Socket Sale

Published August 2003

Feelstar weaved her way between shoppers vibrating with bargain possibilities, heat shimmering off the kaleidoscope of stalls.

Could she trust him?

She’d just left Pieter’s place, high up one of the PowTows. He wanted to close the deal this week. She just wasn’t sure… there’d been a time when
deals likes this had barely registered on her psyche. But she’d changed since then, she’d been hurt – her heart and soul wounded – not that she
wanted people to know.

Tapping behind an earlobe she winked some Afro-Celt beats into her skull. She’d treated herself to the inner audio implants during a more
affluent time, before the debts had slammed onto her. Picking up the pace she gradually loped back to her zone, in no particularly hurry, using
the time to order her thoughts and try to tame her feelings.

The deal could clear her debts, let her move up again instead of struggling with the financial chains weighing her down. Metra was on the WAR
Council of Leaders, she’d never forgive what Feelstar owed. She tried to avoid thinking of the man who’s betrayal had put her in Metra’s
gravitational pull. This deal would be different. Pieter was different. She wouldn’t get burnt, she hoped.

Before the wars she’d had a different name. She’d been a contract researcher, spending her days in sharply polished corporate labs tweaking
reagents or writing findings in a wonderful home-office paid for by her many consultancy projects. The energy shortages and currency failures
had forced her into a more street-level market, positioning herself as the key person for catalyst deals. Juice boosts were her thing, and nobody
was more reliable in sourcing and verifying boosts than Feelstar.

Metra had been mid-level state government officer, a political appointee. As the Western Agnostic Republic had slowly coalesced into an
unstable but vast nation of sorts, Metra had pulled herself up, riding a wave of chaos. Some starved, others shivered in the cold and a few died
trying to prevent CUHP’s emergence. Amidst the catastrophes Metra made herself an indispensable part of the New Mass landscape, a natural at
the symbiosis of business and politics that passed for government. Few were surprised when she got onto the non-government that was the
Council of Leaders.

As the Council was in the process of forming and solidifying one of Metra’s interests, a rapid delivery firm, had been suffering from the falling
quality of fuel reagents. Feelstar, sensing a major deal, had made it known to Metra that just the right catalyst could be found. But it was a con.
Dean, damn him, had set Feelstar up. He’d fed one of her sources the news that MetXpress, Metra’s delivery outfit, needed juice boosts. He also
had casually told Feelstar that he just happened to have several cans of the right stuff in one of his caches and could get more. Dean knew she
would offer the deal to Metra, Feelstar was predictably keen to get some cash flow. It was a big trade, MetXpress had a huge fleet of hybrid-
hydro rovers and vans. There were enough credits on the table that Feelstar was contemplating taking some time off, in spite of the endemic
market uncertainty that had driven people like Dean and her to keep building deals.

A holiday wasn’t what she got. Dean had been a good supplier, coming through with exotic sockets and cans on a couple of tough contracts at
short notice. He’d proved himself to her and he knew it. Which was why she ended up with cans filled with sodium chloride and he was gone
with her untraceable holoplastic chips filled with Metra’s credits. Metra naturally wanted her money or her catalyst but all Feelstar could muster
was some rather pure samples of salt and a few hundred credits from her datapad. Indebted to a powerful and ruthless woman, her confidence
in deal-making was shattered – Feelstar retreated into herself.

To afford the simple soya-based food she and most of WAR had to put up with she’d taken a job cleaning lab equipment for one of the few
research fabs the Korean conglomerates kept going in New Mass. Nobody was quite sure why they bothered, there were plenty of smart people
in Korea, but apparently WAR had something they couldn’t get back home.

Dean had broken her trust in her own intuition. Her people radar. Intellectually she knew that everyone could make a mistake, but she’d always
been so careful to avoid being burnt. She’d tried hard to not trust people too easily, not to give them the benefit of the doubt. But deep down a
pre-WAR optimism pulsed in her core, giving her the hope that most people were essentially ok.

In some more lucid moments while reassembling Samsung-Daewoo grinders she would admit to herself that much of the pain was anger with
herself. Anger for letting a player like Dean put her in such a shitty position, for letting herself assume Dean was reliable, for letting herself get
hurt. She’d fought so hard to keep some kind of normality amidst the insanity of a disintegrating world order. One day she’d been a winner, a
successful knowledge worker in the world’s most powerful nation. The next she was another hustler trying to spot a niche to make her plays,
fighting to survive as the United States became the pre-WAR basket case that allowed the Catholic Union of Hispanic Peoples to form, and
Europe imploded into the Eastern Agnostic Republic. She’d worked and pushed herself to ride out the madness, how could she have fallen once
it was beginning to calm down? Maybe she wasn’t as smart as she thought she was.

