Check out Michael J. Martineck’s The Milkman: A Freeworld Novel, available May 30th from EDGE.
In Edwin McCallum’s world, nations are no more. The world’s assets are divided among three companies. When one of those assets is murdered, it’s McCallum’s job to figure out what it means to the bottom-line. The bottomline’s on film-maker Sylvia Cho’s mind, too. Who’s footing the bill for this documentary? And who’s the subject, this so-called ‘Milkman’? Systems engineer Emory Leveski knows and it looks like it might cost him his life.
With no governments, there is no crime. Any act is measured against competing interests, hidden loyalties and the ever-upward pressure of the corporate ladder. It’s a tough place for those who still believe in right and wrong. And for these three, it just got a lot tougher.
To Edwin McCallum every act of insubordination was a work of art. Charcoal sketch thefts. Abstract expressionist assaults. A smuggling operation could have all the intricacies of an oil landscape. Despite this, he considered very few policy transgressions to be masterpieces. No one put the time in. Most insubordination spawned from opportunity, passion or a bottoming out of IQ. But this one. This fresco. He saw something more.
The girl could have been his daughter, had his life unfolded into a different shape, if he’d creased and bent this side instead or that, leaving him in another space, not on the street, in the cold, staring at face turned and pressed to concrete, beautiful if you imagined it asleep, if you ignored the puddle of cold blood and the jagged hack marks in her flesh.
McCallum threaded his fingers and thrust out his arms, bending his wrists back, stretching, stimulating blood flow. He had no extra pounds and used his various muscles frequently and hard. When the cold started poking around, he felt reminders of every indiscretion, lack of good judgment and bad luck his bones had suffered over the years. His face had found some of the creeks and rumples he noticed on other men his age. Only some. His walnut hair showed maybe two strokes of grey. For the most part, he only noticed the middleness of his age in his joints, and on nights like this one.
“I think you made a new friend,” Samjahnee said,
Sylvia took off the glasses. “I’m not here to make friends. I’m making a movie.”
“You scared that girl.”
“I inspired drama,” Sylvia said. “That stuff we just shot is going to cut in nicely when we snap this mess together. All cinema—all story—is conflict. Nobody’s going to down a copy of this film if it’s nothing but a bunch of red-cheeked, butter-eaters flat faced in front of the camera. We need emotions, reactions, people struggling against people, the company, or best of all, against themselves. Like that girl just did, a little bit. Fight or flight. At war with her own curiosity and indignation. It was too lovely for words. . . it’s why I love movies so much.”
Samjahnee narrowed his eyes. He tilted his head just a little to the left, getting a different angle, changing the way the light crossed Sylvia’s face from his point-of-view. She looked back, waiting.
“I thought you liked this guy. This Milkman,” Samjahnee said.
“I haven’t met him,” Sylvia replied.
“Whose side are you on?”
“Poor man.” Sylvia pursed her lips. “Did you grow up playing soccer and dodgeball? Is everything in your world on one side or another? I honestly believe team sports should be banned. They don’t foster a multifaceted point of view. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, there’s more than two sides to pretty much everything. Or, if you look at it another way, just one side. Mine.”
Samjahnee stared at Sylvia for a moment. She couldn’t tell if he wanted to ask another question or lacked the energy to turn and start the car moving.
“Cricket,” he finally said. “I grew up playing cricket.”
“Well, there you go,” Sylvia said. “You ever play with six of seven teams on the field at one time?”
“That wouldn’t have worked out too well.”
“Maybe not then, but it might have prepared you for now.”
Winter had its upside. Every aspect of the sewer rebuild moved slower. The ice and cold weighed on the electric winches, cranes, forklifts and trucks, even more so on the human operators. Even the foreman who reveled in pushing and pushing and pushing the alternative work force let their shouting and growling trail off as cables snapped, pipes cracked, mud froze in the extruder, constipating the entire operation. Emory would not have picked the dim, frigid tunnels for his breaks. Sitting down on the cold, concave, soiled surfaces provided almost as many challenges as working. Still, you rested where and when offered. Plopping down in salty snow slush was better than shoveling it.
Like most days, Campbell and Emory sat alone, at the farthest most portion of the pipe. Their job involved placing the struts and beams that reinforced the walls and ceiling, preparing the way for the rest of the crew. Today, no one followed. No one seemed to move much at all.
“They must hate you.” Campbell lay curled like a fetus under a tarp. The wrapping’s murky, wet translucence made a plastic womb.
“Why?” Emory asked, laying back on a brace he decided not to install. It fit so nicely in that curve of his neck, between the back of his head and his shoulders. “Because they paired me with you?”
“Yes. We’ve got the most dangerous job on the detail. Most floods and cave-ins happen before you jim jam it.”
“Maybe they think we’re the best,” Emory said. “The best of the worst.”
“You get it on with some low grade’s wife?”
“I killed a man for asking too many questions.”
Campbell chuckled. “No . . . something bad, though.”
All the prying. The nosiness. Emory understood it. You put a bunch of guys together, all the time, with little else to occupy them besides chiseling dirt and conversations weave and wander. He didn’t like it, though. He didn’t like Campbell’s persistence. Curiosity, he wondered. Or more? No. Stupid thought. The company wouldn’t plant someone here to extract information from him. They’d torture him, right? Of course, this felt an awful lot like torture and they got some value out of it. They could have made a deal with Campbell. Time off for information on Emory, the Milkman and the enterprise he created.
Time to change the subject. “How did the Buy Ups happen?” Emory asked.
“Oh, now you’re interested.”
