Or Give Me Death
All characters and situations portrayed in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, circumstances or ventures is purely coincidental.
1 - Custodian
I pressed myself to the wall of my cell and waited patiently for the door to open. I recall a single cot on the opposite end, unused, and on the floor, a metal tray with a roll wrapped in plastic and some beans.
I heard several piercing shots somewhere outside. They rattled the floor. Through the salt-hammered glass of the porthole, flashes of light rang out in the dark.
"You're all going to die!!!" I screamed. "I'm the only one who can stop it!
I inched closer to the cell door, hoping my screaming would lure in one of the mercs. It surprised me that one of them took the bait so quickly. He moved his gun in first, so I took advantage of his stupidity as he brought his foot in to wedge the door open. I leaned in and stomped on it, and the idiot dumbly swung the door open, cursing something in thick Russian. I swung and caught him right at the jaw and my fist connected with a bristly beard. It was Stroppo. Poor bastard never saw it coming. He fell. I dragged his body inside, up and onto the cot. I dashed into the outer hall and immediately caught the smell of burning. The whole surface of the rig was in flames. A single scream flew out, followed by another, then a pop like firecrackers.
Penelope's cell was next to mine. I shot out the door lock. The tiny five year old was inside and pressed firm against her cot, covering her head. I grabbed her, and she cried louder and whacked her little fists at me, but when she saw it was me, she went limp and put her arms over my shoulders and pressed herself there.
"Spencer, I wanna go!" she cried.
The rumbling started. The floor of the room tilted, and I had to struggle to keep from falling over. The rig was already starting to collapse. The girl was heavy against me, but I strained against her weight and got us outside.
Everything was going to hell, just as I'd warned.
The lifeboat hung at Custodian's far end. We reached it and I leaped across the chasm, still holding her tight. My feet slammed down into the boat, rocking the unsteady perch with my weight. She nearly slipped from my arms. She wriggled and writhed but I held fast to her in the dark. We dropped to a cold seat and hunkered down. Salt spray blew in from all sides but I used my girth to shield her.
I glanced frantically about at the rusted pylons in our midst. They were barely visible, but they leaned hungrily into the waves, desperate to spill us all into the sea. With one arm still around Penny, I reached out and released the hooks on all four sides. I undid the last wire rope and our dinghy lurched violently down, along with my stomach. I immediately felt the girl seize up in my arms. I worried that I was bruising her badly, but there would be time for apologies when she was safe.
More twisting metal and gunfire erupted above us, but the roar of waves overcame all else and we descended from the inferno and finally into the dark wrath of Poseidon. I squeezed Penelope's arm encouragingly while restraining her. It felt as though she would leap out into the darkness without me. I saw no hope for us getting clear in time, but I had to try. Honoring her mother's final plea may have been the last, best thing I might ever do, and I was determined to see through to the very end.
2 - Peter and Spencer
One bright Tuesday morning in April, a small, handsome man pushed his way through my office and walked up to me, smiling. He told me I would help him change the world. He acted as if I should already know him, yet I had no reason to know him.
As it turned out, I did know him. I just hadn't yet made the connection. This was one of many ways he stayed ahead of me on virtually everything.
I later learned that this wiry, odd man avoided introducing himself to other people as a way of piquing their interest. This was his awkward way of ingratiating himself with potential donors. He felt that by making them do the legwork in figuring out who he was, he'd stay on their radar. He also believed - fervently - that introducing himself formally made him sound desperate. He refused to do it.
My visitor didn't have time to justify himself to anyone, least of all me. I had things he needed. He had no desire to dance for money. He was only interested in getting my attention long enough to convince me to fund him.
I set down a stack of mailers, eyeing him cautiously.
"You're the guy from my lectures." I confirmed, laughing nervously. I recognized his face. He always took furious at every one of my symposiums. He spoke with needling intensity, almost like his words struggled to catch up with his thoughts.
"You're Spencer Simmons." he said. "You founded Freedom Zone."
"You're Spencer Simmons." he said. "You founded Freedom Zone."
It then dawned on me exactly who he was. It had to be him. "Wait, I know you. You're Peter Bernays."
Peter and I were never formally introduced until he walked into my campaign office, but even before then, he was a silent fixture at my Freedom Zone symposiums. My first impression of him was of a slight young man radiating geek chic and self-assurance. He sat in the front row and took notes on everything I said. He strode languidly across rooms, his muscles perfectly shaped, his hair coiffed just so. His eyes, though, betrayed him. His eyes... they bulged like a man with an idea too great to be contained within his skull. His eyes gleamed, even, sparkling with a Dali-esque intensity, but they wandered nervously if you stared into them for too long.
Peter Bernays: hedge fund pioneer, venture capital master, and celebutante entrepreneur. Funder of privatized sports teams, privatized prisons, pioneer of 3D printing facilities. He had his fingers - and his money - in every major technological advance in the world, including a farfetched venture to build self-sustaining cities out over the water past the tax zones of the United States.
"Aqua frontier is your company, right?" I asked.
"Right," he answered lazily, setting his elbow against a filing cabinet. "And now, you're part of Aqua Frontier, since you're going to help me change the world. Come hear me do my HED talk next week."
"I'll wait for it to go online." I replied.
"I'm serious. I need you to be there."
"Get me a seat and I'll go" I said.
"HED will let you in." Peter insisted. "You fit the bill. I'm worth your money. By the time I'm through, you'll be begging to give me venture capital." he replied. He looked bored as he handed me the flier. The next moment, he was gone.
What an asshole, I thought. Now I must hear what he has to say.
3- Freedom Zone
Peter cared little about my campaign work. His interest in me was directly linked to my company and personal brand, Freedom Zone. More specifically, Peter was interested in my legendary status as rainmaker extraordinaire.
I wasn't born successful. I never got handouts, ever. I came from nothing, and through smarts and hard work and unwillingness to compromise, I earned a reputation for getting things done at a very young age. I began as a moderate Republican until 1988, then pivoted to moderate Democrat for only five minutes, until Hillary Clinton tried to nationalize healthcare in 1994. I might have returned to my party of origin right then and there, but by the early 1990s, the Republican Party was so in bed with the Christian Coalition that I could never take them back. I'd never made my sexual orientation an issue; not in school, not in my career, so when the religious right made it an issue without my consent, and hijacked the party I'd long identified with, I was incensed. I never looked back.
I established my own political consulting business after college. I registered as an Independent and joined various Libertarian groups soon afterwards.
I met Carl at a political rally for Independents in 1996, and by 2001, we shared an apartment together in NYC. Carl worked for the NYFD, and I commuted to DC to further my lobbying career. I found myself away from home more and more often. We didn't see each other as much as we would like, but we had a little corner of Manhattan carved out for the two of us. We considered adopting. I wanted a son. Carl wanted a daughter. We settled on a dog.
The last day I saw him, we'd sat together on our brand new daybed and he pulled out his lighter and rested it on my thigh.
"Try it... you click it open... like this." he smiled, snapping the edge of his fingernail along the side edge of the lighter. "It's how you refill it... you don't want to run out."
"I'm no good at this..." I grumbled.
I tried to open the lighter with his finesse, but my movements were so brazen that the spout clicked off suddenly and lighter fluid flew everywhere. It ruined the new couch. I was angry at first, but a few weeks later, none of it mattered.
Carl and I were only a few steps away from signing the adoption papers before that awful day.
I wasn't even in Manhattan on September 11th. I was supposed to be, but I was buried under a Government contract and couldn't get home in time. As the breadth of the disaster became clear, I got more and more frantic. By the end of that miserable week, it was clear that Carl was gone. He was one of the many heroic firemen blazing a fearless trail up into World Trade Center Two. The only remnant of him that I could bear to cling to was his lighter; I kept it in my pocket at all times as a reminder of fire - the fire he fought and the fire he inspired in me.
Carl's death gave rise to a powerful sort of fire and focus inside of me. My trajectory shifted entirely from participant to crusader. Carl had never wanted Government to tell him how to live his life, so I set about doing the same. Carl might have balked at how the United States tangled and mangled itself in the name of freedom after his death, so I carried up the banner for him and began Freedom Zone.
To this end, a supercharged form of Libertarianism sprung up all around. It shook us all like a snow globe. I blazed a trail over those difficult months and years as the country did its best to come back from that crippling blow. To that end, I became a premiere lobbyist working on behalf of the oil, coal and gas industries. I worked on behalf of big tobacco. I didn't give a whit about the companies I represented, I only cared about maneuvering them out from under a system designed to stymie growth. I flowed along in its swirling currents, putting money where money was needed, introducing Senators to other Lobbyists, glad-handing, and helping write corporate funded legislation.
Government also grew by leaps and bounds to 'keep us safe,' but in turn bankrupted us by restricting our success. Corporations and businesses might have even grown faster, and kept the economy moving, but the arbitrary Federal pre-determinations and fees and forms prevented it. Government wouldn't have any entity above it. It restricted, and taxed, and levied fees, and restricted some more, until success became something elusive and impossible.
I constructed Freedom Zone like a brand instead of a consulting firm. I aimed to make Lobbying more transparent, more acceptable and more heroic. Over time, FZ went public. It was numerous things at once: a think tank, a lecture tour, and a venture capital firm. We called for a complete withdrawal from mischief in the Asian Continent. We preached non-intervention in other countries, civil liberties, and border security. I set up intentional communities around the country, microcosms of pro-individualist thought on a small scale. These little communities rallied the citizens the way Freedom Zone rallied legislators - one billfold at a time. I glad-handed Legislators and fellow lobbyists until my hands were numb.
My philosophy was simple: let us do what we want to do as long as we're not injurious. Don't restrict us. Don't engage in unjust foreign wars. Don't take away our civil liberties in the name of freedom. Don't regulate our activities in the name of peace. Don't prevent us from excellence. Don't tax us out of existence. Don't hold us back. Don't punish our success. Let us breathe.
My foes sputtered out nonsense about laws bringing people together. I told them I liked laws, so long as they weren't regulations forcing us to fragment how we did business. Government mandated fragmentation kept us in business but divided the world. What regulation is worth that, I asked. We're right and you're wrong. Join us. My weapons were simple: facts, history, and logic... three elements validating everything we stood for.
Whenever someone pointed to Enron or Cayman Island tax shelters or the ills of multinational corporations, I told them it was all a distraction. I pointed to Washington, and said "Look there." I said "Look hard, because there it is." "What?" they asked. "There? That place where laws are created that keep us from hurting each other?" I laughed and I said, "No, look there. Look hard at the biggest impediment to moral advancement in the world. The biggest threat to civil rights and personal liberty in the world. The worst cause of exploitation. It's not greed. It's not deregulation. It's Government. It's paternalistic regulation. Regulation creates conditions where exploitation thrives."
I argued that the United States was tethered to a doomed, misguided moral duty to impose its will on other cultures. I felt it was wrong. Freedom Zone pushed for the right of all individuals to advance how they want to advance, no matter the country, no matter the political cost. Some things are none of our business, I often said. It was freedom, pure and simple, freedom to excel and mold our futures without a single mandate from one Government holding everyone's head under the water.
Existing trade policy in the States was, by turns generous to other countries to a fault, appeasing, inefficient and expensive. It generally worked against our interests. We fought to end it. FZ decried the United States' appeasement to complex and arrogant European trade demands. We blasted our country's willingness to ship weapons to dictators who'd rather blow up their own oil fields than back down from a fight. U.S. trade policies stumbled under massive regulations and permissive loopholes. Countries like China surged ahead in manufacturing, but fell behind with human rights, and we also felt this was wrong.
We opposed involvement in any continent where the United States burned through taxpayer money to impose our will on other people. As the Afghanistan and Iraq wars began, and anxiety over foreign interventionism grew, our wing of the Libertarian Party became a mainstream force. Helping us with our cause was our support for legalization of marijuana and gay marriage and other progressive causes. This stance helped us with college kids and young entrepreneurs, and they, along with the anti-war set we'd already fused to our cause, began to conduct rallies all over the country.
My appearances on the talking head news circuit were legendary. I lobbied myself into frenzy. I hired pundits for cable news shows. I wrote op-eds in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times. I pitched legislation employing harsh deterrents against illegal immigration. I pitched concepts to think tanks that encouraged a freer trade policy, one that removed the complexity from trade laws and freed up the actual entities conducting the trade to dictate terms. As I saw it, the Government was a bloated middleman standing in the way of pure commerce. "Free and safe" was my mantra during presentations.
