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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