Editor's Note: The following is chapter one of J.P. Medved’s novel Justice, Inc. Former Army Ranger Eric Ikenna is the CEO of the powerful, private military corporation, Justice Incorporated. But when his company successfully topples the government of South Sudanese dictator and international war criminal Ahmed al-Bashir, Eric and his operators suddenly become public enemy number one for a very deadly, very secretive branch of the United States government. Combining bleeding-edge technology from tomorrow's wars with heart-pounding, nonstop action, Justice, Inc. is a geo-political military thriller and the first novel in the Justice Incorporated series. Justice, Inc. is part of The Writers Series, our highly popular feature that showcases the work of contemporary novelists influenced by Ayn Rand.
“Federal funding for organizations like Helping Hands for Africa thus represents an unalloyed good, even though the returns are measured in lives saved, rather than dollars made.”
Senator Horace Wilson stopped, and the words scrolling in front of his eyes paused. He flicked his gaze to the picture occupying the bottom right of his vision.
“Jeff, ‘unalloyed?’ Who is this speech for, the United Metalworkers Union? Change it.”
“Yes sir.” The voice in his ears was immediate. “How about ‘indisputable’?”
“You’re the goddamn speechwriter, but just remember I’m speaking to a joint session of Congress, not some Midwest engineers’ convention.”
“Of course, sir.” The offending word winked out, replaced an instant later by ‘indisputable.’
Wilson sat back in the autocar’s leather passenger seat. “From the top.”
The text in his smartglasses display whizzed back to the beginning of the speech, and the Senate Majority Leader from California cleared his throat.
“Thank you, Mr. President. I come to the Senate floor today to discuss an issue of importance to every American. The people of this great nation, and the citizens of the great state of
California, think our country should be a leader in the world not just economically and militarily, but in our compassion as well.
“The Federal International Nonprofit Grants Program provides much-needed funding to not-for-profit organizations dedicated to making the world a better place. Since 2019 this program has dispensed grants to organizations as diverse as the eco-conscious Green the Planet, and Helping Hands for Africa, an aid organization providing food to victims of political unrest.
“But I stand before this body to say: it is not enough. Unless we vote to increase the funding level for this program, vital causes and crucial charities will be forced to shut down, their important missions severely curtailed or ended. As the current economic downturn has shown, the federal government must step in as a trusted partner to—”
The car jerked to a halt, and Wilson looked through his translucent glasses display in surprise. A sea of red taillights stretched away down Massachusetts Avenue and around Dupont Circle. A moment later, orange text flashed across the top of his vision.
“Unexpected traffic occurrence.”
“Goddamnit!” If his bill to mandate automated cars on the roads had passed, he wouldn’t have to deal with these freak traffic accidents so often. Goddamn auto unions. Too many of his colleagues in the party still received most of their donations from those bloated Rust Belt relics.
“Traffic view.” As the list of options appeared, he fixed his eyes on the icon that read ‘Dupont Circle View’ until it blinked and opened up into a panoramic feed from the nearest government traffic drone.
Looking down on the city, he picked out his own car, a royal blue luxury electric sedan, stuck behind a logjam of others right before the circle. Glancing over to P Street, he immediately saw the issue: a long line of motorcycles and cop cars, their red and blue lights flashing, surrounded by a veritable swarm of black Secret Service drones, was escorting a motorcade of dark, armored SUVs into the traffic circle.
Automated cars and smart routing technology could predict rush-hour slowdowns, weather problems, and protest march paths. They could not predict when the president would get a hankering for his favorite upscale pizza-and-beer joint.
The senator narrowed his eyes.
That should be me.
If the primary debates had gone just a little bit differently. If the sixty-two-year-old Wilson hadn’t looked quite so old compared to his competition on that stage. He thought his thinning gray hair, dyed to keep a salt-and-pepper look, and slight paunch lent him a patrician air and a presidential gravitas. But the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire preferred that limp-dicked upstart from Massachusetts with his too-white smile.
And Senator Horace Wilson had to smother his enmity and support the man who was now, officially, the head of the Democratic Party.
For now. He smiled. Wilson would be better prepared for round two; he’d have help this time.
As if reading his thoughts, a chime sounded in his ears.
