When Second Is Actually First
By Curtis C. Chen
Sally didn’t want to believe it, but there it was, her family name up at the top of the market scoreboard: Drummond Diversified. First place for the fiscal year among similar corporations. First, in fact, by a margin of four hundred and ninety points. Results fully certified by federal, state, and independent auditors; click here for detailed disclosures.
It didn’t seem possible. It shouldn’t have been possible.
She picked up her secure office phone and paused, the dialtone in her ear, before stabbing at the FINANCE button on the touchscreen. Sally looked around her well-appointed ninetieth-floor office. It was strange to realize that none of this would be here in a month. Not her, not this fancy desk, not the company.
Someone was going to pay for this.
The man who picked up the call didn’t even greet her. “Yes, ma’am, we know—”
“What’s your name?”
“You’re fired, Ted,” Sally said. “Put your manager on.”
She heard a strangled whimper, which was oddly satisfying, and then some shuffling noises before someone else—a woman—came to the phone. “Hi, Ms. Drummond, this is Francesca Lyngstad. The fiscal year report is locked. We just confirmed with PwC and Deloitte—”
“Fuck Toilet & Douche,” Sally spat, using an old epithet for the accounting firm that she’d picked up in business school and never let go of. “And fuck London. I want to hear from someone who’s not licking Silicon Valley’s balls. Did Eide Bailly get their shit done on time for once?” One of Sally’s initiatives as VP was to engage more vendors not headquartered on either coast, and Fargo, North Dakota was about as far from the big city as you could get without going full hillbilly.
“Yes, Ms. Drummond,” said the finance manager. “Their results are comparable.”
“Comparable? What the fuck does that even mean?”
“If you’d like me to go into more detail—”
“I’m coming down there,” Sally said. “Get your shit together. I want a debrief in ten minutes.”
She hung up without waiting for a reply. She glared at the phone for a moment, then yanked it off her desk and threw it at the wall. It bounced and landed in one piece. Sally stood up and screamed at the window, completely oblivious to the beautiful cloudless sky outside.
Francesca made sure that Ted was out of his office before Sally showed up on the seventy-third floor. It was bad enough being fired over the phone for no reason at all, but facing the person who’d fired you after that would be even worse. Especially considering the mood that Sally Drummond seemed to be in right now.
Francesca couldn’t imagine learning the same news for her own family. Would she have taken it any better?
Then again, Sally was supposed to be a leader. A vice president of a global corporation couldn’t make the same excuses for bad behavior that her employees might.
The finance team had barely gotten their presentation set up in the main conference room when Sally stormed in. She sat down at the head of the table and slammed her palm down on the control pad. The door slid shut, and the floor-to-ceiling windows turned opaque.
“Go,” Sally growled, and for once Francesca was grateful for the terseness.
The whole team took turns walking through the fiscal year breakdown. Francesca played traffic cop, prompting each of her specialists when it was their turn to talk and cutting them off when they started rambling. She understood that these people had never presented directly to a VP before, and certainly not a member of the actual Drummond family. Francesca did her best to deflect Sally’s snide remarks throughout the presentation.
When Sally asked a pointed question about Gaussian quadrature weighting, Francesca suggested they hold questions until the end. Her entire team looked on in horror as Sally turned her deadly gaze toward Francesca.
“You gonna write that down?” Sally said.
“I’ll remember it,” Francesca replied.
Sally lost the staring contest. “Fine.”
“Go on, Alan,” Francesca said, nodding at the current presenter. She hoped he hadn’t just pissed his pants. Sally Drummond sometimes had that effect on men.
Alan shakily finished narrating his slides, and then Francesca stood up to finish off the presentation. The final slide showed a direct comparison of all three accounting firms’ numbers.
“As you can see, the only discrepancies occur here in Q4.” She pointed to the bottom of the grid of numbers shown on the wall screen. “We’re still digging into it, but I believe the reports differ because—”
“You believe?” Sally stood and leaned forward menacingly. “You believe? This whole company—my father!—is dead in one month, and you don’t even fucking know how this happened?”
Francesca folded her arms. “Ms. Drummond, this whole company has over one-point-three million employees at thousands of facilities in fifty different countries. It takes some time to certify and compile all our financial data every quarter. That’s why we employ three different accounting firms, and work with four different government agencies, and do ongoing monthly reviews.”
“Well, if you’re so on top of things,” Sally said, “then what’s your fucking excuse for not seeing this coming sooner? Why didn’t you warn Dad—“ she caught herself. “Why didn’t you inform our CEO so he could stop this from happening? Why didn’t you do your fucking job?”
