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I'm trying to track down a short story/novella that I read online, probably at least 3 years ago. I think it was published for free through an online magazine such as Clarkesworld or Strange Horizons, but I haven't had any luck scanning through their archives.

The protagonist is an aficionado of a variety of short "films" (there was a specific term for them) that record not just video, but a person's entire sensory experience. She has dedicated herself to collecting copies of all of the works of a certain experimental, reclusive filmmaker. The story revolves around her attempt to track down an extremely rare one of this artist's films, of which only a short excerpt is known to exist.

In addition, the protagonist works as some kind of freelancer with her own spacecraft. She is hired to try to obtain an extremely valuable artifact (some kind of highly-prized puzzle box, perhaps?) that is being auctioned off by a mysterious alien race. In this auction, the bidders must offer to sacrifice something of great personal value to them; each sacrifice is appraised and given a point value according to the aliens' incomprehensible system, and whoever is willing to make the greatest sacrifice is the winner. In addition, multiple bidders have the option of teaming up and combining their points together.

While getting ready for the auction, the protagonist meets an acquaintance (possibly a former lover) who has located the only remaining copy of the film that she's been searching for. I think she plans to combine her points with his, win the auction, split the contract payment, and use her share to buy the film and finally complete her collection.

Unfortunately, she is unexpectedly outbid by a competitor (who offers a body part, maybe?) and the only way for her to win the auction is to make the biggest sacrifice she can think of: the film. She succeeds, and as a result she must hand over the film to the aliens without ever being able to watch it (or else the "sacrifice" would be meaningless). As a result, she completes her job and becomes wealthy, but must live with the knowledge that the project she dedicated her life to will never be completed.

The only other thing I remember is that the title of the story itself is the same as the title of the film. It was a short, cryptic phrase of maybe 3 words; presumably it was supposed to have a symbolic relationship to whatever was portrayed in the film. I think one of the words might have been something like the name of a chemical, mineral, or flower.

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  • Asking this here because I've managed to lose and re-find this story multiple times, but for some reason the title never sticks in my memory. I'll post the answer myself if I manage to find it again.
    – David
    Jun 18 at 20:54
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This is The Hydraulic Emperor by Arkady Martine.

The main character attends an alien auction (of sorts) to bid on the titular short film.

There wasn’t any possible chance I could have watched the reel before I gave it to the auction administrator. She was right there next to me. Yes, I considered it. Of course I considered it.

There is at least one print of The Hydraulic Emperor that survives, somewhere beyond human space, safe in the hands of the Qath. And I have never seen it.

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  • Wow, that was really good. Cool story. But what about Julie?
    – Alex M
    Jun 19 at 5:36
  • @AlexM - She got nothing.
    – Valorum
    Jun 19 at 8:03

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