CRATR log 31.3.1-1:

INFO Starting CRATR link

INFO Machine id: 45j1-6102-wp0v-3g7g-b82a

INFO Machine description: Coffee maker #3 / CRATR Development Laboratory / Room 417 / Department of Computer Science / Palladian Academy of Science and Engineering

INFO CRATR link started successfully!

INFO Audio detected. Recording Audio…

INFO Party_1 detected. Logging…

INFO Logging: Party_1: "Good morning, CRATR."

INFO Party_1 identified: Pryce, Silvia. Changing alias of Party_1 to PS.

INFO Party_2 detected. Logging…

INFO Logging: Party_2: "Back in my day, we would have said Hello, World."

INFO Party_2 identified: Galarneau, Patrice. Changing alias of Party_2 to GP.

INFO Logging: PS: "Punctuation looks flawless, Professor."

INFO Logging: GP: "Can it detect questions?"

INFO Logging: GP: "Ah, yes it can!"

INFO Logging: GP: "Exclamations too!"

INFO Logging: PS: "No errors on the storage side so far."

INFO Logging: GP: "Zero? It's truly amazing, what a difference 30 years have made. How is the write speed?"

INFO Logging: PS: "Lightning-fast. Read speed, on the other hand."

INFO Logging: GP: "Is a necessary trade off. The design called for data writing to be at its absolute most efficient. Everything else is inconsequential."

INFO Logging: PS: "But why?"

INFO Logging: GP: "Because in real life, Read events will be infinitely rarer than Write events. The truth is, once we finally roll this out, the mere threat of CRATR existing at all will be enough to discourage 95 per cent of criminal behavior."

INFO Logging: PS: "I understand. That makes sense."

INFO Logging: GP: "In any case, let's celebrate! I have a bottle of champagne in the faculty lounge."

INFO Stopping CRATR link…

INFO CRATR link stopped

/* … */

Princess liked fast cars, caviar, and glass-blown roses fresh from the chemist's. He sprung her with the last of those three just as he'd walked her to the door of her gated habitat. Her eyes lit up like the diamonds around her neck.

"It's gorgeous," she gushed.

"Put it under black light for 10 seconds. You'll thank me later."

"I'm thanking you now." Princess also liked her long, satin Audrey Hepburn gloves. She kept turning the rose over and over in her hands, and he sucked in his breath every time he thought it would slip. Artificial gravity, when inside the domes, was no more merciful than the real stuff. "So when am I going to see you again?"

"I'll always make time for you."

"That isn't an answer."

That had been the whole point. "Hard to say. Can't even tell you for sure where I'll be tomorrow. Last week I was on Ceres - new mining crew just landed. It was fun."


He swallowed back what would have been another quasi-sentence about new miners and their bright-eyed exuberance, or bounty hunters and their odd vintage trinkets. "Angie?"

Princess pursed her pretty lips. Yikes. 'Angie' had been a gamble. In hindsight, it was probably reserved for dear friends, or for relatives with DNA matches north of 25%.

Maybe that was why she finally let it go. "I'll call you, then."

"I'll wait for your call."

A hand on his arm stopped him in his tracks, just as he'd started towards the street. Uncertainty didn't suit her heart-shaped face. "Um..."

"Did you want something else?" he asked gently.

"I don't know. Good night, I think."

"Good night, Angela."

"No - not that. Not like that. Ah... hmmm. How to put this."

In another universe, maybe, he wouldn't have recognized the way Princess had dodged his eyes, the flash of white as she'd chewed on her lip. Slowly, so as not to scare her, he snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her closer to him. Using his other hand, he pushed away some short tendrils of blonde that had escaped her bobby pins. He tucked them behind an earlobe as he leaned in close, and whispered: "A kiss wasn't in the contract. If you want one, it'll cost extra."

Her laugh tickled the skin of his temple. "Way to ruin the mood."

