Friday, October 22, 2004

Chapter One - 4

Larco Bengolin walked quickly across the darkened runway at O'Hare SpaceCentre, thick fingers wrapped tightly around the handle of his Level One Security carrying case. Behind him the great engines of the Mars shuttle steamed and sighed as they cooled under the thin drizzle of the Chicago winter night. The other passengers would be delayed before disembarking, but what Larco held in his metal carrying case was too important to wait.

As soon as the shuttle had landed a heat shield had been rolled up under its nose by a Special Forces team dressed as ground crew personnel. Larco had slid out the forward service hatch and dropped to the ground below to meet them.

Holding his breath and closing his eyes against the deadly shuttle exhaust fumes that swirled around him, one of the team had positioned an oxygen mask securely over his face, flushing the mask out with a blast from the attached tank before tapping it to indicate he could open his eyes.

When he could breath comfortably again, he had pulled on a black SpaceCentre cap, clipped an orange rain cape across his shoulders and within seconds he had been transformed into one of the swarm of workers converging on the shuttle.

One of the team motioned Larco to follow him and led him a little ways away from the shuttle. He pointed into the distance to where row after row of dark towers repeated themselves endlessly, each one crowned with clusters of blinking red approach beacons.

They only make any sense when you see them from above, thought Larco.

"Walk towards that one, they'll meet you there. Good luck." The man turned and walked quickly away.

Larco was suddenly alone. The empty SpaceCentre landing field stretched endlessly, disappearing into the night in every direction. He watched, fascinated, as the rain deepened the pools of water forming in the runway depressions. The landing beacons transformed them into flashing puddles of spilt blood.

He began walking towards one of the clusters of winking red lights.

It was hard to believe he was back home; he had been gone for less than two of his three year duty tour on Mars and had never expected to find himself Earthside before it was over.

No one outside the company and military security knew he had returned, not that there was anyone who really cared. He would remain undercover and return in a few days on the next shuttle out.

A commercial airliner roared suddenly and noisily overhead as it took off from the nearby airport and began its slow crawl up through the cloud cover to the open skies above. He wondered if it was going to Eastern Europe, perhaps even to Moscow itself. The bleak winter streets of home.

There's nothing for me there anymore. Larco sighed, dismissing his past.

The flight from Barsoom Spaceport had been a long one, made worse by the Level One Security status of the message he had been chosen to carry back to Earth. He had no reason to doubt what Schiller had told him a month ago in TAFT's offices on Mars.

Larco hadn't liked living alone with that thought for the last thirty days in his cramped space quarters. The magnificent Sun Cruiser and its gay home-bound complement sailed serenely across the vast inner ocean of the solar system between Mars and Earth orbit, unaware of any danger, the ship at long last giving itself up to the welcoming pull of the home planet. They had boarded the shuttle at the orbiting transfer terminal and were soon plunging into Earth's atmosphere. No one outside a few select crew members had seen him arrive or depart either vessel.

The rain was coming down harder now, and he could just make out the dark shape of a car speeding towards him across the tarmac, lights out, on a course to intercept him.

Larco stopped and signaled the approaching vehicle, waving the case over his head for them to see. The lights of the car flashed on and off once, and he relaxed. A bed and a good hot meal, then later, if he was lucky, a real woman. The hot-channels on Mars had been abysmal; everything had been old reruns of bad holo-sex for the entire time he had been there.

He stopped and took off the oxygen mask, pulled off his wrap as he had been instructed to do and lifted his face up to the heavens and let the water wash over it, welcoming it. It had been so long since he had been able to stand under his home sky and he wanted to enjoy it while he could.

He could hear the engine now, approaching fast. He wiped his face and squinted through the rain, trying to gauge the distance. It was close, he could tell, and it should be slowing down soon. It occurred to him then that it might not be coming to pick him up after all, perhaps there was someone else on the shuttle that was to be met.

He turned to see if any other passengers had disembarked, but saw only bare runway stretching into the darkness on either side of it. The shuttle, now some distance from him, was lit up by a circle of beaming spotlights pushed into place by the ground crew. The deadly trails of engine exhaust and steam were curling up through the crossed fingers of the lights; the shuttle itself, transformed by the stark bottom lighting, crouched on the feet of its landing gear like some great silver bird of prey.