The greater your contribution to the financial well-being of your country," I wrote in The National Review (in a now famous article), "...the less sense it makes to be taxed out of existence. If your career is a wealth generating machine for the United States, the government wants in. Imagine a wash cycle, where the water goes round and round. The Government has a scoop attached to a hose, and it collects the water as it spins, until you find yourself with an empty centrifuge. Where does that water go? More than likely, it goes to things you do not support or condone. Government has oversight on your spending... so where is our oversight on Government spending?"
That article got me notoriety, and more than a few death threats from social activists calling for my head. I ignored it and pushed on with my foreign and domestic lobbies. Peter was very proud of me. In fact, he and I were often mentioned in the same sentence. I didn't have his quick wit or sharp debate skills, but I had a pragmatic tenacity and a way of inspiring support that couldn't be ignored. Our dynamic was already clear: he was the idea man, the wave machine, and I was the seed fund guy.
My Rolodex investors jumped on board with any idea I had, no matter how crazy it sounded. They trusted me. They respected me.
Our passion points were primal, too. Freedom Zone was willing to scrape over dry intellectual discourse in the service of a cause, but we didn't kid ourselves. We fought for something far more important than trade policy, or money standards. We hungered for personal liberty and the freedom to pursue personal, material growth. We considered ourselves Freedom Fighters for human exceptionalism. Instead of just clutching guns, we clutched capital, influence, and brains to match.
4- The Lecture Tour
In the months before meeting Peter, I toured the college throughout the country under FZ's 'free and safe' banner. Students I spoke to felt College had restricted their entry into the working world. They fought tooth and nail with the frustrating, overly cliquish mechanisms of the 'University' system and its hegemonic belief structure.
During my tour, I was accused of recruiting students away from public Universities to the private sector. My speaking engagement with UC Berkeley was cancelled after a bomb threat was phoned in to the campus. So much for discourse. It did prove my point: the left had some emotional baggage to work through before engaging us in civil debate.
I spoke at University after University. I got ugly stares from faculty members when I spoke about my two favorite Supreme Court Justices - Scalia and Thomas, the only two members who paid any attention to the original intent of the Constitution. These two Justices were committed to understanding the law as it was, not as they wished it could be. This was altogether lost on the more liberal Justices. Those other sitting Justices demonstrated a fluid bias in their interpretation of Constitutional rights, one founded on projecting their dreams onto laws that contradicted those dreams. Liberal Justices changed as the country changed, despite immutable laws. For Freedom Zone, and for me personally, that didn't pass muster.
I sought out and took advantage of mistrust and malaise on campuses. I highlighted class warfare between bright, tech savvy students, and stodgy tenured faculty. I appealed to students' sense of pride in their accomplishments.
Right after one of my Harvard Business School talks, I received a hand written note from someone in the audience. On it was scribbled a quote of mine:
"You don't get rich off a piece of paper. You get rich off your ideas - so long as others don't profit from them first."
Below the quote, someone had written: "So where is my million $$? Let’s talk?"
Those were Peter Bernays's first words to me.
Young idealists like Bernays tore into the works of Ayn Rand. He saw himself as an acolyte of her philosophical leanings about rugged individualism. In many ways, Bernays was no different from thousands of other young idealists who were in love with Rand, but in one sense, he was quite different. He stood out because of the way he spoke about her. I sensed when he conjured Rand up in conversation, that he was insanely jealous of her contemporaries, particularly the young admirers who got to spend time with her. I sensed from Peter a disappointment that he was too young to have met her before her death. He was serious about making her ideas for personal liberty a reality, but one of the few who could actually make it happen.
5- The Speech
I went to hear Peter speak a few days after he invited me, in the grand east ballroom at the Hilton Atlanta. I took a quick flight from DC and reached the city with only an hour to spare. I was bowled over by the size of the auditorium. Most HED Talks were short, intimate, low-key affairs, but this one was more opulent. Television screens lined the walls; stock footage of men and women in construction and diving gear. They assembled boats, shook hands in meeting rooms, strutted down a fictitious Main Street with blueprints rolled up under their arms. It looked more like a political rally than a half hour talk.
"You can change the world." the message read. "Do you have the courage? Do you have the skill?"
I grinned skeptically.
In the back center of the east ballroom, a podium stood on a raised dais and to the side, a small table with a laptop and a glass of water. All along the back of the stage were a series of folding chairs. A few cameras perched cranes were perched like vultures over the throng. This whole HED Talk was being filmed. The hall was already past capacity. Surrounding me were engineers, programmers, some artsy types, a few guys in suits, and a smattering of senior citizens.
The introductory speaker wore a wide-brimmed fedora hat with a long brown string that stretched beneath his face. He adjusted it and scratched his neck beard. He checked his phone. He then turned to the laptop and typed a few things out before standing up against the microphone. He sighed loudly through his nose. He was a larger guy, and by his complexion someone who looked as if he spent a lot of time in front of a computer. His t-shirt read: "The box said Windows XP or better, so I installed Linux."
"We all here?" he asked, laughing at the large crowd. Nods of assent all around. The murmuring stopped and everyone turned to face him.
"Ok, so... my name is Bryce. Some of you know me as the guy who fixes yer shit!"
Laughs all around, then applause. He placed his palms out to stop the noise.
"Bring out Peter!" someone cried.
"Peter's coming. You know that Peter works on his own schedule." Bryce laughed. "Living in the Chroma mansion is a full time job. He makes Ubuntu look like Mac OS. So, you're going to have to put up with me til he gets here."
Bryce sat back down and picked his nose impatiently. He fiddled with the keyboard and typed in a few more things, then stood up and hit the mike again.
"So... what did I do? What's my big idea?" asked Bryce hypothetically. "Well... I developed a system for chaining networks for transport systems that completely eradicates the need for manual piloting. I also built the first ever radar array and it will be used in Peters..."
"Peter's out in the hall, guys. Get ready." said a voice over the intercom. The announcement was met with a wave of cheers so loud I had to plug my ears.
As if summoned by the sudden excitement in the hall, Peter burst out onto the stage, grinning. He wore a black muscle t-shirt, khaki shorts and sandals. It struck me then just how short he was; sinewy and small, with dark eyes. Though runty, he was classically handsome in an Ancient Roman sense. Bryce handed Peter the mike and shuffled off stage and Peter didn't waste any time. He propped one elbow lazily up on the podium. He had no notes, and just began talking.
"I have a bit of a story for you today. Some of you have heard this before. I'm not an economist, but I play one on the Internet!"
"But seriously. I started the Chroma mansion with a few other dreamers. Bryce here keeps our network going. He's got some exciting things planned for a project I got going on. But who am I?"
He adjusted his mouthpiece and smirked through a pregnant pause.
"I'm an entrepreneur," he said proudly, "...and when you're self-employed," he took a moment to look proudly around at his listeners, who all clapped. "You learn a thing or two about taxes. You learn a lot, in fact. The hard way, you learn about institutional debt, and National debt. And you get a lot of people trying to tell you what's right. I do my best to set people straight about these things."
"Yeah, you do!" one audience member called out.
"My specialty is software engineering, but when it comes to market theory you're not going to find someone with more to say on this topic than me. I care deeply about my success, so deeply that I'm willing to talk to anyone who might be misinformed on the topic of taxes, or the intended role of Government, on how to solve the Debt crisis. I'm not going to tell you you're an idiot, or a fool, for thinking that Government can solve all your problems. I will imply it, though. I'll get in a few digs at your expense."
"I'm kidding. Sort of. Should you be concerned about debt? What would it take to convince you that debt is the single worst problem facing the United States? What if I told you that debt is worse than World War Three? What if I told you that debt is a modern day apocalyptic scenario? I'm not wrong. Should you be concerned about runaway spending? Fuck yes, you should."
He cleared his throat.
"Once upon a time, the United States was known as the 'land of opportunity.' Something changed it. We regulated the opportunity away."
A tall, handsome guy in a suit stood next to me, typing into his phone. He glanced away for a moment and nodded his agreement, then went back to typing.
"Taxation... is extortion." Peter said finally. "Worse than that - it is a crime. We must end it."
Cheers and excited applause rang out through the rented hall.
"Listen," Peter urged. "We need to shift the discussion from taxes to spending. The problem, my friends, is spending. Period. Raising taxes does not curb spending. It's a Band-Aid on spending. We spend far, far more than we take in and act like we don't have a choice. What's amazing is: we do have a choice. We can eradicate debt for future generations if we just admit we are wasteful spenders."
Shouts of 'damn right!' and 'tell it!' rang out from the crowd. On either side of the hall, the televisions had switched from the news footage to an image of a billowing, slow-motion page of parchment, ostensibly the Constitution. I half expected the National anthem to start playing.
"Can I get wonky for a second, guys?" Peter asked sheepishly. He took a slow sip of the water. A spotlight in the back of the hall tracked his every move even as he paced about the stage.
"When you make a statement like 'taxes are high,' you often think of simple tax rates. A lot of people make that mistake. They forget to calculate tax rates as a percentage of GDP. Doing that gets you the numbers you want. Spending as a percentage of GDP is the very insightful number. We can actually do things with those calculations instead of bitching ... and getting all worked up over the unfairness of the tax code!" He seemed to notice something in the audience, and stopped to laugh. "Oh? Some liberals in the audience, I see? Not laughing? Holding up your signs? Ah, nice! You should be laughing. Given historical tables of taxing and spending trends, and adjusting for GDP, what do these numbers tell us? It's real simple. Let me show you."
With that, Peter took out his clicker and pressed it once. The lights in the hall went out and a giant screen behind him flicked on. On it, a beautifully designed graphic appeared, done up in red, white and blues.
"This chart looks a bit like the French flag, doesn't it?" Peter laughed. The crowd booed, and kept booing until he put his hands out to silence them. "Okay, so this isn't a French idea." he admitted. "It's my idea." He grinned wildly in the spotlight, and the crowd applauded again. Someone to the right of me screamed, "Run for President!!"
"I work for me." he said. "And you should work for you. There isn't enough of that in this country."
"How do we get there?" a woman's voice asked from near the stage.
"The answer couldn't be simpler." he said. "We just reduce spending to a manageable level - twenty percent of GDP - then adjust taxes to match it." He drew out his clicker and traced it along a line. In the dark, his disembodied voice held us in thrall. "Bottom line is, people, collecting only eighteen percent but spending twenty four is not smart. It catches up to you. See this line here?" He raised the red dot up to another, much more stark line. "That's the Obama line. See where it goes?" He whistled long and loud, dropping the tone like a bomb. "Off a cliff. And, boom."
The next slide showed a series of boxes, each one representing a different Government program.
"We should also reduce the reach of Government regulation by starving wasteful Government programs." Peter continued. "They eat too much. They're monsters." He flicked his red pointer over each box before moving on. "Government overreach leads to higher taxes and higher inflation. If we pare back Government overreach, we stab the five headed beast in the heart instead of just lobbing off another one of its heads. The Government thinks it knows how to spend your money better than you do. It doesn't. The Government thinks it knows how to invest your money better than you do. It doesn't. And see there?"
The next slide showed the actual five headed beast, a red, slobbering monstrosity. Obama's head, Tim Geithner's head, Ben Bernanke’s head, Paul Krugman's head, and Mitt Romney's head had all been photo shopped onto the beast.
"See that? That's the beast. Sure you'd like to chop all those heads off..." he teased. "That's a hungry monster." The crowd began chanting 'Do it! Do it! Do it!' and the chant turned into a roar. He looked positively pleased with himself. He smiled. "No, you see, you gotta stab the heart first, people!" He paused, waiting for the right moment to strike. "Then you take care of the heads!" A deafening cheer followed. I heard a voice to the right of me, an old woman's, shout "Kill 'em!"
Minutes of charged chanting finally subsided, and Peter felt things had quieted down enough to continue his speech.
"And I'm sick and tired of hearing how Corporations are the evil empire. Corporations are not the evil empire. They are evil so far as Government regulations force them to be evil, but they aren't set up to be evil. If you think that you're a fool who doesn't care about facts. You see, Government needs to understand that businesses are like customers - if they aren't offered a competitive service package, they will move somewhere else. So before we vilify Corporations, just remember, they are just doing what they need to do to survive. And those 'evil' hedge fund managers? Yeah, those guys? Those guys drive companies to perform. They're the ones who grow, rather than limit investments. Do they take risks? Sure they do. But there is no success without risk. And without success, you have a no-growth economy. What is a no-growth economy, you ask? Well, let's look at some.
Next slide came into view.
"Do you think the US tax burden is relatively low?" he asked.
"No!! It's too high!" someone screamed. This was becoming more of a rally than a HED Talk. It was the most emotional, most communal political rally I'd ever attended.
