Winning Mars Field was a bustle of activity, even in the sharp-edged light of an early Martian morning. Kites soared aloft into the pale blue sky, tourists dangling from harnesses under the taut fabric wings. Turning into the low-hanging sun, the Kites shone gold with logos of long-defunct corporations. Other tourists wearing old-fashioned squeezesuits piloted reproduction Wheels slowly across short, rocky test-courses; farther out on the plains, Wheels bounced through well-worn ruts on their way to pristine fields. A few of the more hardcore thrill-seekers carried rope and pitons, heading down trails towards reproductions of Winning Mars’ Overland Challenge.
No different than any other day, Dian knew. Overconfident asses, thick with gravity-muscle, that would have to be pulled from crevasses and out of ravines as night closed in.
When her father had first taken her to Winning Mars Field it seemed like a fantastic amusement-park, like the kind she used to read about in ancient blogs.
Dian remembered her first Kite ride with him, soaring over the rugged canyons and plains of Mars, ruddy reds and muted golds stretching towards a horizon where the hint of a duststorm was faintly visible, under a pale blue sky that seemed to promise infinite possibilities, anything she could dream. She remembered looking down at the Wheels, bounding over the plains, and thinking of her pet mouse in his own Wheel. Dian told this to her father and he agreed, a grim expression on her face. She didn’t understand his reaction, but she filed it away in a place in the back of her mind to be examined later, after this wonderful day where she got to go into the big city, the day when she got to fly. Dian could almost believe that one day she would be able to go to Earth, or one of the Web-worlds, or somewhere, anywhere, she only read and dreamt about.
When they got back to ground, Dian said, “We flew! Just like the pioneers of Winning Mars!”
Her dad dropped out of his harness and looked up at the logos emblazoned on the Kite, and shook his head. At first, it seemed like he would say nothing and walk away. Like he did. Like he always did. Then he sighed and said, “Not exactly. The Kites are a lot smaller now.”
“The air. It’s thicker.”
“Terraforming,” Dian said, proud to know the word. Her online class had talked about it just a week before.
Her dad smiled, his lips pressed tightly together. “Not quite,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get it like Earth.”
“But we will! Our teacher said! We’re going to have trees and lakes and grass and we’ll be able to walk around without thermals or a respirator or anything like that.”
“She’s a nice lady, but she doesn’t know much science. Those lakes will be icy and the trees and grass will have to be engineered. And it’s a few hundred years before we can ditch the respirators.”
“She said we already have oxygen!”
“A little. Not enough to breathe.”
Dian nodded. She knew. She’d taken off the header, once, just to see. Just outside the house. Not even ten steps away. She’d ignored the device’s squeals of protest that there was not sufficient partial pressure and took it off.
The air was cool and crisp against her face. Chilly, even, as a light breeze tossed her hair. So different than breathing your own humid exhalations. Nice, really.
She breathed deeply, once, twice. It really wasn’t that different. She felt her ears pop. Breathed again. Not that big of a deal. Maybe the stories were just stories. Maybe they made you keep the headers on to trap germs or something. Maybe . . .
She felt light-headed. She took another breath, this one even deeper. It didn’t help. She felt dizzy. She reached out to lean on a rock ledge, but she missed and almost fell.
She stood there, gasping for breath. Not helping. Not helping at all.
Her vision began to get dim and swimmy.
Like a voice, small and faraway.
The header! Put it back on!
Oh, yeah. With thick fingers, she fumbled it back on. But where was the lock-button? It seemed to have disappeared.
Vision. Dim. Disappearing.
Ah. There it was.
The header sealed itself up and a warm flush of air rushed in from behind her neck. It smelled like food and mildew. Dian almost gagged.
She drew in a whooping breath, but her vision didn’t clear. Red icons flashed on the heads-up. A small voice chanted that the CO2 percentage was too high.
Vision. Dimming. Going away.
Dian gasped at the thick air for what seemed like an eternity. It was too hot. Too smelly. But she couldn’t stop her rapid breaths.
Her vision cleared. The red icons turned to yellow, then to green. Dian’s breathing slowed, steadied. She realized she was on her knees. She didn’t remember kneeling. Not at all.
Dian shivered and moaned. That was dumb. Too dumb. She shouldn’t have done it! She wondered if anybody had seen her, or if the header had tattled to the house computers.
But her parents never found out. Or at least they never said.
Now, she felt trapped in that same tunnel. No air. Eveything changing too fast. But she didn’t know where the button was. Or if she even held her header anymore.