Her voice had risen to a shout by the end of the last sentence. Francesca let Sally fume for a moment before responding. It was the same tactic she employed with her children, who were old enough to realize when they were saying ridiculous, irrational things because they had no actual chance of winning the argument.
“Everyone on this floor has been logging unpaid overtime for the last six weeks,” Francesca said softly, after Sally sat back down. “If you’re not happy with our work, I take full responsibility. I’ll be happy to appear before the board of directors if you want to escalate this.”
Sally glared at her for another few seconds, then stood and placed her palm on the tabletop. The windows went transparent again, and the crowd that had gathered outside dispersed quickly as the conference room door slid open.
“Clear your schedule for the day,” Sally said to Francesca. “You’re going to walk me through all of these numbers, in detail, and we’re going to figure out exactly how we got fucked over.”
Sally didn’t know what she was looking for. She only knew that there had to be something—some error, some irregularity, something that wasn’t right. Something that could be corrected, so this heinous situation could be reversed.
Something that hundreds of other people had missed, but that she was going to find.
Sally Drummond had never been lacking in confidence. From a very young age, she had known that she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps, career-wise. She’d never wanted to get married, as she thought that sort of permanent arrangement would put too many constraints on what she could do with her life. And sure, people got divorced all the time, but that came with its own problems. Sally’s mother was Sally’s father’s third wife, so Sally got to see much of those troubles up close and personal.
By the time she entered business school, Sally had earned a reputation for being a real ball-buster. She didn’t take shit from anyone, she was uncompromising in her negotiations, and when push came to shove, she was nearly always right.
But she could never admit that she had a blind spot when it came to her father.
Gordon Drummond had been the only constant throughout Sally’s entire life. Sally’s mother had filed for divorce when Sally was sixteen years old. It was the month after Drummond Diversified finalized the acquisition of a transpolar shipping company, increasing Gordon’s personal net worth by a billion dollars, and nobody believed that timing was a coincidence, least of all Sally. She hadn’t spoken to her mother since the day they were all in court together for the conclusion of the custody hearings, and even then there had been a lawyer present.
Gordon was on his seventh marriage when Sally was promoted to vice president of global affairs at Drummond Diversified. Sally had liked Jennifer, and was glad that her stepmother had been able to attend the party that Gordon threw for Sally. The cancer had metastasized quickly after that, and Jennifer had died before the end of that fiscal year.
Sally’s father hadn’t remarried after that. Sally stopped poring over spreadsheets to look out the window of the conference room and wonder why not. Maybe the pain of that loss had been too much. Maybe he couldn’t face the prospect of losing another partner.
Just like Sally couldn’t face the thought of losing her father.
“Did you find something, Ms. Drummond?” Francesca asked from halfway across the long conference table.
Sally turned away from the clear blue sky and blinked at Francesca. “No. Just thinking. And you can call me Sally, okay? I’m—” She sighed. “I’m sorry about yelling at you and your team earlier. I was just upset about the news.”
Francesca nodded. “That’s perfectly understandable. Can I do anything else to help?”
“You got the ASEAN numbers?”
“They’re in the shared drive.” Francesca pointed at the wall screen, which displayed all the various data sources they were reviewing.
“Great. Thanks.” Sally’s stomach rumbled. “What time is it?”
“We should get lunch.” She had a thought. “You know what? I’m going to buy lunch for the whole floor. You think your people would like that?”
“Probably,” Francesca said slowly, “if most of them hadn’t already eaten.”
“Shit. Right. Forget it.”
“I’m sure they would appreciate it later in the week. If we tell them ahead of time, they can plan for it.”
Sally couldn’t help but smile. “You’re really good at your job, aren’t you, Francesca?”
The other woman shrugged. “Thank you for saying so, Sally. And please, call me Fran.”
“Fran with the plan.” Sally had another thought. And then another. She was dimly aware of her smile fading. “Fuck me. The plan. His plan!”
Francesca took a step back as Sally swiped frantically at her tablet. “Um, what plan are we looking for?”
“Estate planning!” Sally said without looking up. “My father revised his will recently. He would have had to disclose his personal net worth, which is tied to the company’s financials—”
“—and an estate lawyer would be much easier to bribe than a Fortune 100 accountant,” Francesca said. “But do you really think someone would risk going to prison over this?”
Sally stopped and glared at Francesca. “If the malfeasance isn’t discovered until after my father’s execution, they win anyway.”
