yes, you may be natural. But does it matter? I grew up in the early days of enhancement, when it was called ‘plastic surgery,’ can you believe that? — you could tell when a woman had had her breasts enhanced. You could tell when she’d had her nose shaped, cheeks implanted, fat removed, all of that. Now you can’t. More and more people are getting nanobot injections that can scavenge fat, retune muscle, keep legs long and lean without a workout. And it is natural. It is the new natural. So believe me, we only see beautiful girls with perfect bodies. We must always look beyond that. O must always be best of the best. And within O, you are asking to provide our most high-end experience. You are asking to be the standard by which this entire trend-setting, curve-shattering, benchmark-establishing company will be judged. Do you understand the enormity of what you’re asking me to do? Of what you are asking me to bet on a girl who, two years ago, had never felt a warm cock inside her?”
Chloe kept her features firm. She knew.
Barnes stood. He walked to one wall, tapped its surface, and brought up a complicated map of documents. He gestured with his fingers, pulling one after another to the front: lists of qualifications for escorts. Specifications on O’s exclusive line of sex toys. Graphic films, showing many varieties of vice and fetish. Photos. Anatomy, detailing known and little-known locations of nerve clusters and pressure points. He read the title of each document, video, or image to Chloe. She stayed in her seat staring as he swiped his hand to the side. The color all vanished, and the wall returned to its earlier gray.
“That’s what an escort must know,” Barnes said, approaching Chloe. “That’s the curriculum of pleasure, one might say. But we can forget about that. What can you do, Chloe Anne Shaw?”
Chloe looked up at Barnes, standing in front of her. She looked up, at the couples fucking on the glass tables overhead. On the right was a blonde on her back, her muscular partner’s strong cock sliding in and out of a pussy seen from beneath. On the left was a brunette with small tits pressed against the glass as her parter straddled her ass from behind, in a downward-facing doggie style. The man, from where Chloe was sitting below, was only a pair of feet at the woman’s sides.
She looked up at Barnes, then slipped from her seat and knelt in front of him. Her hands went to his belt buckle.
Barnes laughed, then took her hand and pulled Chloe upright. She stood at her full height in front of him, her usually-tall five-seven seeming small in front of his six-foot-plus.
“Not that,” he said. “Just tell me.”
“It’s like I said,” Barnes told her, sitting on the edge of the black table so that his head was lower than hers, “pretty girls are a dime a dozen. So what’s left? Well, the good news, what’s left is you. Nobody has figured out how to use nanobots and artificial intelligence to enhance a personality. I read an article the other day theorizing that eventually, people would be able to download skills directly into their brains. Do you remember The Matrix? ‘I know kung fu?’ ”
“No,” said Chloe, feeling something between embarrassment and confusion. Chloe had assumed that she’d be fucking whoever she met as a kind of tryout. She’d worn her nicest panties, which she thought seemed classier — more O, say — than the more lowbrow tactic of wearing nothing at all. But here she was, in a room with a handsome man, and her interview was an actual interview. And he was talking about kung fu.
“I guess you wouldn’t,” said Barnes. “You’re too young, and it was only shot in 2-D. But what I was going to say is that even if that happens, I don’t believe they’ll find a way to make uninteresting people interesting or turn boring souls into intriguing ones. So the good news for you, if you are one of those interesting, intriguing, innovative sorts of women, you still have an advantage. You waited 19 years to start having sex, Chloe. Why was that? It meant something. I’m — dare I say it? — I’m intrigued by that. By you. You won’t impress me by bending into position or by sucking my dick. This is your chance.”
“You want to know about me?”
Barnes nodded. “You. What makes you special. Why I should, frankly, give a shit about you. I used to be a sex therapist. I didn’t improve people’s sex lives by telling them to exercise or practice new sexual positions. I did it by teaching people to be the purest versions of who they are. By showing them how to share their most authentic ‘sexual selves.’ ”
Now Chloe felt even more confused. Fully clothed with people fucking on the ceiling, interviewing to have sex for a living, and bewildered. “Share?”