"Sorry." He grinned into her hair. "I needed to be clear."

"It's fine." Satin-coated fingers tightened in the lapels of his jacket. "You have my father's account number."

"Alright then."

She tasted like what he imagined shyness would taste like, warm and watery, with only the slightest hint of sweet. He didn't go far enough to taste the wine they'd had with dinner, but he did pull her into a proper embrace, arms locking around her, fingers in her hair. A slow, measured sigh told her not to be afraid. First kisses didn't have to mean anything.

Cal pulled away after pressing one last kiss on her cheek, like a punctuation mark. Princess had the glass rose clutched against her chest, like in those old paintings of fairytales, and he was both surprised and relieved it hadn't been dropped or crushed; he'd completely forgotten about it.

"Wow. Um." She licked her lips. "How much was that? Just so I know?"

In the dim light, he could see the faint dusting on her cheeks. Pink suited her, he decided. "Don't worry about it."

/* … */

Home was a tiny mobile habitat plugged into a public recharging station that cost 150 bytecoins per minute. The ship was one of the smaller, lighter models, three years off the market; getting all of its fuel cells back to 100% would probably only take four hours, tops. It was good to him like that, low-maintenance and no-frills.

Cal stepped into the open-concept, single-room living quarters. The door hissed shut behind him, and the moment the airlock engaged with a telling click, his personal assistant, built into the habitat's chassis, whirred to life.

"Hey, Jules."

The blank white walls lit up in greeting, showing him everything he'd missed throughout the day: breaking news, Earth weather, stock tickers. A couple of talking heads on some centrist Europan talk show vented frustration at a bill that was being stalled - something about renaming a crater somewhere? Most of it sailed way over his head, which wasn't necessarily Jules' fault - Cal had bought this habitat secondhand, and never really bothered to customize Jules' programming. He'd been meaning to.

"Could we get some music going instead?"

The audio cut off abruptly. The talking heads were still there, but instead of their shrill voices filtering through the speakers, Jules played music. Well, maybe he'd been too optimistic; what was and wasn't 'music' was a matter of personal taste, and the electronic beeps and half-rap, half-scat filtering through the habitat's speakers wasn't exactly Cal's.

"Something a bit older," he suggested. Two days ago, he'd come from another job here on Mars… what had he called him? Ah, he remembered now. He'd picked up Fly Boy at a bar near the rim of the Hellas Superdome, after his client for that day had cancelled their appointment without warning. Fly Boy had named his ship after his favorite actor, some guy from the 20th or 21st century that Cal had never heard of, much to Fly Boy's disappointment. The ship itself had been modern enough, but a lot of Fly Boy's personal effects could have been from another millennium altogether - mechanical keyboards, flat screen monitors, and who the hell still had can openers with actual blades nowadays? Still, as much as he hated to admit it, the music there had grown on him. "Something with a shuffle and a swing, I think. You know what I mean?"

It took Jules half a minute to come up with a very, very old classic: the trumpet's notes danced up and down, to and fro with a rush of real air, the piano in the back a quiet, rhythmic nod to the 'Never treat me / sweet and gentle' and 'She don't love me / like I love her', et cetera. Cal fixed himself a Saturn sling in a lowball glass and sank into the single overstuffed chair in the middle of the living area.

Truth be told, the other one on that ship was more of a looker: black hair that curled sweetly with just the right touch of messiness to it, like the only comb he'd ever used in his life had five fingers and was also attached to his arm. He had some strange tattoo on that arm, too, but Cal couldn't remember what it was because of the man's eyes: he'd caught sight of them at the threshold, and damn, he could as well have been staring into Neptune.

But Fly Boy's next words had been: "That's Eddy. He's straight. Too bad, huh?" Too bad, indeed.