Francesca sat down at her laptop computer. “We’ll find it.”
Francesca wasn’t sure she bought into Sally’s theory about one of the company’s competitors bribing someone for Drummond Diversified’s detailed financials. There certainly had been recent cases of high-level corporate espionage, but surely the high-level information that a probate attorney would need to draw up a last will and testament wouldn’t be enough for any one company to outmaneuver another in the markets. There were just too many variables to predict specific outcomes. That was the whole foundation of the government’s corporate oversight regulations.
There had been significant resistance at first to the idea of not just disbanding the most successful corporation in the world every year, but also euthanizing the head of that company. But in the end, the world was willing to make that sacrifice in order to keep capitalism from raging out of control as it had in previous centuries. And the market scoring system was itself a unprecedented feat of applied mathematics and uncompromising fairness.
Experts called the guiding principle “inherent complex uncertainty:” a company could feasibly target one of their fiscal outcomes for the year—stock price, gross revenue, net expenses—but doing so would mean being unable to control all the other numbers. And the final market scoreboard was an aggregate of so many different real-world factors that it was theoretically impossible for anyone to game the system.
Even with perfect information on what each company was doing, the secondary interactions with other businesses, consumers, and international markets would introduce more variables into the system, exponentially increasing the complexity and unpredictability of the final results. Like a game of marbles with a hundred players all shooting at once into the same small ring. Even if you hit your target perfectly, there was no guarantee that it would continue on the trajectory you imparted without being interrupted by someone else’s shot or a random ricochet. Like the weather, where you could forecast general conditions but no one could say exactly when a thunderstorm would start or end.
Still, it was unusual to see such a large difference between the scores of the first and second place finishers. The gap between each place on the scoreboard was usually less than a hundred points. One year there had been only twelve points separating first from second, and Microsoft had sued for a recount, then attempted to dismantle the whole system in court.
In the end, the government had won, and Apple—second place that year—had voluntarily split itself into eight different divisions the next year, to avoid facing a similar fate.
The system worked. Nobody disputed that. An exploit that turned on a single point of failure seemed highly implausible.
Right now, though, Francesca didn’t have any better ideas, and Sally was the boss.
While they were going through the appendices to Gordon Drummond’s will, Sally’s phone rang. She answered it without looking. “Salinas.”
“Hey, beautiful,” slurred a male voice. “Sorry to hear about your old man.”
Sally put down her tablet and looked at her phone, then at Francesca with a disgusted sneer. Francesca raised her eyebrows and pointed at the door. Sally shook her head.
“Fuck you, Jarod,” Sally said into her phone. “I’m working. What do you want?”
“Just calling to express my sympathies. Geez.” Jarod blew out a noisy breath. “And to say that Welliver International is always open to hiring an accomplished... What’s your job title again?”
“Jesus, are you drunk? It’s two in the afternoon. On a Wednesday.”
“Geez, judgey much?” Jarod made a noise very much like slurping. “I’m just saying. You’ll be looking for a new job soon—“
“Seriously, Jarod? Why in a million years do you think I would ever come to work for you?”
“I thought you said you liked Puerto Rico.”
“Location isn’t the issue!” Sally yelled at her phone. “Welliver tries to fuck us over on transpolar shipping every goddamn quarter. Don’t tell me that shit’s not personal!”
“It’s just business.”
“Fuck. You.” Sally raised her hand.
“Besides, what’s a hundred points between ex-lovers?”
Sally’s finger stopped before she touched the END CALL button. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“You remember. At that resort in the Bahamas—“
“Not that, you creep.” Sally gave Francesca a hard look, confused and concerned. “What hundred points are you talking about?”
“Geez, you know. The market scoreboard.”
Sally leaned closer to her phone. “We’re up by almost five hundred.”
Jarod blew out a breath. “Yeah, congratu-fucking-lations. You bastards didn’t make it easy for us.”
Sally grimaced, picked up her phone, and spoke in a softer tone. “Well, you know me, Jarod. I like making things hard for you.”
Francesca covered her mouth with one hand and suppressed a laugh. Sally shot her a withering glance.
More slurping sounds from Jarod. “Is that right.”
“Yeah. I hadn’t thought about the Bahamas in a long time, but now that you bring it up...” Sally trailed off and rolled her eyes impatiently.
“I still got that timeshare,” Jarod said. “We can go talk business. In private. And do other things.”
“Sure,” Sally said. “I do have a lot of vacation time saved up.”
