About three years ago, I posted a story that I intended to be a one-shot: What Counts
. I recently thought of a follow-up that might amuse and entertain, so I took the trouble to write it down. I hope that this expansion does not detract from the original.
EDIT: Continuation here
It was good to be back home; while a starship was supposed to have everything necessary for the continuation of life, nothing ever felt as good – as right
– as the soil that birthed your people. The right shade to the sunlight, the correct amount of breeze, the dead-on smells in the air, the temperature that fit the season and the clime and your skin.
And the startlingly fat bank account I returned with felt pretty nice, too, of course.
I’d actually made over twice what I’d projected would be my big haul, simply because that human fellow, Jack, had taught me the hidden wisdom of his people. No, not simply. There is a wealth of understanding there, and I am still unaware of most of it. It should be quite the haul – I paid half my profit for it, after all.
I stepped off the return ship, collected my luggage, and made arrangements for my cargo to clear customs and be shipped to a waiting area. I didn’t have an office, warehouse, or staff, and I wasn’t about to ship my finds to my father’s storage; I owned them, not him.
But familial obligations did not disappear just because I was independent now – a successful adult, I reminded myself, unlike the predictions he had made when I left to join the Great Run of a trading caravan. I had to remind myself, yet again, that I wanted to conceal my success, not announce it with fanfare. I didn’t know much, I had no support, and I was easy economic prey for a predator in this particular ecology. At the moment
First thing first – opt out of the food chain as much as I could. I found a local data cafe, and registered to use their network access. It was a (relatively) simple matter to pay off the loan I had taken out to fund my initial purchase, and then I went on to pay off all the outstanding loans I had: adult educational levels, transport purchase (I didn’t have the vehicle any more – completely destroyed in an accident – but it was quite the fun ride during my adolescence), dwelling rental (and storage for when I was off planet); I was now financially unencumbered.
Mostly – I still had to pay off my clan for true independence. But the typical age for that was 30, and I had barely reached 23. I was ahead of the game. And the only strings that I had to answer to were controlled by … my father. Sigh
. I would have to meet him, now that I was back.
Still, I had the unexpected wealth from my trading ventures stored away in a spare account, and I still had a goodly amount left from my expected returns – with any fortune, I would be able to take my place in the top hands of my people’s success stories.
Top hands? That’s the upper tier of the ranked wealthy: in our culture, that’s the top eight out of sixty-four … um, twelve and a half percent. Look, how about I just translate the cultural references, too? I mean, you people only have one arm on each side, you’ve got that extra finger on each hand, you’re easily less than two-thirds the proper height, and those skin issues make you that strange color; so much of how I think and what I noticed won’t make sense to you unless I put it into proper context.
No, that was an irritated
look. Of course
I know human culture well enough to do that! I spent a lifetime
translating your best business literature into something that is effective in my culture – this is one thing that I have got down pat! (And see there – I used an idiom of your people to show my ability to use your idiom! So sit down and shut up, gospodnik.)
In any case, I returned to my family home to meet with my father. The family estate is a goodly distance away from the port where I arrived, but distance is the same as time, and time is always in short supply, so I distracted myself with meditating during the trip. (Because I wasn’t doing the flying myself, you understand. That was a lesson I only needed to learn once – even though the bank insisted that I keep paying off the flyer.) In my mind, I turned over one of the great aphorisms of the human market – “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” – and I may have come to a slight understanding.
Anyway, the trip was over all too soon, and I elected to knock rather than test to see if I was as completely disowned as I thought (My departure wasn’t peaceful, wasn’t planned, and wasn’t regretted. By myself, at least.) One of the Mamas answered, and I doubt that she knew who I was.
“I’m Shonarth, and I am here to meet with my father,” I announced.
She twittered around, and eventually realized that he would have to be notified that I was at the door. At length, I could see him approaching and the Mama flitted back to whatever duties they could give to an empty-headed thing like her.
(No, you look, short stuff. That’s not misogyny – that’s a rational realization that the impetus behind my father’s mating was economic advantage and hormonal release; to be brief, money and beauty. And if a woman of my people declares that her entire rationale for existence was to be the biological mechanism for wealth transfer, I’m going to give her the deference of believing her, and give her the respect that such a wasteful choice deserves.)
