The Caryatids by Bruce Sterling:
Karen sniffed the scented gift card and ripped into the wrappings. She removed a crystal ball. The crystal ball held a little world. A captive bubble of water. It was a biosphere. Herbert often mentioned them. They were modeling tools for environmental studies.
Biospheres were clever toys, but unstable, since their tiny ecosystems were so frail. Biospheres were pretty at first, but they had horribly brief lives. Sooner or later, disaster was sure to strike that little world. Living systems were never as neat and efficient as clockworks. Biology wasn’t machinery. So, as time passed, some aspect of the miniature world would depart from the normal parameters. Some vital salt or mineral might leach out against the glass. Some keystone microbe might die off—or else bloom crazily, killing everything else.
A biosphere was a crystal world that guaranteed doom.
Karen peered through the shining bubble, her freckled cheekbones warping in reflection. “This is so clever and pretty! What do people call this?”
“I’d call that a ‘thanatosphere.'”
“Well! What a name!” Karen deftly tossed the gleaming ball from hand to hand. “Why that big sour face? Your gift from that princess is fit for a queen!” Watery rainbows chased themselves across Vera’s blanket.
“That toy comes from a rich Dispensation banker. He’s a spy, and that’s a bribe. That’s the truth.” Karen blinked. “Rich bankers are giving you gifts? Well then! You’re coming up in the world! I always said you would.”
“I don’t need that toy. I don’t want it. You can keep it.”
“Truly?” Karen caressed the crystal with her cheek. “Won’t somebody get mad about that?”
“Nobody from the Acquis. Nobody that matters to us.”
“Well, I’m so happy to have this! You’re very generous, Vera! That is one of your finest character traits.” Now Karen was intrigued, so she really bored in. “I’ve heard a lot of stories about toys like this. Dispensation people are crazy for their fancy gifts and gadgets. They’re big collectors’ items, from high society! I bet this toy is worth a lot of cash.”
Vera methodically ripped the gift box to shreds. It was lined with velvet, with slender walls made of some fine alien substance, like parchment. It smelled like fresh bamboo. “They call their toys ‘hobjects.'”
“Oh yeah. I knew that, too.” Karen clutched the ball. “Wow, Vera, I privately own a fancy hobject! I feel so glamorous!”
“Karen, don’t manifest sarcastically. Only little kids take candy from strangers.” Karen was hurt by this reproof. “But Little Mary is a little kid.”
“That toy is sure to rot soon. It’ll turn dark and ugly.”
Karen rolled the shining ball across the backs of her fingers. Karen’s use of neural gauntlets had made her dexterous—if her boneware was much like a skeleton, her skeleton had become rather like boneware. “Now, Vera: What kind of dark, bleak attitude are you projecting at me here? This is a whole little world! Look at all this wonderful stuff floating around in here! There’s a million pieces of it, and they’re all connected! You know what? I think this little world has a little sensorweb built in!”
“Oh no,” said Vera. “That would be perverse.”
“This is art! It’s an art hobject!”
Vera flinched. “Stop juggling it!”
Karen’s brown eyes shone with glee. “I can see little shrimp! They’re swimming around in there! They’re jumbo shrimp!”
Karen’s eager teasing had defeated her. Vera reached out.
The biosphere held elegant branches of delicate fringed seaweed, bobbing in a vivid, reeling, fertile algae soup. The pea-green water swarmed with a vivid, pinhead-sized menagerie of twitchy rotifers and glassy roundworms.
And, yes, the sphere also held a darting, wriggling family of shrimp. These shrimp were the grandest denizens of their miniature world. Majestic, like dragons.
The crystal of the biosphere was lavishly veined. Some extremely deft machine had laser-engraved a whole Los Angeles of circuits through that crystal ball.
The circuits zoomed around the water world like a thousand superhighways.
“Americans will buy anything,” Karen said.
The dragon shrimp swam solemnly above an urban complex of fairy skyscrapers. Glittering extrusions grew like frost from the crystal into the seawater.
Complex. Mysterious. Alluring. It was as if, purely for random amusement, some ship-in-a-bottle fanatic had built himself… what?
Factories like fingernail parings. Mini-distilleries. Desalinators, and filters, and water-treatment plants. A pocket city, half greenish ooze and half life-support network.
Squinting in disbelief, Vera lifted the biosphere into a brighter glare. Half the glass darkened as a thousand tiny shutters closed.
This was a lovely gift. Someone had been extremely thoughtful. It was apt. It was rich with hidden meaning. It was a seduction, and meant to win her over.
Vera had never seen anything in her harsh and dutiful life that was half so pretty as this.