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Vance was awake and counting his sins. Moonlight dappled his face through the expensive glass ceiling. It rippled through the rest of this top floor apartment; light and dark but always cold blue.
Vance counted the stars. There were ten. He counted the moons. Three tonight; one slipped behind a cloud. Vance wondered if he should move to a moon, leave his planetary troubles behind. Radiance needed people to watch their warehouses, and he’d always been good with robots. He could bring them down from the inside, once he’d dug himself in and saved up enough money and got the day’s orders out. He’d always been good with stories too.
Vance wrote in his head. Investigative journalist Vance James was yesterday found dead in the kingdom-level apartment of a high-ranking Radiance executive. Authorities suspect foul play, Radiance suspects suicide. James was a tireless critic of the Radiance corporate hegemony on Sedna, but he had been getting tired, so tired, had been surveilled in his home with a blaster in his mouth with the trigger almost squeezed and the safety catch only halfway on. Vance stopped writing. He lay back and stared into obscurity.
He heard Jeneva fumbling with the fingerprint lock on her vault; she must have finished working. A muted pop as she hoisted her computer terminal inside told Vance that she still didn’t trust him. A few more snaps as she turned off her apartment, and suddenly she was in bed, naked, on top of him, surrounding him. Vance grabbed at her flesh, scratching and biting at whatever he found. She moaned and growled and seized his wrists. His blood rose, and fell. He threw her away.
“What’s wrong Vancey?” she said. She sat up. He rolled his head towards her.
“I should take pictures of you like this,” he said, “Every newspaper in the galaxy would want them.” He grabbed his bag from the floor and pulled out his camera. Jeneva laughed and ran her hands through her hair.
“The flash on this model could light up a black hole.” He pressed the trigger and the room exploded in flame.
“I know baby.” He took another picture.
“You think I won’t publish these?” Another.
“I know you won’t.” Another. She pressed her breasts together with her forearms.
“You think my career would be over?” Another. “My career’s already over, your’s is just starting.” He lowered the lens.
“I know your career’s over darling. But you’re too vain.” She dropped her breasts. “And I know I’m not that attractive.”
Vance deflated. Jeneva was right. Her chin was pointed, her legs stunted, her hands strangely gnarled. But she defied her lack of beauty and moved and carried herself like a goddess. She smiled ferociously, used her eyes, rolled her hips. When she had invited him back to her apartment after their heated interview nineteen days ago, she had known that he would come and she had known that he would be feverish and incapacitated until he had torn her clothes off for the first time.
Flashes of imagined flesh flicked through Vance’s mind whenever he tried to forget them. If his friends and colleagues ever found out then he would explain, he would describe to them how her tongue and confidence were more provocation than any ass they’d ever seen. But he knew that they wouldn’t understand why he had had to fuck with the enemy, and such a misshapen one at that.
She dismounted him and kneeled by his head. She stroked his black curls. “You’re no picture yourself,” she said, “but I don’t care. You’re so fun to play with.”
Sleeping with the closest thing to an enemy that Radiance had left on Sedna gave Jeneva energy. She knew she made Vance feel dominated, spayed and abused; she assumed that that was why he kept coming back. Radiance had almost completely professionally castrated him; he might as well let them finish the job.
“Baby, baby, Vance. I’m sorry your exposé of my department isn’t go well. But we’re really very good at deflecting these things by now, you know that.”
“Let’s talk for real, just one time. Off the record, no recorders, no repeating. Not that it would make any difference, I’ll probably have killed myself before I’d have a chance to use it anyway.”
Jeneva smiled. “You don’t mean that Vancey. If it will make you happy, let’s talk. But if it’s for real this time, I should cover up my tits.” She pulled on Vance’s discarded shirt. “Now we’re ready.”
Vance opened fire. “The closer Radiance comes to one hundred percent market share in one hundred percent of products, the closer it comes to being the de facto state. Do you want that job?”
Jeneva was obligingly serious. “We are a business, not a political party. Your question makes no sense.”
