It was around two in the morning when Manfred left the party after what had been a successful night. He did not get too drunk (five beers). He won a round of Celebrity Heads (King Kong). And Max’s girlfriend had outdone herself with the finger food (Parma ham with melon and grilled haloumi skewers).

He walked towards the road, arrived under the light of a street lamp, and opened the Uber application on his phone. His rating—4.97—appeared at the top of the screen. It would have been a perfect five had Max not berated his driver that time. Still, it was a good rating. And it was only Uber. In China, they had ratings systems that could bring shame on your whole family.

That’s the future, he thought.

Soon all that data they were harvesting would reduce human worth to bivariated data sets, coordinates on Venn diagrams. What would his rating be then? Sure, he was a model rideshare user. And yes, he paid his taxes and observed a rigorous personal hygiene regimen. But that just made you tolerable. To be desirable, you needed to be cool and have rugged looks and professional status, criteria against which he was a 3.2 at best.

Imagine trying to catch an Uber with a rating of 3.2! he thought. You can’t catch a bus with numbers like those.

As the app searched for nearby cars, he thought about his life. His father had a wife, a house, and two kids by his age. This seemed unobtainable to Manfred. After rent, bills, and food, he had just a couple of hundred dollars at the end of each month, which he invariably blew on booze. Judge Manfred if you will, reader. But getting drunk was his only indulgence, his only release. Without booze, he would probably have killed himself by now.

He imagined life in countries like Oman or Saudi Arabia. What would he do in those places? Come home to a banquet and a harem of horny wives every evening, probably. Was it halal for women to wear their burqas during sex? Could you fuck more than one at the same time? Keep the booze! he thought. That sounds like a life!

So in the past, things were better. In the east, things were better. Yet there he was, marooned in a cursed era, stricken in a cancelled empire. He had no god. No home. No family. The central theme of his age was disposability, and he was human garbage.

The miniature cars roamed around the map on his screen. Fares were two times the normal price. It would cost him $42 to get home using the normal service or $4.50 with UberPool.

He had never used UberPool. It was bad enough making conversation with the driver. Sharing a car with other passengers, probably drunks and reprobates all of them, seemed too great an ask. But money was all he had, and he did not have enough of it to waste on transportation.

Pool it is, he said to himself.

He confirmed the journey. Finding your best route, it said, and a minute later, Ahmed—4.75 stars—was on his way.

The pickup point was two blocks over. The car pulled up soon after he arrived.

“Manfred?” the driver said.

He nodded and opened the back door and found there were no other passengers inside. He sat down on the back seat, put on his seatbelt, and the car took off.

Manfred and Ahmed made friendly conversation. They talked about the high demand for cars, and Ahmed asked Manfred what he had done that night. Manfred said that he was at a party, prompting Ahmed to ask if he had “any luck.” Manfred noticed the man’s twisted grin in the rear vision mirror.

No wonder you’re a 4.75, he thought.

“No,” he finally replied. “Not tonight, unfortunately.”

“No worry…” said Ahmed as the car slowed down at the traffic lights. “In a minute, we pick up two girls.” He turned to face Manfred, the strange smile on his face again. “One for you and one for me,” he said and let out an impish laugh.

Ahmed’s words made Manfred sympathize with the women he’d heard complaining about creepy men all those times. Nothing was likely to happen to him on his way home from a party, no matter how drunk he got or which mode of transport he chose. But for women, the drunker they got, the more they needed to take a car home, the more likely they were to get raped by a guy called Ahmed. Perhaps that was why girls were rude to him. They viewed men as predators. And with good reason. It was because of men like Ahmed.

Ahmed is on his way to a four star rating, Manfred thought. Less if he doesn’t tone down the macho remarks.

The car stopped in front of a bar. Two girls approached it, looking a little unsteady on their feet. One of them was skinny and had tattoos and was dressed a little slutty, Manfred thought. The other was chubby and was dressed more discreetly.