“I had hoped that you would appear at my threshold sooner,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “A Grand Tour does not lend itself to weekend commutes, Father.”
He grunted. “Be welcome in your home.” He added, “Your room is as you left it.”
“In desperate need of organization and sanitizing?” I wasn’t being flippant – like I said, my exit from my Father’s home was unplanned, and I was an immature youth at the time.
“Well,” he slowly drew it out, “I had the Mamas go through and remove everything that would have decomposed. It might not be as bad as you remember.”
“If it is,” I allowed, “the most merciful thing to do would be to light it on fire.”
Father nodded in agreement.
We arrived at the family parlor – he didn’t even hesitate to acknowledge me as family, a big change from last time – and we made the small talk that adults made. Business, politics, status posturing, the usual. He indirectly inquired about my profit; I elliptically informed him that I wasn’t insolvent. My money is mine
, old man. If you need some, get your own
. He grunted, and turned the conversation in another direction.
“You should start looking to find a wife. You are getting to that age, and founding your own family will help your business image.” ‘Getting to that age?’
I wasn’t planning on getting married until I paid off my Childhood Bond to my clan, so I could run my household without his interference. I had watched how he poisoned all his relationships with his overbearing interference, until he had to continually find new buyers, investors, and Mamas to keep his estate running. He’s not doing the same in my life.
And the urge to saddle me with my first wife likely means that he plans to use the familial connection to force an investment or business activity. And having his Prime Son with a separate household would give him the status to dictate a few terms in his business circles; interest rates were trending up, and I knew that he was typically heavily leveraged. Exploiting that would be worth picking things up with my top hands – oh, sorry, worth a great inconvenience to grasp an opportunity like that.
But the practical reality of the matter was that I had my own plans, and living my life by his desires would lead me to living his life; not what I wanted at all. “I think not, Father.”
“I know a family that wants to marry off several comely girls, Shonarth,” he told me.
“I doubt that any of your friends want me as a son, and none of your enemies would let a daughter into your home,” I said dryly. “I will find my own mate, Father. But … do you really think I should get married so young? I’m still about seven years away from paying off my childhood!”
“Yes, well,” he looked around the parlor. “Perhaps I can give you a discount for paying your bond off early?”
He knew the key to my attention well. “I suppose,” I said as I affected nonchalance. “But I was counting on paying off the actual cost, not the symbolic payment. Are you interested in discounting that amount?” The symbolic Bond was a token payment that signified adult-hood; the Full Bond amount (the actual cost of raising that child to adulthood) being paid signified leaving the clan completely.
I don’t think that it surprised him that I wanted to end his influence over me and my future. It was his turn to hem and haw; he finally responded with, “I’m not sure that I can come up with the exact amount, son …”
“Father, I can call your factor and get a detailed breakdown of my debt to you, itemized by year, in less than an hour. And you know it.”
“Well,” he hedged, “we might be able to work out a minor
“The future value of my payoff in seven years, discounted to today, is about 54% of the total, and that’s not counting the concessions you were going to bully out of your seed company, your banker, and your buyer. The sooner I get married, the sooner your farm lowers expenses. And I’m not in a hurry to complicate my life with Mamas running my day.” I sat back and waited for him to respond.
It didn’t seem like he was going to. “Well,’ he tried weakly, “I might be able to work out a 5% discount.”
“Then it would make more sense for me to invest my money now, not get married, and wait until I have enough money to pay back everything that you’ve spent on me.” I was firm, and stood up. “I need to arrange for my apartment utilities to be turned on, and I’ve got to get some sort of transportation worked out. I’m heading back to the city. I assume your comm-code hasn’t changed?”
He shook his head, and walked me to the front, with a stop on the way at the family shrine. My obeisance was perfunctory, even more than my Father’s, but I didn’t get any flack from it.
Back in my apartment, it was in better shape than my room in my Father’s estate: no dust, neat and orderly, and without the lingering feeling of enforced obedience.