It wouldn't have mattered either way. Cal was nothing if not a consummate (hah) professional, and taller, sturdier Fly Boy with his dark Caesar cut and neat stubble wasn't so bad himself. He'd paid for the full package upfront, which was par for the course. But then he'd added an odd clause to their contract: he was a gambling man, you see, and to make things more interesting he tacked an additional 5% onto the bill, asking to have 10% refunded if he could make Cal 'sing' first. Deal?

Cal had agreed, of course. If only for his pride, and for that extra 5%, it had only seemed logical to accept.

45 minutes later, he'd thrown his head back to a blurry view of the stars from the skylight in Fly Boy's quarters, his legs shaking and his palms slick with the heat from having gripped too much leather. He'd clenched his jaw to at least try to stop something wordless and embarrassing from rushing out of him, but by then it was too late, and the straight boy with Neptune's eyes had flung something against the shared wall, yelling at them to 'keep it down!'

By the time he realized he'd been doing nothing but reminiscing and sipping at his drink for the past 15 minutes, the song had already looped at least thrice. "What's my schedule like for the rest of the night, Jules?"

Apparently, he had absolutely nothing planned.

"Bring up any companionship job listings closing tomorrow." He poked at the ice in his glass. "Filter on local ones."

The closest gig Jules found for him was a two-hour long, 'strictly conversation only' job right here on Mars. Someone wanted to discuss poetry, or rather the death of it, over coffee at a diner Cal had once used as a prowling ground long ago, when he'd been hungrier. He considered it, for a moment - wouldn't even need to spend too much time getting ready, which was always a plus.

'1500 per hour + cost of coffee' gave him pause, though. He needed to eat. "Scroll."

The list ran across his screen. Jules had adapted to his preferred scrolling speed after only 20 iterations on the first day, so the only words Cal had to call out were alternating instances of 'stop' and 'scroll' as he perused the jobs. Higher pay corresponded to more difficult jobs, which he supposed only made sense; nothing offered above 10,000 an hour unless it involved intercourse, at the very least, but he wasn't sure if he was in the mood for that tonight.

It didn't take long before Jules stopped, and flashed 'END OF JOBS LIST; Return to Top? (Yes / No)'

"No." Cal fingered the frost on the side of his glass. On his coffee table, barely within the scope of his peripheral vision, he could see the strange wristband he'd swiped off of Fly Boy the morning after.

'Why' was a question whose answer changed every time he asked himself. He supposed it was partly to take back some of the profit he'd lost on the wager, partly out of spite, and partly because he just liked looking at it. And it really was very pretty: the band was made of some shiny alloy, and the moving parts on the face were interesting to look at, despite the fact that it seemed to contain no electronic components, much less an actual processor. It probably couldn't even transmit to CRATR.

Jules had told him that the thinnest of the three tiny arms seemed to move at a rate of one tick per second, so maybe it was a timekeeping piece of some sort?

Speaking of which - shit, he'd forgotten about Jules. Glancing up, Cal saw the prompt on the screen flashing patiently, asking him what he'd like to do next. He turned the strange little wrist-timepiece over and over in his hand as he considered his options.

Screw it. If his little larceny had turned out to yield a primitive thing that could keep track of time, maybe that was a sign to hit it old-school tonight. "Pull up a list of bars within a 10-kilometer radius, please."

/* … */

Within 30 minutes, Cal was sitting at a bar in one of the outer rings of the Isidis Crater Settlement. sipping on a much sweeter Saturn Sling through a titanium straw. The UV light made the walls and floors look as though they'd been drenched in fluorescent indigo, and the music sounded like a random bit generator had been hooked up to a downstream audio converter somehow. Well, he wasn't sure if that was a thing. But it was nothing like Fly Boy's jam.

As with many other high-end establishments, The Sticky Splinter had screens embedded into the bar under several layers of glass, one in front of each bar stool. Cal tapped a few buttons that turned his section of the glass from translucent green to transparent. The bot manning his side of the bar beeped, and asked him if he wanted a headset. He passed, because the last patron who'd sat at his stool had left the captions on.

