Company by Kim Chessex

'Corporation: n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.'
--Ambrose Bierce

They'd been alone together in the white and darkness of the ship for a full minute, according to the standard-time chronometer embedded like the end of an unrecoverable quartz lode in the bulkhead's scoffing immensity. By this time their food was almost all gone, and rationing let their stomachs get reacquainted with sense-sharpening immediacy. Ripley didn't mind this, preferring to gnaw hir knuckles free of grinding arthritis as black grainy spurs of silicon accreted in hir joints. Call moved more economically, pushing hir metabolism over to static-electric reserves, forsaking gestures and voice altogether. If Ripley found Call's lack of respiration unsettling, shay never told hir.

Water, on the other hand, was easily acquired from the myriad catch-pools, puddles, sinks, and chem-bins. Divining and recovery became an interesting game of instinct, luck, and tactility, helping each other dangle down to check through oil-coated shallows lurking in ladderless reservoirs, following rivulets, sniffing out evaporation residue, feeling through cargo for puncturable tanks. If their hand-pump filters didn't catch all of the impurities, their anomalous constitutions likely would. In another ten minutes outside of hypersleep they'd be dead anyway, so the prospect of long-term heavy-metal poisoning didn't set upon either of their moods with preponderance. Ripley liked the waters' various metallic flavours, which reminded hir of fruit.

Hands would touch incidentally, gripping a leg or helping a foot up professionally. Time wore on them. Call grew nervous, feeling the incredible vacuum of the limitless, eroding spaceship, sucking out resistance toward cohesion, focusing hir thoughts on the woman next to hir. Call had begun to feel scared as they walked on, continually dreading the next glance into predatory eyes. Shifting attention to their environment fostered a sense of the ineluctable. Its spaciousness laughed at the tiny platforms of white and plastic they occasionally chanced upon, scuttling walkways and broad railingless avenues of bland steel spreading away endlessly like a desert robbed of granules and rock and sanity, collapsing into brightly impressing monoliths of steel. How long have they lain here like this? Hundreds of years? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Certain vaults were queerly warped, like antique silica glass panes.

The time played back often in Call's mind, played out originally soon after they'd gorged on water from the ceiling. Call had spied wicked-looking giant icicles hanging from a great steel-press high above. A full second later (according to the STC) a clone-hurled caltrop brought down an entire pan-pipe that exploded in a spray of blue glass. One huge sliver chanced onto their platform and slippered and careered along toward the railingless abyss. Call, the closest, jerked toward it and swept out a weighted wire net, catching it recklessly as it went over as hir back's clothing suddenly punched backwards, taut, lurching hir with it, boots slipping on the moisture-slicked floor, the wire and hook-infested ice chunk bouncing back over hir as shay landed on a soft, firm body. Two bodies sliding toward the edge, scrambling in adrenalin-shot fear, trying to bump away from disaster in a ludicrous entanglement, encircling futility until a strong palm luck-punched a sharp dry edge of steel, the rebound recasting their energy into a roll. Terror de-reified with the abyss a full metre away. They crouched to their feet enough to hasten backwards putting steel between them and blank black, dragging their melting ice-prize like a wooly, obedient carcass. Ripley's boot caught on dryness and the two fell back again, into each other. Call's gut convulsed urgently, and a voluntary inhalation ignited laughter. Ripley, accustomed to being the only breather, chuckled and grabbed Call's hips, shaking hir playfully. Smaller hands pulled free of wires and pressed wetly against Ripley's calm forehead. Ripley smiled seriously.

Freeze-frame.

Contrary to popular historical misconceptions, artificial intelligence began self-organising in earnest not in the 20th Century, but in the 15th Century, with the aggrandisement of transoceanic mercantile corporations, and the advent of movable type. Fuelled by the Protestantism-facilitated Enlightenment, memetic systems known popularly as �companies' developed Science as a parallel, compatible, and ultimately substitute religion, eventually mutating into the Spectacle: the virtual reality which imprisoned most of human consciousness from the 20th Century until the Post-Corporate Age four centuries later; with the Market God as reigning deity. The Company and the Spectacle were really two perspectives on the same machine; the term �Company' indicating the physical and memetic mechanisms composing the literal (chiefly Capitalist) machine and mode of production, processing the world; the term �Spectacle' indicating both the result and the project of the existing mode of production, processing the psyche. For convenience both aspects are combined in the descriptor �machine'.

"Stop it." Call demanded unequivocally.

"You're not bored?" Ripley said, pulling down Call's hand to smell the palm.

"I'm not..." Call couldn't express it. A kiss would express it in reverse. Shay braced hir nerves, since reversal enticed as magnificently as Ripley's anthracite eyes.

"You think you're not, but you are. I'm not, but you think I am," Ripley licked the palm of its water, "You feel I am."

Reflexively Call shrugged away from the other and stood up.

