Welcome to part two of our Outer Worlds diary. If you're not caught up yet, here's part one.
Every boy at business school dreams of Byzantium. The city where the space doors whoosh open instead of screech. Where you can see your own face in the floor and the lifts are gilded with gold. Golly, do they need lifts! Some of those offices go all the way up to the 62nd floor, which is a handy shorthand for hierarchical rank. What use is status if others can’t see it?
Byzantium is the residence of The Board, unlike Edgewater, which is merely the residence of The Bored. That’s the joke I plan to make at the bar once I arrive. But first I need to prove myself to the consortium of corporations that run the Halcyon colony.
My current predicament is less than glamorous. I’m grounded on a docking station, my ship impounded by the same Board I’m seeking to impress. But the red flag on my passport has granted me one advantage: an urgent appointment with the Board’s local ambassador, Udom Bedford.
As I step through customs into the great rusty cavern called Groundbreaker, the face of Phineas Welles comes through on the codec. His frazzled haircut does not mark him out as a serious person. "Remember," he says. "Don’t trust the Board. They’ll try to win you over with promises of wealth and power..." I don’t hear the rest. What’s so wrong about wealth and power? Welles might have unfrozen me from cryostasis, but he’s proven to be a shocking business partner since. It’s time to trade him in for another.
The embassy for the Halcyon Holdings Corporation Board sits in the back corner of Groundbreaker’s promenade, a shred of class among the scrap merchants and pirate boozers. Back when Halcyon was colonised, Groundbreaker was the first ship to arrive. But its crew decided it didn’t fancy putting in the hours and declared itself an independent port—even as it breathed artificial air courtesy of the Board. Ever since, the corps have tolerated Groundbreaker, allowing it to skim off the top of their interstellar shipments.
Without honest work though, the soul gets sick: that’s what my shift with Spacer’s Choice has taught me, and that sickness is made manifest on Groundbreaker. The air conditioning is on the fritz. The residents are boiling like lobsters in the pot.
"I’m required by Board bylaws to use excessive force," a guard warns loiterers on the embassy steps, but doesn’t bother my entourage as we pass. Perhaps it’s the air of business I carry with me. Or maybe it’s the gigantic Moon Man mask Vicar Max carries on his head, representing Spacer’s Choice wherever we go, like a football mascot.
The embassy is, as one local suggested, a "glorified shoebox"—terribly grand yet awfully small. Bedford’s office scarcely fits his computer and three bodyguards. All the better to make room for a luxury stateroom in the back, reserved for Chairman Rockwell’s use should he ever visit, which he won’t.
Bedford himself is a complex figure—a sentimentalist whose proud moustache conceals a wobbly bottom lip. Still, I can smell Byzantium on his suit. I offer Phineas Welles, wanted terrorist, in exchange for a navkey to the capital.
The ambassador’s eyes widen. Welles is his white whale—or as he pronounces it, 'hwhite hwhale'. The travel ban is gone in an instant. But turning Welles in, and passage to Byzantium, will require Bedford’s official Board seal, which he’s pawned to fund a series of self-produced adventure serials.
It’s an unforgivable lapse in professional judgement, and worse, it’s going to cost me money: 8,000 Bits, to be exact. Not likely, since parting with company cash is against my moral code. If only there were a way to pay for the seal with something belonging to somebody else—like the trade secrets of rival corporations.
The search takes me back to Terra 2. Last time I was here, everybody was shouting. I’d switched all the electricity in Emerald Vale over to Edgewater, pushing a community of deserters back to town and their jobs with Spacer’s Choice. It was good for their souls, and they’ll thank me eventually, but I don’t much fancy returning in the meantime. Fortunately we’ll be landing on the opposite side of the planet, far enough away not to hear their screams. Specifically we’re visiting
Roseway Gardens, a big pharma R&D station run by the Auntie Cleo corporation. It’s been thrown into chaos by anti-corp terrorism, and out of that question mark comes profit. For me, at least. Roseway Gardens is beautiful, after a fashion—its green trees blending into a blue sky padded by pink clouds. It’s starkly multi-coloured, like a strip of toothpaste, which incidentally is what they manufacture here. The streets are less than minty fresh though, littered by the corpses of corporate cops. Many of them have chunks missing, which I’m pretty sure constitutes theft of company property.
Once in town I catch up with R&D director Anton Crane, an Eddie Redmayne type and panicker. The terrorists have let the raptidons out of their cages, which explains the trail of limbs I’ve followed from the ship. It was Crane who put out the distress call that led me here, and now regrets it, since his illegal diet toothpaste research is likely to be exposed.
