And so the fox returns to the henhouse to find a bear, squatting, happily licking blood and feathers from its muzzle. Han Fleming couldn’t get that image out of his mind.
Bertrand Chambers. Out in the real himself. He must be desperate, despite the whole-body transplant. That was what it had to be. If he was really that young, he wouldn’t be out in the real.
No. He was desperate. Maybe even taking Mimetene or Cognitrol or one of the newest brain-drugs, struggling to keep his decaying brain working efficiently. He certainly seemed sharp enough. He didn’t act like he was on the extreme end of the rejuve curve. He seemed more like an 80-year-old, rejuvenated for the first time. All the fine grit of experience, polishing a soul, finally revived in a form that didn’t hurt, that actually felt, that had passions, that could do something. Han remembered his first thought out of his first rejuve, back over a hundred and fifty years ago: My god, I can do anything now.
So. Yes. Maybe drugs. In that case, he was even more desperate. Or maybe some of the new persona engineering. Though they probably wouldn’t chance the instability problem on their CEO. Unless Winfinity itself was hatching an heir.
Either way, the timeline had suddenly shrunk.
Han made his way to the Disney Mars Hilton and took their penthouse suite. Fully a hundred feet aboveground, it gave him panoramic views of the salmon-reds and rust-oranges and saffron-yellows of Mars. Disney Mars was located on one of the steppes of Ius Chasma, near one of the paths of the contestants in the original Winning Mars. Lights traced the Rothman team’s path up a near-vertical climb across the canyon; Han’s optilink told him that vacationers could recreate the experience for a small fee.
No. Not for him. He was only allowing himself time to sleep because he was exhausted. And because his armored Kite wasn’t yet outfitted. And because he wanted a little more time to let the AIs crunch the fragments of data from Black2. It seemed like the Shrill had been victim of a straightforward smash-and-grab by the Freemers, but there was no destinational data. None that didn’t conflict, anyway. And with all the ongoing activity on the Winfinity net and the golf-ball-through-a-garden-hose nature of the fragmented Martian datanets, Han didn’t trust the result yet. He’d chased down too many bad plans to rush swiftly in.
The right plan made the difference between who was the bear and who was the fox. And Han knew who he wanted to be.
Incoming call, sir, a soft voice whispered in his ear.
Tell them I’m sleeping, Han subvocalized.
Caller requests priority conference.
They can wait.
Caller has offered identification. It is Bertrand Chambers, CEO and Chairman of Winfinity Enterprises Inc, a corporation based–
“I know what they are,” Han growled, out loud. Put him on.
The freeform holotank in the center of the room lit with an image of the boyish CEO, his face distorted by high-G boost.
“I was just thinking about you, Mr. Fox,” Han said. “Fleeing the henhouse after a little surprise?”
“Don’t start with your analogies,” Chambers said. “I don’t know what they mean, and I don’t fucking care.”
“If not an exchange of pleasantries between two equals, then why the call?”
“Oh, yes, sorry. Four Hands, taken together, is slightly larger than Winfinity. I’m sorry your company no longer quite measures up.”
Chambers face went red, even in the high-G field. He growled deep in his throat. “You’re a fucking conglomerate. We’re unified.”
“Perhaps less than you think.”
“What does that mean?”
Han smiled, but said nothing.
“Okay. Fine. I just wanted to tell you, formally, ties between Winfinity and Four Hands are now severed. After your repeated attacks on our network, we have found further cooperation to be counter to our interests. Do you understand that, you fucking windbag?”
“Ah. That must mean that your fleet has arrived.” Though Han knew that, from periodic status reports from the Four Hands fleet. Mars orbit had become crowded with warships in the last forty hours. But Four Hands still held the edge in numbers.
“Among other things.”
“Though I notice you’re not using the short-range Spindle ship to bring you to Mars. Still a bit unreliable, eh?”
“How do you know I’m coming to Mars?”
“All the best people are coming to Mars this time of year.”
Chambers colored again and closed his eyes, as if trying to regain control of his emotions. Han smiled. Drugs. He’d seen this before, back when Disney was still being run by Roy II. He didn’t need the AIs to crunch the data from this conversation and tell him.
So the timeline had been moved up. Interesting, very interesting.
