White Nights, Mammon’s City
It was late again and Karl Reeve’s stims were running low. His heart monitor predicted cardiac arrest within twenty-four hours if he didn’t sleep soon.
Karl stared out his building’s windows, distracted by memories of his father. Rays of an unsetting sun glinted off vast diamond towers sprinkled with flakes of gold and platinum. He watched frenetic financial wizards representing thousands of diverse species hustle past through a city that freed them from the constraints of darkness.
The sun always shined on Karl’s side of Zeta Reticulum B, a tidally locked world over thirty-nine light years from Earth. It was an ideal location for an interplanetary investment bank where dreams of forever finance became reality. Karl specialized in interplanetary mergers and acquisitions. When an interstellar conglomerate wanted to buy a world, they hired his firm, Screwtape Rearden.
Because of the planetary stakes involved, his work required herculean effort and an unrelenting attention to detail. Yet exhaustion and worry today kept bringing him back to thoughts of his father.
When Karl was ten, his dad was larger than life. As the cicadas had chirped lazily in the muggy August air, Karl and his dad had tuned out the world. All movement had slowed to the cadence of the baseball, its stitching twisting through space and time, until the snap of a glove had heralded its arrival. Then the cycle had begun anew marked by the peak and trough of throw and catch, action and reaction, yin and yang.
That man of vigor now lay crippled and shivering in his bed on Earth, riddled with pus-encrusted sores. Karyakin’s Syndrome. Karl’s father didn’t have long. Two, maybe three months. But Karl still had a year left on his contract, and couldn’t yet afford the exorbitant cost to travel home.
Karl was a junior analyst, a white-collar slave. He held a position requiring the most work and conferring the least prestige. He conjured up senior bankers’ whims into neatly formatted three-dimensional matrices of reality from the close of business to the crack of dawn. That is, if there had been a dawn.
This deal was a big one, a once-in-a-generation transaction that could make or break a senior banker’s career. Everything was hush-hush. Not even the senior bankers competing for the business knew the buyer’s name or the target world’s location. They had to conduct all business through a legal intermediary.
The bonus from this transaction was supposed to have made it all worthwhile. Karl’s loans paid off, he would’ve been free to do whatever the hell he’d wanted wherever he’d wanted. He had planned to use his bonus to buy a one-way ticket off this psychotic rock and back to Earth to see his father one last time. But Karl was a year late and a million credits short.
Karl’s boss, Rango Xen, was eager to get started on the pitch. “Karl, we should do a geologically-staged discounted cash flow analysis on all the target planet’s mineral resources.”
Five hours of work, Karl thought.
Rango was a native Reticulan. His reptilian species didn’t sleep – an adaptation honed from millions of years of evolution in an ecosystem where the sun never set. It was also an ideal quality for an interstellar investment banker. Being cold-blooded didn’t hurt either.
“We should also construct multiple scenarios valuing the target planet based on a variety of different industrial development paradigms. We should also forecast them out to four billion years,” Rango said.
Part of being a successful analyst was asking the right questions to preempt too much work. “Would three scenarios be sufficient?” Karl asked. Three was a ridiculously low number that Rango was likely to reject. But Karl needed to set Rango’s expectations low.
Ten hours of continuous work, Karl estimated.
“No. We should do fifteen scenarios. Our client will be more impressed.”
Fifty hours of continuous work.
One of the “joys” of interplanetary investment banking was the teamwork. Everybody said things like: “we should do this” and “we should show that”, but when it was time to buckle down, the senior banker had already gone home. While Rango didn’t do any of the legwork, he never slept, so Karl could always count on the Reticulan to check in on him at all hours.
“I will review a holodraft when I return in twelve hours. Thanks,” Rango said and then left Karl’s cubicle.
“You’re not gonna finish in time, are you?” a female voice sneered from an adjacent cubicle.
Every time Karl heard her voice a wave of revulsion washed over him. But when he saw her, he couldn’t concentrate.
Lindsey sauntered over to Karl’s cubicle, smelling of rose shampoo. Her emerald eyes regarded Karl like a bird of prey might consider a rodent. “Looks like you’re about to collapse. Want some stims?” She offered Karl two olive-colored horse pills.
