The Trade Missionby Andrew Pyper
On the delirious eve of the new millennium, Marcus Wallace and Jonathon Bates, two twenty-four-year-old overnight dot-com millionaires, are on a trade mission in Brazil. Their product is Hypothesys, a virtual "morality machine" that promises to help people "make the best decisions of their lives." But when the decision is made to take an ecotour up the Río Negro deep into the Amazon jungle, the Hypothesys team members are forced to make choices for themselves -- choices that carry fatal consequences.
In the dead of night, their boat is boarded by paramilitaries who kill the Brazilian crew and kidnap Wallace and Bates, their two older colleagues, and their enigmatic interpreter, Crossman. Blindfolded and thrown into a pit for a prison, they must fight to find the will to survive. But when the increasingly unstable Wallace engineers a violent escape, their own natures emerge as a threat potentially more dangerous than the boundless jungle that surrounds them, or the gunmen who relentlessly pursue them.
A rare combination of literary skill, contemporary insight, and outstanding storytelling, The Trade Mission is an electrifying read that confirms Andrew Pyper's mastery of psychological suspense.
With its unnecessary subtitle, Pyper's follow-up to Lost Girls (2000) is plenty spooky. Elizabeth Crossman, lonely, Canadian, 38, and susceptible, narrates the increasingly terrifying journey of fellow Canadian software developer/floggers Wallace and Bates, childhood chums who've taken their show on the road seeking buyers for HYPOTHESYS, the hot new solution to pesky problems of ethics. The boys, accompanied by their token adult Barry, an Ivy Leaguer from the American South; Lydia, a Brit hoping to get pregnant, and Crossman, take a night away from their governmental trade mission keepers and head to the dives of Manaus, the boom-and-bust entry-point to Amazonia. Following the recommendation of their hotel's gigantic and ominous concierge, the ever drunker party winds up in a bordello where Bates learns that he may not be gay and where the legend of personal greatness he dreams up to impress his whore starts machinery moving that will grind up lives. The next day's side-trip up the Rio Negro turns terrifying in the middle of the night-and the rainforest-when a gang of Spanish-speaking thugs, possibly Colombian, tumble over the gunwales, murder the crew, and separate the Canadians from the rest of the party to march them through the vines, snakes, and swarming insects to a hidden camp where they're tortured for the "secrets" suggested by the boozy myth that Bates poured into the ear of the hooker who supposedly spoke no English. Only Crossman is spared the beatings, burnings, and brainbusting, but whenthe group escapes, it's the brilliant, beautiful, mercurial, and machete-wielding Wallace who gets them out. Crossman can simply follow, mulling over various fates and her moony feelings for the charismatic software boy.
Agreeably terrifying and all quite believable.
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Read an Excerpt
"Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Marcus Wallace, and I'd like to personally welcome you to your futures!"
This is in Brazil, but it could be anywhere.
A long conference room lit by dimmed halogen spots in the ceiling, a dozen rows of chairs, potted ferns circling the lectern. The front reserved for photographers, whose flashbulbs explode like distant artillery fire whenever one of the two people on stage makes a face or gesture of any kind. Behind them, slouching journalists scribble in notepads as they always have, or tickle laptops, as they do more and more. Then the rows of money: suits, silk shirts, Swiss watches of a price equivalent to an entry-level American sedan.
The person speaking to them is a boy. The other person on stage is a boy as well, although he hasn't spoken yet, and doesn't appear interested in starting any time soon. Instead, he sits at a small desk made out of a single sheet of clear, molded plastic (beneath it, his knees visibly jiggling within their cargo pants). He keeps his eyes squinted at a computer screen in front of him, and from time to time makes stabs at its keyboard, as though a cockroach were running back and forth across it. They are far enough apart that even from the back of the room you can't take them both in at once, so you move your eyes from one to the other. Decide that your first impression was wrong. They aren't boys at all. They are young men. But the word continues to cling to them, nevertheless. It seems right. You feel certain it will never leave them.
"Before we move on to this afternoon's presentation, I would like to introduce my partner -- God, it sounds like he's my wife or something whenever I say that! -- the real brains behind the success of Hypothesys, Jonathon Bates."
The young man at the clear plastic desk jiggles his knees more violently and raises his hand over his head in a kind of wave. A smile fractures across his mouth without him appearing to be in control of it.
"This is going to be one of the first public demonstrations of our product," the standing one says, "so we're pretty excited up here -- or down here, I should say, seeing as this is South America."
A giggle escapes from his lips, which in turn initiates a round of chortles and cleared throats from the audience. He's cute. Everyone wants to like him. They already do.