The water, power, data, air, and scent conditioner were all running well, so I just needed clothing and food; the clothing I had offworld wouldn’t give me the social standing to even approach the dealers I wanted to talk to, so … food tonight, clothing tomorrow.
I had thought about protecting my information edge on the trip back to my home planet, and I elected to do that now. I did a little exploration at the local university datalayer, and found that there hadn’t been any notable advances in cryptography during my absence, so I dumped all of Jack’s datacard into a filelocker and, just for fun, cube encrypted it.
Eh? I encrypted the data stream three times, using a personal method to shift the start and end of the file so that it can’t be easily detected. Any standard method can be cracked using a standard attack; using a non-standard method means any attacker has to mount a brute force comprehensive attack worth more than the probable value of my file.
Ok, so in the following days I thought really hard about what my father wanted, what I was culturally programmed to do, and what was within my means with the remnant of my profits. I could pay off the Vaclathi clan if they would agree to a 36% discount (or more), but I wouldn’t have much left to bankroll another attempt at business if I did that. And there were some attractions to getting married, if I could find a Mama that didn’t interfere with my life too much … which kept bringing me to the question I had been trying to avoid for about a year now.
What did I want?
Some Earth sayings bubbled to the surface of my mind.
Invest in yourself. Your career is the engine of your wealth.
Know what you own, and know why you own it.
The richest people in the world build networks and invest in people.
I was on the cusp of something, here, I just knew it. But it consistently eluded me.
I went to sleep. Again.
“Shonarth? This is your Father. I’ve arranged for you to be admitted to the Fethruvath Walk. Your ticket is being emailed to you, it’s being held tomorrow night at 5. I hope you can find a Mama that tickles your fancy!”
Phone messages suck. Especially ones that are just there when you wake up. One week after telling him that I’m not going to take a wife from one of his friends, he gets me this? Hmm, he must have gotten to work on this as soon as I got into the cab.
Fethruvath Walk, by-the-by, is a ritual display of eligible females for the upper crust. It used to be just their Mama taking the poor girl for a walk around a display ring, but over the centuries it has become slightly less crass, involving a large banquet space and tables for each of the girls to sit at, along with a tray of portable foods that, originally, the girls made themselves. A couple of hundred generations ago, the caterers took over that particular duty (widespread food poisoning forced a change in the format) – these
girls aren’t expecting to cook, after all.
My business wardrobe was due to be delivered today, so I would be able to blend in … wait – why did I want to blend in? Didn’t I want to stand out? The bonus was that this would be quite embarrassing to my Father and whoever provided him the ticket … Spacer’s duds it was.
I went out to my leased warehouse space and got some glumbles – tchotchkes, for you shorties – out of the boxes. A few were small and suitable for concealing in my pocket, which I could distribute to an insistent girl without outright rejecting her. Dressed in my crew uniform with its planetary patches, I figured that this would be enough to upset that social order nicely.
It was an easy wait until the Walk began, as I was expecting, frankly, to be thrown out shortly after entering. If I was planning on obtaining my first Mama, I would have been a bundle of nerves, but as it was … expecting to be the object of public ridicule? My adolescence honed that skill to the sharpness of a double-handed axe. I got this.
Shortly before queueing for the entrance line, I looked more closely at the certificate that I had been sent: I was to wait and enter at the end of the line. One hundred and twenty-eighth out of one hundred twenty eight. I grinned. I was going to have to look sharp for the cameras if I was going to be the wrap up.
One hour later, I found that I was only half-right. There was only one camera crew, from the bottom-feeder gossip network that was still recording the entrants. The others had probably packed up after the all the recognizable names had passed through, leaving no-names that wouldn’t draw an audience. “… and the last entrant is an unknown, wearing a spacer uniform with all the planetary patches for a Caravan Great Run, proving that he has been trading on at least 50 planets, and so young, too …”
Entering the hall, I surveyed the young Mamas on offer. Each one was dressed to the limits of their budget, and wore a carefully cultivated expression of disdain and haughtiness. I had no idea how they expected to attract their way into another family, but being despised wasn’t high on my list of traits to bring into my life.