“Yes. It’s not always sexy when a whore spreads her legs in front of you. In my opinion, it’s always sexier when a shy normal girl does exactly the same.”
“So you want me to do a schoolgirl thing?”
“I want you to do a Chloe thing.”
“Let’s start with that story about your virginity,” said Barnes.
Chloe assessed Barnes as he sat on his desk, smartly dressed in his expensive power suit and band tie. He was one of the richest people in the NAU, and knew more about sex than the best escorts would ever forget. It seemed like she should tell him something impressive and outrageous, like the time she almost — but not quite — sucked off a boyfriend while he was driving on one of the skyroads. But outside of what she did at work, Chloe simply wasn’t that crazy. And so as she stood in front of Barnes, the depth of his implied question felt deep like a cut.
Why should he hire someone like her?
“Well, I lost it to my primary school boyfriend.”
“You went to a physical school?” he said.
“Yes. They have one on Voyos. My mom worked so much — and had to work away from home, obviously — that she wanted me to go to a physical school just so I wouldn’t go stir crazy.”
“I see. So you were in love?”
“I don’t know.” And still today, she didn’t. He had bothered Chloe for long enough that she finally relented. Their first time was unspectacular. He had lit candles but it all seemed so contrived and he’d cum in 30 seconds. Chloe had gotten local nano-impediments but he’d still thought she might somehow end up pregnant, so he’d cum on her belly. It was warmer than she’d anticipated, and without an orgasm of her own to mentally lubricate her, that first cumshot seemed gross. The fact that she’d tried it again, in retrospect, seemed amazing. But afterward, Chloe had the feeling of a near miss. She was sure she’d fumbled something wonderful by millimeters, and was of course right.
Chloe told Barnes the story. It felt odd, telling a stranger about her first sexual experience, but if she wasn’t going to fuck him for a sex job, this seemed like the interview’s next most logical course.
“So when did you fuck him again?” Barnes asked.
“I never did.”
“We broke up. It was like the sex was the only thing holding us together. Only, not the sex itself. Just the anticipation. After we’d done it once, it was like there was nowhere left for us to go.”
“How long had you been together?”
“Almost five years.”
“Why didn’t you do it earlier?”
Chloe thought. Brad had asked. He had, in fact, begged. She had always resisted, but it wasn’t because she was a prude, or afraid, or didn’t want to get close or be vulnerable. Chloe had never thought about it before; it had been a fact like the sun’s rising each morning. They hadn’t done it. Period. Now, with Barnes watching, Chloe searched her mind and realized that she knew the answer.
“My mother was a sex worker,” she said. “I didn’t want to be like her.”
“Yet, you are applying for a position in an O spa?”
Chloe shook her head, waving a hand in negation. “No, not like that. I meant I didn’t want to be defined by her. I didn’t object to what she did — if the law didn’t object to escorts, I didn’t see what business it would be of mine to — but I didn’t want it to be the default. I neither liked what she did nor disliked it. Her work made sex strangely neutral to me, know what I mean?”
Barnes looked up for a long minute. On the right table, the man thrusted hard and came inside the woman. He pulled away and cum dripped out, pooling on the glass.
He gave Chloe a sly smile. “I know exactly what you mean.”
“I wanted to go in with no bias for or against. Like I’d been in a kind of sexual deprivation chamber. It was hard on Brad, and must have been harder because I didn’t want to explain it all to him. It felt private, like something I held close.”
Barnes was still smiling as he stood, tapped the surface of the table, and made some marks on Chloe’s resume, indicating her as processed and other things that Chloe, watching, couldn’t follow. Once done, Barnes slapped the table and extended a hand. Chloe, after a moment’s hesitation, shook it.
“All right, Chloe,” he said. “The odds are against you, but I have forwarded you for testing nonetheless. And off the record, I wish you luck.”
“Testing?” said Chloe.
The room’s door opened, silently ushering Chloe out the same way she’d come.
Barnes nodded. “Make your next appointment with Lucia at reception,” he said. “You will have exactly one chance to show O what you’re made of.”