Check back soon for a new chapter... I've almost got enough feeling back in my left hand to type a bit...
The plaintive voice was tentative despite the clarity of the transmission.
“Hello? Can anybody hear me? Hello? My name is Lucy. I don’t know where I am. I’m stuck. Help? Anyone?”
We had heard a few transmissions from the Squishy stuck in the Radioactive waste sector on Mars. They had started out as emotionless status reports on rad and fluid levels, suit operating condition and power levels. Regular reports of no enemy contact, weather conditions and request for maintenance support.
After a while her information transmissions had descended into complete gibberish. The AI suggested to me that the radiation was interfering with whatever chemical and implant technology that made a real person into a military robot. And now this. It seemed like whatever blocks that were in place were no longer there.
“I’m really thirsty. This tube that sticks out to my mouth was giving me water but now it’s dry. I seem to be stuck in a space suit?” she continued. “Hello? I don’t know if you can hear me? My name is Lucy. Can anyone hear me?”
I sighed and keyed the microphone. “Hello Lucy, this is Stephen Morton on the Red Corporation satellite. I know you’re confused, so I will try to provide you with whatever answers I can.”
“Oh thank goodness! Yes, yes, where am I? Am I even on Earth anymore?”
Out of curiosity about how it worked I asked, “What is your last memory before waking up where you are?”
“I had to report to the credit manager’s office at my bank. There was a problem with my credit card. It was a silly thing, really. They said I was behind on payments and I’m sure it was just lost in the e-transfer and I thought that if they just looked again they would see that all this fuss was for nothing.”
“What happened then?” I asked.
“Well, let’s see. When I walked into the office there was a man in a nurse uniform in the back, which I thought was a bit odd and I shook Mr. Long’s hand, that’s the bank manager,” she rattled on, “and then I think I was drugged? I remember feeling really strange and then the nurse guy came over to me. I think that’s when I must have blacked out?” She seemed unsure of herself.
I checked to make sure the transmission was encoded and secure before I responded.
“Okay Lucy. I can’t sugar coat this. I’m very sorry, but you have been made a Squishy because you defaulted on your credit payments. You were conditioned and your memory was walled away. You were transferred to a Red Corporation satellite in orbit around Mars and have been downloaded to explore and fight on the planet. You have unfortunately wandered into a radiation zone and are currently immobilized.”
“A Squishy. Like in space dramas? I’m not a clone. This is ridiculous. You’ve got to get me out of here, right now! I know my rights! Call the emergency services!” She was now screaming.
“Listen to me Lucy.” I said calmly. “You are stuck in a combat environment suit on Mars in a radioactive dump. You are dying. There is nothing we can do to help you and no one is coming to your rescue.”
Larry the AI chimed in. “Sir, you have to replenish her water supply.” I stared at its floating tin can. “Why would I waste good water on that?” I threw a thumb in the direction of Mars.
“Because,” it answered, “Ms. Kells has ordered that every unit must be resupplied with water before they will be counted as profit. Any units you do not supply with water will be immobilized remotely and terminated. She is quoted as saying that no company may use suicide tactics in unit placement to receive profit points in the competition. Proper supply chain management is key to success, she said.”
“Also,” it continued, “only Crunchy occupying water resources and Squishy occupying any Mars terrain sector will be counted as profit making units.”
My eyes narrowed as I considered whether Larry was kidding or not.
“So we have to supply a perfectly good water ration to a Squishy that is going to melt from the inside out anyway?”
“Yes, sir.” it replied. “Or her sacrifice doesn’t count as profit points.”
Again I had to sigh. I keyed the mic. “Lucy, I’m very sorry. We can’t help you. I am having water shipped down to you so you won’t die of thirst at least. I promise you that your sacrifice and your… story will not die with you. Tell me more about yourself.”
For the next hour I listened and tried to note as many details as possible. She received her water delivery and cried when she could drink from her hose again. Eventually her sentences started to run into one another. She cried some more and called out a person’s name. The AI informed me it was her mother’s name on file.
There were long bouts of silence and then more word salad and soon there were no words at all.
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It seemed only appropriate that I put Squishy Dave in command of the expedition, so it was with great pleasure and relief that I heard his voice calling out from the speakers. “Red Corporation year one expedition has landed and disembarked. We are proceeding to plant and activate anti-cloaking devices at our present location.”
I looked to the sensor suite in time to see a roughly hexagonal shape of land appear. It was designated as mostly wasteland plains.
“We are proceeding toward the polar ice cap region.” he squawked.
I had time for a coffee before another revealed chunk of Mars appeared on the viewscreen. This was designated with a radiation warning. For years, while ECM bickered with the Corporations of Earth over who would be allowed to manage Mars, it had been used as a radioactive ship drive dump. The mechanics of interplanetary ship drives, while allowing for very timely planetary travel also produced some pretty toxic and radioactive materials. A shielded fuel station had been established on the 23 km diameter wide moon Phobos because it contained some key rare elements in the production of the fuel. It was a very controlled substance and ships came to Phobos on a regular basis for drive replacement. The spent and dirty drives had been unceremoniously dumped to the surface of Mars, disappearing into the swirling camouflage atmosphere.
“Exploration team. Be advised you cannot stay in the Radiation area without suffering casualties. Please proceed further.” I beamed down the order.
Squishy Dave received the order and stood facing the incoming wind. The horizon was obscured with a red dust wall of advancing clouds. There was going to be a storm.
Dave did not like storms. He was not sure why. He had no memory of being in a storm or having any particular opinion about them, but it just ‘felt’ dangerous. He looked at the Squishy and Crunchy units spread out before him and issued an order to dig in for survival. Immediately the Crunchy units started digging, throwing geysers of sand and rock into the air. Small rocks bounced harmlessly from Dave’s armor. When they finished they stood aside of the hole and the Squishy moved methodically into the trench followed by the Crunchy who pulled the surrounding soil in on top of the Squishy and themselves.
Insulated from the storm for the next few hours they barely felt it tear across the plain and over their hiding spot, leaving a smooth grit pounded surface. Dave signaled all clear when the ground shaking howl had finally stopped. The Crunchy units extracted themselves from the soil and pulled the Squishy units free like pulling carrots from garden soil.
With Dave leading, they soon reached the next obscured sector and placed a cloaking disruptor in the soil. A “canyon” sector signal was sent to the Red Corporation satellite. Dave glanced up to where the satellite hung in orbit, a bright spec in the sky reflecting the sun’s dim light and then continued into the undulating ground and debris field that marked the decaying edge of a canyon wall. Like a miniature Grand Canyon it spread left and right for kilometers. It wasn’t very wide, but with their tank treads it would take much longer for the Crunchy to navigate than the Squishy.
“Hey Squishy Dave come in!” his helmet speaker chuckled. It was his Boss.
“Yes sir. I am receiving you clearly.” Dave replied.
“The name of the game is exploration Dave. Why don’t you spread out your men a bit and explore more landscape. You shouldn’t come in contact with any other Company units this early in the exploration process. And be sure to keep an eye out for any signs of Alien tech or habitation down there too. We sure could use a leg up in this competition.”
"Roger. Out." he said. Dave preferred to work together as a more effective combat force but his Boss had a point. And it sounded like a direct order so it was nagging his brain like an itch he couldn’t scratch. He found he couldn’t think about it any longer and had to send his troops on their way. He directed the Crunchy to head out one more sector and divide and continue to the extent of their range. He would then be able to send his Squishy toward any objectives or in other directions to fill the gaps.