A server approached me, “Would the young gentleman care for a glass of wine?”
It didn’t look like I was quite as repulsive as I had … hoped. “No thank you.” A stroke of inspiration hit. If they weren’t going to cause a scene, I’d just have to do it for them.
“I’m just on my way out. None of these Mamas are worth my time.” I waved him away in faux irritation, and left.
I almost missed the last newscaster as they were packing up, but managed to let them buttonhole me into an interview. “Young sir, why are you leaving the event so early?”
I waited until I was sure that the video crew was pointed in my direction. “It was easy to see that none of these young Mamas are up to the standard I am looking for. While every care was made for their appearance, the ladies underneath the finery are … truly not suitable. Have a good day!” With a jaunty wave I left them in slack-jawed awe at the disrespect I had paid to the self-appointed high and mighty.
I had the concept, but not the words. Time to search for help. Permanent help.
A short sleep refreshed me enough that I was back at the search. A population search – females, old enough to have finished a specialist’s education, old enough to have felt the sting of being unwanted by the few men of their year. There were some serious personal costs that resulted from our pattern of five females to each male birth, and I might have just hit on a way to profit from it. It was those human aphorisms that pointed the way, but I needed to refine it, make it work within my world.
I needed help, just like I was seeking, and the longer I took to find it, the greater the risk that this epiphany would slip out of my grasp. Ding
. Search complete.
The list wasn’t as long as I hoped, so the chances of finding an expert of the type I wanted was quite small … but needs must. The list of their educational specialties was actually quite repetitive; any of the subjects that could cover traditional subjects of the home were there in abundance. Cooking, visual arts, textiles, all there in profusion. No financial subjects, no business concentrations, no information studies.
Time to search another way. Female, unwed, specializing in taxonomy, cladistics, classification, categorization, folksonomy, or ontology. Whew. Quite a list
The wait this time was quite a bit longer. The list was quite a bit shorter, and primarily had the names of librarians; exclude those, they’re not quite what I was looking for
Hmm. 36 years, in this city, attached to the university, as a historical ontologist. Perfect! And now for the payoff of all those adolescent years as a troubled youth – contact a medium level private detective-slash-information broker for her probable public appearances. Yes, it’s stalking. Just the once. In a good cause, I promise
At the start of the next week, I was set. A small café just outside the campus where she preferred to take her, um, morning coffee. (For us, that mid morning break is when we take a small meal. Call it first lunch?)
She was mousy, a non-entity, her body language was all about deflection, avoidance, evasion of notice. Physically, she was about the personification of average, which made my plans quite a bit easier. She was startled at my appearance at her table, and she drawing her arms into a defensive posture, upper set protecting her neck, lower protecting her torso. I was obviously going to have to start us off.
“I understand that you are Zia Cloovatni, correct?”
She hesitantly accepted that.
“And I’ve been told that you are a historical ontologist.” I grinned, but she didn’t seem to find that encouraging. “What I haven’t been told is what that is; can you please give me an overview of your specialty?”
Her arms indicated relaxation, and she blinked. “I investigate the knowledge structure used in various times in history, and show how their ontology – the organization of knowledge – directly leads to their actions.”
“To me, that sounds like your specialization is vastly overqualified for my needs, but in every other way, you are exactly the person I am looking for.”
She blinked again, quite confused. “Really? For what?”
I sat back. “I can’t quite tell you yet. We can do this one of two ways. The least acceptable way is for me to give you a private commission, and you take a security bond to keep the details of the commission confidential.” I paused, hoping to draw her out. Surely someone with her intelligence has curiosity?
I was right – she took the bait. “And what is the preferable way?”
I tried to keep my smile reassuring, rather than confrontational. “I would prefer to take you as my first wife, and work with you on a permanent basis.”
Her eyes squinched shut. “That is not funny.”
“No,” I agreed, “it isn’t, and the offer is not a joke. I make this offer in all seriousness, because I cannot achieve my dreams without your help.”