"Ms. Kim, can you tell us a little bit about how your work helped to extend CRATR's efficacy in its current state for at least the next 200 years?"

He recognized the woman holding the press conference, and in the next few seconds he managed to put together what exactly it was all about. Cordelia Kim, tech genius extraordinaire, had led a team in creating some compression algorithm, apparently the first of its kind - or the best, the distinction wasn't really clear to him, and he didn't speak developer-ese. She looked a lot younger than what he'd imagined the head of a budding tech firm on Callisto would be. Maybe they'd added some filter to the cameras.

"Truly fascinating stuff. Is there any way you can tell us what you're working on after this? Now that you've conquered this challenge, what's next for Cordelia Kim and Otus Tech?"

"Well, it's a little too early to say at the moment." Cordelia had a dimple on her right cheek. It only showed when she smiled. "Suffice to say that my team and I have been turning our sights to solving the Final Problem - you can note that down, capital F, capital P."

The murmurs that followed were collectively transcribed as '(unintelligible)'. Eventually, another reporter asked, "Can you please elaborate on that, Ms. Kim? My immediate understanding of your statement is that you intend to tackle the possibility of reversing entropy, can you please confirm?"

Cordelia laughed. "There's no point in trying to go against thermodynamic law. It would be a fool's errand to funnel any of our efforts that way. Still, what we are doing is very exciting and I think it's something people have been putting a lot of thought to, if not necessarily consciously, for millennia. It's the kind of problem whose solution would benefit mankind as a whole, and so I promise we'll be very transparent with our progress as we go along."

"Very inspiring. I think I speak for all of us when I say your work and efforts have lit a fire in the hearts of budding scientists, especially young girls and women, of our generation."

"You're too kind. But the truth is - and I think this is especially true in our time, as it was in Isaac Newton's - you can only reach for the stars if you stand on the shoulders of giants. My mentor, Dr. Silvia Pryce, deserves much of the credit for everything we've accomplished. She taught me everything I know, and really set me up on the path to success."

"She's really young, isn't she? Must've been a child prodigy of some sort?"

"I wouldn't know." Cal took the straw out and chugged what was left of his sling, using the tilt of his head and the curve of his throat to distract the new arrival from noticing Cal's eyes on him. He must have been a full head shorter than Cal, with tiny eyes that looked like nuummite in the bar's light, and a moustache that hadn't been kissed by a trimmer for too long. No beard, though. Cal decided to call him 'Moustache' until he could think of something better. "I don't know her personally, nor was she ever a client of mine."

"Right, right. Of course." Moustache parked himself onto the empty bar stool next to Cal's, still staring at his screen. "She's really pretty too. That much brain, and that much beauty - her parents must've had a really good Designer advising them."


"What did you say earlier? That she was never a client of yours?" The man propped his feet against the ring at the bottom of his barstool, and rested his arms on his knees. "Are you… ah, what do you do?"

"I think you have a guess. How were you going to finish your first thought?"

Moustache let out a laugh that could have been a cough. He waved away the bartender before it could take his order. "Are you an Entertainer?"

Cal smiled to take some of the pressure off of him. Easy, Moustache. "Yes, I am."

"Oh. I was right, then. Should've put money on it somehow." That cough-laugh again, louder this time. "I'm a bounty hunter, myself."

"Oh?" Both of those statements reminded him of Fly Boy. He couldn't help but wonder, were all bounty hunters predisposed to gambling? Or was it the other way around? More importantly, what was it that seemed to make them all flock to Mars? Well, actually that last one was a stupid question; the answer was the same reason he was saving up all the money he could to pay the entrance toll to Jovian moonspace. "Sounds dangerous. And exciting."

"Yeah… yeah, it's got its charms. So, uh, you with an agency?"

"Used to be. Not anymore."

"Are you, ah, working right now?"