“There you go, see? Silver lining. Maybe you should be thanking me, saving you from becoming a workaholic spinster!”
Sally’s knuckles had gone white, and Francesca hoped she wasn’t about to crush her phone. “Maybe. But it wasn’t just Welliver, right? Who were the other four?”
“Oh, you know, the usual suspects, Maersk Northern—”
The phone beeped. Sally looked at the screen, then jabbed at it. “Hello? Jarod?”
She tapped some more. The phone played a series of tones and said, “We’re sorry. The number you have dialed is no longer in service...”
Sally hung up and turned to Francesca. Her eyes glistened with wetness. “Is that even possible?”
Francesca cleared her throat. “I just want to be clear about what you’re asking me.”
Sally slammed her phone down on the table. “Could our five biggest competitors have conspired to push us up on the market scoreboard?”
Francesca felt a little lightheaded. “I don’t know. I’m sorry. It’s not something we’ve ever gamed out before—”
“Is. It. Possible?”
Francesca swallowed the lump in her throat. “I’d have to look at the actual formulas—”
“Yes or no!” Sally shouted.
“This isn’t a yes or no question!” Francesca shouted back. Sally’s eyes went wide, but she stopped talking, at least. “You’re talking about manipulating thousands of variables in an interrelated system of partial differential equations. It might take a week just to set up the simulation, then another two weeks to run it and analyze the results.”
“Fine.” Sally nodded, and a tear rolled down her face. “As long as it takes less than a month.”
Sally sat in her car and watched the rain come down on the windshield. The vehicle was charging off the induction plate underneath the parking space, so there was plenty of power to run its various built-in electronic devices. But the only thing Sally had turned on were her seat warmers.
She still felt cold.
Her phone rang, lighting up the dashboard. It was Francesca. Sally touched the display to answer the call.
“Good news first,” Sally said.
“Hi, Sally,” Francesca said. “The good news is, we have clear evidence of collusion between the five other companies. I’ve sent you the executive summary, and the supporting documentation is in the secure fileshare.”
Sally allowed herself to feel hopeful. “And the bad news?” She hoped this would be about the exorbitant bill for the private investigators and forensic accountants they’d been paying by the hour.
“The bad news,” Francesca said, more slowly than before, “is that our lawyers say there was no actual crime committed. Not even fraud.”
Sally started counting to ten, silently.
“Hello?” Francesca said.
Sally gave up on counting. “What the fuck do you mean, no crime! There must be anti-trust laws that apply to this kind of fuckery!”
“I’m sorry, Sally.” Francesca sounded sincere, and Sally knew she was. “All the anti-trust laws on the books are concerned with individual companies gaining unfair advantage. Nothing addresses this kind of cooperative behavior. On the bright side, Legal believes we have a solid test case that will force amendments to the corporate oversight—“
“But not for months or years,” Sally said. “And those changes won’t be retroactive.”
“No. I’m sorry.” Francesca paused. “Where are you, Sally?”
“I’m at my father’s house.” Sally turned off the car. “I’ll call you back, Fran.”
She hung up the phone and went inside, not caring how drenched she got during the walk.
The domestic robot met her at the front door and led her up to the second floor, where the care nurse on duty briefed Sally on her father’s current condition. She took a bottle of water into the bedroom, where she found Gordon sitting in his armchair facing the window. A variety of media feeds scrolled over the transparent display, partially obscuring the storm outside.
“Hey, Dad.” Sally pulled up a chair next to her father’s end table and put the water bottle on the table. “Nurse Ratchet wants you to push more fluids.”
Gordon waved a hand to dim his feeds and turned to his daughter with a smile. “Have you ever actually read that book?”
“I thought it was a movie.”
Gordon shook his head. “Kids these days.”
“Hey, at least I visit.” Sally couldn’t hold the smile any longer. “Dad. The finance team found something.”
“Let me guess,” Gordon said. “Drummond Diversified’s five biggest competitors worked together to push us to number one on the market scoreboard.”
Sally blinked in surprise. “Dad, you said you’d stay away from work—“
“I have. Nurse Ratchet hasn’t let me touch my phone in three weeks.” Gordon sighed. “I knew, Sally. I knew what they were up to. Found out last April.”
Sally twitched, unable to process this information. “You knew?”
She leapt to her feet. “And you didn’t fucking do anything?”
“I did plenty!” Gordon pointed at her chair. “Sit down and I’ll tell you.”