This naked, earnest honesty was very difficult for me, but in preparing for this encounter, I realized that she would have been the veteran of many disappointed encounters, and the probable holder of many dashed dreams. She would be suspicious of being an object of ridicule, and very experienced in detecting condescension or disdain. The only chance I had of winning the perfect partner was to be completely open with my motives and plans, to show her that I had nothing to hide and that she had nothing to fear: only then would she even give me the consideration I wanted.
“So, why would you want me for your wife?” She was barely above a whisper, but there were very few other patrons in the café. I suspected that she didn’t want to speak of a painful dream aloud.
I smiled again, only this time, it was rueful. “I think that the tale will be right up your alley – it is mostly about how I came to reorganize my values and priorities. Building a new ontology, you might say.”
She straightened up at that, her eyes losing their wary distance, and I knew that she was going to pay attention. I also saw that she was much more attractive than she gave herself credit for.
“First of all, I am Shonarth Vaclathi, of 23 years, and in possession of a modest bankroll. Not a fortune yet, but I can see my way from here. My father has made it quite clear what he wants me to become and how he wants me to live, and I am desperate to avoid his life at all costs. I desperately want to be out of his house, and I had left when I was just 17. I am negotiating to pay off my Childhood Bond, and I think
that I can get him to discount it as if I’m paying it off seven years early.”
She showed puzzlement. “But the Bond doesn’t have a set payoff date, so how could you do so ‘early’? And there isn’t an interest rate, so a discount doesn’t make sense.”
“I know.” Smirk. “But he’s always been easy to confuse when he’s chasing a payoff, and I dangled the immediate money in front of him; he’s thinking that some money now is better than all the money later. Anyway, he is also pressuring me to get married so that …”
“… he will be bumped up to Elder status, and be able to swing a bit more leverage in his business deals,” she concluded.
“Yes, that was what I calculated as well,” I agreed. “He got me an invitation to the Fethruvath Walk – I have no idea what that might have cost him – but I am not interested in furthering his aims, only mine own. And when the opportunity came up to further several of my own plans all at the same time, I just couldn’t see letting the opportunity pass by.”
She regarded me carefully without saying anything for a few moments. Then, “And what were those aims?”
I brought a lower hand up to count upon. “First, I intend to make my marriages partnerships. Which means that it is counterproductive to participate in or support events such as the Fethruvath Walk, where the ladies are merely bait for the interests of a Clan as defined by a male leader. I will not place my father’s aims above my own, as I refuse to live the life that he has built for himself. So I cannot and will not marry for any reason other than a mutual
agreement of partnership.” Ticking off those reasons exhausted that hand, so I switched to my other lower hand.
“Most important – and this reason is worth a hand of its own – is that I needed to prove to my first wife that I am completely in earnest when I tell her that she is the one I choose above all others.”
She almost imperceptibly withdrew; hopefully to contemplate my sincerity and my offer.
She roused from her immobility to exclaim, “You are that man! The one who dismissed the entire
I was a little taken aback. “I wasn’t aware that they even bothered to show that little interview,” I said hesitantly.
“Why? What was wrong with all those girls?”
“Every one that I could see was dismissive and conceited,” I said simply.
“Why is that so important?” Hmm, this might be difficult to get across
. “Let be back up to give some history. I returned about three weeks ago from a trading Grand Tour. In my travels, I found myself under the tutelage of a Master Trader of the human variety, and he taught me a great deal. I have learned to categorize each expense and receipt, to improve my knowledge of my business. He also taught me about the concept of marginal utility; the idea that additional amounts of a good are frequently less useful that the initial amount of the thing. And while I applied that to the marketplace, and it helped me to change a massive loss into a more than massive gain, I also applied it to my life.”
I considered her thoughtfully as I paused. Zia seemed to be processing all this well. “I enjoy the company of a pretty woman.” She flinched. I suppressed a smile. “And I also enjoy conversation with an intelligent person. And I prefer to associate with people that are kind, compassionate, and supportive. Weighing each of those traits, I found that beyond a certain level of pleasing appearance, having the woman be more
beautiful wasn’t all that useful; it lacked marginal utility. Having the woman be more cheerful, having her be more loyal, having her be more caring – all those things have great value, and are the things I am pursuing.”