Moustache's small-talk game: 2/10, at best. "Maybe." Cal swivelled on his stool until he was facing the man completely, and let his eyelids sink closed in a lazy blink. "If you're asking whether I'm booked for tonight, though, the answer is no."

"But you could be, right?" The man licked his lips, probably without even realizing it. "Otherwise, you would've already told me to go away."

Cal raised his eyebrow. All right, maybe this man was more astute than he'd given him credit for. "Are you interested?"

"Maybe." Moustache leaned forward, studying Cal's eyes. "Yeah. I think I am."

"Well, then." Cal leaned against the bar. The sideways motion eclipsed a subtle pull back from the straightening of his spine. He was curious to see if the man would follow him. "Do you want to talk prices and terms now, to get that all out of the way?"

"No, I think I'd like to know a bit more about you first. If you don't mind of course." The man leaned in closer. "I'm Manny D'Souza. What's your name?"

Normally they would have talked prices and terms before this, as Cal had suggested. With Princess, he'd had a whole contract drawn up and signed, with one copy for each of them and one sent to CRATR for protocol, before they'd even exchanged names. Even with Fly Boy he'd at least put down his deposit before asking Cal any personal questions.

But every client was different. He supposed he could make an exception. "Calvin."

Moustache ran the word over his tongue, as though he couldn't reconcile the sound it made with the face in front of him. He chuckled. "That come with a last name?"

Cal shrugged. "Sure, but that kind of information usually gets reserved for premium clients. Business practices, you know?" He wasn't even lying, though. Princess knew his last name, but she was the closest to a regular as he was ever going to have. Fly Boy hadn't even asked.

"Okay, okay." The man held up his hands. "I appreciate you not lying to me, at least. Would've been easy to do, right? I was just, ah… curious about your Design."

Inertia was on the side of this conversation slipping further and further into inanity at best, hostile territory at worst. Cal decided to sketch his line in the sand. "For the record, I'm going to gently remind you that it's against the law to coerce an individual into giving up details about his or her genetic Design."

"Ah, o-of course! I knew that." Dark, shiny little eyes darted up and around, trying to catch sight of the nearest monitoring devices, as though identifying them would have somehow made them stop recording. Silly man; CRATR was the robot bartender, CRATR was the screen beneath the bar right next to him, and CRATR was the chair supporting his ass, with its self-correcting pneumatics and damped swivel. In 30 years, Cal guessed, CRATR would even be the straw in his gin and tonic, doing double duty as a thermometer. "I'm sorry. That was rude of me. I'm sorry."

Cal's gaze softened. He hadn't wanted to spook the man that badly. "It really was a gentle reminder, nothing more." He smiled to put Moustache at ease, and reached out to trace a finger along the veins showing on the back of the other man's hand, over the counter. The heat from the skin there matched brilliantly with the flush on his face. "I'm sorry too. Let's start over then. My name's Calvin - Cal for short. What's your name, stranger?"

Moustache stared too long at the map of blue sketched out by Cal's finger. "How much for you to come back to my ship?"

/* … */

What was it with bounty hunters and their obsession with living in their bounty ships? Unlike Fly Boy's, Moustache's craft didn't even have a separate compartment for his captured bounties, just a simple cell with electrified bars taking up the converted den space. Cal was glad to see it empty for tonight, as having an unwilling, possibly dangerous audience would have been an instant deal breaker.

"Make yourself at home. I mean that seriously, not just trying to be polite. Mi casa es su casa - ah, you understand?"

"." Cal made his way around the main living area, inspecting the art on the walls. They were mostly cubical pieces, clear glass enclosing various shells that looked like they were collected from Earth's oceans. But a 2D painting took up the full space on the wall opposite the cell: odd-looking shapes in gray, black, and white floated in and out of his focus as he shifted his eyes across the wall. Over here was something that looked like a bull; over there was a person with his arms raised as he burned, maybe. Was that a horse or a donkey near the center, and was that an eye or a lightbulb above him, or both?