“The state exists to promote the welfare of the people, and it can only do this to the extent that it has the power to do so. Radiance is the only body with the ability to enforce the decisions that the state should be making. Therefore, it has the responsibilities of the state, whether it likes it or not.”
“Radiance does promote the welfare of the people, inasmuch as it serves its customers and enhances shareholder value. But again, we are a business, not a charity, not a political party. We do business.”
“Your business choices have absolute political consequences. If Radiance stops building cheap apartments, the poor immediately suffer. If Radiance doesn’t like unions, there is no one to argue that they may in fact serve a valuable social purpose. Radiance barely has to pay attention to what the market wants anymore, because in many cases you are the market.”
“Corporations have always made these kinds of decisions. In what way are we any different?”
“On a normal planet, corporations attempt to affect society in whatever self-interested way they wish. Other corporations, the government, the public decide whether they want to live in such a society, and pull in a different direction if they do not. But you make your decisions in a perfect vacuum, a forceless equilibrium. When you nudge society in one direction, there is no one to nudge back. Society has no say in what it looks like.”
“If society hates itself so much then it should have elected a different government.”
“Saying that is tantamount to declaring war on everyone on Sedna! In what way is this different to a military coup?”
“Ours is legal, for starters.”
“I dispute that vigorously, but in any case, why would that matter? The outcome is the same, you can’t expect to defend a constitution based on accidents of path.”
“Path is important, you can’t just look at consequences and decide whether you like them or not. What if our current, dearly elected president had gained his position by his own military coup? The outcome would be the same as the last election, so by your reasoning would be entirely acceptable.”
“Equivalence isn’t always important. It’s not who is in government that’s important, it’s the legitimacy of their office.”
“And Sedna is still ruled by our democratically elected council.”
“You’re being obtuse.” Vance sat up. “We’re off the record, remember.”
“I think the success of your recent articles shows how much I have to fear from saying - well - anything to you, on or off your record.”
Vance felt twin, mournful hatreds for Jeneva and for himself. “I should kill us both right now.”
Jeneva loved the melodrama, and this was usually the point at which Vance broke down and begged her to fuck him. Last time she had refused to let him touch her until he had sworn loyalty to the leadership and stockholders of Radiance; she had thoroughly enjoyed herself that night. She pushed Vance’s head away as he tried to kiss her. He grabbed her wrist; she slapped him and spat on his chest. His head stayed down; her spit dripped languidly through his coarse chest hair. He continued, subdued.
“Once a corporation has one hundred percent market share, what is it even trying to achieve?”
“Why does everything have to be about a grand vision or a higher purpose? Commerce takes place on a microscopic level, and galactic order emerges from there. The goal of commerce is to buy low, sell high, that’s all anyone is ever trying to do, and it works. I know you’ll say that it depends on what you mean by ‘works’, but no, I don’t think it does. You cannot look at modern, commercial society and say that it doesn’t ‘work’. When a business has five percent of the market and is trying to grow, you wouldn’t ask them why. You wouldn’t demand answers to ridiculous existential questions about whether the life of their corporation is meaningless. For some reason you accept that it is natural and valid for a company to seek success when they are small, but as soon as they actually become successful you can’t see why they should bother.”
Vance still didn’t look up; didn’t wipe himself down. “Radiance isn’t just a large, powerful corporation. You are a fundamentally different beast. You have completely new types of powers that no entity, much less a private one, should ever have. On a planet with a large number of corporations, each one is trying to manipulate people, and they roughly cancel each other out and the public maintains a semblance of choice and autonomy. Often they don’t, and so I still don’t like it, but it’s damn sight better than what you are giving us.” He started shouting into his knees.