She was pushing herself away from the table, clearly having trouble believing what she knew was coming next.
“That is why I sought out and am pursuing you.”
Quite flustered, she sought to change the subject, and I allowed it. “Why do you want an ontologist?”
“There are any number of empty-headed fluffballs that are merely pleasant; I am looking for an intelligent woman for a partnership, someone who can keep up with me and even challenge me. As I said, I have some classification and organizational tasks that would probably be exactly what you do, were it not so trivial for you. It will not be a stretch of your skills to create a categorization system to track all the monetary flow within a business …”
Zia held up her top hands to stop me. “That work has already been done. We joined the stellar civilizations about five thousand years ago, and when their power generation technology became commonplace, the corporate world joined them in the lump-sum accounting that they use. Government followed less than a generation later. Before that, our people developed an,” she sniffed in derision, “adequate categorization system for business accounting.”
I showed a bit of pleasure with my next question. “I suppose that you have already investigated it and determined where it should be improved?”
She slowly began to show happiness. “That depends entirely on your aims. If your only desire is to stem wasteful spending, then the existing systems of the 134th century will be enough. I have a friend in archeological data mining; I’m sure that she can find an accounting program that will suffice …,” she slowly finished her sentence, “… for us.”
“Yes, for us,” she affirmed.
“I feel that I should warn you,” I mentioned, “that I am quite immature, although I’m told that should you be able to keep me alive, I will eventually be cured of that condition.” I tried my best ingratiating expression. “And you will have the dubious opportunity to influence my growth so that I become more in line with the kind of man you desire as a husband.”
She took a deep breath – preparatory to broaching a painful subject, I thought. I was right. “And what do you plan for your secondary Mamas?”
I firmly made eye contact. “I am seeking a total partnership. Both of us will have veto power over any additional Mamas. It is a biological reality that with a 5:1 gender ratio, each marriage needs to accept an average of 5 females. But,” I punctuated with upper hands raised high, “we need not rush to add anyone, and we need not accept any that upend what we are trying to build. They
need to fit in with us
– and I will veto any addition that would undermine your position as Head Mama.”
Zia slowly indicated her relief. “That is all the assurance I needed.” She smirked. “I will need your comm-code, of course, and we will have to meet my family fairly soon. Especially if we want to have the ceremony this weekend.”
I had been starting to stand – I slammed down onto the chair. “What
Zia was vastly amused, I could tell. It wasn’t as if she was attempting to conceal it, after all, and I suspected that it was at my expense. Fortunately, like everything else she did, it was a gentle
I tried to explain my shock. “I had assumed that it would take quite a bit longer to get your agreement, and that I would have time to arrange for a home for us; I only have a one room apartment by the spaceport …”
“I have a solution for that, too.” As she got up from the café table, she asked, “Do you want to maintain your connection to your birth family or your clan?”
“Not at all,” I shot back. “But … what does that have to do with anything?”
“Well, if you can get your father to state your debt, regardless of the discount, you can give him the payoff right before our ceremony.”
“But that’s why I need to argue him into a discount – I need to preserve my bankroll to start up our business,” I argued.
“You won’t be paying it – my father will.”
“Um, Zia,” I said gently, “no dowry has ever been that much.”
“No, but combined with a clan buy-in, we can make it work. Father can cover it, and we have some homes that will do nicely. You will be in the Cloovatni clan, living with us, instead of under the thumbs of your father.”
Clan buy-ins sometimes flowed to the clan, in the case of a strong clan allowing in a desperate member. And sometimes they flowed to the individual, when the clan was seeking a new … heir
? I shook my head to clear my confusion. It didn’t work. “So why are you saying yes so rapidly? You know so little about me?”
Her answer translates almost perfectly into a saying from Earth: “Opportunities come infrequently. When it rains gold, put out the bucket, not the thimble.”
And after our business began, shortly after I became a Cloovatni scion, we were able to put into words the realization that I had, the one that started our family. It’s not ‘people over policies’ – it’s ‘people *are\
* our policy’. We selected our people, we invested in our people, we set up systems where they could achieve and excel.
And by rewarding our people, we are in turn rewarded.