"You like it?" Moustache beamed as he walked over from the kitchen, bringing two glasses of wine with him. He handed one to Cal and nodded towards the painting. "Did a job for some art preservation activist from Ganymede when I was just starting out, trying to make a name for myself. He didn't have much money, so he gave me this instead." He squinted. "Not really sure what it's supposed to mean, though."

Cal accepted the glass with a puzzled frown. "I'd been under the impression that part of the draw of bounty hunting was the liquid compensation."

A laugh bubbled through the other man's wine. "It is. But exceptions aren't unheard of in the business. Especially if the job benefits you too."

"And that job did?"

"I can't really talk about past bounties. But let's just say that, given who I was hunting, it was just the right thing to do."

Exceptions, eh? Cal swirled the wine in his glass, watched the parting of dark red as a vortex started to form in the center, only to collapse before it could. "It's 'Chang', by the way. Calvin Chang."

"You don't say?" Moustache grinned to the ears. "I knew it, knew you had a bit of Mongol in you. Sun Tzu, right?"

Cal laughed. He wasn't sure which part of that to correct. "And you? If you don't mind sharing, of course."

"Just the bare minimum for me." There was a wistful look in the man's eyes as he drained the last of his glass, but the smile persisted on his lips, moistened by the wine. "My parents weren't that wealthy, but they really wanted a large family. There are seven of us in all: two sisters, and five of us boys in between, each a year apart."

"That's impressive."

"I can assure you we were all wanted, but you can imagine that my parents couldn't afford the most premium Design for all of us - the truth is, they weren't even Designed themselves… you know what I mean?"


"Right. They didn't want to play favorites either. So while I don't have to worry about getting most cancers, or say Alzheimer's - ah, am I pronouncing that right? - anyway, that's all I've got. The rest of me was a roll of the dice, hence why I look like this, you know?"

Cal tilted his head. There was a sadness in Manny's eyes that felt like it might have always been there, and he'd just been too blind and distracted to notice. He set his wine glass down on a side table and brushed back a curl of hair that had escaped from behind the other man's left ear. He could sense the heat radiating from his cheek before he saw the flush, and though he knew it could just as well have been from the wine, he'd been in this industry long enough to know not to discount the other possibilities.

It was also because of his experience that he knew what he was supposed to say next, what he'd been paid to say next. And despite the tiny pockmarks on the man's face, the slight excess around his waist that would turn into a gut within a decade, and the unfortunate thinning of those sweet curls at the crown of his head, Cal really meant it when he murmured: "There's nothing wrong with the way you look."

Manny's smile ran crooked. "You're very good at this. I almost want to believe you."

Cal figured as much. There were many ways to convince a man, and words were the least of them. "Do you want to go further?" He brought his other hand up and locked his fingers behind Manny's neck.

"I want to. I really, really do. Like you wouldn't believe." Manny licked his lips. "But I don't think I can afford you."

"You haven't even heard my price yet."

"Don't have to. I'm already tapped out as it is."

Were all bounty hunters crazy and reckless like this? Who in his right mind would go all in for a night of conversation? Briefly, very briefly, he considered being just as reckless, and giving the man what he wanted anyway, 'business standards' be damned. What was one exception against an entire career?

He stopped himself before those thoughts could grow more prominent, and before his hands could find themselves south of the point of no return. He didn't want to set a precedent. "I'm sorry," he said instead.

"It's okay." Manny smiled, a lopsided thing made even more obviously so by his moustache. "Truth is, part of the reason I approached you at that bar was because… well, because you looked sad."

"Did I?"

"Well maybe not 'sad', just - like you were wanting for something. Or someone."

Cal slowly withdrew his hands, and avoided his eyes with a laugh. "Who isn't, though?"

"Hmm, I guess you're right. Though in my case, you could say that literally. Job nature and all, you know?"