"Why are we excited? Well, it's pretty simple. We feel that Hypothesys is something that is truly going to change the way we conduct our lives. And that's not just more of the same hype you guys have no doubt been served plenty of all week. Because this isn't like the stuff you've seen all week. It's not another Internet site where you can buy groceries or books or watch porn broadcast live from a rented room in Amsterdam or get twenty-four-hour webcam coverage of some Joe Nobody arguing with his girlfriend or brushing his teeth. Hypothesys isn't about any of that. In fact, it can literally be anything you want it to be. Something you need. Your confidant. Your best friend. Your nondenominational spiritual advisor. Night or day, it will be there to help. To offer guidance about life's most diYcult questions, or even the easy ones you just feel you'd like a second opinion on. As the banner over our stall in the convention hall says, 'Hypothesys helps you make the best decisions of your life!'"
At this, the dimmed lights dim further, and at the rear of the stage a large screen glows blue. Gradually, the word HYPOTHESYS comes forward in white, a cloud taking shape in a clear sky. A jet streaks across with a roar, leaving "New Human Ethics Technologies" formed out of the dissolving exhaust behind it. Even from the back of the room you can see the encircled c asserting copyright over every one of these words.
Now the two young men are silhouettes against the perfect blue, except for pancake circles of light on their faces, spotlights following them wherever they go. They look like ghosts in a high-school play.
"Some have called our project a morality machine, but that isn't quite right," continues the young Wallace's disembodied voice. Only now, in the new darkness, do you notice how full it is, at once boyish and suggestive of experience."Hypothesys doesn't deliver morality per se, nor is it a machine, strictly speaking. What it is, however, is a library of contemporary ethics. The process behind its development is known as collaborative filtering, but it's not as complicated as it sounds. It's just a survey, really. A big survey. One that has resulted in a collection of data that, once it has been thoroughly cross-referenced, can tell us something about the way we behave. So far, collaborative filtering is a process that has been employed for the most predictably commercial purposes. You know, the old 'If you liked that movie or CD, chances are you'll also like this movie or CD' based on the stuff other people have bought before you. Hypothesys is considerably more ambitious. It has nothing to sell but ourselves. It is who we are -- all of us together -- right now. It forms, in effect, a universal human mind."
Bates begins to work furiously at his laptop, and an animated brain appears on the screen, huge and pulsing with white bolts of electricity.
"Over the course of the past several months, we have conducted one of the most extensive studies of individual sensibilities ever undertaken," Wallace says, his spotlit head floating from one side of the stage to the other."And we weren't asking about what color of sneakers people most like to wear, or what kind of car they drive, or whether they live in a house or a hole in the ground. In short, this was not the dead-tired market research you've all heard too much about already. We weren't interested in the market at all, as a matter of fact, but only in people's answers to hypothetical questions. Scruples. The way we decide to live our lives. Bates?"
As a buzzing swarm of static on the screen nibbles the brain away from stem to lobe, it is replaced by a shot of a crowded city street. People moving in undulating waves, half heading north, half south. It takes a couple of seconds to recognize the scene as computer-generated (it's only the slight over-vividness of digitized color that gives it away). Then you notice something else not-quite-right about it. The people are made up of men, women, old and young, skin of every graduated pigment between black and albino, a cross around one neck, a Star of David around another, a turbaned head and a veiled face. A street that had to be made by a computer because none could possibly be this perfectly representative anywhere in the real world.
"There is, needless to say, no single law that guides our actions. Our different religions, cultures and experiences shape our ethical orientations in a million discrete ways. But Hypothesys is indifferent to those distinctions. It's about what we have in common, not what sets us apart. And because the data we have collected does not take into account the identity of those who participated in its collection, it is a system that can be applied with equal effectiveness in any nation, and be relevant to any way of life. We have, in a sense, created an electronic Everyman. Or Everywoman."
Now the street scene blurs into a palette of brilliant colors that reassembles into a vision of the earth viewed from space. Different strains of shimmering, twinkly music seem to come from every corner of the room to converge between our ears. A chorus of synthetic human voices coming from the inside out. Home, they sing. Home!
Gradually, though, the planet's blues and browns and benign cloud masses become more detailed, hostile. Soon we are hurtling toward the surface.
"So how does it work?" Wallace's question cuts through the soundtrack, which has built up into a Wagnerian climax of swirling synthesizers."Well, my friends, let's go straight into the mind of Hypothesys and find out!"
The earth entirely fills the screen in bulging 3-d and with a clap of thunder we crash somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, plummet down into the depths until the shafts of sunlight from the surface whither away and the entire conference room goes dark.