A very particular chime he’d assigned to a very particular event.
His eyes widened; he wasn’t anticipating anything new just yet. Unexpected contact, outside of the usual protocol, rarely meant good news.
Trying to keep his voice from wavering with the sudden drumbeat of his heart, the senator keyed over to his speechwriter, still waiting patiently in the video-call window.
“Jeff, rework the intro, it’s too fucking pompous. I have another call.” He closed out the window without waiting for a response.
The senator slowly slid off the lightweight smartglasses, holding his thumb to a scanner on the side to deactivate the device. He blinked in the sudden bright light of real life before ordering the car to tint its windows. From a sport coat pocket he pulled a small case, no bigger than a ring box and, again using his thumbprint, unlocked it. Inside was a microdrive as small as a fingernail.
He opened a side port on the smartglasses and inserted the drive before powering them back on and replacing them over his eyes.
The drive booted in seconds, flashing a logo that read, “Amnesia: Privacy in an Operating System.”
Using his eyes instead of voice commands, he opened “EncrypToR: The Anonymous Browser” and navigated to a private “PGPmail” account
After authenticating himself and logging in, he saw one new message waiting in his inbox. A countdown timer next to it ticked off how much of the ten minutes remained before the message was completely erased. He opened it.
A wall of gibberish text greeted him. He entered his private key with its corresponding password, and immediately the block of letters became readable.
The message was short: “This is a problem:” followed by a link, and “Call me” afterward.
The senator opened the link.
It was a video on CNN’s homepage, timestamped six minutes ago.
The young anchorwoman in the video spoke, her voice perfectly forgettable: “Privately traded shares of Justice, Incorporated rose to their highest level ever in the cryptosecurity markets today on news of the successful toppling and death of South Sudanese strongman and military dictator Ahmed al-Bashir.
“CEO Eric Ikenna reported during a press conference that this operation, the first successful demonstration of his company’s brigade-level tactical doctrine, and the only operation so far against a sitting head of state, illustrates the power of, quote, ‘free people taking concerted action against a regime noted for brutal oppression.’”
The camera shot cut to a well-dressed black man behind a podium. He stood in front of a new glass-and-wood corporate headquarters, and the lettering in the stone sign behind him read, “Justice, Inc.” next to a stylized sword-and-balance-scale logo. The camera panned out to show other people standing to either side of the man, and Wilson realized just how tall he was; six foot three, at least. His fitted suit clung to broad shoulders and thick biceps.
His voice was deep, with a Midwestern accent—Michigan, maybe. He was responding to some question from a newsdrone: “Yes, we were initially funded by angel investors, and debt, though we do have a prominent VC backer, as I’m sure you’re aware. Revenue, well, that’s a bit more complicated, but as we’re not a public company I don’t have to get into that.” He smiled before the video cut back to the anchor:
“Mr. Ikenna did not respond to questions about the company’s long-term viability in light of a recent UN Security Council resolution condemning the South Sudan operation as ‘against international law’ and putting pressure on the U.S. government to close down the private military corporation’s Mississippi-based offices.”
The video ended, and Senator Wilson frowned.
He’d always known there would be a price to pay if he wanted to become president one day, and the woman collecting the bill did not like to be kept waiting. He reached again into a coat pocket.
The burner phone was a basic model, audio only, but it was encrypted and built to bounce the cell signal over multiple nodes in a mesh network. And it had been bought with laundered cryptocoins, in person. It was as safe as any long-distance communication could be.
He dialed the number he’d memorized. It rang once, and the voice that answered was clipped and dry: “You have work to do.”
* * * * *
Eric was doing it again.
Jenna Capatides suppressed a smile as she walked across the lawn to the collection of grills and picnic tables on the patio, her high heels sinking slightly into the grass. She brushed a stray lock of shoulder-length dirty blonde hair behind an ear.
The spring Mississippi sunshine slanted across the party as nearly four hundred Justice, Inc. staff and their families enjoyed free barbecue and beer to celebrate the company’s biggest win yet. A similar event had happened three days earlier, in the deposed dictator’s opulent palace, for the almost one thousand JI operators and personnel now in the former South Sudan province of Bahr el Ghazal.