Larco heard the pitch of the car's engine shift upward and spun around to find himself staring into the dazzling twin beams of the approaching vehicle. He threw his left arm up to shield his eyes from the lights, suddenly realizing that the car was bearing directly down on him.

"STOP, YOU FOOL!" he screamed. Larco hesitated, then turned to run sideways, away from the direct path of the car. To his horror, he saw that the car had changed direction to follow him, its engine now an ugly roar as it accelerated even faster. He ran, the rain sweeping into his eyes in blinding sheets, shoes and pants now sodden and heavy with the water he was splashing up from the little red pools on the runway.

Larco turned his head to look back. The carrying case broke loose from the grip of his fingers and began to spin about in its own haphazard orbit at the end of the length of smartsteel, throwing him off balance. Struggling to gain control, he came down hard, straight legged, his knee locked tight. The metal case swung around towards his head, hitting him on the temple with enough force to fill his vision with a shower of blinding sparks. He staggered headlong towards the tarmac.

As Larco fell, he turned again just in time to catch sight of the front of the speeding car before it hooked him on its bumper and threw him, screaming, backwards over the hood, twisting his body as he flew head first into the the windshield, the scream silenced as his neck snapped and he changed direction, up and into the air. He was projected clear of the vehicle, now a dark ragged doll journeying across a darker sky, arm held aloft by the weight of the carrying case and cape billowing behind him until he dove back into the ground, spinning over and over, the orange rain cape wrapping itself tightly around him, stopping at last in an unsettling tangle of arms and legs, the case still firmly attached to his bleeding wrist.

The car slid across the watery surface as it braked, then backed up fast, wheels spinning until it came to a stop, headlights illuminating the lifeless orange pile on the runway.

"Put him in the back, and be careful, we don't want any mistakes made now." The woman's voice spoke without emotion.

Two large men got out of the rear of the car. They picked the body up carefully, grabbing the two legs and the left arm, making sure not to touch the case attached to the other arm that dragged along the ground behind it. They eased the body into the trunk, rolling it over as they let go, the attached carrying case sliding in neatly after it.

"Hurry, we don't have much time!" the woman called out the open door.

The two men hurried back into the vehicle and it raced off across the field, disappearing into the dark downpour.

One of them looked at the silhouetted face seated across from him.

"How will you get the thing off, madam?" he asked.

"That's none of your concern. When we drop you off, you'll forget about tonight. Do you understand?"

They both nodded in the darkness, eager to be far away from this dangerous woman.

Larco lay in the trunk, a twisted smile frozen grotesquely on his face. He would never have to leave home again.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Chapter One - 3

"Come in, Mr. Bengolin, and close the door behind you." The little man in the thin grey suit motioned Larco towards the chair positioned precisely across from where he sat. He pointed with his pen, not bothering to look up as Larco approached. Larco took his seat and waited quietly as the pen scratched noisily across the sheet of paper spread across the desk.

The most reliable tools of subterfuge were thousands of years old, Larco thought. This man didn't trust the electronic devices of the world that surrounded him.

The room was furnished in dark wood panelling, thick plum carpet, plants and real leather, you could feel the weight of it all. And smell the plants. There were no VR projectors here.

That's it, Larco decided to himself. You can't smell anything on Mars, that's what's wrong with the damn VR projections. They haven't programmed them for smell.

TAFT’s headquarters rose several stories above the surface of the planet. Larco looked outside the tall windows that rose behind the man at the desk and saw the ore crawlers coming in from the north, pulling their long loads across the frozen ground towards the distant blackened concrete of the space shuttle pads.

"I'm Schiller, Mr. Bengolin. Welcome to the Station," the man finally said, fixing Larco with his small dark eyes. He did not wear a wrap.

"We have a very important job for you, Mr. Bengolin. A job that entails some risk, I'm afraid. Are you interested?"

Larco knew he had no choice in the matter. It was a senseless formality to have asked the question. But that was how things were done here. The careful formalities helped to give structure to a world that was always threatening to collapse into a personal nightmare. It was best to nudge people politely towards their assignments. He nodded quickly.

"Of course sir, I accept."

"Excellent. Well then. It's a courier job. You'll be taking a package back to Earth and passing it along to another agent. You've been chosen because of your anonymity and excellent field record. It could be a step up for you, if all goes well."