Crane has been secretly introducing raptidon digestive acid into the evening meals of randomly selected workers and observing the effects.
It’s cheap out-of-hours research, and it’s smart; less so the decision to tell me about it. If I can get hold of his work, I can fund my ticket to Byzantium and undermine a Spacer’s Choice competitor into the bargain. Crane’s body can be the first counterweight in the lift that takes me up to that 62nd floor.
Under the pretext of help, I have Crane direct me to his lab, as well as the building where his assistant still cowers, frightened and abandoned. The latter proves to be a dead end, since the man is trapped in his own office behind a locked door. Buying more lockpicks would involve hacking the vending machine downstairs, but there’s no way I’m circumventing Spacer’s Choice software. They’re the corporation that got me this far, and what good are company values if you don’t stick to them? I can hear the assistant yelling as I leave, but his voice is muffled by the door, his face obscured by frosted glass. He’s a company man; I’m sure he understands.
The lab, when I find it, is under siege. An Auntie Cleo response team has been dispatched to the scene, but has stalled in the lobby; the enforcers are now at an impasse with the terrorists and the raptidons, though it’s debatable whether the latter even know how to stand, let alone have a stand-off. I take the side door and begin rummaging through papers and terminals, taking anything that sounds sensitive and sellable.
That’s when I happen upon Cassandra O’Malley, the terrorist leader, locked in an unguarded cell. She’s here simply because she wanted to know what it’d feel like to make an anti-establishment choice. How’s your freedom taste now, Cass? That’s right: like lizard-flavoured toothpaste.
It transpires Cassandra has the crucial Crane research I’m after. She offers to go halves if I clear a route for her to make a French exit, but I’m not about to start unlocking doors now. Besides, she’s making all these noises about "stabbing at the heart of corporate power".
I don’t much care for Auntie Cleo, but the heart of corporate power is where I want to be. What if Cassandra’s waiting when I get there?
Just enough pellets from Vicar Max’s shotgun make it past the bars, and Cassandra slumps to the floor. The research I retrieve from her fallen form is undamaged, and what’s more I get both halves. Cleo’s crack team and the remaining terrorists can have each other. The corporation will restore order, and be none the wiser about the secrets they’ve lost.
On my way out, I happen across the raptidon matriarch Crane specifically warned me was crucial to further research. But, as any economist would tell you, his stolen work becomes more valuable to my buyers if it can’t be reproduced. And the Spacer’s Choice company handbook does teach that the natural world is ours to conquer. Nice lab lizard you’ve got there. Would be a shame if something... happened to it.
Back aboard Groundbreaker, I meet with the station’s secret broker, a kindly old woman named Gladys. She offers me candy, and I offer her experimental rocket research. Sure, toothpaste can’t power rockets, but sometimes a lie fetches a higher price than the truth.
Bedford’s relief spreads through his moustache as I hand him the Board seal. I’ve saved his hide. He approves my journey to Byzantium and immediately sends the authorisation forms through to Sophia Akande, the adjutant to Chairman Rockwell and the most powerful woman in Halcyon.
The key word being ‘immediately’, given what I’m about to do. The adventure serials Bedford has been producing in his spare time essentially constitute fanfiction. And he knows as well as I do that breach of copyright in the colony is punishable by death.
The guards fall first under Parvati’s hammer—too quickly, if I’m honest. I’d hope for better security in my own future Board roles. The good vicar lifts his shotgun, and Bedford raises his hands in response, but it’s too late—the best blocks at his disposal were bureaucratic, and they’re spent now. The bullets impact his chest, as well as my reputation with the Board. They’ll understand in time, once they know what Bedford was up to.
I take his passcodes and then the lift, gilded with gold, that leads to the Chairman’s quarters. Upstairs, the doors whoosh instead of screech, and I can see my own face in the floor. What catches my eye though, is an elaborate light fitting: a ladder of spokes leading all the way up to the ceiling.
"I find myself marvelling at the complex simplicity of the Fibonacci spiral," Vicar Max is prone to saying. "I’m sure you know what that’s like." I do now. This is the hierarchy I’m meant to climb up.
Outside, on the balcony that overlooks Groundbreaker’s promenade, I let the rising heat wash over me.
The adverts for Auntie Cleo drugs, Spacer’s Choice guns, and Rizzo’s alcohol all blend together in a neon haze—reminiscent of central Osaka back on Earth.
I realise then: it’s not each other the corps are fighting. The only real competition is between us up here, and them down below.
Then I sleep in the chairman’s bed.