“Why are you giving me these?”
“You seem like you could use ‘em. Am I wrong?”
Karl hesitated, and then said, “No, you’re not wrong. Ah…Thanks.”
“Happy to help.” Lindsey smiled and returned to her cubicle.
Karl couldn’t figure her out. He’d suspected she’d relayed information about his comings and goings to Rango, especially when Karl was late. Maybe she’d sensed he no longer trusted her, and felt guilty. Perhaps she wanted to make amends. He was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, so he popped the stim, then tried to jam over two Earth days of work into twelve hours. Karl was fully aware there was a chance his stim use could kill him. Yet when he balanced this uncertainty against the risk of losing his job, he decided to roll the dice.
Rango’s image appeared on Karl’s holoberry. “Karl. What happened? You look awful.”
Karl lifted his drool-lathered cheek from the desk. He was lucky he remembered who he was. Weeks without sleep sometimes resulted in dissociative amnesia among humans. Karl hadn’t had an episode yet, but now was as good a time as any.
“What time is it?” Karl asked.
The tone of Rango’s voice dropped an octave. “You don’t have a holodraft ready, do you?”
Karl checked the chronometer below Rango’s image. Crap. The holodraft was due in ten minutes. Karl looked up at Rango. “No, I don’t.”
Karl struggled with reading alien emotions, but after spending nearly every waking hour with Rango for the past year, he knew when Rango’s jaw tightened and his neck frill tensed, it was bad. Real bad.
“I should never have hired a human. I thought it would help me develop more relationships with interstellar congloms. So far, all it’s gotten me is an amnesia-riddled junior analyst who rarely gets his work done on time. Fortunately, Lindsey took the initiative and did your work for you. She uploaded a holodraft ten minutes ago.”
What the hell? Karl thought. Then it dawned on him why the stim didn’t work.
Interplanetary investment banking was a competitive business – swimming with the sharks and such. Lindsey was no exception. Yet on a strange world, a pretty face from one’s own species went a long way when it came to trust. Stupid. Stupid.
Rango continued. “If this deal didn’t require two full-time analysts, I would’ve terminated your employment after this incident. Don’t let it happen again.”
“Two human analysts,” Rango emphasized the word “human”. “I need someone continuously available, and your species unfortunately doesn’t perform well without sleep.”
Karl nodded. “Right, I’ll get back to work immediately.”
“You’d better. And remember what I said.” Rango’s hologram winked out.
Then Karl realized that Lindsey unwittingly gave him some needed rest, just not enough of it. His heart monitor was now out of the red and into the yellow.
Lindsey scoffed and said, “I see you’ve decided to rejoin the living. I trust you enjoyed your nap?”
“No, I didn’t. Nor did I appreciate your sabotaging me.”
“What’re you talking about? I deserve some gratitude for bailing you out of that situation.”
“Bailing me out? Is that what you call slipping me a tranq pill?”
Lindsey huffed and said, “Screw you. I gave you a stim. You were probably just too far gone to benefit from it.”
“If you were trying to help me, why didn’t you just wake me up? Why is your name all over the holodraft?”
That shut her up.
Lindsey infuriated Karl, but retaliation was not an option. In the universe of interplanetary high finance, Karl saw two kinds of junior analysts – those with three-point-nine GPAs from IIT, Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford, and those who were the children of interplanetary conglom leaders, many of whom grew up on paradise planets like Gaia Five. Lindsey was the latter – born on third base, thinking she’d hit a triple.
If the bank terminated Lindsey, it might forgo future transactions worth quadrillions of credits. But Karl was easily replaceable. He had to tread carefully if he’d ever hope to return home. Staying on this world for any longer than another year was dangerous. Most humans committed suicide after two years of exposure to a sun that never set. After spending a year here, Karl was frequently irritable and easily distractible, classic signs of hypomania.
A personal call flashed on Karl’s holoberry. His heart skipped a beat. Was it his mother? He didn’t know what he’d do if his father died today.
The call had to be from Earth. He didn’t have friends anywhere else. Karl checked the call’s point of origin. The signal was restricted and encrypted.
Now Karl was intrigued.