“Han. Be careful, or you may find yourself without a floor to stand on, or a header to breathe out of.”
“Threatening me in Mars Disney? That’s very funny.”
“Not a threat. A promise.”
“Seeing Win-Sec trying to make it through a Mouseketeer line might be highly amusing. Why don’t you send some down?”
“Seeing your fucking skeleton imprinted on the back wall of your suite might be highly fucking amusing, too.”
Han sighed. “So you’d violate the Gentlemens’ Agreement again?”
“No. Winfinity never did. Though I can’t say what the Church might do.”
Han called up latest figures from Minnie, one of the Four Hands flagships. There were seventy-three Four Hands warships in orbit. Versus fifty-one confirmed Winfinity ships. Pretty good odds, given the Four Hands 1.4:1 average advantage in armaments.
But they had that damnable short-range Spindle Drive. Even if they weren’t willing to use it on their CEO again, that wouldn’t stop them from Spindling in a hundred more ships at the worst possible moment.
If it even worked for larger ships. That golden ship was very, very small.
No. The Disney imagineers were still arguing over it. Betting that Winfinity wasn’t holding the short-range Spindle in reserve was a bad gamble. At least for now.
A brief smile. “Goodbye, Han.”
“A crawler?” Tiphani said, looking at the long segmented vehicle doubtfully. It was painted in Martian camo – muted shades of red, brown, and yellow, and bore the script Almighty McD on the front segment. Big tank-treads showed beneath the vehicle’s skirts, thickly crusted with Martian dust.
“What you want, a flyer?” one of the Consumeristian Youth asked, looking up from wrenching in the darkness behind an open service panel.
“It would be nice.”
“Until you got shot down.” The youth offered a rough laugh.
“This’ll take days,” Tiphani said.
“Not that long. And you’ll get there alive.”
“Is it really that bad?”
“Fly over the Free Areas without the right acks and secret-handshakes and I-know-you-know-me codes, and you’re done. They treat it like it’s private property, even the air.”
“Good afternoon, Honored Yin, Tiphani Mirate,” said a new voice, behind them. Tiphani turned and saw a heavyset man who looked vaguely familiar. Almost like the captain of the Holy Saleschannel, the one with the bandages. Standing with him was a short bulldog of a man with dark hair and bright, glittering eyes. She recognized him immediately.
“Alan!” she said. “And, um, you were . . .”
“Preacher Dave Thomas. Pleased to meet you, Tiphani.”
“But you were on the ship! The tent revival ship. The Holy Saleschannel. How’d you get here?”
“The Holy Franchise works in mysterious ways, my lady,” Preacher Dave said.
“Shortrange Spindle,” Honored Yin said.
“Yes,” Alan said, not looking happy.
“I don’t see any arms growing out of your foreheads,” Honored Yin said.
Preacher Dave squeezed his eyes shut. Alan just shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” Tiphani said. “Honored Yin’s still recovering from the suspension drugs.”
“Am not!” Honored Yin said.
“Honored Yin, you are acting differently. Compare your own performance summaries.”
“No! I’m me! Me’s I! Nothing else to know!”
Preacher Dave cleared his throat. “I see.”
“Why are you here?” Honored Yin asked.
“We’re to pilot the, uh, Almighty McD, to ensure the continuity of our shared mission.”
“Translation: you’re here because you fucked up mightily and they want a single chain of command to blame if you fuck up again. Or a single chain of command to redeem if we actually manage to pull this off.”
“I, um, don’t believe that’s entirely it.”
“Oh, no, the Church just loved you so much they sent you here for a little resort vacation.”
“Actually, we do have a broad range of experience in the Free Areas,” Alan said. “We are a logical choice to head this mission.”
“Can’t you get us something faster?” Tiphani asked.
Preacher Dave smiled and came to put a hand around Tiphani’s neck in a fake buddy-buddy gesture. His hand came to rest near the top of her breasts. “Dear Tiphani, I’d do anything I could to expedite this mission, but you don’t understand–”
Tiphani shrugged out from under his hand. “No. I don’t understand. You’ve been going in and converting for years–”
“Decades, actually,” Alan said.
“And you don’t have enough acks to fly through?”
Preacher Dave smiled. “The Freemars have proven extremely difficult to convert.”