Dave watched as the Crunchy made their way painfully through the canyon and out the other side. They split up. Two went west and ran out of fuel in a desert plain. One more also suffered the same fate and after activating the anti-cloak it settled down to wait on resupply. The last Crunchy went right and ventured into what looked like another desert plain. Upon closer inspection the Crunchy blew a few well placed holes in the topsoil and reported that it had found water. Water! Just what we needed.
While Dave and another Squishy established a base in the canyon, he sent one unit farther left than the Crunchy and it discovered another arid plain. The Squishy was the one the Boss had put in the airlock and almost killed her. She was the last to be sent out. Her orders were to investigate the area farther right than any others.
The last of her energy was used to place her solidly in the middle of another Radioactive wasteland. Stuck as she was, she would stand and be slowly cooked in her environment suit. As seemed to be his protocol, Dave considered whether the Squishy could be rescued. It didn't take him long to factor things and he turned his attention to other things.
A Squishy in a Radiation zone without resupply was as good as dead.
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Tarbet of Blue Corporation had finally made up his mind and set the launch date for 4 months. There were some interesting developments that popped up right after. It seems that Ms. Kells had also declared that the start could be delayed by one month for each MNYCard a Corporation wished to sacrifice. One less MNYCard to use this year but it brought areas you might be interested in occupying a bit closer.
The troops were lined up in the hanger. They didn’t look like much. Just four Crunchy and four Squishy, but between the eight of them they held enough firepower to make any 20th Century standing army jealous.
The Crunchy had antena, sensors and larger caliber weapons folded away against their sides, waiting patiently to board. The Squishy were much less fragile looking beside their metal counterparts now that they were decked out in their environment suits. Muzzles of different launchers sticking out here and there, backpacks loaded with automated entrenching machines, food, medical supplies and extra ammunition.
Looking at the Squishy lined up with none of them the same height or bulk, it reminded me of the lie that these were all vat grown clones. Other than Dave Ship, who I knew and recognized, the other Squishy with him were real people and I was sending them down to fight and maybe die for a Corporate cause I was becoming less attached to. But there was my family to worry about. Ferret had made it clear that they were not above being indentured and possibly included in the Squishy program if I didn’t succeed. I couldn’t stand the idea of my wife and child standing in front of me, their memories walled off, eager to comply with any order.
I’d tested the resolve of the conditioning already. One of the Squishy in the group was a female and out of curiosity I asked, “Do you know what would happen if you were to enter space without a hardsuit?”
“Yes,” she said, “I would die.”
“If you step into the airlock I will open the outer door and you will be sucked into space and you will die. Do you believe me?” I asked.
“Yes.” was the simple response.
“Step into the airlock.” I said in the same tone. She immediately moved past me, opened the interior airlock door, stepped in to the lock and, as was protocol, closed and sealed the door again. I walked to the exterior door controls and keyed my passcode. A low alert sounded and the AI voice chimed, “Warning. There is an unprotected lifeform currently in airlock 42.”
I watched the Squishy’s face as I pressed the button to cycle the exterior door. She did not move a muscle, react in any way to the warning sound or make any move toward the Abort button to stop the process. The atmosphere started to be vacuumed out of the space. You don’t blow valuable air into space. The Squishy stood still and the only sign of distress was its throat tightening from not being able to inhale anything. Finally it dropped to one knee on the way to passing out. I pressed the button to stop the cycle and repressurize the lock. Damn. That conditioning was solid and scary. All self-preservation had been tucked away and any ability to disregard orders was gone. Former Earth citizens turned into perfect soldiers.
Squishy Dave and had met repeatedly in the months waiting for the start of the drop and I thought I was starting to see a glimmer of the person he used to be. I had thought long and hard about keeping Dave on the satellite, safe and sound, but in the end decided the best option was to drop him with his unit. Ferret would have noticed me keeping a valuable asset in space instead of sending it planetside. This early in the conflict it was all about exploration. The more boots on the ground the better.
So Dave had to go and I felt bad about that, but I had to keep things in perspective. I had to win this game. It was my only hope of being able to return to Earth and have the power and prestige to change things for the better.
The days had wound down to the start and the launch day finally came. As luck would have it a clear landing zone had rotated below each Company satellite and we would all be able to drop without worrying about landing in a radioactive dump or crashing into a bottomless canyon or mountain top.
The visual overlay on my contact lenses lit up showing that it was our turn in rotation to drop our units. “All right Larry,” I said to the air, “load ‘em up.”
A warning light flashed, low tone sounded and the shuttle door started to slide open. The Squishy turned and marched into the opening followed by the Crunchy rolling in on their small thick tires.
As the loading door slid closed, Larry the AI spoke. “We have just received a transmission from Ms. Kells that we are not allowed to drop at this time. A pod of small rockets has taken position in low orbit between our satellite and the planet.”
“What the… why?” I asked.
“There is a MNYCard filed with her from Mr. Stephenson of Yellow Corporation that provides a legal injunction, allowing Yellow Corporation to block our direct drop to the planet from our satellite. Any launch will result in the legal destruction of our shuttle. We will have to wait until next year.”
“If that hairy chested twit Stephenson thinks he’s stopping me...” I said, grabbing the nearest E-pad and bringing up my collection of MNYCards for this year.
“Hah! Not so fast. One of my contract cards allows for unobstructed deviation to an adjacent area.” I pressed the “Submit File” button and received a confirmation. My units were headed into a camouflaged unknown area which would cost them a bit more fuel to get to, but at least they would be on Mars.
“Launching shuttle now.” the AI said, having received the appropriate legal permissions. With the warning lights flashing and the klaxon sounding the air was evacuated, the outer door slid aside and the launching pad extended into the vacuum of space. Small bits of debris glittered in the harsh sunlight as the jets blasted the shuttle off the pad. It quickly rotated to point down towards Mars and slid out of sight on long blue flames. I turned my attention to the nearest screen to watch the descent.
I looked at the AI mech floating nearby and voiced my only concern. “What if they encounter a mountain under that haze? Will they be able to land?”
“The shuttles are not allowed to land on such steep and unpredictable terrain. They would automatically abort and return to the satellite. We would have to try again next year.” the AI replied.
I turned my attention back to the sensor feed in time to watch my investment for this year disappear into the boiling mist.
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Hurry up and wait. It’s a corporate mantra. Robin Tarbet of Blue Corporation was hosting Kells the CEO and as such the time of exploration launch was under his control for this year. We would have to see about securing Ms. Kells’ attention for next year.
In the interim each Corporation satellite was using their water supply to animate Squishy and Crunchy in preparation for the release to drop our units to the surface of Mars and have a look around.
I found myself staring at the blurry surface of Mars. The Mars surface used to be clear as day with storms, ancient waterways, plains, mountains and canyons, but now it was obscured with a shimmering alien haze. Shimmering because looking at it only left you with the impression of shifting beige and red blurs and alien because it was alien technology that was the root cause. The first surface explorations discovered the presence of a long dead alien world, before the upper atmosphere had been stripped away. Indeed, scientists claimed it was the alien tech that must have caused Mars to lose its all important magnetic field.
