The Road to Batesvaal

Sean Gullette
Originally Published in Silicon Alley Reporter

From The Decline of Western Civilization, Volume IX (2000-2100)

Never had an empire been a fraction as powerful and mysterious in its embrace of the planet. As the new millenium entered its first century, from the glowering silent steel and glass moia of The City, the colonial network had spread over 5 billion citizens, trade routes surging with ships a half-mile long, plowing low through the waves under vast cargoes of oil and cars and food. In Europe and Asia, nations conquered in the great war were annexed to the empire, and expanded its borders. Their armies rotated the earth in geosychronous orbit, dropping rays of fire from the skies onto cowering opponents.

The railroad barons, steel magnates, oilmen, and captains of industry, had led through a gradual declension of capitalists to the technopreneurs. This new empire afforded its elites and counselors a way of life that made the Caesars look like Sicilian peasants. In winged steel needles they could span the oceans in three hours. Their wires sent messages at the speed of light, and the whole world was said to fit into their intricate and brilliantly fast computers. The culinary delicacies and beautiful prostitutes of the world were bought back to the City for the pleasure of the counselor's' gilded tongues.

In time their amazing prophecies were fulfilled. Global wirelesss communication, the Telenet, the Instantaneous World Government, and the Library of Earth: each was thought to a last write another happy ending for the once troubled story of the planet. And yet in their vast windowed terraces, and in the shaded canyons of the City--though fed on the tenderest veal and sweetest corn--the rulers and counselors were anemic and hungry at their hearts.

They dressed in chinos and open necked shirts, but as their public appearances were moderated into near-invisible banality, the secret urges of the ruling classes became increasingly debased. One CEO of an Telenet portal was known to fasten his french cufflinks through the flesh of his wrist. Another was deposed by his Board when he became fiercely addicted to eavesdropping on the sadomasochistic liaisons of his customers in private videochat rooms, sometimes breaking in with revolting suggestions. A competing portal operator was rumored to run a secret human slave market, by A-list invitation only, using his proprietary auction software. The artists of the designer pharmaceutical market wired these new dons with personalized emotional-balance drugs which gave them days of superhuman calmness and aplomb, often followed by a homicidal rage. After the market correction of '03, the City was briefly awash in great shards of glass: not content to leap from roof decks, suicidal CEOs took with them entire floors of skyscrapers and fully staffed marketing departments, using tiny packages of gourmet C4 explosive.

One billionaire obsessed with the afterlife bought hundreds of gallons of human pituitary fluid on the black market and, following the precepts of a crackpot theory had himself cryogenically embalmed in the fluid as a healthy sixty year old. Another tried to pay everyone in Seattle who shared his December 8th birthday $10,000 to "legally" change their birthday so he might celebrate alone.

But Adam Bates set the standard for radical self-reinvention. As a socially awkward child, the inventor of two-way bounceback routing had been fascinated by the long abandoned continent of Africa, where another human history was being told, whispered to be so terrible that the dark continent was locked from our sight, as remote as Mars once seemed. And so, after retiring, statospherically wealthy, at the age of 40, Bates assembled a private expeditionary force of 100 heavy armored vehicles and 350 men, and setting out from a retrofitted oil tanker, put ashore unopposed at Durban, with the stated goal of finding the mythical "birthplace of humanity."

In the Congo, Bates established his base camp, which rapidly expanded into a small secured city of Quonset huts and power reactors. Bates made himself the benefactor of the impoverished surrounding villagers, who soon found themselves awash in his largesse of canned foods, bottled water, satellite TVs and and microbrewed beer. Bates liked it there. In a year he had built an air-conditioned stone palace on a rise in the jungle and began to travel his small dominion-- Batesvaal--in an open Harris tank, fashioning himself as a Kurtz-like regional strongman, and accepting tributes from village headmen and what he understood as mystical status in the local religion. The pie-faced billionaire took several native wives.

During his second year in country, it came into Bates' head that he was being excluded from a small but cherished branch of the local barter economy--the ritual trade in ivory from now-extinct elephants, carried out by a caste of patriarchs from each village. The profits were infinitesimal, but Bates became obsessed with buying into and dominating this tiny marketplace. When elders politely but firmly refused his bribes, Bates became violent, ordering botched attacks on several headmen before the villagers struck back with rifles, fire, and machetes, igniting a skirmish which ended in the rout of Batesvaal and the disarming of his camp.

As the villagers watched, Bates was captured and ceremonially thrown into the sea--very much alive. Australian cameraman Bill Lee captured the skinny and ranting software entrepreneur, stumbling out of a light surf onto the beach, his trademark white shirt and chinos heavy with seawater, dripping sand. As he slogged in tears towards the waiting helicopter that would fly him to the safety of his offshore tanker, Bates looked back towards the jungle for the last time. "You'll never have a king like me again," he yelled at the line of scowling Africans along the beachhead. "You'll all miss me when I'm gone."