The Six sat around the conference table, the couples in their sex booths writhing around the room’s edges. Alexa had a pen in her hand and she tapped it on the table, thinking. It was an ordinary pen, the kind that wrote on paper.
Alexa was a writer first and foremost, and felt that in the end, writing — especially writing the erotic novels and next-level literary experiences she’d built her empire upon — was about connection. Connection was always best when it was skin on skin, like fingers against the cool surface of an ink pen. She wanted to remember that, even today, even as she presided over O and had mostly back-burnered her books. Her job now — as it had been back then — was to make the customer feel.
Crossbrace and especially the coming Beam network would open new doors in sexuality, but in the end, everything came down to the business of feeling. The heart of this business was as intimate as the sensation of a manual pen making lines on paper.
“I told you,” said Parker Barnes.
Alexa shook her head.
“So you’re not convinced?” Parker asked.
“Oh, I’m convinced. I just can’t believe it. Olivia? Houston? Do you think she’s the one we’ve been looking for?”
Houston shrugged. “I don’t know if I’d go that far … yet. But she has promise. I’m convinced enough to give her a try.”
Olivia shook her head. “Falls Hartford. I can’t believe it. The man is the biggest asshole on our roster. He treats the top girls like street walkers, but this girl practically had him begging. How?”
“Every person has a weak spot,” said Alexa. “The trick is figuring out what it is. So: how did she find his? I’m as baffled as you are. She knew what Logan wanted sexually. Fine; he’s not terribly complicated, and she pressed all the right spots. But she didn’t just fuck his dick. She fucked his mind.”
“Fucked his mind is right,” said Parker, laughing.
Alexa refrained from telling Parker to cool it. They were alone, and none of them particularly liked the Hartfords of the world. They had the money; they were the Beau Monde who sat at the top of the NAU’s wealth ladder, spending untold millions at the thinnest straight on O’s prospect funnel. But they were disgusting and irritating and demanding. Back when Alexa had first started writing her dirty little stories, he was the kind of person who crusaded against her brand of pornography while at the same time rubbing his dick and complaining that her female characters were too strong and empowered.
“Did you tell her anything about him, Parker?” Alexa asked. “Something about a girl from his past?”
“Tell her? I didn’t know myself.”
“What about his Cliffs?”
Benson raised a section of the conference table, and tapped it. Alexa watched the information scroll: raw video records of every encounter Falls Hartford had ever had within O’s walls, transcripts of everything he’d ever said within earshot of one of the snoopers, bug records of off-site rendezvous he’d had that O’s Satisfaction Coordinator had arranged that Hartford believed were genuine seductions rather than company arranged bonuses. Benson stopped scrolling when he reached the AI compiled Cliffs that parsed the surveillance and scanned them.
“AI has parsed nothing about his childhood,” Benson said, reading. “There is nothing historical. It’s as if the man was born five years ago, based on the things he talks about.”
“What about the intuitives?”
“We’ve never run intuitive AI on Hartford’s records,” said Benson, peering at the screen.
“Do it,” Alexa said. “I want to know if that information was even accessible. Have the intuitive AI parse this last footage too. Feed it everything we have. His biostats during their session, his EM field —”
“EM is pseudoscience bullshit,” Parker said.
Alexa turned to face the psychologist. “Everything,” she repeated, pointing at Benson. “Including EM.”
Parker rolled his eyes. “You realize that’s like checking his aura.”
“Scan his motherfucking chakras if you have to!” Alexa blurted. “You saw the video. She was right. All you have to do is read his face. So how did she know?” Alexa tapped the pen on the table, waiting.
“We’ve got nothing,” said Benson.
“So a fucking machine couldn’t figure it out. A machine brain.”
Parker shrugged. He was critical of everything. The shrug was supposed to tell the other five how little he trusted the AI’s analysis. Alexa ignored him, annoyed. Olivia didn’t.
“You don’t trust the AI?”
He said, “There’s more to the mind than circuits.”
“Okay, smartass,” said Alexa. “Did you know about his old girlfriend, with all your scary psychoanalytic talent?”
“I’ve never sat with him,” Parker said.
“Take a guess, your excellency.”