“You must have someone inside that could fly you in.”
“Uh, well, no.”
“How many people have you converted?”
“Of the Freemers?”
Preacher Dave looked heavenwards. Alan shrugged and said, “It’s early in the campaign. It takes a long time to achieve the results people think are so easy.”
“You haven’t converted anyone?”
“Nobody with a flyer,” Preacher Dave said.
Tiphani sighed and shook her head.
“It’ll be good, dear Tiphani. This thing really moves.”
“Let the sacrificial cows be,” Honored Yin said. “This is what we have. This is what we got.”
They gave her and Yin the cabin behind the lead segment to themselves, as if they were carrying some kind of strange disease that required quarantine. At one point, the cabin might have been casually elegant, but years of use and Martian dust had taken the sheen off the plastics. The synthetic leather seats were well-used, the plastic windows scratched and dusty. A well-thumbed copy of the Consumeristian Tract sat on a low table.
Yin looked apathetically out a window, leaning on the padded ledge with her forehead pressed against it. Outside, consumeristians were scrambling towards the vehicle. Tiphani hoped that meant they were departing soon.
At least the manic thing had passed, Tiphani thought. Yin seemed calmer. Maybe the drugs would soon finish their dance on Yin’s psyche and she’d be normal again soon.
Unless this is normal now, Tiphani thought, remembering Yin’s performance before the shortrange Spindle flight.
The Almighty McD started with a thud and a jerk. The grinding sound of sand in steel gears built slowly to a steady roar as they slid out of Rockport. Ruddy Martian scenery crawled past, painfully slow, like a ride on an old-fashioned steam railroad.
The door ahead of them slid open, briefly revealing Alan in the co-pilot’s chair. Preacher Dave stepped in, and the door shut behind him.
“Anything we can get you girls?” Preacher Dave said, rubbing his hands together.
“Besides faster transport?” Tiphani said.
“I’m hurt,” Preacher Dave said, his expressive face pulling down into an almost comical look of despair. “The Almighty McD averaged 81 kph for its last long-range trip, not bad over these roads.”
“How long till we get there?”
Tiphani nodded. That wasn’t bad. She glanced out at the scenery, which had changed to almost untouched-looking low Martian hills and rock-strewn plains. They didn’t seem to be moving that fast, but that could be misleading. The Almighty McD glided over the rugged Martian terrain like a millipede. The ride inside was almost disturbingly quiet, with only a few smooth, large-scale motions to mar the peace. More like a ship on the ocean than a big segmented tank.
“Are we in the Free Areas already?” she said.
“No, we’re in the borderlands. The area around Rockport is probably the most hotly contested real estate on Mars. The Freemars don’t claim it, but the Jereists and Govs both do, and there are scattered Frees in the middle of it all.”
“They’re all crazy,” Honored Yin said.
“I can agree there,” Preacher Dave said.
They passed burrows bearing signs that read: THE HARVEYS, CIRCLE J RANCH, MCDONALD RESIDENCE. Around each burrow was a large mound of dirt and rocks, as well as the detritus of a long-time pioneer family: pieces of twisted, burned metal, yellowed plastic sheets flapping in the breeze, broken small appliances, sun-bleached and unidentifiable, sheets of unused insulating foam, and, in one case, fanciful sculptures of frog-like beings placed at regular intervals around the perimeter. Like the Easter Island statues, but in miniature.
“What are those all about?” Tiphani said.
“The burrows? Early settlers. Some of them still here.”
“No, the sculptures.”
Preacher Dave frowned. “Never really thought about them.”
Of course. “Martians?” Tiphani said, just to taunt.
“Party line is that Martian life never evolved above the crinoid type.”
“Evolved?” Tiphani said, raising an eyebrow.
“We’re not the Christian splinter. The Holy Franchise has touched many worlds. Some, like Earth, have been more successful than others.”
You really believe that crap, don’t you? Tiphani thought.
She looked back at the rapidly disappearing statues, and wondered what kind of life Mars once might have held. She knew there were whispers of more advanced fossils. Were these things based on that, or a figment of the oxygen-starved settlers’ imagination?
Tiphani sighed. She’d probably never know.
October 31st, 2009 / 1,018 Comments »