Eric Ikenna attended both events and, despite the nearly fifteen-hour flight between here and there, not to mention the seven-hour time difference and his recent role in toppling a despotic government, he was as chipper and energetic as if he’d just had a quiet night of uninterrupted sleep. And he was, as usual, surrounded by a group of enthralled onlookers.
Jenna navigated the friends, smiles, and congratulatory handshakes until she was within hearing distance of the Justice, Inc. CEO. Eric was sitting at one of the long picnic tables on the lawn, but even seated, his tall frame was easy to pick out in the crowd. The light glinted off the black skin of his shaven head, and his expressive face hid nothing. His casual button-down and slacks would have fit in at the office of any West Coast tech company, but were a far cry from the combat fatigues and body armor he had worn not twenty-five hours earlier.
He was enthusiastically tearing into a large plate of ribs, doing his best to imitate the customs of their guests by using only his right hand. In between mouthfuls, his baritone voice captured the attention of everyone around him. He spoke using a mix of English and Arabic to the other men at his table, who all wore a combination of traditional Sudanese robes and Western business suits.
“This is real American barbecue. Oh, don’t worry, it’s halal; these ribs are beef. The key is the rub; you really need to give it time for the spices to soak in.”
One of the men said something Jenna couldn’t hear, and Eric’s eyes lit up. “Exactly. We’re not beholden to public opinion or political pressure groups like a government, so we have a lot more flexibility. Our sole mission is to provide safety and security to our customers. Because we can do it so cheaply, we don’t need to rely on massive state contracts or subsidies either.”
Another question, from a man in a robe across the table from Eric, this in accented English: “And the contract the Provisional Council signed, what if it is revoked?”
“Well, the contract with the Provisional Council is only one such contract we’ve signed with customers in the area, so we’ll remain as long as we have paying clients who want our services. We’ve got contracts with most of the largest businesses and neighborhoods in Wau to provide surveillance and drone and foot patrols, just as we do with your stadium, Mr. Lagu. Everyone deserves to live with safety and security, not just the members of the provisional government, no matter how much I like them personally.” He said this with a grin and a wink as he patted the shoulder of a man next to him wearing a suit. The man laughed.
Jenna tapped Eric on the back and he turned, midbite.
“Sorry to interrupt, Glorious Leader, but it’s almost two and your call with Will starts in ten minutes.”
Eric pushed himself up from the table. His muscled bulk towered over Jenna’s five-foot-three frame, even as he bowed low to their guests. “Gentlemen, my apologies. I’m going to check in with our first Justice, Inc. satellite office in downtown Wau. May I recommend the coleslaw?”
Back inside the relative quiet of the air-conditioned building, Eric and Jenna walked side by side through the expansive lobby to the main offices, crossing under the American, Kurdish, and newly added Bahr el Ghazali flags hanging from the rafters. There were currently many more rafters than flags, but Jenna hoped that would change soon enough.
“Your press conference video’s already got half a million hits on CNN.” She said it playfully, but it was clearly a reproach.
“Well, the old media’s got to find something to blabber about I suppose.”
Jenna’s tone turned serious. “All this exposure will make it harder to invest and market in new targets.”
Eric flashed a big smile, his teeth glowing brightly. “That just means we’re doing everything right. We knew we’d have to deal with this eventually, if we were successful. We just have to be a little more cautious and use a few more layers. These expenses were calculated in the business plan. I don’t see it affecting revenue projections.”
“Still, I’d like to limit the media exposure if we can, at least until we figure out which way the wind is blowing on this Security Council thing. A relocation at this point would be costly and would affect revenue projections.”
“Really? The UN is a toothless old relic. They can’t do anything to us.”
She looked at him askance. “Eric, you’re an excellent soldier and even a decent businessman, but you don’t know a damn thing about politics.” Ever since the two had met, working for a different private military corporation, she as a pilot, he as a weapons instructor, Jenna had thought Eric sincere, but naïve. His offer to bring her on at his new company as Chief Communications Officer, however, had been compelling. It didn’t hurt that she’d had a bit of a crush on him, back then.
The pair reached the archway that separated the lobby from the main offices of the building. As always, Eric paused just long enough to read the inscription above him, outlined in gold on the wood: “The evil of this world is made possible by nothing but the sanction you give it.”