The chubby one sat in the back next to Manfred. The skinny one got into the front seat beside Ahmed.

“Hello,” the chubby one said. She had some kind of European accent.

“Hi,” said Manfred as the car pulled away from the curb.

The girl in the front spoke with Ahmed about what music she wanted to listen to.

“Where are you getting out?” the one in the back said to Manfred.

“Near the Town Hall.”

“I don’t know where that is.”

“You’re from out of town, I guess?”

“We’re from Sweden.”

She explained that the two of them were tourists and were only in town for a few days. Manfred asked them about the places they had been and where they were going next. She had a friendly and pleasant manner. Manfred decided to introduce himself.

“I’m Alice,” she said. “And that’s Mia.”

Alice asked him what he did. He explained that he was a security administrator, but that what he really wanted to be was a writer. Alice commented that this was cool and that she would like to read some of his stuff some time. Manfred said he would be happy to send her some stories and that they ought to exchange email addresses. She agreed and handed him her phone.

They were getting close to his neighborhood.

“Where are you ladies getting out?” he said.

“Just up here,” Alice said.

“I’m a little further.”

“Would you like to join us for a drink?” Mia, the one in the front, said.

The question caught Manfred off guard. Mia had barely acknowledged him to that point. And it was after 2:30 am, meaning none of the bars in the area were open. He wondered if they were aware of this, but decided not to mention it and simply said that yes, he would like to join them for a drink.

The car pulled up at the girls’ destination. The three of them opened their doors.

“You’re getting out?” Ahmed said to Manfred. “We’re still eight minutes from your stop.”

“No worries. I’ll get out here. Have a good night.”

The man was wide-eyed. He looked at Manfred as though he were some kind of deity. It’s true, Manfred thought. He was achieving something a guy like Ahmed could only dream of.

“There’s a store over there,” Mia said, directing them across the road.

They walked into the store and Manfred decided to take charge of the situation. He was the local, after all. And he was the oldest of the three of them. He decided to buy some wine. Beer was too cheap. Liquor was too strong.

He asked the clerk where they kept the chilled bottles and found the fridge at the rear of the store. Normally, he wouldn’t spend more than $10 on a bottle, but tonight was no normal night.

He picked one out with a marked price of $24, took out his phone, and opened the WineScan app. He held the device over the barcode. Notes of pineapple and cut grass. 4.2 stars.

That will do, he thought.

He turned towards the counter as Ahmed walked into the store. Manfred was a little taken aback. But he gathered his composure and smiled and said hello. He did not want to jeopardize his rating. And it was entirely possible that Ahmed was simply picking up a snack to sustain him through the night.

Manfred put the bottle on the counter and pulled out his card without the slightest tinge of guilt. If the cheapest bottle were $500, he probably would have bought it. He did not yet know where he wanted the night to end, but wherever it was, he would need booze to get there.

He wished the clerk and Ahmed a good night and he and the Swedes left the store.

“Our hotel’s just around the corner,” Mia said, taking the lead.

“Wasn’t it strange that the driver came in after us?” Alice said.

“I don’t think it was a coincidence,” Mia said.

“Me either,” said Manfred. “He was a little creepy.”

Mia told Manfred that they were staying in a small room and that she hoped he wouldn’t mind. Manfred wasn’t worried. If it were a snake pit they were staying in, it wouldn’t deter him from following them inside.

They walked through the hotel reception and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Mia unlocked the door and the three of them filed inside.

The room smelled vaguely of smoke. It had two single beds side-by-side and a small bathroom by the entrance. There were teacups next to the kettle on the mantelpiece. Manfred poured the wine and handed them one each.

“This wine is a favorite of mine,” he said as they took their first sips. He had never tried it in his life. The girls offered no comment and he thought he should omit the tasting notes.

“So what do you do back in Sweden?”

“We’re studying economics,” said Alice. “We just finished our first year.”

