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Eternal Franchise, 21.1 of 31.1

Home, Dian thought, hopping lightly down from the courier ship’s hatch onto the salmon-pink dust of Rockport. The gravity was right. The chill of the Martian breeze through the dense weave of her thermals was right. Even the chafing of the transparent header and the weight of the oxypak felt good.

eternal-franchiseHome. She was home. Unbidden tears welled, but she squeezed them back. She never thought she’d feel this way about Mars. She didn’t want to feel this way about Mars.

But you grow up in a place, she thought, and the place becomes you. It gets into your bones.

Rockport’s collection of dusty impromptu derricks and rocket-scarred landing pads stretched towards a low city. Dug in, Dian knew. Rockport’s the first real Martian city, built before the Freemars had done all the cometaries and thickened the atmosphere. Not that anyone could breathe yet, but the squeezesuits of the early settlers were a thing of the past. Temperatures were rising, and coldwater algae were belching more oxygen into the atmosphere by the day. Today, a simple header and oxypak would take you wherever you wanted to go, unless you were exploring the deep polars.

Eventually, we’ll make this world into something that matters, Dian thought, surprised at the strength of her conviction.

A group of Jereists passed as Raj and Jimson and Lazrus – now thankfully healed, at least where you could see him – unloaded the Shrill’s cage. The lead Jereist, a burly earthborn, wore a reproduction of the casual deep-purple suit that Jere Gutierrez had been wearing on that day they launched Mars Enterprise. Caught by a million net-cams, that uniform would always be the badge of honor for a Jereist. No matter that Mayflower and Potemkin were the first real colony ships, no matter they were the ones that opened Rockport for real.

The Jereist leader eyed them as they sidled past, fondling his big gold necklace, done in the shape of an old-fashioned television set. But they didn’t stop. Which was strange. Jereists usually took every opportunity to spread their beliefs, especially on hostile ground like Rockport.

“Is the Shrill going to be a problem here?” Jimson asked, watching the Jereists shuffle away.

“Not the Shrill,” Raj said. “They don’t like us.”

“Why?”

“We remind them of their place.”

The Shrill stirred and banged up against the side of its diamondoid cage. “New environment seeing! Connection stilted (poor)!”

“What does that mean?” Dian said.

“It means your Martian datanet leaves a lot to be desired,” Lazrus said. “I’m currently running almost as a standalone. Not much bandwidth here. Had to cede to Shrill.”

“Bandwidth balkanized, not small,” Raj said.

“That doesn’t help us if we can’t span networks,” Lazrus said.

“I’s call friends, see if they help.”

“Thank you. How long will it take?”

A head-shake. “Dunno. Maybe minute, maybe hours, maybe never.”

Lazrus sighed. “How bad does it get in the Free areas?”

“Might be better,” Raj said.

“That true?” Lazrus asked, looking at Dian.

“Maybe,” Dian said, looking away. She was still pissed at him. Still thinking about going her own way. When they got underground, that might be exactly what she would do.

“I thought you lived here.”

“On the edge,” Dian said. “Not in the Free areas. But I’d guess the Free areas are going to be a bit of a mixed bag. Some of them are technophiles. Others are luddites. You may have pockets of no bandwidth, other than direct sat.”

“That would be bad,” Lazrus said, frowning.

“We steer around,” Raj said. “Or find you help.”

They got the Shrill powered up and trudged towards Rockport’s underground entrances. They passed the stainless-steel monument to First Landing, carved with all the names of the colonists who came on Mayflower and Potemkin, as well as the date: 2021.

“They were governmentals, weren’t they?” Jimson asked.

“Who?”

“Mayflower and Potemkin.”

Dian laughed. “You should use your optilink a little more. They were what we’d call Independents, back then.”

“Independents? You had them back then?”

“They came independent of any government, anyway.”

“Who was their sponsor?”

“Themselves. They didn’t have a corporate sponsor. Just a bunch of nutty engineers and small-business owners, following in the path of the Mars Enterprise. I’m surprised your optilink hasn’t fed you this data.”

“It seems to be blocked.”

Dian snorted. “Typical Winfinity.”

“Winfinity has the opening of the Martian frontier through Winning Mars,” Jimson said.

“Figures.”

“Do we know course?” Raj said, looking impatient.

“Find some free reps, get into the Free territory.”