“Well,” he said, “it makes sense that he’d have something like that in his past. Often, a big ego like that is a defensive reaction to being crushed early in life. The data Xenia has fed us from their database even shows that before his enhancements, he had a small dick.” He laughed, but nobody joined him, so Parker went on. “But his personality is consistent with an early inferiority complex, and it makes sense that it would have come from peers. Given his sexual proclivities for being dominant and abusive to the girls he’s with, I guess it also makes perfect sense that he’d have been soundly rejected, maybe by one key girl.”
“Now who’s spouting pseudoscience?” said Olivia.
“Now who’s just being a cunty pain in the ass?” Parker retorted.
Alexa waved a hand to break it up. Officially, she wasn’t on either of their sides. Unofficially, she sided with Olivia. Parker could be a pompous pain in the ass.
“Well, there’s nothing in his file about it,” Benson repeated.
“It was a lucky guess.”
Alexa shook her head. “I don’t think so. You heard all that stuff she said at the beginning, about his history and age and whatnot. Roll it back and take a look at his reactions. I thought at first that she was just trying to dig at him, but most if not all of it was on target. He only stayed because he was shell-shocked. Because she was right.”
“Maybe she’s a cleric,” said Olivia in a tiny voice.
This time, Parker actually laughed.
“Jesus Christ, Parker,” said Charisma Young. “Are you going to weigh in, or just mock everyone else? Because speaking for myself, you can just leave if that’s how you’re going to be.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Parker. He turned to Olivia, who had ducked back like a turtle retreating into its shell. “Olivia, you’re right. Maybe she’s a cleric. Because you know, that pipeline Quark gave us into The Beam beta network opens us up to all sorts of spooks and phantasms. I thought she was Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, but you’re right, yes, this little girl who wants to fuck for us is totally a body animated by sentient nanobots and …”
“Shut the fuck up, Parker,” Houston said. “Have you even used The Beam beta? It’s not your grandfather’s Internet. I gave it some of our archives for testing, and queried it as to how O could best please the man in the videos. I was expecting a list of positions we could add to his Cliffs for his next girl, but instead the beta suggested we call the man’s assistant and see about sending funeral flowers. Turns out his mother had just died. The AI could read it in his speech patterns. It’s spooky. I’ve heard the same rumors you all have, and I don’t see any reason Beam clerics couldn’t exist.”
“HOLY. FUCKING. SHIT.” said Parker.
Alexa stood, then began pacing. Everybody else was still sitting. Officially, all Six were equal partners at O, but Alexa was unofficially in charge. It was Alexa who, after breaking all the rules of writing, had dominated the brave new world of erotica during Renewal by mining blackmarket Crossbrace and internet data about buying and consumption habits, then finding new ways to give her readers exactly what they wanted. It was Alexa who had found a way to individualize her products in such granular detail as to develop an army of devoted fans in every corner of the NAU. Without Alexa’s cache, the Six never would have been gathered to form the premier (and, honestly, only) sex industry cooperative in the Renewal period. Without Alexa’s money, O never would have been founded, given how skittish venture capitalists were at the time.
Now they all watched her, waiting for the decision of their leader who wasn’t, technically speaking, their leader. Even Parker lowered his eyes in respect, keeping opinions to himself.
“Okay,” she said. “I’m not ready to give this girl a crown and the keys to the vault, but I’ve never seen anything like that and want to see more. She not only saw how to use the Rocker, but used it more expertly than all but our top adepts. She converted a man who, at the outset, she insulted enough that I thought we were going to have to call Undercover Respero to haul her off and make her vanish. She did it by reading him as if he were wearing a placard. And as to the sex, I’ve studied enough to see that she never once made a misstep, touching all the right places at all the right times. I know that nobody’s ever stuck a finger in Hartford’s ass. I just pulled it up. It’s like it’s something he didn’t even know he wanted. So: put your petty egos aside, and tell me honestly: have any of you ever seen anything like that? Like any of it?”
The table mumbled.
Alexa tapped her pen. “It’s pretty easy to get caught up and make the mistake of thinking that we’re hiring staff here, given that we’ve spent the past 20 years focused on building new arms of business, realizing Houston and Parkers’ endless toy ideas, improving service in the spas, the other island projects, and so on. But you know how all of this started.”
“You’re projecting, Alexa,” said Parker.
“Really? Is that your professional opinion, Parker? As a therapist?”