Larco was pleasantly surprised by this. He had never anticipated returning to Earth so soon. He almost smiled as he nodded again.

"This will not be a vacation, Mr. Bengolin," Schiller snapped. His eyes turned hard as little black buttons.

The door opened again. This time Schiller rose from his seat.

"Come in Doctor, come in. Is everything ready?"

"Yes, yes. I have it all here. It must be sent immediately, Schiller. It's too important to delay."

Larco turned in his chair to see an older man with an immaculately groomed head of shining white hair piled atop a thick pink face. He was dressed in expensively casual clothes, his wrap studded in the small gems the wealthy found de rigueur this year. He held a brief case sized metal security container out in front of him, his hands gripping the sides as he thrust it forward, offering it to the room.

"We don't want to raise suspicion, Doctor Brandt," Schiller said, ignoring the case for the moment. "He'll leave on the regular flight back to Earth. You can't change the departure time of a solar cruiser without people taking notice now, can you?"

"It should have been made to leave days ago. A find of this significance is beyond all measure. You people obviously have no idea of the importance of this or you would have agreed to send a veiled transmission to Earth immediately."

The doctors face was reddening now.

Schiller smiled thinly, his dark eyes, half-lidded, tilted up towards the ceiling.

"It will have to be studied more closely before we can decide how important it really is, won't it Doctor? No one man can know for sure now, can he now?" Schiller said evenly.

"You don't think I know the significance of an observable singularity growing on the edge of the galaxy? A hole through which Almighty God himself is staring us straight in the face! I'll tell you the significance of..."

"THAT WILL BE ENOUGH, DOCTOR!" Schiller barked the order with an authority that stunned both Larco and Brandt.

He looked to one and then the other of the two men, his face a tight mask of command.

"There is no need to involve Mr. Bengolin any more deeply in these matters than is necessary for the completion of his mission," he continued firmly. "Give him the case, Doctor."

Brandt pushed the case into Larco's upraised hands and turned away. It seemed that for a moment the relief of giving up his burden almost won over his great concern.

"The contents of this case must not fall into the wrong hands, Mr. Bengolin," Brandt finally said, a great weariness in his voice.

He took his wrap off to wipe the perspiration from his brow. His tired, waxy eyes protruded unfocused from the thin pink-edged lips of their sockets. Seldom exposed, they were not accustomed to hiding the truth from people. Larco could see real fear there in the darkness of his dilated pupils.

"This information could provide certain people with a power beyond your comprehension," Brandt's voice was almost lost in a whisper now as he turned his disturbing eyes towards Larco again.

"The world as we now know it is threatened by the existence of this phenomenen, Mr. Bengolin". He bent over and tapped a crooked finger against the case in Larco's hands.

"To unmask God himself...who would ever have thought it possible? It's unthinkable! Yet I believe it is possible! And if the unthinkable were to happen, Mr. Bengolin..." The doctor’s voice grew stronger as he swung around to face Schiller, the finger following, sweeping the room like a tiny scythe, now raised accusingly towards the little man behind the desk, "...the potential for destruction is almost limitless! That's why the information in this case must get back to Earth, so it can be stopped!"

The doctor stepped back again, turned and lowered his face as he put a hand on Larco's arm. His grip tightened as his dreadful eyes pleaded for understanding.

"You see then how important this is?"

Larco folded the metal security case in his big hands and looked up with great difficulty into the doctor's naked eyes, trying to read the terrible mystery that lay behind them.

"Of course, Doctor. I understand."

He didn't, of course. He wanted to ask about the hole, that had truly shaken him, but he thought better of it. Schiller would not take kindly to any enquiries, he felt sure. What the hell did he mean by God staring at us? Brandt had sounded convinced about that. Larco wanted to get off the planet as quickly as possible.

"Please step away, doctor," Schiller ordered.

Schiller came around from his desk and placed a length of smartsteel wire across Larco's sleeve cuff; the end curled around and joined back into itself seamlessly, forming a snug loop around his wrist. The other end was permanently fixed to the metal security case.

"Read this, Mr. Begolin, after I activate the restraint." He handed Larco a piece of paper and entered a command into the keypad on his desk. He nodded for him go ahead.

Larco read the words on the page and the smartsteel loop snapped open, slipped away from his wrist, and hung limply down the side of the case.