After Karl accepted the call, the image of a squat muffin-shaped being appeared on his holoberry. A forest of eyestalks protruded from the creature’s dorsal surface and articulated limbs extended at equal intervals along its circumference.
“Hello,” Karl said.
“Karl Reeves, I presume?”
“Excellent. My name is Glorglin Ugoglin. I represent the human resources department at Mandrake and Wormwood. We’re looking to fill an analyst position in our Zeta Reticulum B office. Do you know anyone who might be interested?”
Interesting, Karl thought. Mandrake and Wormwood was even more prestigious than Screwtape Rearden. This call was definitely worth taking.
“I may know of someone,” Karl said.
“Good, good. If you can have them contact me using this secure channel within forty-eight hours, I would appreciate it. Good day.”
The recruiter’s image disappeared.
Karl thought seriously about the position. He could start over without the threat of termination hanging over him. Then he shrugged it off. He didn’t relish having to prove himself to another group of strangers. No. He would fulfill his obligations to Screwtape Rearden because, for all its warts, the firm had been the only one to take a chance on him when no other firm would.
“We won the mandate!” Rango’s frilled neck undulated. “We’re going with the wild card scenario.”
“Scenario fifteen?” Karl asked, incredulous.
“That’s right. We need to do some more extensive modeling on that scenario. It’s going to be a hostile takeover.”
Karl shuddered. In the hallowed lore of Terran investment banking, a hostile takeover had put fear into the hearts of a company’s management team. To protect their clients against private equity vulture capitalists, investment bankers had devised creative defenses to forestall these barbarians at the gate. This so-called shark repellent had included a host of procedural and structural defenses such as staggered boards, poison pills, and dozens of other devices and gimmicks to help management retain control. In the twenty-third century, the hostile takeover of a planet held far grimmer implications.
“Great!” Karl lied. “What’s the target planet?”
“That’s highly confidential. Only a select number of people at our firm need to know, and you are not one of them.”
“Then how can I do any of the financial modeling?”
“The buyers are sanitizing the data. You will have all the relevant numbers, but all names and locations will be encoded.”
“Do we know who the buyer is?” Karl asked.
“A Centauran conglom.”
Karl cringed. Centauran-run congloms had a reputation for carelessly upending planetary ecosystems to extract mineral resources. And Centaurans weren’t particularly fond of humans.
The preliminary data hit Karl’s desk shortly after his firm won the mandate. The target world’s atmosphere was just under eighty percent nitrogen and a little over twenty percent oxygen. The planet’s liquid water oceans covered slightly over seventy percent of the planet.
The client also expressed a particular interest in extracting molten metals from the planet’s mantle.
Not good at all.
Karl rationalized that Earth wasn’t the only world that had these specific atmospheric and surface characteristics. In a galaxy as large as the Milky Way, there had to be others. Or so he hoped.
The next sixteen hours alternated between his checking his increasingly noisy heart monitor and his running the numbers to determine what the target world was worth.
Karl felt lightheaded and dizzy, and his heart beat at an irregular rhythm. The more Karl ran the numbers, the more one thing became clear: only a single world matched the data.
Karl spent the next several days in a work-fueled haze. He felt powerless. Within several months, nearly everyone he’d ever known would be gone. Only those few humans who’d left Earth would survive the genocide.
He would be the executioner’s assistant, the ordinary man complicit in an extraordinary crime. And there was nothing he could do about it. His impotence only deepened his sorrow at missing his father’s final days.
The only thing Karl thought to do was share his grim discovery with the nearest member of his species.
“Ridiculous,” Lindsey scoffed. “No one’s done a hostile takeover in over a century, and the first takeover target just happens to be Earth? That’s rich, even for you.”
Karl was beginning to regret revealing his findings, yet he persisted. “Don’t believe me? Take another look at the data. You’ve been working with it now for as long as I have.”
Lindsey rolled her eyes. “I have more important work to do.” A three dimensional matrix from a different transaction materialized around her workspace.
“Please, Lindsey. Just check.”
She ignored him.
He ran to the break room, poured a cup of water and returned to Lindsey’s cubicle, where he tossed water onto her holoterminal.
“What the hell!” Lindsey yelled.