Somebody blows their nose. A goose honk in the silence.
Then a woman's face appears on the screen. As we watch, her features -- hair color, skin tone, nose length, lip shape -- subtly change so that she is never fixed. Never one woman, but an infinitely revolving carousel of women.
"Meet Camilla," Wallace says, softer now."She has a problem. She knows something that her husband doesn't know, and she can't decide whether to tell him about it."
The woman's face fluidly morphs into that of a man. Of men.
"Camilla kissed Stephen last week. Stephen and Camilla's husband are friends, they play golf on the weekends, get together for family barbecues. But last week Stephen called Camilla and asked her to lunch. Now, this is important: Camilla felt something was strange about this. Camilla and Stephen had never had lunch alone together before. And the fact is, she's caught Stephen looking at her strangely lately. You know, giving her the old Latin lover eyes. But this is Brazil -- you all know about that!"
There is appreciative laughter at this, along with a lusty whoop from somewhere among the journalists. Hoo-ha!
"But Camilla met up with Stephen anyway. They had some wine. They had a nice time. Then, over the tiramisù, Stephen drops the bomb. 'I love you,' he says. 'I won't get in the way of your life if you don't want me to. But I just had to let you know. ' Camilla feels like a kid. She feels her cheeks get hot." (The women's faces reappear on the screen, all of them blushing.) "They pay and step out of the restaurant. And right there on the sidewalk, before she knows what she's doing -- although she does, of course, she knows perfectly well -- she kisses Stephen like he was about to head off to war. We're talking passion here, people."
The face of the men returns and the women and men kiss on the lips, a pink flash of tongue visible before they meet.
"Now Camilla doesn't know what to do. She'd ask her girlfriends for advice, but they'd blab it all over the place. And as for her priest? Her rabbi? She hasn't seen those guys since her wedding. Besides, it all feels so complicated. She might just love Stephen herself. But what about the kids? And her husband? Sure, she still loves him, but quite frankly, a good deal less than she used to. Is her last chance for adventure staring her right in the face? Or is this the tough spot she's heard about, when she goes to her husband and lets him know everything so they can try to work it out together? Is her duty to her own happiness or the happiness of others? As you can see, there's a lot of factors at work here, even in a situation as common as this. Too many for one brain to handle. And this is where Hypothesys comes in."
The word RELATIONSHIPS appears at the bottom of the screen, and then, rising up from it and branching out in different directions, MARRIAGE and DISCLOSURE and CHILDREN and SEX. As the tree of words grows higher, the branches become more intricate, and eventually overlap into a single, wavering mass of dense leaves caught in a breeze.
"Camilla uses our system to sort out her problem one step at a time. She takes a good look at how she honestly feels, then enters the facts of her situation, detail by detail. She rates certain perception factors on a scale of one to ten, such as the pain she would endure if her husband left her, her physical and emotional desire for Stephen, the degree of discomfort she would experience in carrying on a long-term deception behind the back of the man she made solemn vows to years before, et cetera, et cetera. And these factors are then matched up with the responses of every other participant in the Hypothesys library. Within seconds, the system can give Camilla her answer."
On the screen, a spreadsheet appears with dozens of figures arranged in columns under the same headings that appeared at the base of the tree.
"And what do we tell her to do? Well, reading the responses is something of an art in itself -- it's not exactly a simple yes or no sort of thing -- but it's basically 'Go for it! Life's too short! But don't tell the husband unless you're sure Stephen's in it for the long haul. ' Hey, it may not be the most honorable course of action, ladies and gentlemen. But it is the most true to who we really are."
The numbers on the screen skitter away, and in their place Camilla's faces reappear, nodding back in gratitude at Wallace's slender shadow before her.
"Thank you, Camilla," he says to the digital representation of womankind, then turns back to us, the broad swath of flesh and blood sitting at his feet."And thank you all for coming. Of course, this demonstration has been only a most basic exercise of the system's capacities. Hypothesys is as complex as you are -- and only you know what that really means. So I hope you get a chance to try Hypothesys out for yourselves at our exhibition area in the convention hall -- and remember, confidentiality is guaranteed!"
Camilla disappears. The screen lulls into a fractal, one of those lines that create cities of fantastic architecture before wiping them out and starting over again. The halogen lights bathe the room in enough orange to identify us as separate heads. Wallace looks out over every one of them.
"I think we have time for a couple of questions," he says, glancing at his watch.
The journalists thrust pens, PalmPilots and index fingers into the air.
"Do you foresee any applications for your system outside that of a personal guide?"