"Good, it works. You won't need to memorize the words, Mr. Bengolin. It works by voice recognition. Just tell it to open in your own way. It's the only way you can take the case off. Take it off only when you need to. Your voice and the voice of the man you are to meet are the only ones that can release that wire. You'll be met at Chicago spaceport. They'll pick you up on the field in a car. Take your wrap off before you approach them, Mr. Bengolin, we don't want any eavesdropping. And don't let anyone else touch that case! "

Schiller paused, letting it all sink in.

"You'll be put on board the Solar Cruiser first. We'll send you up in a company shuttle right away. Keep to your cabin and talk to no one. And Mr. Bengolin...any unauthorized tampering with the device will abort the mission." He dusted at an imaginary speck on his sleeve.

"And I do mean abort, Mr.Bengolin," he barely whispered, looking up into Larco's impassive face.

The gesture had not been lost on Larco.

"Do you have it all, Mr. Bengolin?" He was all fussy business again.

Larco nodded again.

Schiller put his head down, closing the open file on his desk and opening another larger one beside it.

"That will be all. A driver will be waiting for you outside."

He was dismissed with a perfunctory wave towards the door.

Dr. Brandt, his wrap still dangling from his hand, now stood quietly under one of the large windows behind Schiller's desk, staring up at the first evening star to appear over the eastern horizen. His head tilted slowly to one side like an inquisitive dog.

He did not see Larco leave.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Chapter One - 2

"Here we are, my man."

The driver stomped a big-footed boot into the brakes and they squealed to a halt in the middle of the street. Larco paid him and stepped out of the taxi in front of the steps that led to the great darkened glass doors of the TAFT corporate headquarters building. The taxi horn tooted twice and the driver flashed him a peace sign as he squealed away.

Nothing was as it seemed in this world anymore, he thought. Like most people who had been here for a while, he had an uneasy sense that they had gone too far with the holo-projections on Mars. It was supposed to make everyone that had to live here for any length of time feel at home, but almost everyone got spooked before too long. It had an elusive falseness to it that soon began to eat away at your insides. Larco thought he was beginning to understand what a laboratory rat must feel like. But being surrounded by your dream vacation fantasy was preferable to living for years buried deep beneath the Martian surface in the bleak realworld underground colony that was Barsoom City.

He pushed his wrap up just enough to see realworld and it was as the taxi driver had said. Miles of grey concrete tunnel, broken only by the gaping mouths of inset doorways; the shiny silvery snakes of electrical conduits and the cold blue artificial lighting overhead. And of course the endless black bumps of the VR projectors disappearing in long neat rows into the featureless distance in either direction. He was alone on the street except for the few TAFT company vehicles pulled up on the sidewalk aways up the road. Those were the ones you passed with care when you drove here - they didn't give if you drove into them.

A hollow roaring seeped into his head as he pulled the wrap away from one ear and let the low rumbling din of the great underground city replace the wrap's carefully treated ambience.

Don't see any creepy-crawlys out today.

He felt relieved about that as he slipped his wrap back on, admitting to himself that this place was a whole lot more agreeable with the VR projectors running. He was aware that most people wouldn't be able to do what he had just done.

Thank god for being born a poor Russian boy, Larco thought. He laughed shakily to himself.

They do look like assholes.

TAFT projected a custom VR display from the the facade of the building that housed their headquarters. It was a period piece 1930's Mediterranean-style hotel, and it blended perfectly with the old Portuguese cityscape. The outdoor patio bar was filled with a sophisticated crowd, sipping seriously on tall drinks and blowing clouds of smoke as they waved French cigarettes and chatted under the inevitable Cinzano and Perrier umbrellas. The street beside it had its usual complement of beggar children, grubby little hands outstretched, furiously demanding money from the well-heeled patrons who ignored them for the most part; the waiters sometimes taking runs at them to keep them at bay. A black 1937 Mercedes-Benz coupe, complete with German consular plates and Swastika pennants flying on both front fenders, squatted on the street outside.

Larco took little notice of the scene as he walked straight through the front door of the Mercedes, out the other side and dragged his tired body up the steps to the front door of the building. Somehow, he felt like the ghost here, the one that wasn't real. The projections were taking over and wouldn't need real people anymore. They seemed to be enjoying life on Mars. If we could just teach them to work, the rest of us could all go home.

He pressed his hand up against the security reader on one of the opaque, featureless glass doors and in a moment its great hinges swung it silently outward and open.