Parker blanched but didn’t back down. “Honestly? Yes, it’s my professional opinion that you’re projecting. None of us knew what The Beam would be able to do 20 years ago. We barely knew about Crossbrace. It’s just serendipitous, is all. Before Quark let us see The Beam last month, none of us had dreams of delivering such a vivid virtual experience.”
“ ‘The future of sex,’ ” said Alexa, quoting the company’s tagline and mission statement.
“Yes. Just like Coke’s used to be ‘the real thing.’ You’re the one who found anthroposophy and decided that our mission would find us, thanks to the miracles of modern technology. To the rest of us, ‘the future of sex’ has always just been a slogan. But you? You’re practically looking for a fucking messiah. And now that you’ve seen what The Beam can do in terms of immersion, you’re all, ‘A-ha! We’re waiting for an archetype! We’re waiting for a perfect sexual being to commoditize and deliver!’ But Alexa, just a few months ago, you didn’t even know any of that.”
“Not to get spiritual on you,” said Alexa, “but that’s how it works. You have to trust that things will show up when they are supposed to.”
Now Parker stood. Always one for theatrics, he climbed on his chair, then atop the table. From the corner of her eye, Alexa saw several of the naked couples in the glass-fronted booths around the room break character and stare.
Parker held his hands out wide, like Rio’s statue of Jesus had done before the riots had torn it to nothing.
“You heard her!” he shouted, voice booming. “We’re on a mission from God! Here to deliver unto the world its perfect virtual pussy! Apostle Alexa has known it since the 40s! Perhaps she’s known it since before the fall! All hail Alexa! And now our messiah of gash has been born unto us, ready to spread for the world at O’s feet while Beam clerics dance with pixies, so let’s lay the company’s future at its behest, don robes and drink poisoned beverages, because the time is nigh!”
“Get down, Parker,” said Houston, annoyed.
“Why? Our anthroposophic savior has arrived!”
Alexa shook her head, blood starting to boil behind her eyes. “You were the one who passed her through to begin with. You were the advocate. I wanted to cut her.”
“But now I’ve seen the light!” Parker hopped off the table, arms were still spread wide. He looked around the room and, as was typical of Parker, seemed to realize that what he’d thought was a brilliant joke was actually just stupid. He dropped his hands to his sides. Alexa took significant pleasure in the realization that he, not she, was the one who looked stupid.
“Look,” he said. “We do need an avatar. We need … well, you know the rest. And I do like her. I do think she should get a spa job and, if you want, a full upload depending on Quark’s price. But let’s not pretend we had this all figured out when we met 20 years ago and have been waiting. Because I have to tell you, I don’t want a chosen one sucking dick for credits in my employ. That never ends well.”
Alexa watched Parker Barnes, trying to decide if an argument was worth it. She held more reins than he did, and could essentially cockblock everything he wanted for months as punishment. But in the end, despite the mockery, they were in agreement. Acrimony aside, they could ink a deal right now, send Chloe up the chain, and start O’s next phase with a year’s head start if not more. Their contact at Quark, who’d promised to burn their connection and deny all culpability if O ever spoke of The Beam or what it could do, said that the network wouldn’t be unveiled for a year at the very least. What could O do in terms of simulation and emulation and avatar/immersion programs with a year’s lead on their already barely significant competition? They need only bury their squabbles to know.
“So …” said Olivia, looking at Parker.
Parker, realizing that he’d perhaps overstepped his bounds, shuttled attention toward Alexa. He sat, demurring. Olivia looked to Alexa. Then the rest did the same. There would be a vote on whatever came next and majority would win, but ties always went to the side with Alexa, as it had always been done.
Alexa inhaled, exhaled, then drew her carriage fully upright, again in control. The incident that had just happened had not, as far as anyone in the room was concerned, happened at all.
“Show of hands,” said Alexa. “Who votes that we move Chloe into Orion testing?”
They all looked from one to another. The Orion was another piece of controversial equipment. Its uses for immersive pleasure were impressive, but there had been many discussions among the Six about how easily Xenia’s prototype machine could be turned into an instrument of unspeakable pain. Still, the room’s mood was charged. Right now, they’d do whatever Alexa wanted.
The other five waited.
Alexa raised her hand.
Slowly — so as not to appear overly sycophantic, which they currently were — five others rose around the table.
“Excellent,” Alexa said, allowing herself a small, satisfied smile. “Let’s find out what our future holds.”