Karl raised his hands defensively. “Don’t worry. Everything is still saved on the network, and the firm can replace your terminal. In the meantime, why don’t you hang out in my office?”
Lindsey was trembling. Her face was beet red. “Fine!”
When she arrived in Karl’s office, Karl had a three-dimensional model of Earth running in geological real-time.
“What’s this?” Lindsey said.
“It’s my section of the holopresentation. It outlines how our clients can most efficiently extract molten iron from the target’s mantle.”
“Why’d you make it look like Earth?”
“I didn’t. I just entered the data into the matrix, and this is the holoterminal’s resulting visualization.”
Lindsey’s eyes widened. She drew her hand to her mouth. “My God.”
Karl grabbed Lindsey by the shoulders. “Lindsey, I know we haven’t seen eye to eye since we’ve been at the firm. But we have to put all that behind us. We can’t let this transaction happen.”
“Where are the holodocs?” Rango asked.
Talk about a cold start. Karl looked up from his drool-besotted desk in confused exhaustion. “Huh?”
“Huh? That’s all you have to say? The management team will be here in fifteen minutes!” Rango’s neck frill flared.
Karl popped a stim pill. “Right! I’m on it!”
Karl gestured toward his holographic display sensors and watched a complex array of numbers spring to life. Five billion years of geologic time passed in minutes as his forecasts progressed from the extinction of all indigenous species to the rapacious extraction of the target world’s mineral resources.
Rango ceased his frill-flaring the instant he saw Karl’s simulation. “It seems you aren’t so worthless after all.”
Self-conscious, Karl said, “I’ll join you in about five minutes. I need to clean myself up for the meeting.”
Rango’s jaw tightened. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Then it hit Karl. These were Centaurans. They were the first sentient species humanity had encountered when humans started exploring the stars. The encounter was an unfortunate one since it took humans over half a century to discover that the “animals” they raised, butchered, and ate were a telepathic and sentient species. After that discovery, humanity had tried to make things right with the Centaurans, but the Centaurans refused to forgive or forget.
“I see,” Karl said.
Rango nodded, and left for the meeting.
Karl checked his heart monitor: deep red. He put his head on his desk and took a power nap to stay alive.
“You buffoon!” Rango screamed in his trilling Zeta Reticulan voice, “You handed me the wrong scenario! You embarrassed me in there. If not for my quick thinking, we would have lost the mandate.”
“Huh?” Karl said, feigning surprise. “But you asked for scenario fifteen. I handed you scenario fifteen.”
“No! I asked for scenario fifteen point three. You handed me an earlier draft, which had some noticeable and unforgiveable errors. Fortunately, I used the Centaurans’ contempt for humanity to explain away the mistake. Consider this your last warning.”
Karl nodded. “Yes, sir. It won’t happen again.”
Rango stormed out of Karl’s office, neck frill flaring.
Lindsey entered shortly thereafter. “He didn’t take that very well.”
“No, he didn’t. But it looks like we bought ourselves another week or so of time. Not too shabby.”
“Now what do we do? The transaction’s still gonna happen, no?”
“Probably. Next time a simple delay isn’t gonna work. We have to convince the Centaurans not to do the transaction.”
“I agree, but how do we accomplish that?”
“We convince them that the target world is too expensive,” Karl said with a smile.
“Are you sure you did the right analysis?” Rango asked.
“Absolutely. We ran through every scenario you outlined,” Karl said.
Rango’s eyes shifted to Lindsey. “Is this true?”
“Yes. Some industry analysts are projecting commodity prices to rise dramatically over the next several billion years. No matter how we analyze the data, the price for Planet X rises by at least twenty-five percent.”
“I hate to say this, but I don’t think the Centaurans are gonna do this transaction at that price,” Karl said.
“Don’t tell me what price they’re in or out. I’ll determine that,” Rango said. “There must be a valuation technique that yields a lower price. Did you calculate the planet’s liquidation value?”
“Of course,” Karl answered. “It was about twenty percent lower than what we think the asset’s fair market value will be. No interstellar conglom worth its salt would sell an asset at such a discount.”