A grey uniformed guard met him inside the door, and held him by the arm as he did a picture scan of Larco. Matching him successfully to his own security wrap files, he led him towards the reception area, still holding him by the arm.

The lobby of the building was impressive. Polished Martian black marble flooring and walls, unique in all the solar system, disappearing upwards into a complex honeycomb of yellow and chrome coloured glass grids that reflected an even, comfortable light from some unseen source above it. The paintings, wall hangings, and plants were obviously projections that could be changed whenever desired. Van Gogh dominated the walls, but the plants scattered around the room were a shameful mix of artificially colored tulips and what looked like unripened lemon trees. Larco smiled to himself. Even with access to all the world's greatest digital galleries and conservatories, some bumbling fool could still make a mess of it all.

"She'll take you from here," the guard said pointing the way. He didn't like miners. They were trouble, and he'd had plenty of experience with that kind of trouble since he'd been on Mars.

Larco approached the woman seated behind the white swept-back counter located in the middle of the great lobby, the steel of his work boots ringing as he made his way across the marble floor. The TAFT single T logo was emblazoned across the front of the counter like a headless crucifix.

"I'm here to see Mr. Ernst Schiller, he said. His voice sounded close and sibilant, the room reverberation filtered out this close to the reception area. "I've an appointment. Larco Bengolin's the name."

"Yes, of course, Mr. Bengolin." The woman smoothed her skirt over her long legs as she stood and smiled. "You're to hurry right up to his office."

He could feel his guard come down as he smiled back at her, then felt like an idiot for allowing himself to be so easily manipulated. He hadn't seen a woman this pretty for a long time.

"Walter," she called to the guard, "will you take Mr. Bengolin up to security, please. The air around her rich voice was dry and intoxicating. "Mr. Schiller's office."

She gave him another wide smile but Larco had decided not to respond.

The guard's eyes narrowed in disapproval as he spun about and pointed Larco towards the elevator.

"This way." He looked Larco up and down. "Mr. Schiller doesn't get many visitors. Especially ones that look like you."

They emerged on the 7th floor, the guard leading Larco down a blue carpeted hallway that led to a set of large double glass doors engraved with the same TAFT insignia he had seen downstairs. The guard pulled at one of the shiny yellow T brass handles and motioned Larco into the busy offices of TAFT security.

They passed through a large open room full of men and women at work. Most sat at the long rows of desks, faces intent on display screens. Some stood bent over in small group huddles, speaking earnestly amongst themselves, glancing sideways at the newcomers. A few leaned against the far wall and stared out the windows into the cold Martian afternoon, clutching coffee cups and smoking cigarettes.

Larco allowed himself to dream just for a moment as he passed through the room and into the corridor beyond. Perhaps this would be a way out of the lonely drudgery of field work. And especially his present assignment: the cold, dangerous work of the ice mines. He longed for a clean, bright office and the companionship of others he could be himself with. Whatever they wanted him to do, he was determined to impress them with his abilities.

Larco knocked on the half open door the guard had led him to.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Chapter One - 1

Six months earlier...


God abhors a naked singularity

Larco Bengolin sat uncomfortably in the back seat of the compact Martian taxi as it sped through Barsoom City's subterranean roadways to TAFT corporate headquarters. It was unsettling for him to feel the taxi ride so smoothly over cobblestone as it wound its way through the VR-generated old southern Portuguese cityscape. He knew he shouldn't dwell on the little paradoxes of Martian life - they could add up quickly to a disturbing reality. But there was nothing else to distract him; it was all he could focus on.

He had long since grown bored of the colourful hanging flower baskets and the picturesque white plastered walls reflecting the eternal summer sun of an Algarve frozen forever in mid-season. He knew every begging Gypsy child along the way, every wrought iron hanging sign painted the same tourist board regulated blue, the flock of sheep that blocked the road and the scores of old wooden Coke cases propped up against the shop walls full of wriggling snails, for sale by the scoop-full. He closed his eyes against them all, but couldn't shut out the unnerving sense that something was terribly wrong, that the damn taxi should be bumping along the stone roadway instead of riding smooth as glass.

The taxi filled suddenly and loudly with music:

"Red
Red planet Mars
Hiding like a thief amongst the stars
Red
World of the dead
Red planet Mars
"

A pin prick of iridescent ruby light centered the dark eye that swung around to the back of the wrap encircling the driver's head and held on Larco.