"We're always working on things. There's been calls. The Pentagon has seen some potential for military deployments. Certain governments have shown interest in its use in policy development. NGOs, religious leadership, corporate management. Anywhere a decision has to be made, Hypothesys can be there."
"How are sales going?"
"This trip alone has been very fruitful," Wallace says, lowering his eyes in a half-second show of modesty."Barry and Lydia, our associates on the money side of things, just yesterday sold world Portuguese rights for, well, what can I say? A significant amount."
"We hear four million."
"fou hear pretty good."
"What about the movie?"
"What's with you guys and the movies? It's like you'd all rather be working for Variety or something."
"Hey, we're all in it for the glamour, right? So what's the deal?"
"The deal is that as of two weeks ago the film rights to our joint autobiography have been optioned by Paramount. I understand that a screenplay is already under development."
"Who are they thinking of to play you and Mr. Bates?"
"Naturally, I think the twenty-million-per-movie pretty boy of the moment would have to play me. I guess we'd need two of those, now that I think of it," he says, offering an apologetic pout over at Bates."One concept the studio people have mentioned is an updated version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I'm rolling with that. What do you guys think?"
"Would you be the beauty or the beast?"
"Very funny, Diane."
"Has the autobiography even been published yet?"
"Hey, we're still living our lives here. We haven't had a chance to write about them yet."
"This one is for Mr. Bates. Ever get tired of playing second fiddle to your exuberant partner here?"
The young man behind the computer looks out at us directly for the first time. His face elongated and blanched clean of expression, as though someone has accused him of something terrible. But this is more or less the way he always looks.
"There is no second fiddle with Hypothesys," he says evenly, though his knees are now thudding up against the underside of his desk."In our partnership, we both play first violin."
"Very well put, Bates," Wallace cuts in and gives Bates an unnoticeable signal that turns his head back to his computer screen."OK, everybody. Last question."
"What is your opinion with regard to the possibility of your team being the first to one day develop authentic artificial intelligence in computers?"
"I think that day is already here, Brad." Wallace blinks earnestly."If our program can advise you as to how to live your life, and that advice is no worse than what most other people would likely advise, isn't that a demonstration of intelligence? Assume for a moment that wisdom is adhering to the law of averages -- and who's to say it ultimately isn't? I mean, that's what rationality is -- then what we have here is the old wise man sitting on top of the silicon mountain, my friends."
With this Wallace smacks a fist into his palm and Bates punches at his computer one last time. The synthesizer music returns, a single, thrumming bass note like a far-off freight train. As Wallace steps back from the lectern mouthing Thank you and pointing directly at recognized faces in the audience like a presidential candidate, the sound enlarges. The screen at the back of the stage becomes a slow strobe of colors that freezes the room in half seconds of blue and yellow and underwater green. And as the sound fully enters our chests (noticing only now that we have been painfully applauding since the first thank you) Bates rises from his clear plastic table and joins Wallace at the front of the stage.
They bring themselves toward each other with their smiles, arms rising to curl around the other's waist. These pictures of them stay in our minds longer than any of the catchphrases or special effects that preceded. It's somehow clear that this is the only part of the presentation that wasn't planned out. A gesture too fluid to be rehearsed, too familiar, without the stiff hesitations of thought. Two young men caught in the lingering wash of adult applause, standing so close they could be joined at some hidden point, tied to one another by a transparent wire that allows a range of individual movement but can also reel them back together at any time. They could be brothers. Or fashion models beaming their good luck out from a page of gloss. Or street hustlers starting their shifts.
I stand at the back of the room and hold them there for as long as I can. We all do. A last look at how things are, before they turn into whatever comes next.
Copyright © 2002 by Andrew Pyper Enterprises, Inc.
Meet the Author
Andrew Pyper was born in Stratford, Ontario, in 1968. His first novel, Lost Girls, was an international bestseller and selected as a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times. He lives in Toronto.
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I read this novel and, as I went along, found myself wondering where it belonged on the "bookstore shelf of my mind": thriller, adventure, "literary", horror, young adult, men's fiction....And then I gave up and realized that The Trade Mission is both a play on and a denial of the very idea of categories of this kind. It also turns its back on the demand for clear heroes and villains, which makes its exploration of morality in an age of radical individualism all the more pointed. My advice is to put your expectations of what this book "is" or might be aside, and enjoy the darkness, the twists and turns, and the way a certain generation's philosophies, priorities and dangerously flexible sense of self plays out on the unlikely stage of the jungle, where the "real" and the virtual, truth and lies, hates and loves, become fascinatingly confused.