He’d told Jenna it was a line from a book he read when he was seventeen. It struck a chord in him, and he’d reread that book every year since. He’d given her a copy, but she hadn’t gotten around to finishing it.
Jenna continued, “True, the UN itself can’t do anything, but there are plenty of senior government officials who would love to use the Security Council resolution as an excuse to shut us down. You made some enemies with that op-ed on the Syrian occupation last year. I know it’s not your style, but I still think it makes sense to be cautious on this.”
She gave him a wry smile, which he returned with a smirk.
As they reached the door to Eric’s office she added, like an afterthought, “Oh, and your ‘mysterious benefactor’ called. Wanted you to do dinner tomorrow. I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea for you two to be seen together until the media coverage dies down.”
He winked at her. “Tell him I’ll be there at eight.”
* * * * *
It was one of the rare luxuries Eric allowed himself: an honest-to-God real book, with weight, texture, and a smell. He found he enjoyed the solidity of ink on dead tree, that it lent an air of dignity to the whole act of reading.
Not so Pieter Malan.
“Put down that musty relic and come eat. I’ve got something special whipped up, since Ayli and the girls are in Austin.”
Eric mock-groaned. “You’re cooking? You burnt ramen in college. Does it involve a microwave?”
“Better,” his friend chuckled. “A printer.”
“Oh no, this isn’t from that company you just bought?”
“Three-D Cuisine? Oh yeah. Sent the whole kitchen staff home for the week. I’ve got all six printer models in the pantry to test out.”
Eric’s deep voice contrasted with his billionaire friend’s softer tenor. “You do have the pizza place on speed dial, right?”
“Hah. Shut up and get that four-thousand-year-old technology out of my sight. I’ll never understand why you lug those things with you when you have access to everything ever written right there in your glasses. And those books weigh nothing.”
The bulky Justice, Inc. CEO stood, setting down his book and joining the slight, brown-haired Pieter in his gleaming kitchen. “It’s not about convenience, Pieter, it’s the experience.”
“It’s about you acting like an eighty-year-old.” The billionaire was setting out plates, his natural nervous energy leading them to be arranged quickly, if haphazardly.
“Jenna was right; we bicker like an old married couple.” Eric adjusted one of the place settings.
“She’s just jealous you don’t bicker with her like that.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Eric replied, but Pieter wasn’t looking at him.
“Nothing.” Pieter bounced off to the pantry to get their dinner.
“She’s my employee!”
“She’s your partner, technically. She owns four percent of the company,” came the muffled, pedantic reply.
“That’s four percent of nothing until we turn a profit. And it doesn’t make her special; all of my employees have some level of ownership, technically,” Eric shot back as he opened the massive fridge to grab a bottle of beer.
“Wait, I have something better.” Pieter set down two platters of food and opened his freezer. “To commemorate the first step to a freer, happier world.”
He removed a perfectly chilled, thirty-year-old bottle of champagne. With a practiced flourish, he popped the cork and filled two tall flutes with the bubbling liquid.
They toasted the success of their fledgling military company with grins.
Pieter lowered his glass. “Your dad would have been proud, you know. Even if this all goes to shit in the next few months, we saved lives last week. Al-Bashir was a monster.”
Eric nodded, “Yours, too.”
The two men sipped champagne in silence.
“If we succeed, do you have any idea how it could revolutionize the world?”
“If we succeed, Piet.” Eric knew just how much work still lay ahead. This was the largest undertaking the company had yet attempted. A lot was riding on its working out.
“We will.” Pieter Malan had a fierce light in his eyes.
It was the same light Eric had seen that night, eight years earlier, when they’d first thought up the idea of Justice, Incorporated. They’d been on a spring break trip, both a little drunk off rum, discussing life, sitting on the warm sand by a seaside bonfire.
Pieter, the excitably idealistic visionary, had always been the one with the wild ideas, and that night he’d captured Eric’s imagination with the picture of a company founded to solve big, thorny problems. A private, profit-driven organization that could save lives and upend the traditional response to humanitarian disasters. Eric admired his friend’s optimistic principles, despite the sometimes insane-seeming conclusions they led to and, after some initial skepticism, he’d enthusiastically joined in imagining what their future company would be like.