Rango fumed. “Alright. Let me think. Maybe we can convince the Centaurans to purchase a minority stake in Planet X and acquire additional shares over time. I want you two to run five scenarios tonight on this option and supply me with a holodraft in four hours.”
The image of a Pictorian female empath materialized on Karl’s holoberry.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Mr. Reeves, but I have some bad news.”
Here it comes.
“Unfortunately, we are eliminating your position. I am here to discuss our very generous benefits package, which is displayed here for your convenience.” She pointed at a holodoc that appeared in the air.
Karl felt nauseated. “I’ve just lost my job?”
“I’m afraid so, Mr. Reeves. As I noted earlier, we’ve provided you with a very generous severance, and…”
“Wait,” Karl interrupted. “Why am I being fired? What did I do wrong?”
“Not fired, Mr. Reeves, but your position has been eliminated. I’m very sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but if you’ll please take a look at our very generous benefits package, you’ll see that…”
Karl shut off his holoberry. Rango owed him an explanation. When he turned to exit his office, two brutish Reticulans stood outside his door.
“You have thirty minutes to pack your belongings and exit the building,” one said.
Karl stood in silence, uncertain what to do.
Lindsey passed Karl’s cubicle, glanced at Karl with an expression that looked like pity, and walked away.
Was she in on this? Did she use me? he thought.
Karl packed his things and left with his dignity barely intact.
Karl spent the next few hours moping around his apartment. His life was over. His severance was nowhere near what he needed to book transit back to Earth. Hell, it was barely enough to pay for one long-range transmission home.
His holoberry beeped. Lindsey’s image appeared. She was in tears.
“Yeah?” Karl said, making no effort to conceal his disgust.
“Karl, I’m so sorry about what happened. It’s not right.”
“Yeah, whatever. You probably knew it was coming, didn’t you? Hell, you probably had something to do with it.”
“No-o-o,” she cried. “I swear I had nothing to do with it. If I weren’t the only analyst left, I’d’ve been laid off, too.” Lindsey then took a deep breath and said, “Karl, Rango knows.”
“He knows we inflated the price. He had me rerun the numbers using more optimistic projections. The Centaurans are still doing the deal.”
“What?” Karl was apoplectic. Not only had he lost his job, but also he faced the prospect of losing nearly everyone he’d ever known.
“Why, Lindsey? Why did you help him?”
“I didn’t have a choice,” she sobbed. “He’d have fired me too.”
“You selfish bitch.” Karl regretted the words the instant they left his mouth. Lindsey exploded in a torrent of tears.
“I didn’t know what to do. What would you have done? Tell me what to do to make it right? Please.”
Karl couldn’t look at her. She’d just condemned her entire species to extinction.
Karl ended the transmission. Then he made one final call.
The holographic image of his father appeared in Karl’s room. His dad’s ruined figure was strewn on a ramshackle hospital bed, like a starship’s broken hull on a debris field.
“Dad?” Karl asked, a tear running down his cheek.
“Son? Is…that…you?” his father said in short, labored breaths.
“It is. Dad, I don’t have much time. I lost my job, so I won’t be able to come home.”
“Dad, that’s not important anymore. I need you and mom to leave Earth ASAP. I don’t care how much it costs. Just leave.”
“Why? I…won’t…be here…much…longer.”
Karl couldn’t stand it. “Please, dad. If not you, at least get mom out of there. In a few months, Earth will be gone. Please. Do it for me.”
His dad’s image winked out, replaced by a spinning credit accompanied with an annoyingly pleasant female voice. “Your credits have expired. Please deposit more credits to continue your transmission. Your credits have expired. Please dep…”
Karl threw his shoe at the holographic projector and cursed. He just hoped his father heeded the advice. Then Karl had a terrifying thought: That was the last time I’ll ever speak to my dad, and I didn’t even say goodbye or tell him I loved him.
Then Karl remembered his call with Glorglin Ugoglin at Mandrake and Wormwood. Perhaps his father had been right after all.
“Why are you leaving Screwtape Rearden?” Glorglin Ugoglin asked.
Karl was the most prepared for and most worried about this question. He’d decided positively spun honesty was the best approach. “My employer asked me to work on a transaction that conflicted with my values. In the end, I chose my values and accepted the consequences.”