“No. Coordinates. Do we know coordinates?”

“We have inferred coordinates,” Lazrus said. “Landing of Operation Martian Freedom.”

“Nothing hard?”

“No.”

Raj frowned. “All the way out there.”

“Yes.”

“And the Shrill?”

“Lazrus follow yes current negotiations (talks) dependent on compliance (do not deviate),” the Shrill said.

Raj shrugged. “Ok, ok.”

“Humans (aliens) not literal need buffer Lazrus buffer.” The Shrill banged against the wall of its cage, hard, near Raj.

“Get it gotten! Settle down.”

“Immaterial external manifestation not mind other mind unknowing (unknowable) (inexplicable) Lazrus directive.”

“Sorry, Shrill ambassador,” Jimson said. “We will follow Lazrus.”

“Nonsequitur (Lazrus) contacting only!”

“Yes, Shrill ambassador.”

The Shrill said nothing and went to circle the middle of its cage.

“Did you notice it’s using Lazrus’ name?” Jimson whispered to Dian.

“So?”

“So it hasn’t used proper names before. Some of the scientists thought they couldn’t understand them.”

“So?”

Jimson sighed. “So I don’t know. Just strange.”

“I believe the Shrill feels a stronger sense of connection to a networked entity,” Lazrus said.

Jimson shrugged, looked at Lazrus suspiciously, sighed.

They all fell silent for a time. Dian looked for familiar faces behind dusty headers, hoping to see someone she knew. That might give her a chance to go her own way. Especially if he was armed.

They passed a group of governmentals, wearing laminated plastic ID tags, as if they were bureaucrats of long ago. They stared at the Shrill as they passed. But in general the crowd was your typical brew of non-affiliated Martians, neither Jereists or governmentals or Freemars, grown tall and thin in the light gravity, pale from years of living underground. Because even if the atmosphere had thickened, they had yet to grow a magnetic field. That was something that might never happen, despite whispers of grandiose plans from the Free areas of Mars. Dian searched faces, but didn’t recognize anyone. Even the family patches, colorful embroidered bits of cloth hung from the tight weave of the thermals, were unfamiliar.

Which really wasn’t surprising, she thought. She’d been to Rockport once in her life. Every other deal her dad did had been in the town of Jefferson. He hated Rockport. Said it was deliberately held back for sentimental reasons. Kept a backwater. And he was right. Jefferson’s streets were paved, and electrostatic precipitators kept the dust to a minimum. They even had a small fountain of real water in the middle of town, to show off their wealth.

As they approached the main Rockport underground entrance, the way narrowed, hemmed by stalls of peddlers selling everything from homegrown supplies to pieces of plastic supposedly taken from the Mayflower and Potemkin.

At one of the dried goods stalls stood a small group of men. Dian tracked them as they came closer, counting one, two, three, four, five. They were tall, thin, dark-haired, obviously Martian-born, and they stood comfortably, as if simply passing the time by crowd-watching. But the passerby gave them a wide berth. Unlike everyone else, these men showed skin. Their arms were nut-brown and uncovered by thermals. A small opaque respirator covered their nose and mouths, black tubes snaking to oxypacks slung on their backs. They wore goggles against the Martian dust, but their hair flowed free in the quickening breeze.

Freemars, Dian thought. Extreme ones. People who had the gengineering necessary to bare their skin to the elements. Her dad had told her about them, but she’d never seen any until now.

“Who are they?” Jimson asked.

“Extreme Freemars,” Dian said.

“Shouldn’t we talk to them, then?”

“They’re not the kind we want to meet.”

“Why not?”

One of the Freemars stepped out to block their path. “Why not indeed? Are we beneath your consideration?”

Shit, Dian thought.

“Dian Winning? Jimson Ogilvy? Lazrus? Shrill?” the Freemar said, looking at each of them in turn.

“Yes.” Dian said. There was no use denying it.

“Come with us.”

“Why?” Jimson said.

“Because we’re asking nice,” the Freemar said.

“Who are you?”

A chuckle. “That doesn’t matter. Come with us.”

“Why?”

Weapons appeared. Dian recognized later models of her Martian Winch, scuffed and well-used. “If you need a reason,” the Freemar said.

Shit, Dian thought. What is this?

“I understand now,” Jimson said.

“So you think,” the big Freemar said. “Move.”