"It's not low," Peter continued. "...if you figure in the marginal rate. The United States tax burden is only "relatively low" if you compare it to that of Greece - we're looking at roughly thirty three or thirty four percent of GDP, there's Russia - about the same - and Spain - thirty seven, the United Kingdom - close to forty - Italy - forty three, more or less, and our favorite country, France, at forty five percent of GDP. What do those economies have in common? They're all stagnant. They can't pay for their massive social welfare programs. All those countries also have a higher tax to GDP ratios compared to the United States. And where are we? We're at about twenty seven percent.
"And let's not confuse overall tax burdens with high marginal rates. Liberals make this mistake all the time. They start hyperventilating when I bring it up! High marginal tax rates have the biggest impact on economic activity. Who on earth wants to pay a top marginal rate of fifty three percent? Look at Singapore, with a top marginal rate of just twenty percent. Now that's more like it. No wonder more and more U.S. citizens are dropping into Singapore? Can you blame them?"
The other entrepreneurs around me clapped enthusiastically.
"I certainly can't blame them! Since the end of World War two, the US Government's tax revenue has stayed almost level. How level? Just under twenty percent. No matter what our tax rates are, or who is forced to pay it, this tax to GDP ratio does not change. Living out the Liberal fantasy of taxing the highest income earners at a top rate of seventy five percent, and the lower margin of twenty five percent will not change this. It's simple. Government wants more revenue? Well, get the fuck out of the way of those who create our GDP. Government wants less revenue? Pass a whole bunch of fucking regulations that reduce GDP. Better yet, let's over-regulate until we are too restricted to grow. That's the Liberal fantasy. That's Liberal Disneyland. Just regulate everything until it all looks the same, and it all does the same: absolutely squat."
A great cheer cascaded over the crowd, and I realized that the stage was totally obscured by heads. I moved to the side of the auditorium to get a better view of Peter under his spotlight. He hadn't even broken a sweat. He looked a bit bored, in fact.
"Ok, so what about low tax to GDP ratios?" he went on, pointing back to the next slide. "Let's see here - ready for the number zone? We've got South Korea - about twenty seven percent, Chile at eighteen percent, Thailand at seventeen percent, China too, Singapore and Hong Kong hovering around twelve or thirteen percent. You think these economies are stagnant? Guess again."
"Those are all expanding economies. Do the math. Or don't. I just did it for you." He grinned again. "Let's look at Hong Kong for a moment. It has a thirteen percent tax rate and its GDP is actually growing. Its per capita income is now higher than the U.S. They have low taxes and minimal Government regulations. Higher taxes and increased Government regulation only stagnates an already failing economy. Do we want a growth-oriented economy or do we want a high-tax, low-growth economy?"
"If you look at societies with low marginal tax rates, you also see those are the societies with the highest growth. It's math. It's simple. Taxes are down relative to GDP because income is down. What's our solution? Increase tax revenue relative to GDP by increasing the rate, reducing GDP, and encourage income growth relative to GDP."
My eyes began to glaze over a little, but something about the sound of Peter's voice kept me fastened to his presentation. He went on, like a juggernaut.
"Let's look at direct taxation, like income tax. Income tax - some of you may know this - was a nineteenth century creation. We created the income tax to pay off debt incurred from the Civil War. Once the debt was paid off, the tax ended. That's right. It ended in less than ten years. So, what about our taxes now?
"Well, in the twentieth century, we had post-World War Two debt to pay off. Those taxes, however, did they end in ten years? Did they go away? No. They did not end. They're still here with us. Government keeps finding different ways to spend that money. They don't just take it out of your income. They get it all kinds of ways - actively, passively, directly, indirectly..."
Peter seemed to drift off himself, but I realized he hadn't drifted off. He was, in fact, staring right in my direction. How could he have seen me past the glare of the spotlight? Something teased around the corner of his mouth, and he sort of nodded to himself, and took a big breath, and continued his train of thought. I stood stunned for a moment. It occurred to me that this whole presentation of his was a pitch directed at me. I didn't know where he was going with it, but the room suddenly felt very small.
"What is indirect taxation? It can take many forms. Don't just look at Federal taxes. We are taxed at a much higher rate than the numbers suggest. You may be familiar with corporate income tax and capital gains tax. They're too high. In fact, let's just..." Peter drew a big black line across his slide's line item. "Let's just end the corporate income tax." Another line went across the slide. "Let's end capital gains tax. That way, you encourage economic growth, you encourage investment, and you stop enabling personal debt."
As he drew the lines over the taxes, he glanced back over toward my end of the auditorium.
"So, we've discussed two forms of tax that need to go. Can you think of another?" Peter asked the crowd. The roar that rose up drowned out any individual answers that the speaker could hear, but I heard them, all around me.
"End sales tax! End the death tax! End all taxes!"
"You guys are good! But you forgot one... the inflation tax. We're really exploited by that one. You heard of this one? The Government can print new money, which gets awarded to agencies and private business at the current value. This new money is printed through loans, and those loans are an additional tax expense on our kids and our kids' kids. By the time it hits the general economy - when we get access to it - the impact inflates the dollar and increases our cost of living and everything else. There is nothing virtuous about it. It's just another tax that needs to end, but I wonder if anyone living within the borders of this country has the power to do it."
Peter looked down across the crowd, his eyes seeking. He stopped at me, and grinned. The ballroom crowd noticed his interest in me, and a tall fellow with a trench coat elbowed me, and asked, "Hey, you know Peter? Can you get me a meeting?"
I just shrugged, annoyed, and pointed back up at the stage so that people would stop staring at me. Peter's voice had begun to rise, and it pierced the noise in the room, stunning everyone to silence.
"The notion... this stupid notion that the Federal Reserve owns our wealth and we have to pay it back to them at interest is absurd! It's an unethical scam. Let's stop letting people do whatever they want with our wealth! Let's stop letting them tell us how much our money is worth, and then taxing us for our trouble! You pay the Federal Government through mere possession of printed money. And that's not the only way you pay. You likely buy gasoline. You buy products at the store. You pay State taxes - if not income tax, then insurance fees. Right?"
Everyone agreed. Even some of the Liberals had gone silent and were staring up at the stage in a kind of trance.
"How many of you own cars?" All the hands in the auditorium went up. "Ok, so we all own cars." Peter laughed. "If you own a car, is the license a tax?"
He didn't wait for the answer.
"Yes, it's a tax. Is there tax on food?
"Yes!" everyone answered.
"Supermarkets contend with property taxes, utility taxes, withholding taxes for their employees, transportation taxes on delivered goods, and every time you buy food, you help pay these taxes. When you buy clothes, you pay for the property tax on the farms that grow the cotton. You pay taxes on the machinery that makes the clothing. You pay tax on the energy to run those machines. If you wear synthetic material, you pay taxes on petroleum. If your clothes are imported, you pay import tariffs. These are all indirect taxes, and you pay them on virtually everything you buy. The sales tax is, in this sense, a tax on a tax. What does all this mean?"
"Taxes suck!" a girl screamed.
"That's right, taxes suck." he grinned. "And the more you raise my taxes, the more of my money you can waste. Why? Because you're set up to waste my money fumbling with social problems that bureaucrats at the highest level have no business trying to solve in such a diverse society."
"My sister would have died without welfare!" a woman in the back yelled out.
"Oh, I think not." Peter replied, unfazed. He fixed his stare on the woman. "So, let me ask you this: what about Government's social welfare edifices? You hear it all the time, right? Oh, Government pulls people out of poverty! Oh, Government takes care of those who can't take care of themselves. Oh, wow! Government pays for your hospital bills and takes care of the sick! Government gives you free healthcare!" Peter looked disgusted. He shook his head. "Nothing is free, folks. Nothing. You wanna know who gets it free? Poor people. You wanna know who pays for it?" He cupped his hand to his ear, waiting for the answer from the crowd to wash over him.
"We do!!!" everyone screamed.
"Poor people," he continued. "...don't spend their money on necessities. I think "the poor" should pull their weight! That's not heartless! It's generous! That's giving a shit about the poor instead of throwing money at them! The fact is... and a lot of people, including some of you, don't want to admit to this. Poor people spend their money on things they don't need. They get food stamps, energy assistance, Medicare, HUD housing, and free cell phone minutes. They use Government issued debit cards to buy porn and favors at strip clubs. They don't want to work. The government enables that behavior. We also pay for government employees, government contractors, military, bureaucrats, congressmen, their staffs, and everyone on welfare. That's over half our population supported by our tax money."
"What about health care? Is private insurance perfect? Nope. But the only reason that so-called "private" Health Care runs into problems is that the US Government puts pharmaceutical and insurance companies in a position where they must sleep with Big Government. Big Government manipulates the market and twists it. This is unacceptable. A government that manipulates the market will always be used by "private" business for profit, because regulation gives the free market nowhere else to go. Regulation," he paused for effect, and then went on - "Makes "private" ventures corrupt. Private enterprise is not evil!!!" Peter shouted. "Big Government makes it evil!"
A huge roar went up around me. The lanky guy slapped me on the back and gestured to the stage.
"He's on fire today!" he laughed. "You sure you can't get me a meeting?"
"If I refuse to pay my taxes, I can be imprisoned and my property seized. I can be shot! After all that, I will still owe the government money. This is money I could use to invest in my family. I could pass the money down to my kids, down to my employees, but Uncle Sam wants a piece of it first! He wants to fund his illegal wars! He wants to fund his ventures, the ones I never got a chance to audit! And my kids, the ones who ultimately matter in all this? Even their inheritance will be taxed. It's...." Peter paused, and wiped his eyes. "It's theft... it's extortion... it's a slave State!"
"Taxation... is... theft!" he went on, getting increasingly agitated. "A Government venture kept alive by my personal wealth is immoral! I can't oppose it unless I'm willing to leave the US, or go to jail? This is moral? My taxes go toward US sanctioned murder on foreign soil, and if I conscientiously oppose it, I could be imprisoned or shot! This is not a joke. This is not exaggeration. They... will... shoot... me!"
"Not if we shoot 'em first!" a deep voiced man yelled above the din of the crowd.
Peter collected himself.
"Maybe we don't have to." he said. "Listen... Government programs do not solve problems. Government programs make problems worse. Look at the failed War on Drugs! Look at the untapped marijuana market! Look at the horrifying, deadly cartels created by the drug trade across the U.S. Mexico border. What has that yielded? Headless bodies buried in the desert! Tourists killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time!
"We don't have a free market here in the States. I want an actual free market, one that works and isn't corrupted by Government.
"The lesson is: The wars need to end. Stop the damned taxes, already. No country has even been taxed into prosperity. It's never happened, people. It's never happened!"
"My income tax, sales tax, and property taxes all comprise almost half of my annual income. That's six months' pay. This means, I work half of my life to pay for the benefit of society. My human rights are dwindling! I am a slave to the Treasury Department! How is this fair or just?
"What else do we want? We want to cut spending. We want to reduce - not increase - taxes. Let's repeal the income tax. Let's look at consumption tax instead. Let's get more money into our pockets so that we can spend our wealth to create new wealth and make the economy more prosperous! Yes, you can cut taxes and increase revenue. Government becomes a more financially solvent, safer country that way. Nothing complex about it. Let's just get it done! Am I right?"
The lights in the hall went up, and I saw that Peter's face glistened with sweat. He looked like an Olympian after a grueling bout. He held both his arms up to the crowd. They chanted for him.
"Bernays for President!" one shouted.
"Peter is my superhero!" another cried.
The man in the suit wiped a tear away from his face. He brought out his phone and began furiously texting. In the span of twenty minutes, I had all but forgotten my mixed feelings about this strange man. Numbers and percentages and ratios spun through my brain. Fear of losing all I owned surged through me. I felt a strong attachment to the fruits of my labors, and outrage that I could have everything I had earned just taken from me, as a consequence of being an American citizen. I knew I had to work with Peter, at any cost.
6 - Chroma Mansion Revolutionaries
After the HED speech, I was convinced Freedom Zone and Aqua frontier should team up. We were both on the same mission, one borne out of decades of simmering mistrust of Big Government. He and I compiled our research into a kind of hybrid project. With Freedom Zone, I argued passionately and powerfully for the right of U.S. citizens to build things safe from overt Government intervention. With Aqua Frontier, Bernays felt that the great human experiment was destined to take place over the water, out beyond our borders. With these two collaborative threads, we set out to give birth to a new world.
In the time I spent with Peter after his speech, I quickly learned that he had no desire to visit Washington, not ever. He was more comfortable holding court in a small group of his admirers in the Chroma mansion on the West Coast. Some unflattering articles on him - he was already a minor celebrity - referred to him as the Libertarian answer to Charles Manson. I found that harsh and offensive. Peter was weird, to be sure, but he was also brilliant, and a doer, and inspiring. His Roman bathhouse looks served him well, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't influence my decision to join him. He even offered me a bed in the mansion, if I wanted it. I said yes and agreed to stay there for a few weeks to get a lay of the land.