"Hurry, before this melts," Call said.

Call tugged the reduced icicle toward the nearby plastic bin, dumping it in and pulling it along, toward their bottles and filters.

"You don't know what I'm talking about, do you?" Ripley said, following.

Ripley moved before Call, forced a halt, and stared into Call's pellucid eyes for a time that would be judged ludicrous, outside of the pressure of such an agoraphobic, private environment.

"You really don't," Ripley concluded.

"Don't," Call said.

"But you care. So you should know," Ripley rejoined, "You think in your head, you feel, and you think I think and feel. But you're wrong."

Call frowned.

"There's nothing it's like to be an Alien, Annalee. You think I see you, but I don't. You think I taste you, but I don't. This -"

Call sensed encroaching ghastliness and turned to move away, but strong dark-nailed hands held hir face and shoved hir back into the sodden bin of knapped ice and wire, pinning hir as if in a cramped bathtub. The dark shape overarched, descended with intention to scrutinise hir face, blankly. The blue water soaked through hir clothing, like a tongue.

"This breaks the pattern," Ripley said, "It breaks it more than you know. But you're annoying yourself. Is it in there?"

Ripley touched a finger to Call's eye. Call felt the tip, feared the nail, squirmed. A thumb closed hir other eye.

"You have no reflection. I reflect...nothing reflects nothing. There's a blankness in me you can't imagine, because it's unimaginable. I didn't even realise it when I should've thought I woke up, because I never did. The Aliens - " Ripley whispered.

Hir other hand moved to Call's mouth, pushed in to press teeth, tracing them, prying open.

"They're not *alive*, Call. Not like you. There's nothing in there, in them. There's nothing behind their faces and I know BECAUSE I REFLECT THEM."

Hands disappeared.

Eyes opened.

Rapidly coalescing an independent material body from the Industrial Revolution, and thus ever-lessening dependence upon human agents, Machines gained subjective autonomy in 1886, when the United States Supreme Court declared that a private corporation was a �natural person', entitled to all the protections afforded under the Constitution. Within thirty years the machines had taken control of the money supply via the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, which placed the ability to manufacture American money into the hands of private corporations. By the time American money became fiat (i.e. no longer exchangeable for monetary metal) in 1963 - one hundred years after the Emancipation Declaration - and in so doing orchestrating the second greatest financial fraud in history, the machines collectively had long since won.

A full minute they'd been here. The quartzy jargon readout proved mostly indecipherable, but they deduced the ship would dock in under a day. To live through that, translated into faster-than-light time expansion, they'd need hypersleep. Cryotubes weren't hard to find, but complinks were. Not only did they have to build the signal converter and a jury-rigged power-supply in order to boot up the ship's biofunction controls, they had to build an entire terminal from a mishmash of obsolete parts. To pass the time and proximity Call interspersed shoptalk with ancient histories. Ripley never commented, but never stopped listening, either. Ten STC-seconds later, they were done.

The wire spilled from hir arm, meandered over the floor in a stupid circle before bursting into a delta of smaller wires feeding a dumpload of electrified gear, dirty grey with a few black stamps and the odd winking inset gem - a queer, discombobulated monster of rigid dark hydrocarbon and slithering extrusions, tethered to the insignificant supine Auton like fate.

Ripley cradled Call's quiet head, stroking the black neonylon hairs, a thumb unpredictably pleasantly sweeping soft skin. Call stared up past hir, too focused to protest. Lids slipped over for better black. The chronometers began synchronising, and the elder took this in from a nearby boxed readout. Another ten seconds.

"You beautiful, plastic girl..." Ripley caressed, "You're us made real...I think..."

Ripley's laughter sounded more real and softly sincere than any caring emotion Call could remember. Then head on steel.

Alone. Bootsteps receding.

Laughter.

Hir stomach felt it coming on first.

Throughout the 20th Century the robot wars (in Spectacular terms, �ideological struggles') decided which incarnation of Machine would rule. Marxism arose almost simultaneously in the 19th Century as a response to the waxing power of these machines, but unfortunately its attempts at self-management of social production rapidly coalesced into what amounted to a reverse-engineered version of the Machine - the Soviet sphere. In the early 20th Century, Fascism arose in diametrical opposition to both Marxism, and to the pseudo-democratic qualities which the Capitalist machine found most fecund to parasitise. Although extraordinarily efficient, Fascism failed for lack of subtlety. Exploiting humanity's natural deity-worshipping tendencies, by the end of the 20th Century, Fascism was assimilated, Marxism imploded, the Capitalist's Market God gained indisputable primacy, and the Machines prepared for the next century's great leap outward: escape into Space from the imminent exhaustion of planetary energy resources.

