Niles Sergio walked out of the elevator to the cafeteria in a glum mood.

He had lost track of how long he had been held here in Mule Tower. He had no contact with the outside world, other than those brief moments with Marshal Metger. No word from home, other than second hand information that his family (his stepmother, really) was not interested in meeting the pirates’ ransom demands.

The people here treated him okay, as far as being polite and seeing to his needs. He could eat as much as he wanted in the cafeteria, and he had almost the full run of an entire skyscraper.

But few socialized with him. None of the girls would give him the time of day, or even talk with him much.

Perhaps worse of all, news and entertainment on this planet originated almost entirely from the Republic. And in that regard, Sergio recently had a major epiphany.

The entertainment billions of people consumed in the Republic was . . . biased.

Yes, biased. That was the only proper way to consider it, he thought.

In the movies and holos and shows he watched, even in the fiction he read . . . constitutional representative government was a concept actually lauded. Not disdained like it was in the League.

Meanwhile authoritarianism, especially totalitarianism, was denigrated. And hints were constantly dropping that the League was a totalitarian state.

Time and again the point was made across all media that when citizens could choose their leaders, they prospered. Things were always better in a representative democracy. Things were always worse in a dictatorship. This was hammered home in every show. Even in online games.

Niles could hardly believe it when he first noticed. It was while he was watching a series called Nielsen Springs, set in a fictional town on Diego. There, the citizens of Nielsen Springs developed super powers after a comet struck nearby. They went on various madcap adventures, which usually involved fighting bad guys from the League. But every episode ended with a didactic statement affirming the Republic and its values.

Durst Brentwood, one of the heroes of Nielsen Springs, ended an episode Niles watched with a statement while addressing a group of school children. He had just saved them by foiling a plot to kill random citizens via a secret League satellite armed with a killer laser in orbit around Diego.

The statement went like this: “Remember boys and girls, when a government has no checks and balances, when the governed have no say in what their leaders can do, it always leads to abuses of citizen rights . . . just like this!”

The children thanked Durst Brentwood for saving their lives and the episode ended. That is when Niles had his epiphany. The Republic manipulated media just as surely as Sergio Productions and other companies in the League manipulated theirs.

Efforts to shape public opinion were just as strong on the other side!

It seemed obvious now, but Sergio had never stopped to consider the fact. He was so wrapped up in his own worldview, he had never considered that all those people on the other side felt just as strongly their way was right. And that’s all they ever heard, too.

Oh sure, a few vocal minorities spoke out in favor of the League. But the overwhelming sense of rightness concerning a citizen’s voice in government drowned them out across the spectrum.

As for himself, Niles had grown up learning all about the evils of democracy and capitalism. The two were linked with one another just as socialism and authoritarianism were. What about the unequal distribution of wealth? This was a major tenant of League orthodoxy, and had been drilled into him as a child.

He brought that up with an old pirate named Cummins, who was one of the few people willing to spend time with him in conversation.

Cummins revealed, to Sergio’s astonishment, that he had saved up more than a million credits over the course of two dozen voyages.

After dropping that bombshell of a statement, the old salt confessed to having spent much more in his lifetime. It was just that now, with the war, times were good in his line of work and he wanted to save up a nest egg for retirement.

Harking back to his lessons on the evils of capitalism, Sergio had asked Cummins what he thought about Captain Raleigh, who no doubt had squirreled away millions more over the same period of time. Didn’t it bother Cummins that his Captain made more than he did on every voyage? The shares were not divided equally.

Cummins shrugged his shoulders.

“Somebody’s got to be in charge, and leaders always get paid more. I could make more money as a leader. You can move up in this business if you want to. But I seen too many leaders get killed over the years. Plus, leaders have more responsibility than I care to burden myself with. I’m happy being a follower. The Captain can keep his millions. But I’ve got mine. I’ve got one million, and that’s good enough for me.”

Then the old man uttered something profound.

He stared hard at Sergio and said, “Comparison with others is a tool of socialism. The League always tries to gin up envy so that you’ll support the authoritarian leaders who claim they’ll even everything out for ya.

“But if you go around comparin’ yourself to others, you’ll never be happy. The only thing we compare ourselves with in the Republic is . . . ourselves. And in comparison to what I had when I first came to Lute, which was nothin’, I’m very rich now. I compare very nicely to what I once was. And that’s the only comparison that counts.”

There was no way Sergio could break through that certitude and convince the old fellow an authoritarian form of government was better. No way at all. And it was all backed up by the news and entertainment the man consumed, too. Cummins watched Nielsen Springs. He would talk about the episodes with Sergio, laughing about how Durst Brentwood bested the League baddies this time.

Now Sergio headed for the food line, intent on lunch. So long as they kept him in this gilded cage, he would at least enjoy his meals.

“There you are!”

Granny stopped him before he made it to the serving line.

“You heard yet, boy? You’re free.”

“What? What do you mean? Did someone pay my ransom?”

“Something like that. I’m not sure of all the details. All I know is, if you make your way up to the roof, Lootie will port you over to the Administration Building. You can catch the next ship to Petra Roe, I’ve already bought your ticket.”

“Oh, wow! This is great! I can access one of my personal accounts back on PR, and I can get home from there! Thank you so much! I need to say goodbye to Cummins. And anybody else I see! Oh, happy day!”

Granny watched Sergio rush about, eagerly shaking hands with everybody in the cafeteria. Then he ran back to the elevator and took it up to the roof.

She cackled as the door closed on his smiling face and said, “Good riddance!”

Then her expression changed to a scowl. She pointed a finger up at the ceiling and said, “You better be right about this, Lootie.”

LuteNet, perceiving Granny to be somewhat volatile and hostile toward artificial intelligence in general, refused to engage and open herself to a possible argument. She remained silent.


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