I'd read an article in Wired once about the Chroma mansion. It was a sprawling, immodest spread just outside of Palo Alto, California. It was gated on all sides and bore close to fifteen bedrooms. It came complete with wrought iron gate, long opulent pathways and expansive reading areas. Its residents were handpicked by Peter and his wife, Jenna, all under the same condition: if you wanted to live at Chroma, you needed to commit yourself to changing the world. You needed to always be working on your goal. You needed to have thick skin and needed to be willing to give up your privacy. All of the Chroma kids shared that space with one shared purpose - change the world.
Young men and women with talent and promise lived there for six to twelve months at a time, just coming up with ideas and shaking trees for venture funding. They played hard, but with a purpose. They threw parties and invited moneyed individuals, plied them with alcohol and belly dancers, and collected strings of IOUs before the night was out. In truth, life at Chroma was much like summer camp, only with startup ideas like security systems, robots, meteorological monitoring devices, new types of vehicles, banking algorithms, you name it.
There was no question for me then that it was the purpose of extraordinary individuals to use their talent and resources to make life better for everybody else. I found myself sympathetic to the Chroma cause, because I believed individuals, rather than Government bureaucracies, were ideally suited for societal improvement. Bureaucratic systems could not feel outrage at the inefficiency of life, but individuals did. Bureaucracies had no incentive to form new ideas, but individuals did.
To that end, the Chroma kids were really excited about ideas. They were motivated by their own sense of achieving the impossible. The Chromas were a launching pad for making life better through technology, true faith in one's ideas, and most importantly, funding. Naturally, all the Chromas saw themselves as superheroes. Most of them were entrepreneurs who had left University to pursue their start-ups. About seven of them were Stanford post-grads in the midst of commandeering the University's labs for their own purposes.
Of the many ideas coming out of Chroma, a few stuck with me. One young man, Ting Ku, a noted fire dancer, spent his Chroma time evolving the classic idea of a prison as a full service, full time job training facility, and doubled down on it. Ting's private prisons ('palaces') contained permanent, on-site call centers, manufacturing hubs, and classrooms... even gun ranges. The Ting palaces weren't just training prisoners to be functioning workers, but using their innate skill and street smarts to cultivate them into warriors and mercenaries. There were two Ting palaces in the United States: one in Arizona, and one in Montana. Governor Jan Brewer personally oversaw the construction of the first palace, and even had a groundbreaking ceremony where Ting demonstrated his fire dancing skills before taking a giant ceremonial check.
Another Chroma kid, a lanky Australian hunk named Nik, was in attendance, standing near me. I'd heard about Nik through one of my Senatorial aides. By citing some obscure statute, by pushing virtual technologies for sex workers, and by using successful online sex trades as a model, Nik was able to essentially legalize prostitution. He was a reserved but enormously endowed man, so said the aides I spoke to, and he was one of Peter's most successful entrepreneurs. It was said that Nik possessed an almost hypnotic presence with women. He'd bedded just about every person - man or woman - at Chroma, and it was rumored that he'd even bedded Peter.
There were other Chromas I'd heard of, some perfecting 3D printing of guns and auto and jet parts. Most of them were obsessed with taking taboo/black market frontiers and legalizing them. Gambling, sex, blood sports, indentured servitude - these were all incredibly lucrative markets untapped due to regulation. Peter and his geniuses broke through the regulation and became the first to capitalize on it.
During my first week at the mansion, I stumbled out of my room one night to the sounds of drumming and cheering from the back lawn. I opened the glass doors to the sight of a group of fire dancers in the encroaching dark. They spun poles of flame and juggled them around their heads, twisting their shoulders to the music and performing unreal feats. I counted five fire dancers, but the one who had all their attention was a tanned, heavily muscled Asian man with glasses and a pull down tube top. From the neck up he might be considered nerdy, but the rest of him was something out of Mount Olympus. I had a tough time keeping my eyes off him. I joined the fray and clapped along with the rest of the Chroma guests as the fire dancing escalated.
"Who is that?" I asked Jenna.
"Oh, that's Ting." she said.
"Ting's palace Ting?" I asked, incredulous. "That's the same guy who owns a string of private prisons?"
"Ting's so amazing." she gushed. "He does the fire dancing on the side. I've actually seen him fight with his flame sticks."
I clapped Ting on the back and praised him as he made his way through the crowd. He stopped briefly, turning to face me.
"Don' not play wit fire, dude." he warned me, his face expressionless. "Fire's dangerous; get out of the way, okay?"
"Sorry..." I muttered.
After my arrival, the chromas fronted every one of their ambitions under the Freedom Zone flag. Peter had apparently told them I was the 'money man,' and the second they heard that, they swarmed me. Peter was already planning a grand and secret venture - a project he jokingly dubbed 'Rapture.' Jenna gave me cold distance - I overheard her refer to me as 'G-man' on more than one occasion.
"As long as we're doing these things here on US soil, our hands are tied." Peter told me. "That's where you being a G-man comes in. We can't just leave and do what we want, Spence, but you know the loopholes. You've been playing the game for so long. Honestly..." he cracked a smile. "I don't know how you stayed enmeshed with all that Government bullshit for so long while propping up Libertarian candidates. I could never do that."
"Never do what?" I asked, genuinely curious.
"I don't know how you play the game if you feel as strongly as I do about changing the world." Peter said, amused. "If you don't like the game, change the rules. That's why you're here, right?"
In my second week at Chroma, I noticed a tiny little girl emerge from a small door near the grand staircase. She was small even for a five year old. Her eyes were dark and her hair was similarly dark and curly. She reminded me of a house elf out of a Harry Potter novel - cautious, always appearing and disappearing at will. The next day, I saw her again, all by herself in the east wing hallways. She was talking to herself and tracing out some imaginary pathway with her feet.
"What's your name?" I asked her.
"You're Spencer." she said, keeping her head down. "My daddy says you are important."
Penelope was unlike her parents in almost every way. She was quiet and reserved and, even for five, displayed a cautious regard for her surroundings. Peter loved placing her on the rails of the grand Chroma staircase and making her slide down. A few times, she toppled over onto the floor and burst into tears. Instead of picking her up, Peter just laughed and said 'Next time you'll get it right!'
Jenna and Penny both kept a low profile around the mansion. I rarely saw Peter by their side, and when I did, he was usually berating Jenna about some thing or another.
"You always get that hippie shit. I want burgers, dammit!" he lectured. Jenna didn't seem to mind, and her daughter often wandered off by herself, as if searching the grounds for some hidden treasure. When I wasn't on the phone or finalizing some contract, I lifted the little girl up on my shoulders and we'd wander the grounds and she'd ask me questions about life, about cupcakes, about angels, about everything. I grew fond of her.
One day, she asked me a surprising question.
"Spencer, what does my daddy mean by change the world?"
I set her down and sat across from her on a garden bench.
"He means... make the world a better place." I said.
"For who?" she asked innocently. "Momma says daddy wants the world better for him but not en-buddy else."
I paused and looked at the small child, surprised.
"No, honey." I replied. "Change the world means better for everyone, not just daddy. Not just the people here."
"How?" she asked, and I realized it was a question I could not answer.
7- Build Something
The weeks flew by, and I returned to DC. While Bernays raised money from his intentional community in California, I authored and pushed for legislation reducing taxes and regulations, from my office.
Peter sent me draft illustrations of floating cities - something out of Jules Verne - and minutes from his monthly meet-ups with like-minded Aqua Frontier enthusiasts. He just couldn't let go of the idea. I told him we'd never, ever see a custom-built floating city in his lifetime. He argued and cried about it, but I won the argument by giving him an alternative, one that whetted his appetite for adventure on the high seas.
I lobbied in D.C. on behalf of Freedom Zone's work with Federal interstate contracts. It sounds like boring work, and it was, but without it, our venture would crack, dry up and blow away before the first vessel was underway. We needed to hold onto our money for as long as possible, and without my paper shuffling, we'd never, ever get off the ground and into the water. We desperately needed Zoning approval. We needed our contracts approved. We needed this approval from organizations in the United States whose existence we fundamentally disagreed with.
Things began to look bad for us. The United States considered Peter Bernays a harmless crackpot until I began submitting his ideas to the agencies whose approval we needed. After that, they considered him dangerous, and they red-stamped almost everything. I knew from my contacts in Washington that the Government was suddenly very aware of Peter. They hated him. I admired Bernays' persistence, his refusal to give in, but it was only a matter of time before they shut him down. I wondered how much longer he had before everything he'd worked for got dismantled.
I responded by exploiting foreign interests in land deals without actually building overseas. I wrote legislation that amounted to a legal loophole, one giving the multinationals power to re-examine contracts across the border. I wrote in a clause allowing for the re-assessment of a building site from the purveyance of an overseas Republic. They were usually much more eager to jump on board, taking kickbacks from deals about land developments thousands of miles away. It was our only way to circumvent Big Government, short of mounting a campaign to stuff Congress with our people, which would take years.
While I lobbied, Bernays raised money. Lots of it. He referred to the ocean as a viable frontier, one that remained largely untapped and yet very much within reach. Ever the pragmatist, he boiled Aqua Frontier’s mission of ocean settlement down to a simple matter of cheap, available real estate.
"There are a slurry of laws, mostly nebulous, telling us what we can and cannot do in the sea." the wunderkind wrote me in one of his many impassioned letters. "I plan to push conceptions of what a truly border-less state can achieve without the constant push of bureaucratic interests in our affairs."
Soon these vague concepts had already cemented into something very real. Money spoke, and Aqua frontier obtained three articulated tug and barrack barge systems for deployment to international waters, to an undisclosed tropical corridor somewhere in the Pacific. The tugs had been specially designed for use with the barges. In addition to the housing barges, Bernays obtained a vital organ for the flotilla - a massive floating crane rig to act as a steward. He didn't tell me where he got it, or how long it took him to procure. It came in at one hundred forty feet in length, and came with its own semi-permanent, side-mounted tug. Its prominent crane rose up like an outstretched finger, pointing to the horizon.
8 - The Launch
On launch day, three massive, groaning 4500 Hp tugs slid down the ramp and smacked sideways into the water of the bay. We named our main vessels Liberty, Respect, and Sovereign, and the massive crane barge, the flotilla's heart: "Custodian." A feeling of genuine excitement surged through me as the double propellers vanished beneath the filmy surface. As the swells at last crested out from the behemoths, applause exploded around us. In that moment, Bernays reportedly said, "I got my speeders and my sand crawlers. Now all I need are my Jedis."
I was, using Peter's histrionic analogy, his Jedi Knight. I was poised to give the final, pivotal green light on the project. I didn't take the job lightly. I was the lynch pin in a very complex operation, one requiring the cooperation of numerous State and Federal agencies and thousands upon thousands of legal documents. I was an experienced Lobbyist acting on behalf of developers, but I was still very nervous about pulling this off. It was the ultimate circumnavigation of Federal oversight. Such sleight of hand was audacious, especially when a group like Aqua frontier already had just dropped a very conspicuous flotilla into a harbor in San Diego.
Bernays owned the harbor and kept the surrounding community quiet by throwing charitable donations their way while the flotilla bobbed eagerly in the bay. While I worked my way to the right grants and permissions on the east coast, and massaged the Commerce Department with shiny trinkets, Peter and his team placed massive orders of furniture and foodstuffs for the barracks barges. This purveyance might have fed several large communities for months on end. It was the frontier era equivalent of a Costco order: tubs of lard and bacon grease, salt and refrigerated butter cream, long plastic rolls of laminated, freeze dried meats, mountains of soup cans, canned vegetables, and canned fruit. That was just the first shipment. The second shipment consisted of beef jerky, fruit snacks, energy drinks, and trail mix. One of my assistants saw the order sheets and called me up to ask if Bernays was planning on staffing his team with engineers and video game nerds.
During this time, Peter and I rarely spoke. He emailed me requests from time to time, and they varied from wildly inappropriate to nearly impossible. He had his wife Jenna devise a flag with a three color design featuring ocean waves and multiple hands linked in solidarity in the sky above. I thought it a beautiful design, the way Jenna drafted it. Peter asked me to submit it to my media contacts.
"Just get it out to everybody, every organization who covers this shit." Peter instructed. "This is a real thing, this is changing the world, it's time people knew."
The flag - with its impressionistic azure, green and white smears, became a symbol for our venture.