Perhaps it was absorbing too many of his friend’s principles that got Eric discharged from the Army six months later.
It was another three years after that before Pieter, now a newly minted cryptocurrency billionaire, proposed to make their idea a reality and fully fund Justice, Inc.
In the five years since, Eric had become the loyal foot soldier, putting his military experience to use leading the company, while Pieter’s guiding vision kept JI on the narrow path and quieted any lingering doubts in Eric’s mind that they were doing the right thing.
He smiled. “I’m glad one of us is sure of the outcome.”
“We will completely reshape history, Eric! An affordable, private security solution will unlock the economic potential of millions of people living in war-torn regions, making those places safe for investment, for raising families, for educating children.”
Pieter’s enthusiasm was always infectious, and Eric felt like he did when they’d first had this conversation, eight years ago. He smiled in spite of his lack of sleep and the weight of everything they still had to accomplish. He smiled because he knew with Pieter’s funding and his own military experience and skills, they really could do what all the bloated NGOs and international aid programs claimed to do: make the world a better place.
“Let’s eat first.”
After a surprisingly edible meal of 3D-printed “hamburger” patties and low-carb “fries,” Pieter pushed away from the table and stood up.
“Come on, I want to show you something.” He was smiling but there was a subtle shift in his voice. Eric followed Pieter silently out of the kitchen.
The pair made their way through the palatial Mississippi estate, built at the same time as the JI headquarters building so Pieter could live closer to his primary investment. He still spent most of his time with his wife and daughters in their home in Austin, Texas, however.
Wordlessly the billionaire led the way down a wide staircase to the opulently furnished basement. A hallway at the back led to several guest bedrooms and a swimming pool, but he opened a door Eric had never seen before, and waited while Eric stepped through before closing it behind them.
The room was simply furnished with tasteful armchairs, some science fiction art on the walls, and a cabinet with various scale models of plastic rockets, lined up in rows, dominating the far wall.
“All from private firms. I started printing them three years ago, when Astro Technologies landed their Chimera capsule on the moon. A stunt, I know, but it was cool. Here’s the original Falcon, and this one is being built next year by a start-up in the Honduras Special Economic Zone. Supposed to be able to land mining equipment on asteroids.” He pointed to the respective models.
“Is this—” Eric was interrupted by his friend holding up a finger.
He watched as Pieter opened the cabinet and picked up a model, seemingly at random. He flipped it over and held his thumb against a scanner carefully concealed in its base. A click sounded from the wall next to the cabinet, and Malan slid it away to reveal a heavy metal door. Another thumbprint, an eye scan, and the insertion of a mini-key with a smart drive in its teeth, and the door swung inward.
Inside was a veritable command center. Full VR deck, printers with feeds for bio and pharma in addition to metal and plastic, cots lined up against the walls, boxes of miniaturized drones, and four or five different rifles in a rack in the corner. Eric narrowed his eyes. This kind of paranoid panic room reminded him of a certain, recently deceased, dictator.
Pieter waited until the door was secured behind them to speak. “Sorry. I know this looks crazy. But rich people are allowed to be eccentric.”
Eric crossed his arms. “Piet, what’s up?”
“I just want to be careful. Come check this out.” Pieter beckoned him to the VR deck.
Malan narrated as Eric pulled glasses—the full-immersion, wraparound kind that blocked out light—over his eyes. “My big-data company, 2Smart Analytics, built me a custom query a while ago to track all the social chatter and other online and traditional coverage around JI.”
With the glasses on, Eric was floating in a dense network map, nodes and connections stretched out around him like a small three-dimensional galaxy. Each node had a word or concept hovering directly above it. “Justice, Inc.” hung in big green letters in front of him; other nodes appeared closer and larger based on their mention frequency. “Mercenary,” “South Sudan,” “private military,” and “neo-colonialism” all hung nearby among several other, less flattering words.
“After the big Bahr el Ghazal operation,” Pieter continued, “I started noticing some irregularities in the data the query was returning.”
The view changed to a dashboard image breaking down social media sites, popular VR coffee shops, and video comment pages across the major newsblogs.