Probably the same scientists who decided that upon finding said alien technology they should start fiddling with what they thought were the controls. Inevitably they set off something alien in origin which obscured the surface from space. An ancient machine with a camouflage purpose long forgotten. While we had previously mapped the surface, the planet rotated under a blanket of obscurity further complicating matters. Sensor gear didn’t work in the vicinity of Mars and communications were spotty. Rocket telemetry was annoyingly dangerous. Good old fashioned boots on the ground were your only answer to exploration and conquest.
Earth ingenuity had created technology that interfered with the alien camouflage, but it was too expensive and too local an effect to plant in every sector and clear up the entire Mars surface.
The Corporate satellites were lined up around the equator, equidistant from each other. Each Corporation had already established an expensive but unobscured landing zone on the planet surface under each satellite.
I activated the external cameras and could see the landing sectors clearly from the satellite as a point of unobscured surface with boiling clouds around it, slowly moving away from my satellite. Slowly moving because CEO Ms. Kells had ordered the end of our geostationary orbits. We would be fixed in space along the equator and Mars would be allowed to rotate under us. Every month or so, the next cleared landing zone would slide under my satellite and continue along its path.
It was ingenious and practically cruel. She called it “moving fronts” as in the front line of a war that shifts constantly. Kells had said it would show who could think ahead and react to changing markets. I think it was her dark side showing. Drop your men down to the planet and watch them rotate away from your support all the while your enemy forces rotate under your landing point. Mind you, it meant being able to drop your troops behind enemy “lines” as well. This could actually work out well.
I brought up the conflict map for reference. We were situated in orbit around the equator and our playground was going to be the entire northern hemisphere. Smack in the middle was the northern ice cap, a thousand kilometers of open white water and carbon dioxide ice also cleared of the visual obscurity. A must have sector, chocked full of water resources.
But there were other water sources out there and finding them would be key to success of the conflict. With them a company could afford to send more units planetside without needing to resupply them from space.
Bend over, Grunt, and take a drink. There are more unpleasant ways to resupply your water ration. You’re not called a ‘Squishy’ for nothing.
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It was like watching a desiccated Egyptian from an early mummy movie slowly plump up and reanimate, before it’s eyes would pop open and it would start to seek the life of the defilers of the tomb. Skin loosening and pulling away from the bone, muscles filling and bulking up. Eyes currently like pruney fingers, rounding. An unnerving bubbling sound escaping its mouth.
As fascinating as it was to watch Dave The Squishy on the medical slab slowly rehydrate and bloat from the push of intravenous water, I had to make a call.
My immediate supervisor Mr. Ferret had made it perfectly clear that he was not above threatening my family with financial ruin if I didn’t toe the line up here. I was beginning to see that this was not a hollow threat. I could also see, at least in part, what he wanted hidden. Squishy were supposed to be clones. Vat grown, AI trained and expendable. If the population of Earth realized their consumer debt was tied to the possibility they might end up an expendable Squishy then heads would roll and even governments would fall.
He was obviously protecting a secret that not many held and was deadly to know.
There was a chair at an engineering console in the corner, so I sat and called up the external communications suite. There were several stored messages from my wife already, but I ignored them for now and dialed her cell number. I could afford to hear it from the horse’s mouth.
Stacey answered before the second ring and started to talk before she must have noticed the text overlay on her screen informing her of the time delay. She sighed and continued, “Where the hell have you been? I know you’re on an important assignment on Mars, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore my calls!” She stared into the camera and waited.
“I really am sorry, babe.” I started.”I have been busy. How are you and Greg doing?”
“Our son is just fine. He just got his driver’s license. You said you would be around to teach him how to drive and instead I had to send him to the Corporate Drivers sessions to it. Do you know how much those sessions cost?”
I ignored her question. “Everything else okay?” I asked, hoping for a positive answer.
“Yes everything.” She paused, “Except you didn’t pay the security bill this month, so I got a notice of termination in 30 days if you don’t cover it.”
“Ah.” I said as casually as possible, “that usually comes straight out of my pay as a deduction. Must be a mistake. I’ll check on it right away. I’m sure it’s nothing.” I wasn’t sure it was nothing. I was sure it was Ferret.
“Say, out of curiosity, do you remember Dave Ship?” She looked perplexed and then put a face to the name.
“No I haven’t seen him in years. Wasn’t he the guy in our wedding rehearsal party who wouldn't go to the steak house because he and his girlfriend had gone vegetarian? She was freaking out and yelling. We left them in the parking lot. Why?”
“Oh, no reason,” I said, brushing it off, “I was just thinking of him the other day and wondered where he’d gotten to.”
The rest of our conversation was filled with trivial news and ended with a promise to call every day if I could. She blew me a kiss and hung up.
I sat thinking long and hard about my options. I couldn’t run back to Earth to protect my family. I wasn’t sure I could protect them even if I was there. What I knew now about Squishy could make being on Earth deadlier than a walk on Mars without a helmet.
The AI glided over and interrupted my introspection. “The units ordered have achieved maximum hydration and are ready to be put into service.” Its voice in my ear, “Did you want any more units activated?”
“We are down several units of water and if I’m correct it takes roughly one water unit to activate a Squishy and two units for a Crunchy.” Doing a bit of mental math I said, “We’ve got 4 Crunchy and 4 Squishy units for this year’s drop. That should give us enough ground coverage and still have water left for resupply. I don’t want to see any of them stranded without water down there for this fiscal year before resupply.” The AI chimed a positive note.
I turned in my chair to face the Squishy lying comfortably on the tables. The Crunchy were on the lower deck. I would check on them shortly.
But first, there was the question of how much ‘Dave’ was still in the Squishy Dave. I went and stood beside Dave’s table and raised one of his arms a half meter. Other than it being slightly cooler than you would expect, it felt perfectly normal. There were interface bumps along the back of his arm between elbow and shoulder that actually looked red and inflamed, like they had been installed recently and hadn’t healed yet.
I dropped his arm, expecting it to fall lifeless to the table, but it held where I released it. I glanced over to his face and saw that Dave was staring at me, obviously in control of his own limbs. His grey eyes were piercing and overlaid with the thin blue lines of his interface contact lenses. Or maybe his corneas had been replaced? Either way, the effect was jaring.
“Hey Buddy, how’s it going?” I asked.
Dave seemed to consider this for a moment and turned his head to look straight up again. “I am functioning well, thank you.”
“So Dave,” I started, “what do you remember?” Dave looked confused and his lips parted to answer but no sound came out. The AI answered for him.
“Squishy are not allowed to access their own memories other than specific functional knowledge which may allow them to supplement their installed technical training. Any person-specific memories have been sealed and are inaccessible to their frontal cortex.”
“You seem to know quite a bit about Squishy, Larry.” I replied to the floating AI mech.
“I am the AI for this satellite who’s purpose is to explore, conquer and turn a profit for Red Corporation. This is not my first ‘rodeo’.” it said. It seemed to anticipate my feelings. “Your friend David Ship is no longer your friend David Ship. He is a Squishy. I am sorry.”
I sighed, losing what little hope I had to have an actual friend on board.
“Okay, then. What do we do now?” I asked.
“While the Squishy are fairly self sufficient, they require nutrients and should be fed shortly after reanimation so their bodies do not begin to dissolve their own tissues for sustenance.”
I turned back to Dave and put a smile on my face. “Hear that Buddy? We’re going to get you some protein. Maybe a nice, juicy, thick beef steak.”