“First year…so you’re…what…19?”

“I am…she’s 18…” Alice said, pointing at Mia.

“18…wow…”

So he was twelve years older than them. It seemed a long time. He found it hard to believe he had even been an adult that long.

He was beginning to rethink the whole escapade. These were young girls from a foreign country. Mia would have sucked a few cocks before. There was no question about that. But Alice had the air of a virgin. Regardless, he, a much older man, was with them in their hotel room, feeding them wine with an eye to a sexual encounter.

Would it be ethical? As long as there was consent, it would certainly be legal. He was expected to follow all of society’s rules, even the ones he found absurd and unjust. Surely he didn’t have to go any further. Besides, who was he to gainsay the collective wisdom of his fellow citizens?

His mind was now at ease. The party would go on.

“How about you?” Mia said.

“I’m 27,” he said.

Mia put on some music. Manfred got up and began to dance. He wouldn’t normally do so, but he had thrown caution to the wind this evening, and look where it had got him. He wasn’t about to change course now.

After a few minutes, he sat back down next to Alice on the couch. Mia sat on the bed opposite them. Alice asked him more about his writing and made him promise he would send her some stories. She’s definitely interested, he thought. But he was not sure he felt the same. She was not a pretty girl. And she was only 19.

Mia was less warm than Alice, but it seemed this was due to her nature rather than something she might have against him. It was she who had asked him to come for a drink, after all. And it was she who kept offering him cigarettes now that he was there.

As Manfred topped up their cups, Mia produced a small bag of marijuana.

“Do you smoke?” she said, holding it up.

“Sure,” he said.

He had only done it a couple of times and hadn’t really liked it, but he didn’t want to kill the mood.

As she rolled the joint, Manfred thought that Mia must have been popular in high school. She had tattoos and attitude and knew how to roll a joint. Manfred had none of those attributes or skills. Not then. Not now. But enough time had passed for him to know that the popular kids usually ended up as bus drivers or real estate agents or losers injecting heroin somewhere. Manfred was not like them. Manfred was doing fine. Manfred was a writer in a hotel room with two adventurous young Swedish girls.

Mia lit the joint. She took several puffs and passed it to Alice, who took a drag. She coughed and passed it to Manfred, who took three hits and returned it to Mia.

“Come and play us some music,” Mia said, drawing on it again. “Show us some local bands.”

Manfred recalled the gig Max had dragged him to a few weeks before. What was the band called again? Safeways? Stray Waves? After a few Google searches, he found the name and played their most popular song. It had 3.6 stars on Spotify. The rating made him a little nervous. But the girls seemed pleased with the selection.

“I saw these guys a few weeks ago,” he said casually. “Great show.”

He lingered by the computer, pumping his fists now and then to the beat of the music. Manfred was the boss of the music. Manfred was the DJ.

After a few minutes, he felt the spell of the weed hanging over him. Now he felt silly. Now everything was funny. Now nothing mattered except the random and trivial stimuli of his immediate surrounds. Occasionally, he would snap out his stoned haze and take account of where he was. What am I doing here? he’d ask himself. But those thoughts didn’t last long.

Mia disappeared into the bathroom. When she came back, she was wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt. Manfred pondered the implications. Did it mean she wanted to fuck him? Did it mean she did not want to fuck him? Perhaps it meant she was ready for bed and that it was time for him to leave.

Relax, he said to himself. We just smoked a joint. She’s just getting comfortable.

Alice was now lying on the couch, her head against the armrest. Her eyes were closed one moment, slightly open the next. She continued to hum one word responses to Mia’s questions, but eventually she became unresponsive and started breathing in a way that suggested she would not wake up soon.

So Manfred and Mia were alone.

He played an electronic track Max listened to a lot.

“I love this song!” Mia said.

“The guy was only 19 when he made it,” said Manfred, repeating verbatim what Max had said to him. “Can you believe it?”