Peter requested that I expand the parameters of the permit to grant rights of his oversea colony to capture any vessels that came within five miles of the barges. His argument was that as an independent, autonomous entity, the colony had the right to defend itself, and if he didn't establish a safe perimeter, constant vigilance would be required.
The next day, I discovered a huge problem, and called him.
"We are conducting ourselves like a country, Peter." I said. "We have to resubmit this permit, but it probably won't get approval until well into next year. This will also delay progress on our first permit. Please tell me you've got safe, lawful contingencies to protect the ships?"
"I have, I have, I have. Don't worry about that." he stammered. He was distracted. "Not the point, Spence. That's a last resort, that's a last resort. What I'm hoping for is more of a Prime Directive scenario, ok?"
I sighed. "Really, Pete? Star Trek? You've got me pissing in Homeland Security's backyard, and every other Federal Department in the country, and you want me to talk to them about Star Trek?"
"Nah," he said dismissively. "All I'm saying is: if you're in our space, you play by our rules. Companies are that way, Spence. Right? Any multinational company plays this way. You live here, you're employed here, and it’s the same thing. You play by our rules. You come into our space, you play our game."
I gave in.
"Ok, I'll resubmit the permits." I answered, resigned. "But I have a question for you, and I want you to be completely honest with me, okay?"
"Are we a country or are we a corporation?"
"Spence, you've been going around preaching this shit for years, and all of a sudden you're...”
"Peter, I'm on your side. We're doing this together. What I'm asking is, we're still United States citizens, and so what do we tell the Fed? To them, what are we?"
"That's the fucking badass thing about it!" he replied. "We're fucking both."
He was jazzed at the prospect of being both a country and a company. "To them, we're both. That line is so blurred now, there is so much fucking more we can do! The best Corporations are already small cities. Look at Foxconn in China. Check out the Suburbs of Manila and Bangladesh. I've been there a million times. People are happy to live there. Look outside their walls, though. Tell me, Spence, tell me the citizenry of those townships isn't scratching at the walls trying to get in? They want off the Government teat and they want in."
Peter was right about that. They wanted in.
9 - Setting Sail
We were set for an April push. The Pacific's choppy storm waters would stay calm through late spring and summer, and in that placidity, we hoped to find the time to get things up and running.
The period leading up to the launch was a noisy, frenetic time. They came in droves. In February, a gaggle of chromas arrived and began installing their start-up infrastructure throughout the various barges. After they laid this cable, Aqua Frontier investors and their families flew to the California coast from all over the world. Little by little, they migrated from hotel rooms and began to inhabit the barges. The interior spaces of the barrack barges, especially those on the lower decks, were at first humorless, grey pens, custom-carved to accommodate groups of various sizes. That all changed once beds, couches, rugs, and lamps began to appear in the living spaces. Plastic trees showed up in corners of rooms and hallways. Paintings were hung.
They were an eccentric bunch. I watched a massive group migrate onto Respect, the family barge. Full families, children, pets... it looked like something out of the Old Testament. Respect also took in wealthy bachelor entrepreneurs and unkempt engineers, artists and self-described pilgrims. Some of them were secluded, self-reliant techies. Business interests set up shop with 3D printing manufacturers and prescription drug brokers. Some residents were just curious artists with too much money. Most of them ended up there on Respect.
A team of Peter's best high level programmers, led by Bryce, took up residence on Sovereign, the IT/Network barge. Bryce, of course, was the man who'd introduced Peter at the HED Talk. They waddled along the dock wearing old prog rock t-shirts. Like their neck-bearded leader, they wore stained cargo shorts, and sandals and big fedora hats. They were bearded and mustached. They laughed derisively through their noses at each other's jokes. I judged them, but acknowledged, too, that these were the people who put Libertarianism on the map. They were our loud, vocal contingent. They took up the war of ideas online against Liberals and Traditional Conservatives alike about the role of Government in daily life. And here they were, living out their dreams.
Each weekend, teams of engineers came in on their off hours to install big screen televisions, radar detectors, security locks and fire alarms on each vessel. Bryce devised a LAN encryption method that bested every industry standard. Little installation projects took over, from the team that painted the Aqua Frontier flag on the side of each barge, to the team that spent weeks installing the hulking, state of the art water filtration and purification systems.
In March, my D.C. team and I flew west to join the throng. We were the last to arrive, and since Respect was already crammed full of people, I made Sovereign my home. I needed constant access with the communications array in order to stay on top of the political maneuvering. Ours was a smaller, more austere group. We represented Freedom Zone's core people: pencil pushers, numbers geeks, policy wonks and a few media consultants. Peter's Chroma kids may have been the noisy guts of the operation, but we were the hands. I put out fires and press releases, filed papers, handled media inquiries, and acted as a diplomatic liaison for visiting press corps from other countries.
Custodian's crane was already hard at work lifting heavy objects onto its flat surface. The weeks flew by. I began to feel a surge, a kind of fire, working its way through me in anticipation in our push out to sea. As for Peter, he was unstoppable. He climbed around Custodian like a monkey, checking rigging, making sure the tugs were secured, re-checking wiring and the like. Every room he wandered into stopped what it was doing to gawk at him, and he knew it. Peter knew he was the most important person there. He acted out a kind of false 'relaxed' attitude around people, resting his elbows awkwardly on their shoulders and heads, loudly munching on apples and bananas and bowls of cereal in a corner while others planned their seaward ventures. He stopped occasionally to interject an opinion, or a comment, but not enough so to wear out his welcome. His pantomime was that of the inconspicuous leader too important to deliberately make himself the center of anything, and yet he was at the center of it all.
I spent most of my time in Sovereign's lower decks among Bryce and the other engineers. I helped set up countless communication arrays to maintain contact with the mainland. I set up a video conference center at its heart. I placed orders, had maps re-drawn, and permits re-filed. I emailed. I faxed. I was on the phone for more than ten hours in a day. I went into town at least once a week to gather supplies. I networked with low level contacts in Southeast Asian Governments. I haggled with frustrated officials at the U.S. Department of Commerce. They treated me like a student who had found a way to cheat on a test and not leave any evidence, like a criminal whose day was due. In my own quiet way, I laughed at them.
I stayed reasonable while the Federal Government and the State of California pulled their hair out. I wrote damning missives online about Freedom Zone's Partnership with Aqua frontier - how we had pulled the wool over their eyes. On video conferences, however, I was the model for an upstanding citizen. I argued reasonably about our venture, played down the fact that most of the businesses on board had the full intention of doing business with customers in the United States as if we were a foreign country with no regulations, no restrictive laws, and no taxes. Best part - it was all legal, and there was nothing they could do about it.
In the guts of each of the barracks barges, Bryce's disparate networks bore their way into the walls of each habitation, but Sovereign was the heart of all our Communications arrays. Engineers and their families bustled down corridors in Sovereign, shouting at each other about how many water canisters to carry at once, how to reconfigure their cell phones for use in the middle of the ocean, and most importantly, where the bathrooms were. It was messy and it was loud, but those complex networks - each one representing a separate business interest - were poised to make these individuals not only filthy rich, but for the first time in their lives, subject to their own laws.
Liberty, the last of the three barges, was dubbed the 'pleasure boat.' It was Nik's baby, as far as I could tell. I spotted a tinted bus one morning pulling up to the harbor, and all kinds of girls emerged. I didn't recognize any of them from Chroma. Nik stood, his arms folded, against the side of the bus. I could see his mouth moving silently, counting each girl as she stumbled out. Blonde girls, brunette girls, redheads, big haired girls. The engineers on Sovereign pressed their greasy faces against the barge windows as the parade of young women began their slow ascent on Liberty's ramp.
"I'm a gonna get me some a that when we cross over the border..." rasped one man, a stout fellow. I gazed cockeyed over at him, assessing his My Little Pony t-shirt, stained khaki shorts and hobbit feet.
"Nik's got us taken care of!" he snorted. "Most of those girls are from Ukraine, they'll do whatever we tell them to!"
"You're disgusting." I said, turning to leave.
"Oh what? That's right, you like dudes!" he shot back. "I'm sure Nik can arrange something for you, too. You look like you need it!"
No one really knew where Peter stayed, or for that matter, whether he had family on board or not. He seemed to appear and disappear at will. When he wasn't pacing the operating center on Custodian, he was often spotted atop the Liberty 'pleasure boat' barge putting green. I got occasional calls from him asking me questions about shipping channels and trade agreements, but little else. The week before the four boat flotilla departed for the wide ocean, he disappeared altogether and called me from Belgium, of all places, out of breath and panicked and saying something about Israel and Iraq. I put it out of my mind and continued assembling my vast network of resources in Sovereign's relatively austere interior.
On April 11, the clustered arrangement of barges and tugboats occupying the harbor all began to move. They trained the horizon like a small herd of water bison. The ships' dark, sloped backs teemed with people anxious for a chance to wave goodbye to the coast. Engineers and programmers stood next to funky young entrepreneurs, who in turn stood with the executives and employees of the sponsor companies. It was an exciting moment for all of us - even Peter, who many of us feared would not make the launch. He stood at the head of the control center on Custodian and talked with the press over Skype, not stopping for breath.
"This is truly a partnership for the ages." he told CNN Money. "With the launch of Aqua Frontier, we exemplify entrepreneurial spirit. We embody success. We take a page from the founding fathers. We've got vessels named after the values we hold dear - personal Liberty, mutual Respect, and Sovereign rights. We encourage other citizens and entrepreneurs to use our venture as a model for not only the future of business, but the future of society."
Peter mapped out what he called his 'rabbit hole' route for sea navigation that kept us at a minimum safe distance from shipping routes and unsafe areas. The rabbit hole equation took us over the invisible boundaries and set us up in a spiral pattern for about four or five days, after which the barges and the crane tug could chase each other in a kind of Mobius strip pattern for the duration of the first voyage.
We chased the sunset for a few hours until the coastline was just a faint mirage over the horizon. The next day, golf turf unfurled over the tops of all the barges and drinking commenced. Billowy clouds slid across an impossibly blue sky during the day, and the cold starry sky broke out overhead, sending even the most rowdy engineers scrambling below deck. I stayed aboard Sovereign, with its electronic guts and its multiple networks and signal amplifiers, hole-punched walls, through which endless wires spilled out like electronics entrails. Respect, with its family oriented focus, its day care centers, entertainment zones and the like. Liberty was Peter's unofficial love nest and, so far as I could tell, the marketing operations center for most of the represented on-board companies. Lastly, there was Custodian's plodding, nervy bulk electrifying the rest of the flotilla.
On the third day out at sea, we spied a few U.S. cargo tankers - multicolored metal storage units with high flying flags - lumbering across our path. We ignored them. On the fourth day, we saw a few deep sea vessels and some unidentified cargo ships. It was on that fourth day that the ships' crew set about checking the levels and oiling the gears and the rest of us locked our cabin doors. During this time, each barge sent smaller boats and rafts back and forth to coordinate equipment checks and calibrate navigation tools. Peter went under the radar - we assumed he was somewhere on the leading boat but then word came that he had been sailing the smaller rowboats and rafts between each boat and chatting up all the inhabitants. He went where he pleased - it was always his way.
On the fifth day, the sky darkened and didn't light up ahead for a week. We monitored the currents and slowed our approach. The golf flags and plastic chairs on top of the barge flew away. The long strips of turf rolled against the guard rail and slapped against it violently in the high winds. The heaviest seas - a nasty conjunction where cold and warm currents collided - were upon us. For that time, I lay hunkered down in yellow light while the dark grey outside flashed bright white and long peals of thunder startled me from the computer monitor. I had a few knocks at my door from neighboring engineers who had forgotten to pack their tabletop board games and came to ask if I had any die cast figurines.
That same day, I conducted a phone interview with CNN Money. They couldn't reach the charismatic and eccentric founder of the stateless barge caravan, Mr. Peter Bernays, so they'd settled for me. I'd only just begun to explain that I wasn't Bernays' assistant, but co-founder and Director of the whole venture, when the call disconnected. Continuing the interview wouldn't have mattered anyway. They wanted Peter.
The moment the barges crossed over into international waters, a great cheer went up. From my cabin near the aft deck I heard low murmurs through the walls that lasted well into the night.
The caravan headed into the final long arc of our rabbit hole trajectory. The dark skies lifted, but the empty horizon left us reeling and directionless. Custodian had drifted from the caravan sometime during the storm, so while each vessel was synchronized to navigate the waters as a unit, the mammoth platform didnt turn up when the skies lifted.
The remaining barges had just settled into a comfortable rhythm when we spotted the large mass on the horizon. Peter had returned. A great noise rose up as he rode alongside the barges on an unidentified vessel. He spoke through his phone, and a few moments later, his voice rang out over the P.A. system over all the barges.