“No. I’d like to be playing with my baby,” Emory said. “Or drinking coffee in bed with my wife. But you’re what I’ve got.”
Campbell sat up, keeping the tarp tight under his neck. “A confluence of events, my friend. A confluence. I told you how the boundaries between public and private interests broke down. Security was the big one, but services morphed as well. The mail, sanitation and regulation of all sorts got handed over to private firms. The government had less and less to do, but the price tag still grew. At the same time, these companies wanted more and more rights. They paid taxes, so they figure they should get to act like citizens. Big, fat citizens with multiple addresses, crossing international borders. You understand about borders?”
“Yeah,” Emory said. “Like big fences that kept people separated. Rulers had so much land and so many people and that’s how it all got marked off.”
“Except for multinational corporations. They had influence across borders.”
“Which made them bigger than the rulers.”
“Right,” Campbell said. “These rulers became nothing more than middle men. Companies gave the orders, governments carried them out. But it wasn’t a very efficient system. Sometimes the rulers didn’t listen. They started wars when they weren’t supposed to, or ended them too soon. Failed to protect shipping lanes or opened them up. Company control was indirect. More importantly, it was expensive. They realized they had all these presidents, representatives and members of parliament on payroll, paid to act like mouthpieces and they weren’t even all that good at it. What was the point?”
Emory shook his head. “Didn’t people like their governments? I mean, it was them, right? Not the king and queens, but the other kind. The kind with elections. That was anybody, right?”
Campbell shrugged his shoulders. The trap warped. New troughs sent new trickles of water down from Campbell’s head. “I think it started out the way. Didn’t seem to work, though.”
“Maintenance,” Emory said, mostly to himself. “Every system needs monitoring and maintenance. Nothing’s perpetual.”
“Change,” Campbell said. “Change is perpetual.”
“Entropy feels that way.”
“The decay of order. It’s the enemy of any system, biological, astronomical, political. Everything.”
“What kind of engineer did you say you were?”
“There’s the kind that prevents trouble,” Emory said. “And then there’s the school I graduated from.”
“I could’ve taught there.”
Emory laughed. Just two chuckles. It took too much energy to really open up and guffaw. They both paused and listened to the clanking of other men, down the pipe. Long gaps stretched out between cracks of metal on metal.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Emory said. “I’ve studied large, complex systems and while they tend to wear, they also tend to evolve. The bigger the system, the more entrenched. How did the companies finally take over from established governments?”
“That’s what I spent a long time studying. How did we get from there to here? The thing I didn’t see . . . the thing most people don’t see, is that there’s no one step. There’s no enormous knife switch the companies threw and ‘click’ everything changes ownership. Like all insubordinations, this one had a means, motive and opportunity. The motive was always clear. All companies want profit, stability and growth. Takeovers have always been great options. The opportunity came as corporate power and government debt intersected. You should see some of the prices I saw on military hardware. You wouldn’t believe me. It took me years to believe them myself. A billion dollars an airplane? I thought maybe money had different values back then, but no. A billion is the annual salary of 28,000 people. That’s the number of people it took to build one plane for the purpose of shooting down some other government’s plane that took 28,000 people a year to build.”
Emory huffed. “The governments sound as screwed up as the companies.”
“Pretty much. At least, when they weren’t playing nice with each other. Anyway, that brings us to the means. And it’s a lot simpler than you think.” Campbell waited.
Emory didn’t guess. He didn’t have a good guess or the energy to try to create one.
“It’s on everyone’s wrist.” Campbell held up his scuffed, white ceramic bracelet, the one the company gave him when they assigned him to the alternative work detail. “Commerce and communication. Once they got together, the world changed.”
“That’s the weapon of revolution? The wrist phone?”
“It’s more than that. It’s your link with society. Your strongest link. Think about it, man. Can you prove who you are without it? Can you buy anything? Talk to anyone out of ear’s reach? Do you know what’s going on in the world? Your body is only a part of your life. A little part, and not even the most important part. You’re a ball of numbers to the company – and to everyone else you’re not actually touching. Whoever controls that link, that bridal, can jerk you around like an old pony. A puppet.”
“A puppet pony,” Emory said.
“Go and live with the off-liners for a while. You’ll see what a marionette looks like once the strings have been cut. Governments used to print money and stamp coins. They used to provide postal services and regulate telegrams, telephones and television. Once they gave that up . . . it was giving up.”
“I’m not disagreeing with you. I miss my cuff. I miss it more than I could have imagined, but it’s not a chain.”
“You’re glib.” Campbell rolled over, rustling his tarp.
“I’m cold and tired and hungry,” Emory replied.
“What’s to prevent you from getting up and walking away? Huh?” Campbell sat upright, pointing at Emory. “Anybody keeping guard back there? Anybody tell you today you can’t just start running wee wee wee all the way home? There’s no dog or fence or big beefy guy with a halberd? Know what I’m saying? No. Those things would stop the fleshy you, which no one even cares about. The non-corporeal you ‑ that’s what you’re protecting. That’s what they’ve got captive.”
“Sure you can,” Campbell cut in. “Get up. Go see your wife and baby.”
“It’s not that—”
“Go. You love them. You miss them. Go. Walk home.”
“You know it can’t be done.”
“Get out. Go!”
“I said drop it!”
“Pathetic shell of a man.”
“You asked me how the companies took over,” Campbell said. “Now you know. They took over everything and everyone the same way they took over you. They gave you everything you wanted.”
The Milkman: A Freeworld Novel © Michael J. Martineck, 2014