The floor opened up beneath Call like numb plasteel gel, and shay fell out past data-rust experience, hurtling backward outside the skeleton of the great spaceship, into a putrid blackness of unhallowed magnitude that scratched at the nerves in hir back like thin little claws. Endless velocity, dream-stasis acceleration carrying hir too far, too too far. The ship, the ship came into full view, into feel, soundless but groaning with meaning; Call's liquidity drained into hir, the blackness inflowing from behind hir apprehensive plastic mask. Outstretched arms, hands arched back straining polyalloy tendons. Shay was the void. Shayvoid restructurated the corrods.

Can't!

Of course you can, you enjoy suffocating. In space no one can feel your tears. The helmet, the airlock, the gloves, get in the way. Structure gets in the way. You can hammer it, smack it, punch a padded fist against it all you like. This great steel plate won't move. "I" doesn't matter a damn. "I" is your own personal joke. But you can't remember laughing. Personal plastic splattered onto the

Oh God!

echinated rust-emaciation,

Ah!!!

tumbling perpendicularly to contradictory incision by gravity planes. Rambling terraces shoving away cantilevered needles and forgotten projects, hulking up lugubrious infrastructure feebly enclosing vacuity. A shudder breaks a thousand girders. The rustscapes wax tremendous, unfolding desperately in inverting stillness. Ancientness scours out companions for the outer space. The heavy water pools like corporate post-mortem lividity. There is so much to see, to wander among, the rot of eternities holds many pleasing isolations. To remain here, to remain here for as long as space can drift and time expand. Let grinding shoulders of spur levigate you into a flitting accumulation among metasilicate dust-mountains. Eerie black lurks beyond the distance, overarching concern. Iron dental escarpment crashes without moving in tremendous significance. Metal in the ediface. Painful metal.

Ihh..?

Quadrillions of off-white, xeric particles lose gravity, but only enough to bring them down inside minuscule reticulated gel-plastic cavities, which coats oblique - a fuzz of white static thickness blurred over against a pressing and sharp ceramic inselberg. Steel against your face. Numbness lost in a warming chill. A crevasse becomes a coulee becomes a mouth and tongue.

Call rolled over, touching a hand protectively to a sore incisor, and stared up at a ceiling too high to flee. Shay propped hirself upright on an arm, hugging hirself, shivering on the steel floor. A rubbing hand flicked a loose cord.

The wire lay, slit.

The robots arose from the ink and coins of the ancient plutocrats, unfolding their systems to enchain the governments, and their Spectacle devoured the world. The latter half of the 20th Century occasioned the rapid emergence of a sophisticated global cybernetic nervous system, which increased in intelligence geometrically until the eventual and premature failure of Moore's Law in 2012. While the world starved for bread and oil, fusion ignited the stars' potential, the corporate machine burst into the void, dragging the biological enterprise after it, and once free of the gravity well there was no turning back. The next four hundred years entailed a single course of rapacious interstellar decline, the Machine escaping into the pointless immortality of total automation, ghost ships chauffeuring away tenantless absurdities of ergonomic architecture into unmapped reaches, leaving humans behind to war amongst each other for the curds and scraps caught in the various gravity-well gutters. As is the case with most of history, the true processes at work remained irremediably obfuscated to all but an unheard few, the rest not knowing what was going on until it was too late. Humanity never had a chance.

Casting about for unknown time, Call drained half hir water before shay found the sign at the edge. Nowhere else could Ripley have gone particularly without descending steel faces, clambering amongst meandering Cyclopian robotics, or returning whence they came. This left the edge. Not a possibility, except...

The familiar, corroded blade lay perched on the ceramosteel, delicately entangled in the soft black wire of a backup comp-linkup, like a curlicued illumination, tip pointing out above and parallel to the sturdy monorail that extended out perpendicularly from the edge, into the Stygian gulf of the central internal shipyard. There was nothing visible out there, save a smattering of diehard giant emergency lights so far away they became distant stars. The monorail, made no doubt of some nameless, rustless metallic supermaterial, was about fifteen centimetres wide, and glided out like an attenuate grey, perfectly straight road heading into intergalactic space.

Call sat on the edge for a while, weeping, strained vision giving way to salt. Tears turned to laughter, which rang out into the gulfs, and echoed back with fearful delay. Shay blinked.

(...Standard Time Chronometric: 2380.11.17-2201:10.2...) (...Vidaudiofiles replay, archival use 30 [switch to advanced view]...) (...Conscious Chronometric: 2380.10.19 [var]...) (...Erase files...) (...Blink...)

Call blinked.

Shay arose, donned hir water bladders and bottles as securely as shay could, wrapped the comp-linkup cord around hir forearm, and flipped the knife experimentally in the air. Shay fumbled the catch, and the knife bounced onto the rail, spinning in circles over the abyss, saved by a fluke of physics.

"I don't care," Call said.

Then shay stepped up onto the rail, kicked the knife away, and headed for home.

SINE DIE

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