I could take my own Kite back to Porter Base, she thought. Dad was gone, but there were uncles. Uncles not seen in a long time, but they were family, they could take her in.
But uncles had sons, and sons had wants. Or uncles had their own wants. And there were no homeless on Mars, sleeping in boxes out under the stars.
If she went back, she’d be caught in another trap. Still not knowing where the button was.
“Want to try your luck?” Kerry Whitehall said, bringing Dian back to the present day.
“You like flying?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You were watching the Kites.”
Dian sighed. She knew that look, that too-intent, frozen-eyed look. That too-smooth, too-soft tone. Kerry was interested.
A corporate asshole, an AI, an Independent, she thought. None of them exactly appealing. Even though Kerry could get her to the edge worlds and beyond, there was something deeply disturbing hidden behind his eyes. His gaze was much, much older than his body.
Still, be nice to him. If you can get where you want without attachments . . .
“Just remembering,” she said.
“You don’t seem old enough to have been an Original Contestant,” Kerry said.
Oh, wow. The height of humor. “My dad. Took me here when I was a kid.”
“I guess that’s pretty common on Mars.”
Jimson walked over to them, a bit too fast, a bit too intent on Dian.
Great, she thought.
“Amazing to think that the Mars colony was started by a reality TV show, isn’t it?” Jimson said.
Kerry flashed him a get-away look and said, “Not really.”
“I mean, until Winning Mars, pretty much every space program was a government thing, wasn’t it?”
Kerry rolled his eyes. “Study your history, kid. They were doing private shots into space a decade and a half before. The Russians were already selling honeymoon suites in orbital hotels before Winning Mars.”
“But Jere, and Evan . . . the producers, they were visionaries, before their time!”
“Jere and Evan were two opportunistic vultures that you wouldn’t invite to your office Christmas party.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, stop taking so much for granted.”
“You’re just jealous that the corporations opened space,” Jimson said.
Kerry laughed, long and hard. “Kid, you got so many things wrong, it ain’t even funny. Rockport was where the Mayflower and Potemkin landed. No corporate stuff there. We’re the true descendants of the first independent step into space. Not you corporates.”
“Without the show, they’d never have come. And without sponsors, there’d be no show.”
“So everything comes back to the corps?”
“It always does!”
Kerry smiled. “Which is why you’re still working for them, hmm?”
Dian rolled her eyes and waved goodbye to them, walking towards the Kite where three Independents were securing the Shrill.
“Look, you made her walk away!” she heard Jimson say, faintly.
“She wasn’t moving until you showed,” Kerry said.
Dian smiled. They’d be back.
“Do you think this device will carry me?” Lazrus said.
Dian jumped. “You startled me!” Thinking, and here’s number three.
“So do you think it’s a problem? My weight?”
“How much do you weigh?”
“Two hundred sixty kilos.”
“It’s not fat. It’s my metallic inner structure, combined with . . .”
“Lazrus, I know. It was a joke.”
Silence for a while. “Oh. Sorry. I am not entirely myself. Connectivity is very bad.”
“I am also concerned about the Shrill and Oversight.”
“Sounds like that was your fault.”
“Perhaps. I am still concerned.”
“I don’t know what we can do about it.”
“That’s primarily why I’m concerned,” Lazrus said.
“Go to Oversight. Hope we don’t get shot at too much. Hope we don’t start a big corporate war. What else can we do?”
“You could go your own way,” Lazrus said.
Dian shook her head. “No.”
“Choices . . . there are no good choices.”
“You don’t want to be here.”
“Nor do I want to go home.”
“You have enough money to stay in Rockport,” Lazrus said.
“Not forever,” Dian said.
“Nothing is forever,” Lazrus said.
“You don’t die.”
“But I change. Even if I live a thousand years, I may be very different at the end of that thousand years. I may not be Lazrus anymore.”
“Every living thing changes!” Dian said. This was a stupid conversation. She didn’t want to be here. She just wanted to be in the air.
“I’m sorry,” Lazrus said.
“Men!” Dian said. “Every one of them after me.”
“Actually, I’m sincerely glad I haven’t had to use the male sex organs this body came with,” Lazrus said.
“Which is why you’re an AI,” Kerry said.
Back. With Jimson. Of course.
“I fail to see how it made me any more human,” Lazrus said. “Though I’m impressed with Dian’s restraint.”
“Restraint!” Dian said.
“As if I was ever interested!”
Laughter all around. Fucking men.