Sally sat, trembling. She clasped her hands together tightly in an attempt to distract herself with physical sensation. Whatever her dad was about to tell her, she was sure she wouldn’t like it.
“I had noticed some unusual trends in the Q1 reports,” Gordon said, looking out the window at the rain. He had shut off all the screen overlays. “But I didn’t want to cry wolf. So I hired some outside consultants to dig into the top ten corps at that time.” He glanced sideways at Sally. “Who broke it open for you?”
“Jarod Welliver. He called me the day the board went up. He was drunk.”
“That boy’s always been a problem,” Gordon agreed. “For me, it was Ron Bakelite.”
Sally frowned. “Who?”
“Sorry. Ronald Backlund. Maersk Oceanic? Someone gave him the ‘Bakelite’ nickname because he always brought his own food to the summits, in these weird little plastic containers.”
“But Maersk Oceanic wasn’t one of the five.”
“They were approached. My sources indicated that Welliver started the scheme, originally; approached different executives throughout Q1 to feel out their stomach for market manipulation. Five was the minimum they needed to have any chance of it working, mathematically speaking.”
Sally felt her stomach turning. “So they got spooked by the previous year’s results.”
“But they didn’t want to self-immolate like Apple did.” Gordon shrugged. “Everyone has a different limit, I suppose. A different point when they’ll stop saying yes.”
“When did you know for sure what they were doing?” Sally asked. “And why didn’t you try to stop them?”
Gordon turned to her with a bemused expression. “How would anyone have stopped them? They weren’t even sure it would work. The market is a complex system—“
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all from Fran.”
Gordon raised an eyebrow. “Fran?”
“Head of Finance.”
He smiled. “Glad to see you’re making new friends.”
“Off-topic. So you didn’t do anything?”
“I made sure we ignored it,” Gordon said firmly. “I don’t let anybody tell me how to run my business. The irregularities started showing up in other places, but whenever it came to a decision, I always brought it back to our company. Forget what our competitors are doing. We do what makes the most sense for us, for our customers and employees.”
“That’s bull—that’s not true,” Sally said. “We can’t ignore the rest of the market. If someone tries to undercut our pricing—”
“We take that into consideration, sure,” Gordon said. “But we can’t let outside forces dictate our overall direction. Leadership means knowing what’s most important for your people and always steering the ship toward that target.”
Sally didn’t even try to stop herself from weeping now. “But if you know you’re steering the ship into an iceberg—”
“Bad metaphor.” Gordon waved one hand dismissively. “This wasn’t a force of nature. This is something human-made. We chose to regulate ourselves. We designed the framework. We’re enforcing the outcomes.”
“So we can stop this.” Sally leaned forward. “You can call your friend, Justice what’s-his-name—”
“I’m not going to stop this, Sally.” Gordon put a hand over hers. “You gotta let me go.”
“Why?” Sally cried. “Why do you want to die?”
Gordon squeezed her hand and smiled. “Everyone dies, Sally. Everything ends.” He looked out the window again. “It took me a long time to learn how to properly let go of things. I had a tough time letting you go off to college, you remember? And when Jenny got sick...” He blinked and wiped his eyes with the back of his other hand. “I didn’t know what to do, how I could possibly deal with it. But we figured that out. And after she passed, after I was able to put myself back together, nothing seemed so impossible anymore.”
He turned to Sally. “It’s time for me to go. I had a good run, but it’s time for the old ways to end. This market scoreboard thing, culling the top dog every year, it’s just the first step toward building something better for the world. All these smaller companies now starting up will have to come together to succeed. Just like individual humans have to cooperate in order to survive. If we don’t let anyone get too big, then everyone has to learn how to work with each other.”
Sally unclasped her hands and rearranged them around her father’s, clutching him tightly. “It didn’t have to be us. You could have gone to Welliver, talked your way into the deal. Targeted some other corporation to push up to number one. This could have gone differently.”
“My daughter, the captain of industry.” Gordon chuckled. “You know why I didn’t.”
“Because you hate me?”
“Because I know you’ll find something better,” he said. “But you never would have left on your own. You never would have let my legacy die.”
Sally stared at him sadly. “I still won’t.”
“I know it, baby girl.” Gordon touched his free hand to her face. “You’re my legacy.”
Sally smiled, then blinked at a sudden light from outside. “Shit. It stopped raining.”
“Rain always stops,” Gordon said. “Sooner or later.”
They sat together quietly and watched as the clouds continued parting, and the sunlight came streaming in.
Originally published on Curious Fictions, 2020.