Okay, so this is mostly not exposition. It's actually where we introduce Lena, Milos, and Cindy. FYI, this takes place on a Stanford Torus called 'Pedestal'. It's one of the smaller ones, in low Earth orbit, and it's basically a superhotel. Some old conceptual paintings of what these look like.
Pedestal is actually smaller than both of these, and most of its architecture mimics Venice, but engineering-wise, this is the concept. Olympus, mentioned in this excerpt, is much, much bigger than even the one pictured above.
Lena had just finished changing. The show had been a hot affair, the clothes had been bulky and ugly and unnecessarily low-tech, and everyone had complained. The make-up had been extensive and equally inert. She had needed chemical make-up removers she hadn't used in years, and now she looked and felt like someone had stripped her face with a heat gun and a scraper.
Nonetheless, the show had been a success. She wasn't the only one, though, who thought this was just the result of a vogue for things that were 'real for real;' game effects that used polygonal or point-cloud modelling, actual clothing instead of augmented reality, vintage special effects in static scripting. It was—and her social aggregator had this fluctuating around thirty percent of pundits and critics for any of this so-called 'analog' art—a new kind of ludditism, a new mutation of one of the oldest fallacies humankind fell for: that things were better in the old days. You could make anything nowadays, of course, but all anyone was ever talking about in say, sculpture, for example, was white rooms filled with thousands to millions of collected and assembled physical, non-printed objects, brought up to orbit at insane expense.
Milos, using his usual handle, Savoir Fairy, was talking to her from Olympus, where he was at some kind of party, and as she stepped out the door of the Abandoned Versailles—the Pedestal venue where the show had taken place—and blended into the neon, slapdash crowd, she was only giving him a fraction of her attention as she sifted semi-consciously through reams of automatically filtered contact requests, notifications, and advertisements. "It's amazing, darling," he was saying. "You should see this place. It's like she can't decide if it's a farm or a luxury retreat, but it manages to do both. The architecture kind of plods a bit. It looks like somebody polished up a burned down Greek temple."
She took a message from Cindy. "You want to meet before work?"
This one she replied to. "Yeah. Patty's?"
"OK. In ten?"
Milos was still going. If the party was so great, why was he talking to her instead of all the rich, influential guests? She supposed, knowing him, that he was talking to everyone—he was probably having the identical conversation with thousands of people on the Stations and Earth, and about fifteen other ones with certain carefully selected friends and sycophants. She wondered what he was on. How did he manage to multitask as much as he did? She'd seen him talking in person with one person and still communicating with all his followers without missing a beat. The person standing in front of him never knew. She was good, but she wasn't anywhere near that good."You wouldn't believe who's here, baby."
And yet, she thought, you're going to tell me, and I will absolutely believe you, because as much as I can't stand what an arrogant climber you are, it's always true, you're always on top of things, and you're always there for me, friend.
"Kayla Knightsbridge, the Governor's here. The new L&B CEO, you know him? I think his name is Todd. He's talking to Maryanne right now. I don't know what her deal is. I think she's an anthropologist, but why an anthropologist knows everyone and has a place like this I can't figure out. Anyway, it's amazing, honey, you should be here. How did Anselm go? I didn't think you were doing runways anymore. I don't even know why anybody does."
She bit. She couldn't resist. "At least Anselm pays." She stopped walking for a moment and had a brief look at his public telepresence feed. The party was as posh, as elegant, as amazing, and just as fucking pretentious as anything else he surrounded himself with.
"Yeah, honey, but they pay, what, half a million? It's hardly worth it, babe."
So he was paying attention to her, specifically, at least now. She shook her head. "I gotsta get paid, y'all," she told him.
"I get it, honey. Things are changing."
"Yeah, and you've got all the time in the world to assimilate it, don't you? Some of us have to work for a living."
"Oh, Lena, babe, I do work for a living. I just can't spend so much of my time with my nose to the grindstone. I just can't do it, babe."
"Me neither, but my rent doesn't pay itself."
"Oh, nonsense. You just need a sugar daddy. It's your pride, hon."