“Is this damn thing going to get us to Freeport?” Dian said. When in doubt, redirect the subject to something technical. That’ll distract them for a while.
“It is slightly more than a standard Kite,” Kerry said, smiling.
“Will it carry my weight?” Lazrus said.
“We made you. We know how much you weigh.”
“Yes. Sorry. Somewhat limited in bandwidth today.”
“And we’re not going to get shot down by a trigger-happy Freemar who thinks we shouldn’t be sharing his air?” Dian said.
Kerry smiled. “The path is already cleared. I’m less worried about them than the continued spoofing of Winfinity. They don’t realize where we are. If they did, it would be bad.”
“What about the Govs?”
“Their tribute has been paid,” Kerry said. “And your credentials helped, Dian.”
“Your status as a governmental expert.”
“I made that up!”
“They don’t know that.”
“Kerry, do you know what Winfinity is doing to Old Washington?”
“Yes. Kind of funny, actually.”
“And if the govs find out?”
“We pay more tribute.”
“I believe they call it tax.”
“Whatever.” Kerry waved a hand. “It’s time to go. Pick a harness and strap in.”
“How long a flight?” Dian said.
“A little over an hour.”
Wow. He wasn’t kidding, it wasn’t a standard Kite. She looked at the big radial engines, but they didn’t seem any different than the other Kites she’d seen.
Strap-in, safety check, up and away. The Kite surged forward quickly. Dian looked down at the tourist-littered landscape and sighed. The thrill of soaring over Mars was there, but it was wrapped around a hard little ball of fear.
Five minutes into their flight, with Rockport a tiny dot behind them, Dian felt her harness being lifted up. She twisted her neck to see herself being pulled under the canopy of the wing. She looked over in time to see Lazrus disappear behind the spine of the craft.
Fabric unfolded in front of her, whipping in the wind for a moment before stiffening. It formed a flat floor under Dian. She turned to see it meet the wing behind her.
She was sealed in a small capsule of fabric.
“Don’t worry,” Kerry said. “Muscle fabric. It’s been steeled for the journey. We can’t have the Kite flapping at 600 kph.”
The Kite leapt forward towards a horizon that Dian could no longer see.
One of the govs who met them was a pretty thing, heavy dark eyes and a smoky complexion, like coffee with heavy cream. That outward appearance of diversity, Jimson thought, the government ideal. Or at least they said. Jimson was aware that he knew almost nothing about government, but he wished in that moment he knew more, so he could say something clever, something so those dark eyes would swivel his way, and those full lips would spread into a smile.
Most of them were pretty grim, though. Wizened Martians and squatty earthwomen, eyes sunken and hollow, bodies blobby and unkempt. The few men he saw were thin, shy guys with wispy hair encased by old-fashioned headers.
Maybe that’s why they do it, Jimson thought. For the women. But if only one of them looked like the smoky-complexioned gal . . . Jimson shuddered.
The smoky girl examined their records on an ancient flatscreen in a small shack set into chain-link fence that carried signs reading:
GOVERNMENT PROPERTY! KEEP OUT!
Important Historical Preserve.
NO SALVAGE. NO LITTERING.
VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.
Colorful paper fluttered against the bottom of the fence, pushed there by the breeze. Jimson reached down and pulled a piece through the little diamond-shaped grid.
It was a governmental tract:
THE VIRTUES OF TAXATION: GIVING A LITTLE, GETTING A LOT
Jimson skimmed it, wondering at the fact that the governmentals still used paper. Made from what, he wondered? Imported from Earth? That seemed to be an incredible waste of money. But it was retro, it was cool, had to give it that.
The point of the tract seemed to be that if a person gave only ten percent of their income, they could get benefits kind of like Winfinity’s employee health and pension plans. Jimson wondered how he would get an income without an indenture, and wondered why he’d want to give anyone any of his money after he finished his indenture.
The smoky-complexioned girl’s voice rose over the local comm. “Yeah, you paid, but there’s that.” She pointed at the Shrill. Her voice, raised, was considerably less pleasant than her looks would indicate.
“We’ve paid for its tour, too, Miss,” Kerry said.
The girl looked doubtful. “Are you a citizen of any recognized Earth or Martian government?”
“I didn’t know there were any left,” Jimson said.
“There are plenty!” the girl said. “Cuba, Maldives, South Africa, Madagascar, Federal China, the Royal Family on Mars.”
“No, we’re not citizens,” Kerry said.
“Then I can’t check your records!”
“You didn’t need to check them before.”
She pointed at the Shrill. “That ain’t a human!”