“I can actually see how your Market Expansion Strategy could have come from ostensibly normal, peaceful humans. I know that Radiance isn’t intrinsically evil, but everyone inside can only reliably communicate with each other in the language of profits and growth. Now you’ve arrived at the end of the corporate rainbow, and there’s nothing there because you already have all the gold. Once you have all the money in the world it becomes definitionally impossible to turn a profit. And it could very easily be that everyone inside Radiance does in fact individually see that their corporation is not just a corporation anymore, and that we all need to sit down and decide whether Radiance in its current form is something that we want as part of our future world. But this would require a new language, one that has vocabulary for fluffy concepts like fairness and true altruism, and you don’t know how everyone else would look at you if you started using these kinds of strange words. So you stick with the same ones that you know you won’t get in trouble for using, and this is how a large group of relatively benevolent people can come up with the Market Expansion department.”
“I’ve already said that we’re a very experimental group; we’re simply exploring possibilities.”
“Do you think that the systematic increase of the planet’s population is something that should be discussed in a closed boardroom, or that the planet should be free to debate?”
“Now you’re being obtuse; the planet is undeniably free to debate whatever they please, and the government is equally free to legislate. We will abide by legislation, as we always have.”
“It is an empty and futile public discourse when the entity that will eventually make the decisions is having its own private conversation behind uncountable layers of locked and guarded doors. And again, we are off the record, we can actually talk about the relationship between Radiance and our dear, free and elected government.”
Jeneva took a corner of Vance’s t-shirt and wiped her spit off his chest. She took Vance’s chin between her finger and thumb and raised his head to look up at her. His eyes stayed down; she gripped harder and dug her nails into his skin. He finally raised his eyes; she waited for a beat before letting go. “What is your question?”
“My point and accusation is that Sedna’s government would never meaningfully legislate against Radiance because of the vast quantities of money that have been exchanged between them.”
“We have never attempted to hide our support for this government. If this makes them less attractive to the people of Sedna then they should elect a different one.”
“There are no politicians who are above the levels of support that you have repeatedly given to every official who has ever contested an election. In any case, I have already said that the official government is an irrelevancy when Radiance has the power that it has. It might as well try and regulate a neutron star.
“As far as I can see, the only remaining course of action for the few of us left in the resistance is to declare for Radiance, amputate our vestigial government, and have an out in the open revolution. We could move the seat of power to the Radiance boardroom, and as long as you agreed to have regular elections I think it could almost work. You seem to be very good at what you do, and if I could only convince you to do things that I agreed with then I think we could be good friends.
“Since most of the planet already works for you, as a people we’re already quite used to living under your rule. You already make the decisions that shape society, so we just need to make sure that everyone is on the inside, where the decisions are being made. Then people can make sure that society continues to work for them, or at least that the reasons why it doesn’t are appreciated and accounted for. I know that Radiance currently exists for the benefit and glory of its munificent shareholders, but I don’t see why it has to stay this way.
“We would have to be extremely careful about how the transition was managed, and it would certainly be challenging to convince the Radiance board that they were now ministers and councilmen and should answer to the people. But with enough logic, reason, and thick iron bars I think we could make them see that there is really very little difference between a democratic monopolist and a socialist.”
Vance lurched forward, his head in his hands, his life consumed but his precious death still far away. He felt Jeneva examine him with curiosity. He wondered how much of her he had seen. She had made him bathe every inch of her body with his tongue, but who could say what she kept hidden inside her pores or veins or intestines? She dragged him roughly onto his back and let him lie, with his face still in his fingers, while she skillfully teased out his treacherous erection. He tried not to notice as she climbed on top of him and pushed him inside her. He felt shame at how wet she was. He chastised himself for his pleasure as she pounded up and down. He wanted to grab her ass but knew that she would not let him. She screamed and clawed at his chest as she came, quickly and repeatedly. She subsided and rolled off of him, leaving Vance with a bleeding shoulder and a half-formed orgasm.
Jeneva lay on her back, panting, wondering if she had anything to atone for. Then she realized that she was powerful and there was no god. She gazed through the skylight and began counting the stars. There were millions.
NEW: Also subscribe to my new series, Programming Feedback for Advanced Beginners.