It was hard to pinpoint at which point in time the conversation started to die. But silence crept in after Manny trailed off, making its way lazily around the room and settling into its farthest corners, and by that time Cal still hadn't decided on what to say in return.

Everybody was on a hunt for something - be it a material 'something', or another person, or something abstract and unquantifiable like fulfillment, or happiness, or purpose. He'd encountered enough specimens of his own species to know that this was simply how humans were wired, and no Design or lack thereof could change that. Cal wasn't so delusional as to think that he was an exception, yet he wasn't sure why it had stung so much when Manny had pointed this out. Was it because he'd been read so easily, when usually it was Cal on the other side of the social microscope?

"I'm really sorry," he finally said, stepping back and offering his half-finished wine glass back to his host. "I think… I think you and I might have had a difference in expectations tonight. I take full responsibility for that." Manny didn't budge from his position, so Cal had to reach for his hand, and practically force his stubby fingers to close around the stem of the wine glass, before letting go. "You'll see a full refund in your account within the next 12 hours."

Cal felt a bitter laugh bubbling up his throat as he turned to leave. He swallowed it back and pursed his lips into a thin line, denying himself even a smile. Manny deserved better than him.

Everyone was on a hunt for something. Maybe, deep down, he'd been trying to deny it to himself: he'd tried to tell himself that there was another reason that he'd swiped Fly Boy's watch, in addition to dozens of tiny little tokens from memorable clients in the past. It was the same reason he still kept that single letter, folded in thirds and written on some E.R. doctor's goddamn prescription pad, in the bottom drawer of the armoire in his bedroom. Dated 3147, it had started with 'Dear Calvin' and ended with 'Forever yours, Gio.' The rest of it had just been a knife to the guts.


This wasn't the first time Cal had felt the tug from his shirt being grabbed from behind. Just like everything else, the gesture was wrought with meaning, but prompted responses from a pool with a huge variance. Some instances had been predicted, and ended with a smirk and a tilt of the head; a grab for the collar, and a kiss. Others had ended with his safe word. "Yes?"

"I… I changed my mind." Manny's grip tightened in the material of his shirt, and Cal found himself being pulled back another inch. "Can you stay?"

Cal smiled bitterly at the floor. "If you want to go further than talking, I'm going to have to charge."

"I'm not asking you to have sex with me. I understand that… this is a business transaction to you. But that means I can try to haggle, right?" Manny pressed his forehead against Cal's back. "What if I just sleep with you in the literal sense? I mean, like next to you? Until morning."

"You're sure you're okay with just that?"

"I swear I won't try to go any further. What do you say?" Manny's hands eventually found their way to Cal's shoulders. "You don't have to do it. It just…"

Cal was still staring at the floor when he trailed off. He wondered, idly, how many footsteps had crossed this one spot, and what fraction of those had been Manny's. He wondered if Jules had that data stored somewhere, and if the report for his own wouldn't be just as sad. "Just what?"

Manny let out a shuddering laugh. "It just gets so fucking lonely out here, you know?"

/* … */

Cal watched the stars drift by through the skylight above the bedroom, his head resting on Manny's shoulder, counting the soft snores as downbeats against the tempo set by his heart. As the ship cruised, dots of light would disappear from view, giving way to new ones. He thought of Gio until he could no longer bear it, and then he thought of Fly Boy, and of Princess, and of his other clients whose names and faces he'd committed to memory.

Everyone was on the hunt for something - or someone. He eventually drifted off to sleep with his last conscious thought being how funny it was: that in this day and age with CRATR, and Designs, and talk of Final Problems being solved, contact and conversation had truly become commodities, with their own supply and demand, tradable and negotiable. In the future, hell, maybe his services would even be traded on an exchange, but for now… for now, he clung to Manny, and pretended that the comfort and company he provided only flowed one way, as it was supposed to.

/* … */

/1.2. the expected utility hypothesis