"All systems are go. Open your champagne, or beer, or wine. You've earned it, folks. Aqua Frontier is an unmitigated success."
10 - The Floating City
For every legitimate businessperson we sailed with, there were an equal number of people who just wanted to get away with things by flagrantly breaking well known U.S. law. Many companies aboard Respect circumnavigated the tax codes of the United States and operated within a self-prescribed business framework. Others simply got off on not having to follow rules. I knew this came with the territory, but I figured anyone with the money and resources serious enough to come aboard our venture would display a kind of social responsibility along with personal responsibility.
I watched from Sovereign as Nik ferried crowds of unshaven men from Sovereign and Respect over to Liberty. I knew the women Nik had brought aboard were in the sex trade, and while it bothered me, none of it was at odds with the ideology both Peter and I prescribed to. It was this ideology - the simplicity and beauty of the numbers from Peter's famous HED talk - and the fruits of that simplicity that I could not argue with
Seeing the embodiment of those ideals being played out with legalization of that which I felt interfered with basic human rights did bother me. I couldn't stay quiet. I called up Nik one evening and questioned his venture, and all he could tell me was 'It's their choice, mate. They have little choices as it is. It's either poverty back home or a luxury cruise."
"Nik, couldn't we encourage them to..."
"Listen, mate. I know you're the brains of this outfit but you gotta understand something. These girls don't have a choice. We're giving them a chance where the States would lock 'em up or send 'em home to hell."
Reports back home made us the fodder of late night television. Our 'boatful of rich nerds,' as Bill Maher put it, was a joke to everyone, but had anyone known of the levels of wealth that were created in just the first few weeks, no one would be laughing. Thanks to my finagling, there were no restrictions to trade. Privately rented cargo planes came and went with regularity. Our bank accounts grew. We weren't only a tax shelter, but a mammoth duty free paradise, a pleasure center and a vacation home all rolled into one.
We were also a prison, apparently. I discovered this as I approached Custodian for the first time since launch. What I thought were barracks were in fact, cells, and what's more, Ting had the inmates hard at work on various projects. They installed weapons arrays near Custodian's crane. They took help desk calls for everything, from IKEA furniture installation, to drug counseling, to even mail order pleasure products. Ting had, in essence, a full service stock of free labor.
What's more, inmates earned incentives for good behavior. They were allowed to leave the ship at will, with armed escorts, and take boats out on the water where they were allowed to shoot target practice. Ting, as it turned out, wanted them rough and ready. See, not only were these inmates violent criminals that made Alcatraz look like Disneyland, they were also Peter's private army.
The moment I heard this, I went ballistic. I found Ting on a platform just south of the prison complex, practicing with a set of spiked nun chucks. His muscle t was stained with sweat, and he had a blank look on his face as he practiced his routines.
"What's this I hear about an army?!" I shouted at him. "Why wasn't I informed? Where's Peter?"
"Dis not just your ship, dude." he deadpanned, angling his arms as the dangerous rods spun wildly in front of him. "Dis all our ship, or didn't you hear."
"You wouldn't be here without me!" I yelled, feeling very much out of control.
"Dat's the nice thing, dude." Ting said, not even bothering to look at me. "You can't say dat without me keeping a straight face. We all individuals here, we make our own choices. You don't make choice for me."
He angled around and walked slowly toward me, the spiked weapons twirling dangerously close to my face.
"If you don't like it, you deal with it." he said. "Watch out, Mr. Spencer. Get too close and you get cut."
11 - Pirate Attack
During the tail end of a summer storm, and after weeks of me keeping my head down and focusing on my part of the venture, Peter knocked on my door. I hadn't seen him in what felt like forever. He was the ostensible leader and every man all at once. He claimed zero accountability for the whole venture and yet implied it was all his baby.
"Have you gotten any... strange calls?" he asked. I was annoyed at being bothered when I was in the middle of opening a few new accounts, but I also had a lot of built up resentment that I was ready to unload onto him.
"You want to look at these?!" I snapped. "This is all I do, all day and all night! I manage your money, Peter! I manage your press! Where have you been? I thought we had a partnership."
He ignored me.
"So... no weird calls, then? No official messages?" he asked, his elbow raised up on the door frame. He shrugged, and started to walk off.
"What the fuck are you talking about, Peter?!" I yelled. I went into the hall after him.
"You told me no, Spencer. You've answered my question. Thanks!" he gave me a backhanded, laconic wave of his wrist and clomped up the stairs toward the upper deck. I stood dumbfounded, for a few moments, trying to remember why I'd even agreed to work with this egomaniac. He was brilliant, but he clearly wasn't meant to work with anyone. His very nature seemed pitted against collaboration, whatever form it took and no matter how finely tuned its purpose. Angry and defeated, I went back to my work.
Just after one in the morning, I'd just closed down my network when muffled chatter rose up from the surrounding cabins. A quick sporadic succession of wide pops, like firecrackers, erupted somewhere outside. I got my gun and headed up to the main deck. The normally inky sky was lit up with multicolored smoke trails slung between the barges like streamers. I saw flares and fires, and the sides of Liberty and Respect were both lit up. Sovereign then lurched and I stumbled forward onto the deck. A larger ship had come along beside us, full of masked men holding guns. They were unmistakably Nigerian from the looks of their boats and from how they were dressed. As I ran to the other side of the decks, I peered out to see their faces, but I only saw black hats and bandannas, and massive gun clips. A few unidentifiable smaller boats encircled the barges. A chill ran through me. This was really happening.
Quick bursts of gunfire commenced. A few angry engineers stepped up onto deck, running wildly in their sweat stained t-shirts and cargo pants, and anxiously fiddling with their glocks. One man ran behind me. Sweat and blood trailed down his face.
"Second Amendment, motherfuckers!" he quipped.
Another man, whom I immediately recognized from the family ship, Respect, ran past, screaming.
"They got my family!" he cried, his voice marked with permanent horror. "They got my family! Get those motherfuckers!"
A flash exploded from the top deck of Custodian and a pirate ship down below exploded in a mushroom burst of fire. Another guy, who I recognized as an social media entrepreneur from Respect, stood where I'd seen the flash. He was in the process of re-loading a rocket propelled grenade launcher.
A smattering of sharp clicks erupted behind me. I was being shot at. I ducked down below deck and headed for my equipment. As I walked down the hall, sounds of chaos and panic spilled out from most of the rooms. I heard people desperately trying to employ the arrays to call the Coast Guard, or trying to pick up any signal at all.
Another guy, who I'd not seen before, went down below deck, a machine gun slung over his shoulder and a camouflage bandanna around his head. He wore the Ting Palace insignia. He was a merc, straight out of Custodian's prison.
"Stay here, we got the entrance covered." he instructed everyone, walking along room by room. "Stay here, we have it covered. Don't go anywhere. Stay here, shitheads...." He looked over at me as I unlocked my cabin door.
"You're not contacting anyone." he said.
"What's it to you? This is my room."
He trained his gun on me, and then fired a shot just past my left ear.
"Stay in there if you want, but Peter says not to call Washington. You'll regret it if you do. He's got it covered."
"Who the fuck are you?" I snapped.
He trained the gun up at me and smirked.
"No, man. Who the fuck are you?"
I tried to take out my gun but one of my neighbors stepped out in front of my door. It was Bryce. He still wore his fedora hat and scratched at his beard irritably. He looked more scared than concerned. He shook his head and held me back.
"Listen, man." he said, breathing heavily through his mouth. "We're damned lucky Peter hired those mercs."
"He didn't hire them! He shook their cages, and then set them free! With my fucking money!" I screamed, pounding my chest. "It was mine! He had no right to let them loose on board!"
Another explosion rocked the barge and we both stumbled into the hallway, clutching at railings for balance. I rushed into my room. Bryce tried to stop me, but I wrested out from his grabby hands and got my pistol, and headed up the steps. From up on the deck, I heard the sounds of small children and women somewhere far below, down in the water. Twenty yards in front of me, several hands went over the railing. I shot furiously at them - I was a lousy shot - and they disappeared. In the confusion, I couldn't even tell if I'd hit anyone.
Something sharp bit me on the neck. I knew I'd been grazed, but I kept going. I was already out of breath. I landed behind one of the barge posts and waited, the sounds in the night still erupting around me. Most of the weapons were fully automatic; I couldn't tell if they came from the mercs or from the pirates. It didn't matter.
Screams continued into the night. They rose and fell like a sick tide far below in the surf. I smelled the thick musk of iron rich blood all over the barge.
When Peter finally appeared, flanked by a squad of Ting Palace mercs, I almost jumped out of my skin.
"What the fuck are you doing?" I screamed, carelessly knocking my weapon angrily against the railing. I gestured at the mercs. "This is only gonna make things worse!"
"Protecting my house, Peter!" he screamed back. I'd never seen him so livid. His normally languid muscles were tense and slick with sweat.
"Get below deck!" he yelled at no one in particular. "All of you!" He ignored me then, and wandered on into the dark. The remaining survivors above deck were either crouched behind container boxes or gazed out hopelessly into the darkness for miracles and signs for the fates of their family members. As the mercs strutted down the side of the barge, they kicked the corpses over the side.
I ran toward Peter and his Palace guard, knocking into the rear-most merc. He stumbled forward but didn't fall. I realized my folly as he spun around and and swept my legs out from under me. The gun clattered out of my hand and went over through the rail.
"You weak faggot!" he spat in a thick Bolivian accent. He headed toward me and whipped a knife out from his sleeve. "Stick you in the ass, you faggot!" His insult spun down into several curse words.
Peter stopped and, ordered his merc to back off.
"That my money cow, Stroppo. Leave him." He ordered. He then directed his gaze at me. "Get yourself below deck. We're gonna light up the sky in a minute and you'll be an even easier target up here."
I threw my hands up disgustedly and went downstairs. The back of my neck was red with rage. Carnage covered the living quarters. Blood was smeared along the steps and floor. Some people sat alone, holding their hands over their faces, moaning. Others set elaborate triage equipment up in their rooms and took care of their own people.
I was very shocked to see Nik standing near the doorway to one of the triage rooms, where a line had already formed.
"I can't open my left eye... can you look at it?" he asked me. Any trace of his trademark swagger had departed. His long, stringy hair was matted and sticky. "Please look at my eye for me, tell me it's still there, mate." Nik pleaded in his vaguely Australian tenor. "I can't remember my name but I know you. I know you."
"You didn't buy any of this stuff, mate." Brai said sarcastically. "I know you're from Liberty, so get over there and get one of your whores to fix you up. This is our shit."
"But my eye is gone." Nik sobbed. "I think my eye is gone. Can... can you help me, mate?"
"You can help you." Brai said. He looked at me. "Spencer, show him to one of the boats."
"Can't you help him? Jesus, he needs a bandage, at least." I pleaded.
"Yeah, he does need a bandage, fuckwad." said Brai's friend, a red headed guy in a kilt whose name I didn't know. "Take him to his shit so he can get fixed up. We help ourselves here."
"Don't talk to me that way!" I snapped.
"You might be one of Peter's Chroma bitches," said Brai. "But you're not getting our stuff. How would you like it if I broke into your room and wheeled your servers out on a dolly? This is my room, and my stuff. Take one-eye there to your room. Have a good cry while we fix everything that's wrong with your network."
I pulled the sobbing Nik aside and spoke to him slowly.
"I'm gonna get some wrap and sheets from my room and we're gonna take care of that eye, okay? After that we're going to head over to Liberty and... you got supplies there?" He blinked with his one remaining eye, which I took as a yes.
His glazed look grew more focused as his concussion faded.
"My girlfriend..." he recalled, unsure of where to start. “My girlfriend ... she's Ukrainian....she and her son were over here when we got attacked, so I took a boat over from Liberty. They stopped us in the water and killed everyone in the boat. I stayed still and, and... didn't move and... they went away."
"Where are they now?"
He didn't answer but his mouth twisted into a pained grimace. I didn't have to ask. We headed to my room, where I'd stupidly left the door open. A few server cases were missing. The bandages were still there, so I grabbed some and applied the gauze to his head. His socket and the surrounding area would still need to be sterilized and operated on.
Nik and I trotted toward the aft stairs landing. People below deck glanced at us suspiciously and clutched at soldering irons. Wires spilled out of the server rooms I'd set up. Brai was right. The whole network would need to be built up from scratch. What a pain. I'd worry about it later. First things first.