She strode over the scraggly grass and confetti of bushes that was her zone’s preferred road surface, the streets having been liberated from
concrete as soon as conventional order had collapsed. With ambitions and finances crushed she’d relocated to a quiet green zone with a mostly
functional hive committee which ensured basic amenities and security in return for participation. Her apartment was necessarily small but it at
least had a view down one of the greenest swards, which she found peaceful. Thumbing several security devices she let herself in. She hadn’t
fallen completely out of the game, making for the bed she pushed several crates of sockets out of her way. Sockets were designed for small
turbines, integrating a catalyst and metallo-ceramic substrate from the Taipei clean rooms into a small standardised alloy unit. They provided
her with a low-risk additional income by supplying courier bikes and home generators within her zone. Dealing sockets didn’t really keep her in
touch with the latest boost technologies, but it was simple, no big money deals and no middlemen shifting hot gear. She mindlessly discarded
her clothes and collapsed onto her bed, emotionally exhausted.

***

An alien noise invaded Feelstar’s comfortable dream world. Imaginary rooms and people begin to lose their form, disintegrating into shapes
before slipping into blurred colours. Confused and sleepy she turned, pressing her face into the cool fabric of a hemp pillow. The scatchy
softness on her sleep-dewed skin pushed her consciousness into reluctantly waking. She blinked the time into her eye before turning over
again, her ears still relaying the alien beeps. Understanding filtered down to the reptilian base of her brain, she reached out and pulled her
datapad onto her chest. Summoning some wakefulness while she tilted the screen she saw that Pieter was vidcalling her. Awake enough to angle
the pad away from her naked body she took the call.

“Hello Pieter.”

“Hey ‘star. You ok? You look a little out of it.”

“Just woke up. I’m fine.”

“Anyone there with you?”

“Let’s keep this strictly business.”

“Hey, who said I wasn’t? Just making sure I can speak freely,” said Pieter smirking.

“Sure Pieter. Whatever. How’s the deal?”

“So you’re interested… great. That’s brilliant.”

“I’m interested, but I’m not committing yet. I want more details before I sign up.”

“Ok, ok. Come over to mine when you’re awake and I’ll tell you what you need.”

“See you later then,” she signed off before he could add anything more.

Was he flirting? Feelstar grabbed a towel and walked to her zone’s shower area considering Pieter. Solar-heated water rushed onto her filmed
body as she recalled his approach. He’d clearly been very keen to get to her, but smart too. Instead of just punching up her PID and calling her
datapad he’d talked to people she’d worked with, getting them to make the introduction. She probably wouldn’t even have considered his deal if
he’d come direct. His face on the first vidcall had been refined, not particularly remarkable but framed with fashionably cut dirty blonde hair and
an equally trendy angle-cut beard, he didn’t look bad. His blues eyes were remarkably deep and piercing though, with a glint of unfathomed
strength… she shook her head stopping her thoughts from going any further. This was business and there was no way she could compromise
her intuition with physical attraction for any of the players. Steeling herself for a big decision on the deal today, Feelstar rinsed off the algal
shampoo she’d been kneading into a her long hair…

She scrolled through message summaries on her datapad while munching yet another soy and oat breakfast. Nothing from her few remaining
boost contacts indicated that this deal was anything other than kosher. Unable to finish the bland breakfast mush she dumped the fibre bowl
into the biochute and went to pick some clothes. Though she denied it to herself she did in fact put a little extra effort into dressing before she
left for Pieter’s PowTow.

PowTows were one of the more positive developments to emerge from WAR’s chaotic beginnings. Integrated Power Towers were as close to self-
sufficient as was currently possible. Their elegant carbon fibre and plastic curves housing their own hybrid-hydro power generation, water
systems and hydroponic food supplies. They were sought-after residences for the more successful players in WAR’s strange new business
ecology. With redundant photovoltaic energy channels, Singaporean security mods in every suite and great views a PowTow pad wasn’t just a
status symbol, it was a smart place to do business.

Feelstar double-winked micro-shades out of her eyes as she entered Pieter’s turquoise-tinted PowTow. She took a slow escalator through the
forested lower portions of the tower, enjoying the carefully humidified air that kept the trees in optimum carbon-exchange condition. Reaching
a relatively plant-free lobby that had an excess of brushed metal in an attempt to highlight its modern luxury, Feelstar punched for a lift to the
seventy-eighth floor. A pleasingly biological chime alerted Feelstar to the lift’s arrival which proceeded to efficiently deposit her sixty floors
higher.

Negotiating through the Singaporean biometrics and gene sniffers Feelstar stoked her confidence, breathed deeply and, with only a slight
nervous hesitation, pushed through the ultraply door.

Pieter was manipulating data projected onto one of his panoramic windows, elegantly moving a hand to link nodes in front of him

“Hi, wanna drink?” he asked turning and waving a fancy glass.

“Just water thanks.”