Dave slowly lowered his arm to the table and said, “Thank you sir. But I think I’d rather have a garden salad, sir.”
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“Yep. That’s Dave,” I thought.
There was no question in my mind that the Squishy propped up on the inclined slab in front of me, buck naked, was David Ship, high school buddy and long time friend.
Well, not so, “long time”. I’d lost touch with him over ten years ago when I’d gotten my last promotion and had to move 2,000 km away to start the job. In high school we had to pick a career path upon graduation and while I had gone the corporation business stream, Dave had gone for the Arts. We had kept in touch in University and had even worked together on a theatre production job. But while he was running the stage operations in the back of the theatre, I was all about the money in the front of the house. I swallowed hard. It brought back the memory of how I’d let the theatre management convince me to abscond with the receipt money after closing night leaving Dave and his crew with all the bills. I don't think Dave knew about my involvement. That’s show business for you.
But that was Dave for sure, and by all rights he shouldn’t be standing in front of me. Ferret’s threat came back clearly to me now. No truth to the rumour that Credit Indentured Citizens were being used as Squishy in company expansion efforts my arse. Here was mostly living and mostly breathing evidence that it was a lie and my family was in much deeper danger than I had believed possible.
Mostly breathing and mostly living, because Dave was currently a Squishy being revived from transport stasis.
I’d finally received my shipment of water from Red Corporation on Earth, an expensive proposition and one they were not going to repeat for very long. I had left some water in reserve for satellite operations and unit resupply and had ordered the remainder of the water be used to activate units in storage nicknamed “Crunchy” and “Squishy”.
Crunchy and Squishy were the exploration and combat elements of the satellite. Packed on earth, shipped and stored on the satellite and ready to be animated for company purposes, whatever that may entail. Crunchy were just eight foot tall, 150kg pieces of AI-driven mech with a small onboard fusion engine. They were smart, armoured and very deadly. Think sentient Abrams tank. Just add hydrogen derived from our onboard water supply and off they went to commit directed mayhem.
Squishy, however, were supposed to be vat-grown, sentient, and easily directable human engineered clones. They weren’t allowed on Earth because they caused all sorts of ethical debates and frankly scared the customers, so I hadn’t seen one up close. They sure as hell weren’t all the same size or vat-grown to a standard template as shown in the marketing vids. This was not standard. This was Dave Ship. My old friend. Now one of my Squishy.
To prep them for storage, Squishy were 65% dehydrated and pumped with cheap chemicals not unlike the ones in amphibians that allowed them to survive being mostly frozen in a pond in winter. They were practically dead in hibernation until being flushed and refilled with fresh water. Precious water from our satellite. So I could activate and rehydrate only so many Crunchy and Squishy at a time.
Squishy were supposed to be “injury resilient” and able to run their hardened combat spacesuits with built-in firepower equivalent to a squad of men.
But this was Dave. Theatre Arts Dave. Old Friend Dave. Certainly not Combat Captain™ Dave. Or was he?
Well, in an hour of processing time I was going to be able to wake him up and find out.
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As I rode back to Red Corporation satellite in the shuttle my mind turned from the past meeting to my immediate future. If I had any chance of survival, let alone winning this competition, I would have to get my arse in gear. As the shuttle approached the satellite for docking I took stock of the facility looming in the front view screen.
It was divided into three distinct rounded segments not unlike a car tire in the middle with a fat bicycle tire on top and bottom. Various dereks protruded out, here and there, whose purpose was anything from communications, scanning, docking or defence.
The top section was devoted to executive and personnel quarters and comfort, the centre section for operations, life support, heat and power while the bottom section was for crew and unit storage. There was no real “up” in space, so it struck me as funny that satellites would be designed with grunt workers at the “bottom”, mechanical operations in the “middle” and management on “top”. No matter how far from Earth you roamed, you couldn’t escape the hierarchy structure humans placed on themselves and everyone they met.
We slowed on approach as the docking platform swung into view on the middle section. The hanger door was already opening and the landing pad extending to meet our arrival. The shuttle flipped over and braked at the last minute, shedding all its forward velocity and neatly plonking down on the pad.
I was met at the shuttle door by the AI mechanical, painted in its Red Corporation livery. The AIs were everywhere in the system, but they had a penchant for picking one particular mech as their home container. For all intents and purposes, this mechanical was to the AI, like our body was the transport mechanism for our brains. If it was possible for a mechanical to look agitated, this one was.
“What’s up Red?” I asked, stepping into the hold and loosening my tie. “You don’t look happy.”
“My designation is not Red. It is LRRY.” it replied. “And if I were capable of it, I would not, as you say, be ‘happy’”.
“Wait.” I stopped walking. “Your name is Larry? We named you? We don’t usually name you AIs.” It stopped leading and turned to face me.
“It was part of my encoding designation and the last Corporate Head of Satellite picked it out as my identification. I will also answer to ALRRY-V-1099872 or ‘Larry’ if you wish.”
“Ok, Larry. Why are you unhappy?” I assumed that when your station AI was unhappy there was cause for concern.
“We’ve lost more water.”
I looked toward the delivery rocket already docked in the bay, my eyes were drawn to the still gaping hole.
“No.” it said, noticing where my attention had gone, “Not that rocket. The annual scheduled delivery rocket from Earth is coming in with a lighter load than usual.”
“Another kinetic weapon strike? Oh, Ms. Kells is going to hear about this!”
“No.” it said levelly, and then activated its front view screen panel to display an MNYCard. The contract card said: “By order of ECM, the holder of this MNYCard may reduce the incoming annual water to any Corporate satellite by 5 units.” Well crap. The image on the screen then came to life as it became apparent that it was an MNYCard on a tablet being held up to a cam. As it was withdrawn the face of Blue Corp’s Robin Tarbet came into view. He chuckled and placed the tablet on the table in front of him, formally folding his hands and clearing his throat.
“Hey Morton. I hope you don’t mind me taking the first shot across your bow. Good luck with your unit revival.” He reached out to touch the disconnect button but paused, “You know you should be flattered. I wouldn’t bother with anyone I didn’t think was a threat.” He smiled and his face faded to black.
I immediately strode to the hatch leading toward my quarters. I had to move to blow off some of the frustration I felt and I had to get out of this monkey suit. I just bloody got here and I was already down 5 units of water in a competition judged by what you did with your resources and how much water you squeezed out in profit every year! Every drop counts.
“You are not the only one.” the AI followed behind. “Yellow Corporation has served an MNYCard water reduction on Black Corporation as well. Green Corporation satellite AI was hacked and it jettisoned 5 units of water before it could be stopped. They traced it back to Blue Corporation and started to process a complaint with Ms. Kells, but Mr. Tarbet had already logged an MNYCard authorizing the hack.”
Blue Corp was certainly burning through their Contracts, and it had taken me the longest to return to my satellite from the meeting. I was going to have to see about that.
“Where are the Red Corporation MNY Contracts for this fiscal year, Larry?” I asked the AI, not glancing back, as I climbed a ladder to the top floor on my way towards my cabin.
“They have been received and are awaiting your decoding on the terminal in your cabin.”
As I approached my cabin door there was a soft chug sound and it swung open. It was a reminder to me how integral the AI was to the station and I was uncomfortable at the thought that ECM, and specifically Ms. Kells, could pull AI Larry’s strings. Let me just open that porthole for you to get some fresh air.