“It’s an intelligent entity. Surely there’s a provision for other life forms . . .”
The pretty girl frowned and turned to two of the ogres hidden in the depths of the shack.
“We have any forms for this?” she asked.
Vague muttering: “No.” “Might be a terrorist bomb.” “Let it in as a child, it’s short enough.” “How much did they pay?”
“It might be a bomb,” the pretty governmental said.
“Are you threatening me?”
Kerry held up his hands. “No, no. Examine it if you want.”
One of the ogres came out and looked in the Shrill’s cage base. “Can you open the top?”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
The Shrill banged against the side of the cage, showing its underfangs, as if to drive home the point. The ogres shrank back and conferred briefly.
“It’s a dangerous animal,” one of them said. “Can’t let it in.”
“In! Now! Oversight!” the Shrill said.
“It’s the one who wanted to come here,” Kerry said.
“Kill! Eat!” the Shrill said.
“It’s dangerous,” the one ogre repeated.
“It’s just an act,” Kerry said.
“No,” Dian said, stepping forward. “It’s simply bipolar. You wouldn’t discriminate against a being simply on the basis of a mental disorder, would you?”
The two ogres gave each other nervous looks.
“I’m sure you have an equal-access requirement,” Dian said.
“We do. But not for . . . things!”
“So you’re going to discriminate against a helpless being that has no control over its mental dysfunction,” Dian said. She shook her head and looked disappointed. “We may have to contact our lawyers.”
More darty looks. “Lawyers?”
“Winfinity lawyers,” Dian said.
The hags covered their heads with their hands. “Shooting lawyers! But we can’t let the thing in. What would we call it? We have to have a form!”
They scampered back to the shack and dug through an incredible variety of crudely-printed paper forms, until they came up with a small green rectangle.
“Here,” the pretty one said. “Fill this out.”
Dian looked at it. “It’s a seeing eye dog form.”
The older ogre looked defensive. “It’s happened.”
The other one looked at her and said, “It has?”
Dian shook her head. “Can I have a pen?”
They thrust a pen at her.
Thirty minutes and several hundred credits in additional tax later, their small group stood on the opposite side of the chain-link fence.
The pretty one came out of the cabin, wearing a muted pinstriped blue blazer cut to look like part of a three-piece business suit. Her nametag said, KELLY. Jimson smiled at her, thinking, at least it’s the pretty one. But Kelly just looked through him.
“Thank you,” Kerry said to Dian.
“Don’t thank me,” Dian said.
Kerry backed off.
Kelly held up a green-painted paddle. “Welcome to the Operation Martian Freedom Monument and Preserve. This showcases the last major accomplishment of the United States government before its fall to the rapacious corporations of the times. This is a very important preserve, and I expect you to follow my guidance. See this paddle? Green means go. Red means stop. Just like the fifties. Stop means I’m gonna tell you something important. Go means we’re walking. As in, you’re following me. Not just wandering around wherever you like. You will not go where you aren’t allowed. Is that clear?”
“Will we get to see the ship?”
“The Operation Martian Freedom Lander is open, yes.”
Kelly glared at them for a few moments longer, as if trying to impart on them the toughness of her character. Jimson thought it was cute. He wished he was here just for pleasure, and had a little time to talk to her alone. It might be fun, trying out a governmental for once. Dian seemed like a cold fish, impossible to get to know. Not that he could let Kerry horn in on that, though.
Kelly led them over a low rise to a plain strewn with baseball- and basketball-sized rocks. Ahead of them rose a squat metal spire, heavily rusted, surrounded by scraps of khaki fabric clinging to aluminum poles.
Only one of the tents looked to be intact. New khaki fabric flapped in the Martian breeze, throwing back faint pink highlights from the clinging dust.
“This is the Operation Martian Freedom Lander and Base Camp,” Kelly said. “There are additional campsites higher in the hills, presumably set after the failure of Operation Martian Freedom. Some of them offer unique 21st Century graffiti for viewing. We’ll hike up to those after seeing the base camp and the lander.”
She took them into base camp. Tents stretched out over an area of about a thousand square meters. The remains of sealtite gaskets and a plastic sheen from the inside of the torn fabric suggested that the tents had once been airtight. Now, the dim Martian sun slanted down into them, revealing ancient food wrappers, aluminum mess kits, duffel bags, unidentified Kevlar cases bearing cryptic lettering, and even some things that were vaguely recognizable as squeezesuits. In one of the tents, a large-caliber rifle, heavily rusted, leaned against an aluminum bedframe.