We got up onto the deck. Peter had said something about 'lighting up the sky,' and sure enough, it was ablaze. Smoke plumed in an arc pattern in the sky, leading down to a cluster of dozens of small but fortified boats about a quarter mile from the aft end. The pirates were running away, but a few of their boats were on fire. I followed the plume back to its source and spotted a small merc gunnery boat. Ting's Palace inmates had been unleashed, suited up, weaponized and given boats. These were large scale munitions crafts - way beyond what I'd seen on the rolls when we broke out of harbor. This was off the books stuff, heavy grade weaponry unlike any I'd seen.
Another bright flash and a sound like a passing jet engine, and a missile arced overhead, lighting up the sky like morning. A few seconds later, one of the pirate boats exploded.
'Hoorah!" someone yelled from port deck. Another cry. "Again! Hit 'em again!"
There was a single boat at the aft end. I checked it for holes and watched as some familiar faces lowered us down. Most of the windows on the side of the barge, I noticed, as we lowered along its side, had been blasted out, either by shock waves or by gunfire. A few of the windows that remained intact looked smeared with blood. In fact, the water, I noticed, as we slapped against the waves, looked red. Perhaps it was just the red light from the missile trails overhead glancing on the surface, but I took it as a bad omen.
12 - Aftermath
Our boat headed back in the other direction, toward Liberty. Sovereign and Respect were behind us now, side by side, locked in a crippled embrace. A few of the Ting Palace gunnery boats passed us. The guys on board trained their sights on us; a few of them raised their weapons, and Nik and I put our hands up instinctively.
"Don't they know who you are?" asked Nik.
"They know." I replied pensively. "They fucking know. They're messing with me. Ting and I don't see eye to eye." I looked back at Nik and his missing eye, and cringed. "Shit, sorry about that. I wasn't trying to make a joke"
"No worries." he answered. He gazed up at Liberty. I knew he was terrified to know if his girlfriend was still alive.
Liberty was also on fire, though not as badly as Sovereign or Respect. Some figures milled about up top, staring out at the tangled mass of smoke and fire. We yelled for a while, and at last someone lowered the hooks and lifted us up.
The putting green up top was charred - decimated beyond recognition. In spots where long swaths of bright, garish neon had once adorned the pleasure boat, the ground was now strewn with broken glass.
Nik stepped away to find his girlfriend and to get his hands on the medical supplies needed to disinfect his injury. He thanked me and headed below deck. I asked around about communications devices that might be on board - anything from phones to computers to working satellite phones - and finally, someone pointed me toward the arcade.
The aft end of Liberty looked like a giant den, packed with old video game cabinets from the 80s and 90s, some pinball machines, about 50 dusty boxes of the table top game Settlers of Catan, and some eye-masks with AR overlays. Several engineers milled about. At a table in the far end sat seven guys and one girl, all rolling dice on some homemade board game. I also noticed a tray full of Google Glass devices just lying near the front door like party favors.
"Where's the satellite phone?" I asked the kids at the table.
"There's a phone under this table but we're using it right now." said a paunchy guy with thick eyebrows and brillo pad hair.
"I need to use it." I said.
"Get your own." Brillo remarked. I blanched. First, to be laughed out of every room, and then turned away from med supplies on Sovereign, and now this? Getting flak from the geeks on Liberty? I felt bottomed out and exiled; like a stowaway on a ship I'd helped launch. I'd been so busy pulling strings and making sure everything was working that I hadn't been able to steady myself for any of this. So many variables on this venture that none of our theoretical posturing could ever anticipate. Now, in front of me, I saw entitled kids who had confused their inflated sense of entitlement for rugged individualism. In a crisis, their only instinct was self-preservation. My wheels turned slowly, from confusion to anger.
"The other two ships were attacked by pirates." I said tersely, my patience fading. "There are a lot of bodies on Sovereign, and Respect is gutted."
"Yarr!" said a tall guy with bottle glasses wearing a top hat. "Ai, matey, I be not giving' a shit about that!" He waved me off dismissively.
"Seriously, dude. Back off." an annoyed looking girl told me. She rested her head on Brillo's shoulder. "We just got, like, attacked. Give us a break. Don't you got some like, kids to molest or something?"
I ran up and flipped the table over. Game pieces and paper flew everywhere. Underneath the table lay a mess of wires and a satellite phone. I picked it up and stomped away. Brillo walked beside me and made aggressive moves for the phone.
"Not cool man, not cool!" he yelped emphatically. He slapped the side of my face really hard and I finally snapped. I punched him right between the eyes and his glasses snapped in half. He bent to the ground to pick them up and I kept walking. I'd already begun dialing the number I'd told myself to never dial unless an emergency went down.
Sunil picked up right away.
"Sunil, it's Spencer." I said. "Call in that favor, like... right now. We've been hit by Nigerians. I thought Peter had this locked down, but it's fucking mayhem, Sunil. Dead bodies and..." I found myself getting choked up as I said the words out loud for the first time.
"Peter, as you know, you elected to reduce the aid military provisions..." Sunil began. He clearly already had a script prepared. Somehow, he knew what had happened.
"Wait, what? We did what? What the fuck did I do?"
"You were heading into this Aqua Frontier thing looking for complete independence and you stuck a big muddy stick in our eye about this. Our hands are tied."
"Sunil, we're on fire. We've got prisoners running around with guns, acting like Peter's private guard. Half our residents had no idea there were even inmates locked up on board Custodian. When the pirates hit, they all scattered. We're fucked. We need military assistance."
"Spencer, don't expect us to bail you out. You gave us your signature."
"I didn't sign anything!!" I said. "This is all Peter. He's gone rogue. He's gone and taken the umbilical cord I had set up with you guys and he's wrapped it around my neck! You have to believe me!"
A long pause, the Sunil said again, sounding upset and nervous:
"We have your signature, Spencer. I'm sorry."
I put the phone down at my side. I could still hear Sunil's voice on the receiver, no doubt going over some protocol or procedure that Peter round-ended me on. I couldn't bear it. The sun was about to rise and I knew everything was going to get even worse. I raised my fist back and threw the phone as hard as I could. It bounced off the tempered glass in the lower deck and broke into three pieces. My blood boiled.
I ignored the whispers and stares from the Settlers gamers and went back above deck. The sky was light blue and the smoke from the missiles had dissipated into something like an eerie fog. It was all around us now, the smoke, drifting through the metal railings and over the charred black of the ruined putting surface like fingers of death. Lost souls drifted on the black space, calling for names of ones they'd lost. It was like another world.
"Follow the sound of my voice!!" I yelled into the air, my voice finding strength. "Come and join me up here!"
I was surrounded by people asking questions about where their families were, about what had happened in the night, about why the air smelled of barbecue. I answered each question the same way: by throwing Peter Bernays under a speeding bus, again and again. I told them all that Peter had forged my signature and refused help from the military. I told them that Peter had hired - with their money - a team of mercenaries who had spent the better part of the night killing pirates and Aqua Frontier people alike. They'd kicked bodies overboard.
A few of the Liberty people gasped. Most of them were people from Respect, most of them either singles or people looking to unwind. A few others had motored over from Custodian HQ the day before. I must have been the only person from Sovereign. I assumed Sovereign' technical staff was working feverishly to repair the damage to the networks. I knew help wouldn't come easy. I had a sudden urge to return to Sovereign and help restore the link between the barges. Without that link, all four vessels were merely independent agents unable to assist one another.
For the time being, I urged Liberty's crew to sail out to in a kind of reverse rabbit hole trajectory, staying close enough re-enter the fold if more pirates emerged from the horizon line.
"Where's Peter?!" a tall man with a salt and pepper mustache asked angrily. "I want to talk to that son of a bitch!"
"He took his wife and kid and he's hiding' up on Custodian!" added Nik, who'd stepped through the croud with a short, lithe woman at his side. "I just spoke to some of the girls below deck. She didn't want to go. He had those mercs grab her and her kid."
Oh god, Penelope.
"I'll get them back." I said without hesitation. "This has to stop."
I eyed everyone.
"Get as far away from us as you can without breaking visual." I ordered. "Peter has endangered this entire operation. If he shows up here with those mercs, they're sitting ducks in the water. If he shows up alone, take him into custody."
Nik caught up with me as I re-boarded the boat. He wore an eye patch with a long, fresh bandage underneath, and he gripped a box of medical supplies.
"Thank you." he said soberly. "This has to stop. I'm..." he looked back at the boat, eyeing his girlfriend and her child thankfully. "I'm coming with you." He sat down next to me, handed me a 45, and we headed back toward Sovereign. There was only one way I knew of to round-end Sunil and talk directly to the President, and it meant controlling the barge network.
Little popping sounds rang out far off past Custodian's monolithic silhouette. The morning was bright and clear now, little bits of sparkle and light coming off the ocean and dancing across the charred, ruined sides of all the barges, especially Liberty and Sovereign. Pocks and cracks were everywhere and the smell of burning wire and rubber wafted all around as we made our way back to the network barge.
"He's on Custodian, that fucker." Nik mused. The lackadaisical playboy I once knew had vanished entirely, and in its place, a dour, pitch black soul. "He tried to grab my girlfriend and all the other girls over there saying, 'ooh, they'll be safe there!'" he smiled darkly.
"Yeah, for the mercs." I mused. "He took Penelope, too. Love that kid."
We pulled alongside Sovereign's charred bulk. "He's got a savior complex." I said tersely. "I think he's out for Nigerian blood and wants to keep the women and children close."
"That's not his damn job, though, is it?!" screamed Nik, placing the hooks in and whirling his hands around in a signal to anyone up above deck. "We was supposed to go our own way here, 'personal responsibility' and all that. And once the shit hits, he just takes over?!"
Once a hapless Sovereign crew pulled us back on board, we strode with purpose. I pulled out the 45 and rested it at my side, trying to control my hand as it shook.
Brai and the man in the kilt still milled about the doorway. A few other IT guys worked among the network, but they weren't doing much of anything. They saw Nik and me, and the kilt wearing man scratched his beard and laughed at me.
"Back for more, huh? Get your room straightened up yet, son?"
I flew at kilt man and whipped the weapon upside his temple, and he fell back with a slight yelp, hitting his head on the wall and tumbling awkwardly onto the floor, clutching his head. Brai ran for the wall - no doubt the numerous weapons that hung there - but Nik caught him first and pulled his hands behind his back.
"I don't wanna hurt you, mate." Nik rasped. "But we're borrowing your room and yer guns."
"No." Brai whined. "I worked my ass off to get this set up." He whistled through his nose, straining against Nik's grip.
I walked up to Brai and assessed him.
"Get off me, dude." he breathed, trying unsuccessfully to get Nik's forearm off his chest.
"Brai, decrypt the array." I ordered, training the gun on him. My hand still quaked a bit but I kept it steady with my other hand, and walked him over to the communications array.
"Ease up." I ordered Nik. He complied and released pressure on Brai.
"Remember..." I told Brai. "If you up-end me, we'll be cleaning a lot more than wires off the floor."
Brai went cold and stared straight ahead at his equipment, breathing erratically. I almost felt sorry for him. He was, after all, just a pawn in Peter's game; another cog in a giant wheel that Peter intended to roll onto anyone who got in his way. Penelope, Nik, Jenna, or any of the hundreds of families who'd invested their time and money in this venture all thought it was theirs alone. No. It was Peter's. Peter had called it the work of many, then took it all for himself.
"There." Brai said, his breathing labored. He closed the metal casing and flicked the array on. "Now please let me go."
"Can't do that, mate." Nik said. He sat Brai down and tied his hands with wire, while I dragged kilt's body into the network room and tied him up, too.
I worked out a trick using the array, and got through a sequence of switchboards and pass codes using encryption. Hours passed and I began to wonder whether or not it would work. I heard a few more clicks and random tones, and miraculously, the man himself answered.
"This is Spencer Simmons with Freedom Zone." I said, my voice quaking. "I'm partnered with Peter Bernays out in..."
"Yeah, you guys have that rig set up out there in the South Pacific." the President interrupted. "Sunil over at the Defense Department is trying to reach you. You called him asking for help. I'll tell you what he told him. You guys are on your own."
I screamed. "There are families here!" Just outside our network room, I heard the sounds of deep clanging against the side of the hull. Then a scraping. Someone or something was coming alongside us.
"Peter..." I pressed on, trying to ignore the sounds. "...has a private prison on his rig.”
"Why?" the President asked impatiently.
"We were attacked by several boats out of Nigeria." I said. "Bernays retaliated by setting all the prisoners free and letting them run all over the ship." I felt my throat close up. "The prisoners have enacted martial law. Peter didn't tell any of us. He just set them free and they're out of control. They're hurting people. We need help."
Another long pause commenced. I could hear others in the room; whispers. Arguments. Finally, the President spoke up again. His voice was changed; steely.