“Here.” One instance was highlighted and enlarged. “This is where it started.”
The video, a comment on a subforum of a midsize social site, started playing. It was a doughy man with a beard, wearing glasses that had been popular a decade ago: “Justice, Incorporated is nothing more than an imperialist mercenary army. They want to restart slavery and exploit the oil fields, just like the U.S. did in Iraq and Syria. Congress needs to investigate them and shut them down!”
Eric smiled. “I’ve seen plenty of this kind of thing already. We knew we’d get this type of negative publicity based on what we’re doing.”
The sharpness in Pieter’s voice surprised him. “No. Wait.”
The view changed again, to a graph charting a jagged red line that increased, in fits and starts, as it moved to the right.
“Here’s the frequency chart for the meme calling for a congressional investigation over the last forty-eight hours. It looks like a normal deterministic epidemic spread, right? Picking up momentum logarithmically as the idea expands to new networks?”
“Sure,” Eric said.
“But look at these spikes.” A series of points was highlighted on the chart. “They correspond to influencers picking up the meme and unleashing it to their own networks and followers. Notice anything?”
A curve was overlaid across the points on the graph. “They all follow the exact predicted timing for a memetic contagion spread.” Pieter’s voice was triumphant.
“But didn’t you say that’s what this is? Wouldn’t we expect that?”
“That’s the model, but real life is never that precise. You’d expect variation along that curve—some to be above, some below it. But never the exact curve. That’s like finding, oh, I don’t know, a perfectly frictionless surface outside of a physics textbook.”
“It means someone’s manipulating the conversation, Eric. Someone sophisticated and with a lot of resources. These influencer accounts are all heavy hitters. And the spread to other social nodes is flawless; this isn’t just some Astroturfing operation, or we’d see the idea limited to only influencer nodes. Whoever is driving this meme is expending some serious social capital, and I think they’re activating a massive network of bot accounts, something that had to have been in place and dormant for years.”
“I don’t think it’s exactly news that we have enemies.” Eric took off the VR glasses. “Your team can be active in countering this, right?”
“Only in a limited way.” Pieter had also removed his pair of glasses, and pursed his lips into a grim line. “We don’t have the kind of money whoever’s orchestrating this is throwing at it.”
“But you’re a billionaire.”
“I know. It’s why I’m worried. Hence…” He gestured to the secured panic room around them.
Eric shrugged. “Someone’s got a political axe to grind and too much money. I think you’re being paranoid.”
“And I think you’re being naïve.”
Eric patted his friend on the back. “I appreciate the heads-up. Look, I really need to get some sleep.” He reached for the door, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him.
“I’ve taken some precautions.”
“No, I mean others. Just in case.”
Eric raised an eyebrow in curiosity.
The shorter man reached into his pocket and pulled something out of it. He pressed the object into Eric’s palm. It was a tiny smartdrive, unremarkable except for the “FV” logo of Futurist Venture Capital, Pieter’s investment firm, etched into one side.
“It’s encrypted,” Pieter said. “Do you remember the name of our freshman year suitemate? With the big ears? That’ll unlock it.”
“I remember him.” Michael Bate had shared the bathroom with them in college. The two friends had nicknamed him “Master” because of his last name and because, to eighteen-year-olds, that was funny. Eric narrowed his eyes. “What’s on the drive, Piet?”
“Just some insurance, in case you need it.”
Sensing he would get no more out of his friend on the subject, Eric shrugged. “Okay, thanks. Can I go now?”
Malan smiled apologetically. “Thanks for indulging my eccentricities, Eric.”
A chime sounded in Eric’s pocket immediately after the door opened back up. He pulled his glasses on: eleven missed calls from Jenna. Before he could dial her back, the house announced in a clipped, precise voice with a British accent, “Incoming call from: Jenna Capatides.”
“Answer,” Pieter replied.
Eric spoke up, “Jenna?”
“Eric, where have you been?”
Malan smiled weakly. “Oh, right, that room is a Faraday cage. Lead-shielded, too. Sorry.”
Eric threw him a glare as he replied, “What’s up?”
Jenna’s voice sounded tight. “We have a situation developing in South Sudan.”