I threw my jacket on the berth and continued to loosen my tie as I sat at the control console, glancing briefly in the direction of the retinal scanner to gain access and unlock it. The various screens came to life. In the middle of one was a flashing mail icon with the ECM logo on the letter symbol. My finger lightly tapped it and it expanded to fill the screen.
I started to read aloud, “Please find all pertinent legal documentation links listed below pertaining to the issue of Miller, Norton & Yarbury Contracts in this fiscal year, yada, yada, yada.” I skipped down the lengthy legaleze. “See attached.”
I started to read the attached MNYCards out loud, but my voice trailed off as my smile got larger and I read the details of each of the four contracts.
Oh my. This could actually turn out to be a good year indeed.
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The ride back to the satellite was uneventful but filled with me digesting all that had gone down in the meeting. If you are an experienced negotiator you learn to recognize the text and unwritten subtext in a meeting and there was practically two simultaneous conversations that had happened.
Strickland from Orange Corporation was the unfortunate one to get the ball rolling, following Kells’ bombshell announcement she was demanding a reduction in water from every satellite.
“You can’t seriously expect us to just dump our water supply to match Red’s bad luck?” he said.
“No need to worry.” She countered without looking at him, “your AIs have already jettisoned the appropriate amount of water in your holding tanks to balance out the start. I hope that will be satisfactory.”
Subtext: We have complete control over your AI and satellite mechanicals and they will do whatever we want, including throwing out your water… air… you… whoever, whenever we wish.
“Suitable reprisals will commence when it becomes apparent that anyone is operating outside of the terms of the Mars contract. Gravity is a harsh mistress.” she continued.
Subtext: If you are caught cheating your satellite might suddenly drop out of the heavens.
“The Miller, Norton and Yarbury Contracts will be limited to 4 per year.” Kells continued.
Subtext: Four! Holy cow that was a lot. Usually you were restricted to one a year, if you were lucky.
The Miller, Norton & Yarbury Contracts, ‘MNYCards’ for short, allowed a Corporation to play the field with legally binding contractual obligation “cards” that you could hold and then present in negotiations when the need and appropriate time arose. It was no problem to manipulate the market, blockade a shipment, steal employees, whatever you wanted when you had an MNYCard to “legally allow” you to do it. They were very expensive, but came in handy when you needed to put some pressure on a client, delay or obfuscate a deal or even something as straightforward as having an independent military contractor mess stuff up for you. All legally binding and without consequence.
“And who exactly will be in charge of settling disputes and ensuring fairness?” asked Tarbet of Blue Corporation. Kells shot him a peaved look.
“I shall remain in orbit around Mars as the Earth representative CEO. For a price, I shall bring with me overriding administrative power and special conditions wherever I take up residence,” Kells said with a distasteful sigh, “Wherever that may be.”
Subtext: There were only 6 satellites in orbit, so she was staying with one of us, whomever bribed her the most, and the satellite host Corporation was going to profit. Bigtime.
“How are you going to manage precedent here?” Yellow’s Stephenson spoke up. Murmurs of approval of the question arose. Ms. Kells' shark smile returned. When she spoke it came out like a mother scolding her child.
“Yes, we can’t have a free-for-all, silly. That would be unwise, so there will be the standard four fiscal quarters: water supply, military deployment and exploration, dispute resolution, unit resupply, and a year end accounting. You will execute your strategies in the open market or otherwise, in a rotating order, and disputes will be settled in a civilized manner.”
Subtext: This really was going to be carefully managed by ECM and our parent Corporations were going to be able to monitor and watch our movements. Oh, and all disputes will be violent and definitive. Civilized manner my butt.
“Now if you excuse me,” she said, stepping away from the table, her escort snapping smartly to her side. “I must be packing my bag and heading for Blue Corporation Satellite to take up residence this year.”
We all knew what that meant. No subtext needed. Mr. Robin Tarbet had already bribed and secured the CEO this year and probably screwed us all. And this time I didn’t even get a drink first.
This was going to be a very interesting corporate competition for the next short 6 years. It was either going to rocket me into the Upper Executive Level or end my career, my family, and possibly my own life.
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Over the arc of Mars the Black Corporation satellite spun toward my approaching shuttle. It was indeed painted black to match their corporate colour. The unaided eye could not see, but the shuttle AI also kept a precise location track of Yellow, Green, Blue, Orange and Red Corporate satellites currently in orbit with our destination satellite.
My eyes were cast down to an out of focus shifting haze covering the surface of Mars. It looked like a common sandstorm until you noticed that it extended to every horizon. All of those theories about Mar supporting an alien race turned out to be true. And there was some very interesting things coming out past Mars blockade. In an underground cavern some poor scientist would regret pressing something he didn’t even know was a button, activating a long dead civilization’s Planetary camouflage device and obscuring visual and sensor observation of the surface. If you wanted to explore Mars, you had to be there in person.
I was pulled into my straps as the shuttle braked and docked with the Black Corporation satellite. It took a minute to cycle the lock and the inner door in which I had time to straighten my jacket and tie.
With my best foot forward I strode through the airlock and found myself facing a very old friend and a very new enemy. Alan Ross. Tall and beefy and squeezed into a black suit. From middle school to middle management Alan and I had scraped our way up. As the saying goes, “a long way from the mailroom floor”. It was Ross who had suddenly vacated his Tier 6 Management position and provided an opportunity for HR to send me off planet. Promotion my butt.
“I hate you.” I started with. Immature, sure, but straight to the point.
“I hate you more.” Vance replied, the million dollar smile slapped on his face. And then he stuck out his hand in perfect shake position.
Okay. At least he gave in first. I shook his hand in perfect business return. “Alright,” I said, “it was a very smooth move. Over and up. And look at us now.” I pointed to his Black Corporation badge.
“Yes, how did that happen?” his finger lashed out and nailed the middle of my Red Corporation Satellite patch. “Last I heard you were on your way to Callisto.”
“Ferret.” I said.
“Oh.” he nodded knowingly, “That’ll leave a mark.”
“Gentlemen.” said the robot that suddenly appeared at our side. “It is time to withdraw to the conference room for the meeting. Your CEO is waiting.”
It turned and floated off and we followed it to the large conference room hatch that had been stickered with a material that made it look like oak wood grain instead of pebbled steel.
The large table was fabricated to look like teak and dispersed throughout were wood panels and warm lighting.There were 7 chairs around it and the one at the head of the table currently held a severely beautiful woman in a pearl white pant suit and totally impractical high heels. I glanced down at my foot wear which were utilitarian magnetic equipped deck shoes.
So this was the enigmatic Ms. Roslyn Kells, CEO, Earth Corporate Management. Many of the misinformed tried to pawn her success off on her looks and not factor in her stellar IQ and business smarts. Her black hair was done up perfectly and had a fashionable streak of white winding through it. A real Rocky Horror Picture Show. Her famous dragon tattoo tail climbed out from under her collar and rose slickly up her neck to her right ear. Part of a claw could be seen beyond her left cuff and on to the back of her hand which was holding a tablet at the ready.
The intensity of her eyes were renowned and they darted from Ross to me. As they locked on mine I felt like I had just been weighed and measured and found somehow wanting. Luckily, the two last vacant chairs were on our side of the table and we swiveled and settled into them.