"Does Bernays constitute a threat to the United States?" he asked. "Yes or no?"
"Check Norad. Check all your sources. What do you see?"
Silence on the other end of the line.
I then recognized the voice of John Jones, White House Chief of Staff. The President had no interest in conversing with me. "What are your evacuation options at this point? How many people can you get out of there, quickly?
"John...” I said. "What are you planning to do?"
"What are you planning to do, god dammit?!!!"
"Get as many people out of there as you can. Get out of there, now."
I heard another frenzy of voices, and this time, the President spoke up again.
"If you can get Peter to give himself up in the next hour, we'll revisit the scenario."
"As long as Peter's in charge, we consider your operation a threat to National Security. We consider you a threat to international security. Now..." he chuckled nervously under his breath. "I know you don't see things that way, but Bernays has a loaded gun to our heads. He has a loaded gun to what it means to be a citizen of this country. Get him to stand down."
I ran out, leaving Nik standing at the equipment. I ran up the stairs and out into the night air, down along the stern, and finally caught the tips of their vessels: low silhouettes in the misty water, all lit ends of cigarettes and misty breath. Peter's mercs popped clips and swung coiled rope up at the barges. A few shots popped out from the murky distance. I heard voices, low and gruff and angry. These guys wouldn't hesitate to kill us, but it was too late. Some of them were already aboard, and several of them honed in on me. I instinctively dropped the gun and put my hands up. No chance.
"You're the faggot." one of them asserted. "Peter wants to see you."
"We're all gonna die if you don't get Peter on the line."
They pushed me along the railing and down a flimsy rope ladder. I climbed down, pleading with them while I struggled with the rope."
"Let me talk to Peter. Washington is sending drones this way."
"Do you pay us?" another jackboot snarled. "Peter pays us. We do what Peter says. End of story. Now shut your mouth."
13 - Stand Off
Even as our gunnery vessel approached the giant oil rig, I noticed the other barges behind us, twisting slow and following us. The mercs must have attacked each barge simultaneously - an efficient, orchestrated attack to overwhelm civilian resistance. We'd never had a chance. I knew Peter was on the rig. I knew he would never give up, but I had to try. I knew Penelope was on that ship. If I did anything at all in this wasted venture, I needed to get her back to Jenna.
The hulking skeleton loomed up over us, a moon blotting monolith fashioned with barbed wire and columns of stairwells hidden behind locked gates. Our boat drifted next to one such gate, where the inky waters lapped at the rig's foundation. A bright flash, then pain as I realized the butt of an assault rifle had whacked against the back of my head.
"Get moving!" a voice said. My neck went warm with the tickle of blood and I walked through the gate with my captors, and made the long climb. Once at the top, they locked the exit again. Peter's 'office' was just meters away. I could see him there, through the glass, sitting in a chair and looking every bit the Star Trek captain. He was on his phone. He was laughing. And he wasn't alone.
Not only was his daughter - and my little friend - Penelope there, but Jenna stood at his side, twirling her hair and gazing absently through the glass and out into the early twilight. Penny looked terrified. She sat with her head lowered against her arms as she sat slumped against the wall. Even from a distance, I could see she was crying. Peter hung up the phone, raised one hand and made a beckoning motion through the glass, and in we went.
"Heya, partner!" Peter greeted. He rose up from his seat and put out his hand to shake mine. I stood still, doing my best to contain my rage. I could hardly look at him. He held his hand out for another few seconds, then gazed down at the ground and chuckled, as if laughing at a joke he'd just told himself. He waved me off, then spun around and fell into his chair, propping one leg up on the armrest.
"So... you're giving up, Spencer?" he teased. "Just giving up... just like that? After everything we've accomplished?"
"No..." I seethed, leaning in a bit. "You are." I pointed at him accusingly. "You're giving up, you asshole. You're giving up, or we all die."
One of the mercs dragged my arm back, but Peter waved him off.
"Oh, what? Drones?" he laughed. "Government's lazy, murderous fallback? You think I don't have the means to protect myself?" He lifted his arms all around him. "What do you think this is? This whole facility? What do you think I have installed here? Make a guess."
"No, Peter..." I stammered, terrified. "No... god no..."
Peter stood up and for the first time I could see that he was angry.
"I'm a goddamned independent nation now!" he bellowed. "I'm a State!" He pointed at the merc leader. "You're a State!" He pointed at another of my captors. "You're a State!" He strode over to Jenna and grabbed her by the hair, and pulled her towards me.
"You were a State." He tossed her in the direction of the door.
"Toss her overboard." he ordered.
In a second, the door swung open with a gust of cold air and sea spray and noise flew in, and most of the mercs edged her through the door space. She fought bravely, biting and kicking and punching. Most of the mercs surrounding me rushed over to help their squad mates get her outside. Jenna reached both arms through the door as she was lifted up on their shoulders and hauled out.
"Save her, Spencer!" she gasped. Then she was gone, and her daughter rose up off the floor and screamed like death.
As she did so, the merc holding my arm fixed his steely gaze on the door, and I slowly edged my arm down to my sides as the noise erupted all around us. A few moments later, when it was clear Jenna was gone, the merc gazed back at me and at Peter as the rest surrounded us again. I seethed, resting my hands over my coat, and I sidled a step closer to Peter. I made my movements small.
Peter didn't react. He sat very still in his chair and pulled out his phone, and tossed it over to me. I just barely caught it with one hand, and kept my other hand rested carefully on the front of my coat.
"Call them." Peter ordered.
"Fuck you. I didn't sign up to be a rogue State." I responded, the phone quaking in my hands. "I won't play chicken with the DoD."
"What did you think you were signing up for?" Peter asked. "What, you're giving up now? These are the moments that define us."
"Then we're murderers." I said. "We have civilians here. Families. Children." I gestured over to Penelope, who stood, paralyzed at the far end of the room. "Get her out of here. She's your daughter!" I pleaded.
"She's coming with me wherever I go." Peter bragged. He patted his pocket. "I have launch codes. I don't want to kill you too, but if I have to..."
I brought the M84 out from under my coat. I'd pulled out the pin just seconds before, and by the time it hit the floor, I'd crouched low to the ground, shielding my eyes. I only had a moment to grab the gun from Peter, and I was blind as I crouched and ran low. I felt his body collide with mind, and I opened my eyes and wrested the weapon from him as he wavered from the flash of the grenade. I immediately darted behind the large throne, weapon in hand.
Peter's eyes blazed with wild fury. As he moved toward me, like a stalking animal, I recalled that bright morning in my campaign office many years ago. He didn't look all that different here. Still going after me with fervor and selfish abandon. Still only looking after himself... only this time, reaching out with a fist instead of an outstretched hand. I steadied myself and fired.
The shot hit him between the eyes and he stumbled to his knees, his eyeballs spinning wildly, his mouth struggling to speak. He struggled to stay upright, then his torso simply fell forward and he the ground with a thud. As he fell, I saw the mercs behind him, and then my heart stopped cold. Penny was there, still held back by the men, her eyes wide. She had seen everything. Her father lay dead in front of her, by my hand. She grew limp in the merc's hands, weakened by a weight too hard to bear for a girl of her age.
In that moment, seeing Penny's face, I rose up from Peter's throne, dropped my weapon, and closed my eyes. My life was over. They'd kill me where I stood, and I'd fall to the ground, next to my fallen business partner.
Only the deafening vibration took over and brought everyone to their knees. It was outside, everywhere, the pulsating of helicopter rotors. The drones had arrived. No one was safe. No Federal agencies would step in. The orders were immutable and irreversible. Everyone was going to die.
14 - Escape
The moment the noise started, the mercs scattered and swooped out the door. The first wave of drones hit and decimated Sovereign. The raptors were invisible, impossibly fast blurs in the sky, shooting brilliant sparks. Thuds sounded immediately from way off, followed by blinding flashes in the sky. I stumbled out from the room, searching for Penelope. Blast of hot air perforated the chilly, wet night. Where did they take her?
Custodian's entire broad deck was covered in fleeing mercenaries and chromas. I spotted a row of cells once occupied by inmates, the doors swung wide open. I saw Penelope then, her shadow lit up by the flames from down below. Ting was there, laconically swinging his fire sticks, flanked by a trio of mercenaries. I watched as they stuck Penelope a cell and slammed the door.
I ran towards them, my heart racing.
"Get away from her!" I yelled. "This rig is going down!" Another deafening explosion sounded from far below. Respect was going down now, caught in the relentless fire of the raptor drones.
"Lock everyone up!" one merc assented. "Do it!"
I suddenly understood. There were too many civilians running around. They couldn't all be killed. The mercs could toss them in cells and escape first. It was the easy, cowardly way out. Toss all non-essential personnel in the brig and let them drown. Bastards.
"They'll not fuck with us... we have nukes!" shouted Ting over the din.
He ran toward the door where Peter's body lay. I remembered what Peter said: "I have launch codes!" Ting was headed for them. I had to stop him.
The other mercs were long gone. I brought out my weapon and fired a warning shot toward Ting. It glanced against the door frame. Ting stopped, and spun around, and headed at me like a tiger, lowering his shoulders and spinning his fire sticks. I pulled the trigger again but my gun jammed. I tried again - it was stuck. I had no chance against him.
I threw my gun to the ground and walked backwards quickly. The air went still. Were the drones gone? Panic engulfed me. If the drones were gone... if Custodian wasn't going down... then Ting could still launch the nukes. A million confused, conflicting thoughts entered my animal brain. I tried to focus on the light reflecting off Ting's glasses as he spun his sticks at me. I backed into the cell next to where Penelope was kept, and he followed, trapping me.
"What happen to you, huh?!" he teased. "You and Peter were tight! You a traitor!"
I had one final, stupid, desperate hope hidden in my coat pocket. Carl's lighter rested there, as it always had. I had never learned how to open it correctly. So, it was there, fumbling with the lighter in my pocket, when I decided to try. I pulled it up as Ting swung his fire sticks at my head, and I flicked my nail along the side, and the fluid shot out in a big, messy arch.
The fluid splattered down his arms, neck and face, and it spread over Ting like napalm. His whole body went ablaze and he backed away past the door. He spun wildly, screaming, and the door slammed on me, locking me in.
Then the air outside went still and quiet, and I heard the mercs outside, rounding up civilians and chromas. I lured Stroppo in just as the second wave of Drones hit. No one saw them coming. They brought Custodian to its knees just as Penelope - limp and helpless in my arms - and I escaped.
15 - Reckoning
A series of impossibly tall swells swept us out further from the groaning rig. I braced my knees and feet against the sides of the small boat, expending every ounce of energy I had left to hold us firm and to keep the girl from slipping overboard. I couldn't hold on for much longer. With each second came the possibility of a helpless tumble over the side and the salt slap of waves, but it never came.
We hit a lull in the water's roar, and I at last heard her cry. Hers was a long, sustained wail. I spoke right into her ear, telling her she was safe. I hoped I had time to relay her mother's last words too, but the awful screech of collapsing metal brought with it a massive wave, coming at us from the collapsed structure.
I leaned in to shield her. I felt the force of the shrapnel pepper my back and arms, but there was no pain in the cold air. Penelope was still now, too shocked to move, no longer writhing but leaning against me, her tiny fingers curled up around my arm. She had to survive. I had to be sure of it. My stomach did back-flips as our boat rose and surged forward with the ocean swell. The wave crested, and flew us even further out from the source. We were damned lucky to still be alive.
Even as we sat, braced and blind in the dinghy, I had an awful thought. Most of them were drowning at that moment. Thousands of their frantic bodies would be soon be kicking angrily against their fates, their desperate mouths yawning for a single gulp of air. None of them deserved it. I tried to push back the awful guilt, but it grabbed me by the throat and would not let go. I gave thanks to the cold brine running down my face in wide rivulets, for I could not let the little girl see me cry, or she would lose all hope, and we would both be finished.
All I could do was tell her everything would be all right. She could hope that I, this mess of a man shielding her from danger, might keep her alive long enough for a rescue. Once safe, she could run to the nearest official and point to me, and tell them what I did. She was there. She saw me do it. She saw me kill Peter Bernays, her erstwhile father. She saw countless atrocities, and for what? I had no idea. I would probably never know. Only one thing seemed clear: we were completely and irreparably alone, in the cold and the dark.
I could not see her face clearly, but I hear my young friend whimper.
"Spencer, there's a light."
I looked up. Sure enough, through the inky cloak of swells and mist, something faint like a light appeared. I might not have seen it had it not been for her. I couldn't even be sure, in all my panic and despair, if the currents would take us there or further away, but it hardly seemed to matter any longer. I would keep her safe at any cost, and - in her own way - she would keep me alive.