They moved.

#

The moment they entered the stinking Rockport underground, Jimson’s optilink went dead. He subvocalized restart commands, but it wouldn’t restart. He eyetyped queries, but the optilink didn’t respond. The green READY icon still showed, but the veneer of datatags didn’t show in his vision. It was almost as if his access had been cut, but there were no messages telling him that Winfinity had figured out his code-trick and had suspended his account. It was just cleanly, smoothly dead.

It was too much. Being intercepted by Freemars was one thing. Losing his second sight was another.

“My optilink!” he said.

The lead Freemar turned to look at Jimson. “Fixed it for you.”

“Fixed it! It doesn’t work!”

“You don’t want it tattling to Winfinity anymore, do you?”

“Tattling?”

“They been watching everything you’ve done, past couple days. You can thank us that your greeting wasn’t by a bunch of Win-Secs.”

“So you’re . . . you’re on our side?”

“That remains to be seen.”

“Can you turn my optilink back on?”

A laugh. “I think it better we don’t. You’ve got a bad data-addiction. Best get used to none for a while.”

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.”

The Freemers prodded them down bright whitewashed tunnels with stainless-steel-grated floors that bore bright signs pointing to branches that led to pubs and brothels and general stores. Jimson’s header, sensing atmosphere, had parted at the front and crumpled into a gel rind riding his neck. He wished it was still there, though, as the scent of fried food and manure and beer and unwashed humanity wafted in from the numerous side-tunnels.

“Where current location?” the Shrill said. “Mind (bandwidth) very poor.”

“Shut up,” the Freemar said.

“Orders not given by humans. Orders accepted (flowed through) Lazrus network only!”

“Shut up.”

“Not accepting authority of nondominant group.”

The Freemar stopped and tapped his Winch on the top of the Shrill’s transparent cage, hard. The Shrill ran around and around in circles, rearing up on its underfangs, as if to snap at the weapon.

“Shut up, or I’ll open this cage and shoot you.”

The Shrill stopped moving. “Compliance by force?”

“Yes. You get it. Bang bang, component dead. Whatever you want here dies with it. That simple. Get it?”

The Shrill froze.

“Come on,” the Freemar said. “Get going again.”

“You know the Shrill?” Lazrus said.

The Freemar snorted but said nothing.

“Do you know them?”

The Freemar stopped and pointed his gun at Lazrus’ face. “Shut up.”

Lazrus shut up.

Eventually, the whitewashed tunnels gave way to ones rough-carved out of native rock, sans decoration or stainless grating. Jimson’s slick corporate shoes slipped on sand and pebbles as the tunnels angled down.

The tunnel ended at a raw stone wall. The head Freemar turned to face them, and Jimson felt a momentary thrill of fear. They aren’t on our side, he thought. They’re going to kill us, dump us here, and take the Shrill for themselves.
But the big Freemer just held up a hand and said, “Wait for it.”

The end of the tunnel irised open, spinning rock fragments out of the way. Beyond, a smooth white hallway led deeper into Mars.

“Wierder and weirder,” Dian said.

“Isn’t it though,” the Freemar said, smiling.

Down the corridor to an inset metal door. Into a small meeting-room with a long blue plastic table and chairs. Sitting at one end of the table was a man, white-haired, with bright amber eyes. Next to him was a metal-bodied thing, much like what Jimson imagined that Lazrus would look like without flesh.

“You!” Lazrus said.

“Yes, me,” the white-haired man said.

“Who is it?” Jimson said.

“He built my body,” Lazrus said. “He’s not a Freemar. He’s an Independent. His name is Kerry Whitehall.”

“And let’s not forget the groupmind general counsel,” the metal-bodied man said. “Pleased to meet all of you. You may call me Seven, as that is the number of minds included in my network.”

“Groupmind?” Jimson said.

Metallic tendons stretched segmented lips into an appoximation of a smile. “They have a lot to learn, don’t they?” the metal man said.

“Yes. First of all, not to make idiotic deals.”

“What does that mean?” Jimson said.

“Dealing. With the Shrill. As if they were human.”

“I don’t understand.”

The white-haired man sighed. “Sit, all of you. Let’s see what we can make out of this mess.”

“Kill,” the Shrill said. “Eat!”

October 10th, 2009 / 1,110 Comments »



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