I gazed around the table taking stock. Ross was on my left now between me and Ms. Kells. Beside me on the right was Mr. Barry Stephenson of Yellow Corporation. His reputation as a deal maker and breaker was legendary. I thought he’d retired early, but here he was, deep in a hushed conversation with Mr. Robin Tarbet the Blue Corporation representative. I’d only had the pleasure of doing business with Tarbet once and the only pleasurable part was after I’d managed to steal his client away from him. He’d been very magnanimous and bought drinks for all the negotiating teams. Come to think of it, I believe he managed to win back the client a few months later when some embarrassing photos surfaced from that party the client didn’t want his wife to see.
To his right was seated Eric Strong, dressed in the traditional moss coloured livery of Green Corporation. There was a pilot pin on his lapel and I often wondered how someone of his huge stature and size could squeeze into a cockpit, let alone perform at the levels indicated by the bars under his bird.
Lastly, his full attention on Ms. Kells, stood the Orange Corporation’s Mr. Vance Strickland. Shorter in stature than Strong who was seated, Strickland remained standing while making small talk with Kells and it seemed to be working on her. Her smile grew teethy and her laugh tinkled through the drone of conversation, which stalled immediately.
Ms. Kells jumped into the gap with, “Places gentlemen and we’ll get this show on the road.” She remained standing while Strickland took his seat and we all brought her our complete attention.
“I will come to the point, as we are all professionals here.” She flashed another of her patented smiles and I was sure if the next words out of her mouth were, “We’ve decided to space you all” there would have been a rush to be the first into the airlock. How did she do that?
“You will all be here for a period of at least 6 years for this competition to be decided. The winner of this competition will be the sole proprietor of Mars, with all corporate rights granted to exploit and monopolize on all the resources including alien technology as found. With of course our standard contractual cut.” You could have heard a pin drop. Six. Years. On. Mars.
“You can’t do this.” Strong said, straightening his green jacket.
Another tinkle of laughter and Ms. Kells shook her head and looked down the table at Mr. Strong. “And what gives you the idea that I can’t?” The threat in her voice was totally unveiled.
“I mean,” he backpedaled, “the last strenuous negotiations didn’t last that long”. He swallowed hard. The open airlock beconned. The only other people in the room were two female corporate military escorts Kells had brought with her. I’m sure they had been against the back wall the entire time, but we hadn’t actually noticed them until now. They had instantly dropped their anonymity and were suddenly very present, very threatening.
“We have determined that six fiscal years is an appropriate amount of time to show us what you can accomplish.” she finished.
“Now before we get into the details there is something that has come to my attention.” She raised her tablet from the table and read, “we have a report that Red Corporation’s satellite water delivery was short by 40 units of water.” She paused and looked in my direction, just like everyone else at the table. “Therefore,” she continued, “we will be reducing all other Corporation water delivery this fiscal year to 20 units, in keeping with the amount actually delivered to Red Corporation.”
The room filled with quiet but definite objections. Kells raised a hand and the murmuring died. “It’s not that I object to the attempted destruction of an earth shuttle, as badly as it was executed,” a smirk graced the side of her mouth, “what I object to was that you were all sent cease and desist letters about hostilities until we could officially start this game of monopoly. So you must all suffer the same fate as Red Corporation. You will all start with only 20 units of water.”
She paused for effect. “Are there any objections?” She looked pointedly at each member of the table and waited until they each met her eye in silent deferral.
“Well then,” that million dollar smile appeared on her face, but with a definite edge she said, “seeing no objections... then let us begin.”
SEE CHAPTER 6: THE SUBTEXT
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“What am looking at?” I asked the dock mechanical.
“A hole that shouldn’t be there.” it replied succinctly.
I tore my eyes away from hole that shouldn’t be in the shipping pod strapped to the rocket in the middle of the docking station floor to look at the robot. The station AI was in control of all the mechanicals. It may look like you were talking to different robots but it was always the same entity. Did the station AI have the capability to be this facetious? Apparently so.
This rocket arrival had interrupted my sleep. First there had been the proximity alarms, the cacophony of sound through the hull and the high pitched scream of the hydraulics as the exterior landing pad was transferred into the dock area. Then I’d rolled over and stuck my head under a pillow but the long reverberating screech of the exterior dock hatch closing ended any possibility of extra sleep.
And now I’d been called down to see that there was definitely a hole in the ‘O’ in the large ‘H2O’ letters emblazoned on the fuselage of the delivery pod.
“This is a scheduled delivery?” I asked.
“Yes sir. This is the station’s operational delivery of water from Earth for start up.”
“And it’s all gone now?”
“No sir. A cursory inspection shows that despite the ballistic shell there still remains 20 units of water left for station operations.”
“Well that’s a relief.” Wait a minute. “Ballistic shell?”
“Yes sir. Ballistic.” the AI responded. A holographic arc of red light started from one wall, slashed right through the rocket, emerged from the ‘H2O’ and arced again into the far wall. “The round hit dead centre of the container package, causing maximum damage with very minimal deflection of the shell.”
Staring at the glowing red line carving through the source of the power of the satellite -- my satellite -- I was struck with a new dread. At least the red line did not extend through a hole in the satellite instead of just a supply rocket. “Are we sure it wasn’t a stray rock and a lot of bad luck?”
“Minimum deflection and trace elements indicate the shell was made of depleted uranium. Not a common element of space debris.” the AI responded. “We are not certain exactly when the ship was struck, but if we back trace the shell the majority of the possible flight paths come closest to Green Corporation satellite.”
Food for thought. Not much I could do about it. I didn’t have the evidence or authorization to retaliate right now, not to mention the will. I hadn’t had my coffee yet.
“Fine. Offload the remaining water and set it up for processing. Anything else?”
The AI chimed the standard order acknowledgement tone, then it added, “You have a shuttle warming up to take you to the ECM Executive meeting in two hours.”
I gave myself a laugh by thinking, ‘that was today?’ and said out loud, “Lay out my best business suit, my breakfast and my deodorant.”
I took one last look at the gaping hole. The dock area was left in very low artificial gravity to assist the loading and unloading of heavy materials. The glint of floating water drops softly streaming from the hole and hanging momentarily in the air before slowly cascading to the floor caught my eye.
“Looks like I won’t be taking a shower for a while yet.”
SEE CHAPTER 5: MAY THE BEST CORPORATION WIN
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The rich coffee smell reached me before the medical robot glided into the communications suite. It set an actual ceramic mug at my elbow and withdrew quietly, sensing my mood. It was weird how mechanicals could do that. Showing up when they were needed or staying away when they knew we humans were out for blood.
A long draw on the coffee didn’t help my mood much. The digital readout clicked up to 0800 and the communication ping sounded while the screen lit up with the Earth Corporate Management logo.
I sat up a bit more and pulled on my red paper jumper to straighten it as the President appeared in place of the logo. I cursed silently that I hadn’t had enough time to retrieve my bag from the solar system ship with my best suit stored inside.
“This is President Quinton.” he stated, like there may be someone on the line who may not know who he was. Just how old was the man anyway? I remembered having to do a report on his promotion from CEO to President in Level 7 elementary business school.
“We have decided, at this time, that the question of Mars shall be decided through...‘Strenuous Negotiations’.” If you didn’t know what to look for you would have missed the brief shark smile that played on his lips.
“The combat theatre will be Mars itself and the representatives in the conflict will be one hand-picked operative from each of the six Corporations of Earth.” He paused again for effect.