“So you were fired?”
“I didn’t say that. I was laid off. My firm eliminated my position.”
“I see,” Ugoglin said in a tone that Karl thought was tinged with skepticism, though he knew he shouldn’t anthropomorphize alien emotions.
“Look, I’d be happy to provide you with any number of references including one from my previous employer,” Karl bluffed. He had no idea what Rango might say about him.
Ugoglin hesitated, and then said, “Why don’t I introduce you to George Hernandez, our senior banker.”
“Yes, do you know him?”
“No. I’m just surprised to hear a human name.”
“Well, we are an equal opportunity employer,” Ugoglin said.
“I’m sorry, that wasn’t what I was implying. I’m actually pleased to interview for a position working under a fellow human.”
“Alright then. Please wait here, while I get Mr. Hernandez.”
A tall, meticulously-groomed man entered the room. Karl almost laughed. George had the stereotypical plastic smile of twenty-first-century banking lore. With one glance, Karl knew exactly how he could influence Hernandez. Hernandez wouldn’t be interested in Karl’s charm or competence. Karl would have to offer him something tangible.
George extended Karl his hand. The handshake was tepid. Karl surmised that Hernandez had no more substance than a used car salesman. In other words, he was probably an excellent banker. “Glorglin tells me you’re out of a job.”
“That’s right. Did he tell you why?”
“Not really. Why don’t you tell me?”
Karl had to tread carefully. If he told George about the transaction, Karl would signal that he was an untrustworthy employee. If he said too little, he’d never attract George’s interest. “The last transaction I worked on posed a bit of an ethical dilemma for me.”
“Don’t all transactions pose ethical dilemmas? After all, many of the buyers of the worlds we broker lay off millions of people.”
“How many of them result in genocide?”
George’s eyes widened. “Tell me more.”
“I can’t. I’m bound by certain confidentiality agreements,” Karl said, playing coy.
“I think the horrors of genocide trump those agreements, don’t you?”
Were George’s words born of greed or conscience? It didn’t matter. George had given Karl license to disclose what he knew.
“The Centaurans are buying Earth.”
George’s polyurethane grin became real, “Not anymore. Welcome to the team, Mr. Reeves.”
The Board of the Transworld Joint Stock Conglomerate convened in an office across from Screwtape Rearden’s building. The directors wore the most expensive suits highlighting the latest fashions. They represented a host of economic interests spanning twelve stellar systems and seventeen worlds including Earth. Not one director was human.
When Rango entered, his neck frill flared when he saw Karl seated across the table from the board members. Karl smiled in return. Not today you greedy genocidal maniac. Not today.
Lindsey followed Rango. She glanced sheepishly at Karl, but otherwise avoided eye contact.
George Hernandez rose to shake Rango’s hand. “Welcome, Mr. Rango. My apologies for the long delay. I’m sorry I had to break up your prior arrangement with the Centaurans. However, I’m sure you understand that it’s in my client’s best interest to solicit other bids.”
“I see,” Rango said. “On what criteria will you be basing your decision?”
Hernandez turned to Karl. “Mr. Reeves?”
Karl smiled and then addressed Rango in the most condescending tone he could muster. “Well, Mr. Xen, there are several criteria. The number one criterion is price. However, there are other conditions. For instance, Transworld has no desire to sell its asset to anyone contemplating genocide.”
“Whoa! Hold on, here. Who said anything about genocide?” Rango’s neck frill flared.
George smiled. “Mr. Reeves is just using genocide as an extreme example. As you’ll notice in our due diligence packet, we will require any buyer to sign off on certain pledges to protect the seller from certain reputational risks. For instance, it would be difficult for Transworld to ensure maximum output of its remaining worlds if the firm were to sell an asset to say, a genocidal species. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Karl’s tenure at Mandrake and Wormwood was short-lived. He lacked the stomach for it. Yet he left in the firm’s good graces and returned to Earth with all expenses paid by the planet’s denizens after his role in preventing the planet’s sale became public. Karl’s father had passed away long before then, but he had survived long enough to see his boy become a hero and to tell his son he loved him. For that, Karl was thankful.