“Ok, PowTow best water coming up.” The projection faded away as he moved to a little drinks station.

Feelstar felt her intuition spin in confusion, was he being friendly or dangerously jovial? Unsure, but unconsciously warming to the man, she
took a pleasingly heavy glass of water from him. She didn’t let small talk blossom.

“Give me the details Pieter. The numbers look good but I need to know more before I put my name to anything.”

“I understand,” he replied gravely. “I’ll tell you as much as I can, but certain participants wish to be untraceable. Of course the client will remain
anonymous to protect my interests.”

“I don’t expect you to be stupid.”

“Quite.”

Sensing hesitation Feelstar sat on some new species of furniture that combined the beanbag with sofa and divan. Leaning back carefully she
pointedly looked up to make sure Pieter knew she was waiting for him to divulge.

“Right… well, um… The client is after a large quantity of Taipei nano-pored tri-alloy hydrocracker substrate impregnated with a very specific mix
of Turkish electrochemical dopers in carbon nanohorns,” he paused and sipped. “The vast majority of this order needs to be supplied in sockets,
mostly Fuji format, but some will be delivered in cans for a custom reagent chamber we’re building at the moment.”

This was a serious order from a client willing to part with a lot of money for some extremely efficient and potent hybrid-hydro reactions.
Feelstar settled further back into the sofa-thing, relishing the technical details. This was what she had enjoyed so much, putting together
cutting edge gear from the world’s best labs while making serious money.

“You can get the substrate and dopers together into Fuji sockets?” she asked.

“Sure, no problem.”

“With nanohorns? On time?”

“Yes. ‘Star building this stuff isn’t the problem, getting the dopers out of Turkey is where it gets a little more tricky.”

“How bad?”

“The Asian conglomerates don’t like the Turks getting into the WAR market. But I’ve got two routes through EAR setup and one through some
African tribesmen. We’ll get the dopers one way or another, the only risk is the size of our profit margin. If we have to use the Africans it’ll cost
us a little more.”

“Fine. Just keep it out of treaty cities, we don’t want Fuji or Samsung-Daewoo impounding us for intellectual property infringement.”

“My channels have been fully informed…”

“Good. And I get my usual eight point five percent cut?”

“Of course. Assembly and transfer will be in Guadeloupe.”

“Guadeloupe?”

“Yeah. It’s a micronation now, no EAR affiliations, no conglomerate treaties but it’s safe, has the resources for building sockets and it’s a good
delivery point for my Turkish channels.”

“Sounds ideal.”

“So…”

Feelstar knew this was the moment. Could she risk it? Life at the moment wasn’t thrilling but she had a sense of security at least. Pieter could
put her in more debt with, by the sound of the order, some very serious players. She could be caught by conglomerate agents. Or she could be
free of debt and Metra’s monthly reminders of what she owed. She didn’t really know Pieter though, he’d first contacted her only two weeks ago.
He could be an agent, but unlikely, they wouldn’t risk getting nanohorn dopers into the wrong hands.

“Are you in, Feelstar?” he asked, his eyes calm yet glistening expectantly.

A knot in her stomach tightened, she was afraid. Afraid this might be the only chance to slide back into the game that she’d ever get. Afraid that
this might be a route to falling further behind where she could be. She was scared her judgement was permanently damaged, that she would
never be able to make the call. Would she be trapped on the sofa-thing unable to speak, Pieter enquiring gently before finally losing his temper
and shaking her while she remained steadfastly mute?

She glanced up, only a moment had passed. Their eyes met briefly before he politely peered down into his drink, swirling the remaining shards
of ice around his glass.

“You know that without you it’s unlikely the client will trust the goods. Only with you can this deal go ahead and get the right price. Nobody else
in New Mass can verify a catalyst this sophisticated,” Pieter said, while still looking into the swirling contents of his glass.

He was right. She wanted him to be right. She couldn’t delay this, he might think she’d lost her edge. He must have known about the MetXpress
deal and her tiny apartment in a hive committee zone. Yet he’d still brought her into the operation. He’d trusted her despite the failure. Or was
the physical attraction muddling her senses… No. It felt right. He felt right.

“I’m in.”

***

Twenty-two days later Feelstar lay in the burning heat of a beach, her eyes blackened by the micro-shades.

Agents had nearly caught one shipment of dopers in Italy, but thanks to the African contacts the deal had been closed without any real trouble.
The surprise and disappointment on Metra’s face when she’d been paid off had doubled Feelstar’s satisfaction.

Guadeloupe appealed, it resonated with some deep need Feelstar had. A change, a new start. It hadn’t been hard: Pieter had needed someone
reliable to monitor socket production for other deals, so Feelstar had packed up her New Mass life and bought a new bikini for the first time in
nearly ten years.

She blinked on an antique reggae recording, winked up the volume and lay back, stretching out her compact body. She’d been right to trust him.

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