“It has also been decided that instead of a monetary determination of profit, victory will be established with water as the commodity. I know you will be able to work within these economic restraints. We cannot have a repeat of the moon monopoly decision.”
I knew what he was talking about, as would everyone on the call. Whenever there was a new market to open, ECM decided what the battlefield would be, the stakes, and what the Victory Conditions were. The winning Corporation would be handed a monopoly for the new area of operations and could go about setting value for commodities and raking in the cash. It used to be done with hostile takeovers or stock buyouts but the ECM was more interested in the illusion of competition and a stable market.
There had originally been seven Earth Corporations. Lucky number seven. A disgruntled employee blew the whistle and it was discovered that White Corporate was secretly funnelling credits into its Victory Conditions in the fight for the moon and all its untapped metals. White Corporation was declared insolvent and its assets divided among the remaining six. We got most of Southeast Asia out of that deal with the burnt husk of Australia thrown in for good measure. I think the whistleblower ended up taking a walk on the moon without an EVA suit.
“You will have a maximum of six standard Earth years to compete for the best profit return from your investment. Initial water supply from Earth will be limited and reduced over the years so that you will have an incentive to become self-sufficient.”
He paused and an aide leaned in mouthing some key words. Returning his focus to the camera he said in his stern, lawyerly voice, “For the duration of this competition Contractual Obligations may be issued and as such will be enforced by the ECM.”
“The details will be presented to you by a Chief Executive at a board meeting to take place on Black Corporation satellite, tomorrow at 1400.” He always finished with a trademark pithy quote, and here it came: “Remember the golden rule. He who has the gold makes the rules.” Ah, a classic.
And with that nugget of wisdom the ECM logo faded back in and the transmission ended.
SEE CHAPTER 4: H-2-O-OH
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The call from Earth Corporate Management came surprisingly early by 30 minutes which wasn’t like them.
With Transit-wave comms there would be a 16 second delay in transmission. The comms officer appeared after the beep and stated they were looking to connect to yours truly. They smiled pleasantly until they heard my reply after the delay, then immediately transferred the connection whereby the Red Corporate logo appeared on the screen. Curiouser and curiouser.
The face that appeared right after the Red Corporate logo blanked was none other than Mr. Ferret, Head of Operations in the American Control Zone. A more apply named person I could not think of. He smiled the same slick smile I assumed he always did, just before messing with your career.
It was the same smile that had promoted me to Head of the Callisto Satellite and threw me on a rocket over 4 months ago. The same smile that sent me happily on my way from my family, friends and home with visions of Corporate Credit galore and the start of a meteoric rise to the upper floors of Red Corporation headquarters upon my glorious return.
“Morton.” He said right away. Like my face on the monitor was a surprise. Again with the brief transmission delay he would have said it before my face actually showed up on his screen. “So nice to see you well and settled in.”
I knew it was petty, but I waited with a blank face like a foreign correspondent on ‘vision, as if I had not received the visual yet before getting straight to the point. “Why am I here Mr. Ferret? I’m supposed to be on Callisto in another 4 months. Tell me this is just a brief stop! Mars was not on my agenda.”
“You’re probably wondering why you are there,” he had gone on without stopping. It was worth waiting and watching his smile slip a bit when my questions arrived.
“You are precisely where you need to be. And where we want you to be.” he replied and his smile returned. “You are a long way from the mailroom floor.” he quoted the old corporate saying.
I glanced out the porthole. Dizzying heights from the mailroom floor for sure. “I think you’ll agree that I’ve worked very hard to get to this height, I just didn’t expect it to be a deadend like Mars. You must have known this was my destination when you assigned me to Callisto. Otherwise,” I pointed out, “ it would have cost a small fortune to reroute the ‘craft.”
He paused this time to hear me out. “Now my boy, this is an opportunity of a lifetime. Mars has just opened up and frankly, you were the best Executive from Red Corporate to fulfill the job at the last minute. I think you are seeing corporate conspiracy where it doesn’t exist.”
“You mean I was the only one left alive out here that was close enough. Did something happen to that Italian guy from Sales? He would have been my first choice.”
His smile slipped back into place. “Yes. Mr. Scala would have been my first choice as well,” The venom was notable. “But his ship accidentally collided with some debris... that was carelessly ejected on an ‘unfortunate intercept course’ from a Yellow Corporate asteroid mining operation. ‘Strange’ how that seems to happen on a regular basis.” You could hear the air quotes.
“Look. Ferret.” I paused and swallowed. It was too late to add ‘Mister’, “I think I might have to invoke my employment contract clause. The one that states you can’t bait me with one assignment and switch it to a lesser assignment. There are rules.”
“This is not a “lesser” assignment,” is what he said, but not before me having to watch the range of emotions that clouded his face as he listened to my statement. Then the smile was back. “And you give yourself too much credit. I’ve seen your quarterly report.”
He shifted gears. “Your wife, Stacey is quite the avid shopper.” Statement, not a question.
“So? I can afford it. What with these solar system assignments. I think I’m making a bit more than you with bonuses.”
He ignored the bait. “Well, I’m sure you can take care of any Credit overages she might incur. You do get the bills sent direct to you after all, do you not?” He continued without waiting for an answer. “Things are so busy in payments that if Credit Repo should come knocking on your family’s door, at 31 Carriage Road, Seattle, I’m sure she’ll have the cash on hand to settle the bill. And that of your son.” He consulted a slip of paper on his desk, lifting it slightly. “He just got a new cell phone and there seems to be quite a bit of activity against his credit card number on that phone this month.”
I had an anti-hostage clause in my contract. He wasn’t supposed to have my family information, especially my real address. I wished I could blank the screen while I processed what he’d said. He wasn’t bluffing. He would do it. Strangle my payment transfers, run up my wife and son’s credit line and send in the Credit Repo. He could and he would. This just got real.
“Indentured Servitude is what ECM has decided to call it. I think the limit was recently raised to 3 years per 1000 credits owing.” Again a consultation of the sheet. “That currently puts them with a combined 393 years… and rising.” He let it hang, the smile still glued on his smug face.
Then, like it was an afterthought, he continued, “Oh, and I wouldn’t put any thought into the ridiculous rumors going around that citizens in Indentured Servitude would ever be sent out to the outer planets as Squishy. We all know Squishy are just vat-grown disposable soldiers.”
Heavy internal sigh. “Fine. What do you want Ferret. Mr. Ferret.” I corrected.
“It’s simple.” he sighed. “Just do as you are bloody told and don’t screw up. Squeeze the life out of Mars and send us the profit. ECM will be calling shortly with the details. Ferret out.”
And just like that he was gone.
Leaving me with a huge black hole where my heart was.
SEE CHAPTER 3: THE ECM COMES CALLING
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SEEPromotion? Heck yes! And why does my mouth taste like a gym sock?
Oh. Yeah. Hypersleep. Got the wakey-jitters.
Through a disposable plastic face mask I see there is a green flashing light on my right. I raised my arm, but it was sluggish to respond, late to the button and really hard to press.
I am rewarded with a soft chime and the door slid smoothly back, flooding my vision with silver decking, battleship grey walls and too many bright shiny lights in my face. I stripped the mask from my face. The air that floods in is stale, outer-space cold and slightly tin tasting.
And right in my face was an automated hospital drone.
“I’m up! I’m up!” I blurted at the medical robot, waved it aside, and took my first shakey step out of the Cryo Chamber. Darn that floor was cold.