She laughed. "Yeah. A sugar daddy. Right. You know how well that went last time. Anyway, I have to go. I'm meeting up with Cindy right now."
"You should never have left him, baby. You should have held on to that mercurial son of a bitch. Anyway, bye, honeybear."
"Bye Milos." I didn't leave him, she thought, but I would have if I'd known who he was.
Seldom, if ever, did a message that wasn't from someone she knew or from someone who paid her make it to the top of her queue. This one had leaked in somehow, and she was going to ignore it until she noticed it had no content. It was just a subject, and it said 'Hotblack Desiato,' and deleted itself with a checkmark once she read it. She wondered if it was a virus for a few moments, and then she was distracted as she came around the corner and through the doorway to Patty's. Cindy was nursing a coffee. She waved.
Kaia (another coworker) put Lena's coffee, ordered on the way, on the table just as she sat down. "The age of inconvenience," she said.
"Tell me about it," Cindy said, taking a sip.
"On second thought, don't," said Cindy
"I wouldn't dream of inconveniencing you. Did you see my horrible ordeal?"
"The Anselm show? Yeah. I couldn't see the difference. What's the point?"
Lena laughed softly. "Torture. I'm pretty sure she's just trying to find out how much pain and suffering she can put her staff through."
Cindy gave a thin smile. "You know, not too long ago that was how it was done."
"Yeah, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. Not too long ago people used mercury to make hats and got water with lead pipes. You can go insane being sentimental for the bad old days."
"Sure, but maybe... you know."
Lena made a face. "Not unless you tell me."
"It's just, you know. Maybe they're right about the way we live."
"Well, yeah. Maybe this monoculture isn't safe. Maybe we're not meant to be so clean or so dependent on synthetic meats and genetically engineered plants and additive manufacturing and radiation shielding and vaccination and all that stuff."
Lena nodded. She gave Cindy a skeptical look, and looked away after a few seconds. "I had no idea you felt that way. I don't have anyone on my feeds anymore who thinks like that. I've been blocking and deleting them for years. I guess I just don't see it anymore."
"Well, I kind of knew what you'd say."
"That I'm being stupid."
"No. I don't think I would."
"But you do think that."
"No. I just think if your mind is too wide open your brains will fall out."
Cindy shook her head. "I've heard that one before. Your dad used to say that all the time."
"He did. This is the safest lifestyle anyone's ever had."
"The Olympus outbreak."
"Sure, yeah. It's dangerous sometimes. Everything is dangerous sometimes."
"That killed a lot of people. It was because everything was too clean and new bacteria mutated."
"Yes. It was. And filthy old Europe gestated the plague and smallpox. We're way better off. How much time do you spend down there these days? Have you been back down since Luke?"
"You're better off for it. Believe me."
"But maybe we're not supposed to be like this?"
"We're just changing, Cindy. We're getting better. We're getting smarter. We're getting cleaner. We have more free time. We're more social. We're connected in ways people before us couldn't even imagine. We're flying through space."
Cindy sighed. "I'm just worried we're not doing the right thing. Or maybe that I'm not. I don't know. Did you see Milos's party?"
"It's not his party."
"Yeah, but it's awesome. Why didn't you go?"
"Umm, working." She pointed to her bag.
"Yeah, but you could have got off for that. I mean, Cara Anselm wasn't even at the show. She's at that party."
"She wanted me to do this. I sat in her office for forty five minutes looking at the line."
"Maybe she didn't want you at the party. Maybe you remind her of him."
Lena laughed. "I definitely remind her of him, but I don't think that's why."
Another sudden, suspicious message popped to the top of her queue. Once again, it was atypical. No AR, no links, no content. It said "talk to Alton Ely," and then it vanished.
"What?" Cindy was looking at her, puzzled.
Lena shook her head. "I don't know. Do you get weird messages sometimes? Totally out of context? Kind of creepy? Like someone's watching you?"
"Only from Luke."
Lena laughed. "Yeah. Fortunately, he's a world away."