Jimson polled his airscreens, but they were still dead. He sidled over to Lazrus and said, “You getting anything on Oversight?” he said.
“Bandwidth is extremely poor,” Lazrus said, his eyes bright and motionless. “There is no native wireless in this area. I’m going on fringe and bleeds.”
“So it’s not here?”
“I mean, you’d think . . .”
Lazrus shook his head. “Let’s finish the tour.”
They went into the big restored tent. Inside were posters of a Mars as imagined by the governmentals: happy families playing under deep blue skies, kids hiding amidst the healthy pine trees that grew from the red Martian soil; superhighways carrying futuristic bullet-like cars across rugged Martian mountain ranges, domed cities rising in the distance; families waving happily from highrise apartments that looked out over green parks.
A large banner ran overhead:
THE FAILURE OF OPERATION MARTIAN FREEDOM WAS THE LOSS OF THIS MARS.
Kelly pointed at the banner. “Always remember this. The failure of Operation Martian Freedom was the loss of this Mars. These are reproductions of historical documents preserved from the end of the age of government. This is what inclusion in the grand governmental ideal would have brought. A Mars that would be by now completely terraformed, covered with beautiful trees and parks, with highways linking clean domed cities.”
Jimson wondered why the cities would have to be domed if they had fully terraformed the world, but said nothing. He saw the group looking at each other, but he didn’t turn to look. He was sure everyone was thinking the same thing, but didn’t want to say it for fear of irritating the governmentals.
“Cooperation!” the Shrill boomed.
Everyone jumped, including Kelly. She took a couple of steps back from the Shrill, as if it might explode.
“Integration merger cooperation natural (yes) modes,” the Shrill said. “Sense made first time fragment understood clear path.”
Silence for a while.
“Is it . . . OK?” Kelly said.
“Functioning proper (normal). Continuing course! Show Oversight!” the Shrill said.
“Oversight?” Kelly said. “As in USG Oversight?”
“Yes,” Jimson said. And please tell me you have a backup copy.
“Oversight oversight now now!”
Kelly backed away. “I don’t . . . I might have to ask you to leave. That, uh, thing seems to be getting very violent.”
“Discrimination,” Dian said.
“It threatened me!”
“No. It didn’t. It was simply expressing enthusiasm about moving on to the tour of the Operation Martian Freedom lander.”
“Yes! Move! Oversight!” the Shrill said.
Kelly looked doubtful. “Are you going to behave yourself?” she asked the Shrill.
“Yes (will)!” the Shrill said.
Kelly nodded. She talked to them for a while more about the virtues of taxation and giving to your fellow person, then took them outside and trudged them towards the Operation Martian Freedom lander. They passed burned-out and rusted Mars-Humvees and individual transports, like Wheels, their Kevlar fabric gone white from centuries in the sun, their graceful curves broken and slumping. Kelly dutifully pointed out the relevant features of the war-machines.
Jimson fell back to walk near Kerry. “I don’t get it,” he said. “You Independents control this area, don’t you?”
“The Freemars do.”
“Not quite, but we do have ties.”
“So why not just come in here and take what you want? There don’t seem to be many govs around.”
Kerry sighed. “Violence is always the last resort.”
“Because you don’t know how large of a gun your opponent carries.”
“We have orders,” Yin said.
Highest Chambers appeared in her optilink. His image was rough and jerky, but she could see he was no longer under acceleration. Her low-bandwidth icon glowed bright red. “The Shrill is at the Operation Martian Freedom site. There are four others with it. You will capture the Shrill at all costs, even if it means the destruction of the site.”
“Highest Chambers?” Tiphani said, then realized her reply icon wasn’t on. This was just a general broadcast.
“Achieve this, and there will be bonuses for all. These are your orders.”
The door to the cabin slid open and Preacher Dave poked his head through. “You heard it. We’re approaching now. We’ll take out their Kite first, then proceed on to the Operation Martian Freedom site. Bandwidth use pegs them at the lander.”
“Do you expect us to fight?” Honored Yin said.
Preacher Dave laughed. “No. This is our job.”
“And we do it so well,” Alan said from the forward cabin.
Through the transparent window in the forward cabin, Tiphani saw a large Kite come into view. Farther off, a small shack marked the entrance to the Operation Martian Freedom site. Chain-link stretched off towards the horizon.
“Prepare for percussive conversion,” Alan said, his face stretching into a broad smile.
December 6th, 2009 / 508 Comments »