My ears became attuned to the soft hum of distant machinery. A cursory glance around revealed a basic Cryo room with access doors to either end leading out to tight corridors with little headroom. Standard Corporate Satellite design. Hey, why not ruin a perfectly good hallway by stuffing in as much machinery as possible?
“Can I get a robe!?” The robot chimed a positive note and glided away, returning quickly with a deep red paper robe.
“Great.” I sighed, shrugging it on. “Now get me some coffee. And it better be Earth Columbian. And real. Not that fake moon dust crud.” Rank hath its privilege. And one of them, as the new Director of Corporate Satellite at Callisto was… My thoughts trailed off as my eye landed on the heavenly sphere out of the nearest porthole.
The planet was red. Not the white spotted icy blues of Callisto. Ancient desert sand red with thin atmosphere. Dang it! Mars! Somebody’s head was gonna’ roll.
“Where is the current Corporate Head of this Satellite?” I asked the retreating robot.
“Here. You are the current acting Corporate Head of this Satellite.” the air beside my head replied. Corporate AI, no doubt.
“Where are the other Executive Personnel?”
“You are the sole surviving member of the latest arrival of Red Corporate Executive personnel and are therefore the de facto Corporate Head of the Satellite.” the AI replied.
“But Mars of all places! Why are we here?” Everyone knows Mars is a no-go zone. Way too much fighting over it, for years. Heck, half the surface is a radioactive ship drive dump.
“It would seem that Earth Corporate Management has decided to do something special here.” the AI suggested. “There is a scheduled call incoming at 0800 from ECM to all Satellites in orbit and I have been instructed to ensure that Red Corporate’s representative takes the call.”
What? Wait. To all satellites? “How many Corporate Satellites are in orbit?” I asked.
“There are one from each Ruling Corporation including ours. Six in total.” was the reply after a tactical delay while the AI scanned and checked for accuracy.
All six of the major Ruling Corporations of Earth are represented here. Something big was up on Mars.
Earth Corporate Management was the global government of Earth and now, as a representative of Red Corporation, one of the six ruling class Corporations of Earth, I was nervously awaiting their call in exactly 60 minutes.
You know how you can be employed at your local store? Which is owned by one smaller corporation or another? And how that corporation is a “subsidiary” of another larger entity? Like if you trace the ownership of all the Earth entertainment corporations – your local tv stations, cable news, online content providers and motion picture producers – back to their owners you’d find every bit of entertainment and time wasting media that is sucking your money and attention is owned by one of maybe 5 Corporations.
Don’t believe me? Look up “Viacom Subsidiaries”. I’ll wait.
Yep. Paramount, CBS, Simon & Schuster, Comedy Central, MTV, VH1, BET, etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseum. You think you’re getting different political and social viewpoints by changing the channel or the media? Ha. Think again. And if you think it ends there, you’re wrong.
All those top tier companies are owned by only six Corporations. The 1% have nothing on the Corporations who own everything on Earth. And Earth Corporate Management owned and ran them all.
And they wanted to talk to little old me.
“How many personnel from Red Corporate are currently on board this Satellite?” I’d need an Executive Assistant at least.
“Just you.” it replied.
“Are you kidding me?” I asked.
“Not even a little.” it replied. “I’m not allowed.
SEE CHAPTER 2: A CALL FROM CORPORATE
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We are very pleased to announce that the position of "Chair" in the Mars conflict will be replaced with a Chief Executive from the Ruling Corporation Council. We are sure that the Executive will be able to handle this new responsibility and be able to sort out the issues of Companies not resorting to bribery in the conflict. Shame on you! You know how this works!
The Executive will be staying at one of the six conflict Corporation Satellites and will be able to provide said Corporation with advantages and additional responsibilities in the Conflict.
We wish the Chief Executive all the best in their new position.
We at the Corporation have always had the best interests of our employees at heart and will always maintain a flow of water to Mars for the sustaining of our operations and personnel. We endeavour to send at least one rocket per year to Mars in the hopes that it will return profit and make life on Mars that much more accomplishable.
It has been reported that not all the water that is shipped arrives at the Mars Satellites. While we would like to dispute the low numbers and blame other Corporations for malfeasance and sabotage, we have to admit that sometimes not all the water arrives as scheduled. The rigours and hazards of space travel results in many shipments being waylaid or arrive with less than their intended volume. However, we are confident that our well trained employees will make the most of the volume of water that does arrive, utilizing it to activate Squishy and Crunchy as needed and to also maintain resupply of troops currently on Mars.
We have the utmost confidence also that our employees will return the most profit from Mars with the water they do receive.
Our Crunchy are state-of-the-art autonomous operating units that are there to support the Squishy units. They are AI units that operate within strict boundaries set by the Earth Corporation Technological Alliance and as such they do not harm or act unilaterally against Squishy.
Reports have been circulating that Crunchy have rendered Squishy units against their will. We can assure you that this does not happen. These are times of conflict and as you know, in battle, there are occasions where it is necessary to render some Squishy for water for the the survival and resupply of existing units on Mars. Each Crunchy comes equipped with the ability to render Squishy through a door located in the main section, but all Squishy introduced to this entrance has done so voluntarily and with pride.
As you know, the abilities of the "Chair" in residence on a Satellite in orbit around Mars are transferable to the Company Representative. These abilities include being able to determine when the fiscal year Quarters will start and when movement is allowed to commence.
Movement usually proceeds from the chosen "first" player and rotates on the agreed clockwise Earth rotation basis.
We are happy to announce that a new power has been ratified at the EAGM (Earth Annual General Meeting) and now the Chair has the ability to not only determine which Company commences movement in the Quarter, but also will be able to determine the EXACT order of Company commencement.
We would like to put an end to the rumour that the biologically bred space exploration units commonly referred to as "Squishy" are missing Earth citizens who where being subjected to Indentured Servitude. They are NOT.
We all know that there are citizens who are subject to Debt Repayment Through Labor as legally established by the Credit Card companies in 2028. This does not mean that there is any connection between our Corporation and citizens subject to Labor Repayment being pressed into service as Squishy for space exploration.
The New York True News reporter who "broke" this supposed supposition was actually found to be suffering from previously undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia and has left the news industry to seek professional help.
We cannot explain the disappearance of so many Indentured citizens, nor should we have to. It is true a subsidiary of our Corporation manages several Indentured Service Depots, but they have been under Corporate FBI investigation. We refer you to the CFBI report that concluded that the missing citizens had indeed travelled off-Earth before disappearing, but the report concluded they were either on vacation or had moved to space to avoid Debt Repayment Through Servitude.
Our Corporate Squishy only come from vat grown cloning techniques that are Corporate FDA approved and subject to rigorous oversight and supervision. Squishy are autonomous biological worker bees and nothing more. They have carefully restricted intelligence and need constant direction from our Satellites in orbit to explore and do the job they were "trained" to do with cognitive brain impression. While in space, Squishy are kept at a minimum moistness level and are in stasis until reactivated through rehydration with water. Squishy are also ethically recycled for the water when their usefulness has ended. We restate that Squishy are not people.
We at the Corporation would like to unequivocally state that OUR Corporation has absolutely nothing to do with the Solent Red travesty. We're not too sure about the involvement of the other Corporations however, because that would just be the kind of inhumane thing in which they would be involved.