Manfred usually didn’t care for electronic music, but now it seemed intricate and layered and absorbing.

Mia was dancing with her eyes closed a few feet away from him.

Should I make a move? he wondered.

He was in the right state of mind. The weed had made him relaxed. The booze had made him reckless. But they had just met. She was so young. And her friend was asleep right in front of them. It would be so bad to fuck her. It would be so good to fuck her.

She was not wearing a bra underneath her T-shirt, he noticed. Nor did she seem to be wearing any underwear beneath her sweatpants. Was her cunt wet? He could tear her clothes off so easily. He could be inside her within seconds. She was right there. The bed was right there. His cock began to swell.

She was still smiling and dancing with her eyes closed. Now was the moment. He had to do it now.

He shuffled towards her to the beat of the music and placed his hand on her hip. She opened her eyes and they began to kiss. It was a wet, open-mouthed kiss, all tongue and no lips. The kiss of an 18-year-old.

He ran his hand over her ass. Then he brought it to her front and slid it down slowly into her sweatpants all the way, until his finger was in her wetness. He ran it upwards and began to massage her clitoris gently, every now and then going back down into her hole. Soon, half of his hand was soaked in her juices. She was ready. So was he. And with Alice lightly snoring, they had no time to waste.

“Do you have a condom?” she said.

“I do.”

He found his wallet and pulled out the solitary rubber which had been in there for over a year.

She took her shirt off as he ripped the packet open.

“I have small boobs…I hope you don’t mind…”

“Not at all,” he said and leaned forward to suck her nipples.

He placed the condom at the tip of his cock and tried to unroll it until he realized it was on the wrong way. He laughed nervously, put it the other way around, and in his haste to pull it on, it ripped.

“Shit,” he said.

“Don’t worry.”

They started kissing again and she began to stroke his cock. Then she worked her way down until she was sitting on the edge of the bed and took his meat in her mouth.

She’s good at it, he thought.

It was as though she’d had more practice sucking dick than kissing. Were it not for all the booze, he probably would have come within seconds. He grasped the back of her head, breathing heavily while she worked her mouth up and down.

He bent down and began to touch her again. She stopped sucking him for a moment, arched her head towards the ceiling, and moaned in a state of ecstasy. Manfred seized her with both hands and lifted her onto the bed.

He began massaging her again. She moaned, his cock horizontal above her.

“You can fuck me,” she said. “But don’t come inside.”

“Okay,” he said.

He positioned his cock at the base of her vagina and slid it inside. He went in and out slowly, still massaging her clit with his fingers. Her mouth was wide open, her back arched, her face angled towards the ceiling.

This little slut, he thought. It was all too much. He began to breathe heavier as he felt himself coming. He pulled his cock out and squirted all over her. He was still groaning as her eyes blinked open.

Alice’s breathing became the dominant sound in the room again. He got up, found some tissues, wiped down his cock, and handed her a fresh handful.

He walked into the bathroom and wondered what he should do next. He could hardly stick around for another round. Alice would wake up at any moment. They were lucky not to have been caught already.

He returned to the room.

“I think I better…”

“It’s okay…you can go…”

He thought she sounded a little sad. But he didn’t understand what he was expected to do. He wrote his number on the notepad on the table and told her he would leave it by the vase.

“Okay…thanks…” she said.

“Maybe I’ll see you before you leave,” he said without conviction.

He closed the door behind him and walked downstairs.

Out on the street, the sun was rising, throwing beams of gold and crimson onto the silent edifices about him.

It was a 40-minute walk home. He took out his phone and opened the Uber app. It prompted him to rate his last journey.

He angled his face towards the blood red dawn. There were only a few clouds in the sky. But he thought it ought to rain. He thought it ought to come down hard and fast so that he might feel different somehow. So that he might feel renewed, reborn.

His gaze floated back down to his phone. He stared at Ahmed’s face and his eyes welled up with tears.