"They'll be votin' for the new cityscape at the end of the month," the taxi driver yelled over the song as he divided his sight, one eye of his split viewer on Larco, the other on the road ahead. He was large and black, wore a dark beret and spoke through a gap between the two big candy white front teeth that Harry could see framed in the taxi's rear view mirror. He turned the music down.

"Probably end up lookin' like this one again, my man. One goddamn endless summer after another. But I know a lot of people sick of it, believe me. Maybe this time they'll change the motha'. You never know...never know."

Larco stared out the taxi window, pretending an interest in the passing scene and hoping the driver would stop talking. He didn't feel like conversation. He wasn't sure if he was capable of it at the moment.

It was disturbing to feel himself losing control, to feel the growing apprehension that was slowly but surely swallowing him up. He hadn't felt any of the panick attacks he had heard others talk about, but he knew there was a battle going on inside him. His mind was trying to reject this Martian reality, like a body rejects the alien tissue of an unwanted organ transplant. The whole thing was wrong and he felt it now in the cold wrap of his skin, in the fullness of a tongue that had never sat quite so prominently in his mouth, and in the icy little fingers that tickled at his gut and made him forget he hadn't eaten in over twenty-four hours.

"Keep focused on the big picture when you get there," he had been told by the agent he was replacing before he left Earth. "It's the little things that get to you."

Like everyone that went to Mars for the first time, he had laughed off the advice. No one he had talked to that had been there could give him the kind of answers he wanted to hear. Everyone had spoken vaguely, in short noncommittal bursts or unfinished sentences ending in uncomfortable silences. It seemed that the things that bothered them the most were things that didn't exist, or couldn't be grasped, and that didn't make any sense to him. If he'd listened a little closer he might have recognized an evasiveness to their answers. But Larco was too young to hear that, and had already decided that Mars was going to be a cakewalk. Besides, each year served was three years taken off the twenty-five years of service required for retirement and a big fat pension. He'd still be in his forties with the good life stretching way out ahead of him when he completed his service.

Little bright knives of white-hot sun were flashing off the walls and windows of the buildings flying past outside the taxi window. Larco's head began to ache from the targeting. He ordered his wrap to filter out the bad light and set about worrying over his more immediate problems.

Larco had never been called into the Station before, as TAFT field agents liked to refer to their operational headquarters, and he didn't feel good at all about the way they had done it. There was a chance that they had blown his cover, and it only added to his uneasiness. Even if it hadn't been blown, the company had to assume he was finished. Sending him back to the mines now would be dangerous; he'd been pulled out in the middle of his shift and some of the Chinese had given him the kind of long hard looks that would require answers if he was to return. Sam Kwong and his boys ran the ice pit he had been working and you had to be good to fool them. Larco didn't know if he was up to it anymore; the prospect of facing them filled him with dread. The miners knew the company watched them, and if they uncovered company moles, they were usually merciless with them, especially the Chinese gangs.

The Chinese had been there from the start and as far as they were concerned they owned the mines they had emigrated to over sixty years ago. TAFT let them think that way as long as they produced the ice and ore they needed so badly back on Earth. The uneasy arrangement had held for the most part, with TAFT ruling the surface of the planet, the gang overlords wielding power in the mines and mining settlements beneath.

Larco began to kindle the hope that he was already blown and they were reassigning him. Maybe he would finish out his contract at the Station. There was always a need for experienced agents in training or communications.

The cramped taxi made him aware that he needed a shower and shave, but that would have to wait a little longer, along with the good night's sleep . They could at least have let him change his clothes.

"No time for that," the company pit boss had told him as he led him away to the giant crawler, its idling engines rumbling mightily in the thin air as it waited to haul its frozen load away from the Milankovitch Crater Mines. It was a twelve hour journey south across the bleak and icy Plains of Arcadia to Barsoom City.

"There'll be transportation waiting for you inside the city air lock," the boss had told him, indicating he should climb aboard quickly. He was nervous too, he had to live here with the miners, and knew all too well what could happen if you didn't watch your back.

I'll know soon enough what this is all about, Larco told himself, only too happy to be out the god-forsaken ice pits.

That thought helped snap him out of his growing depression. He finally succeeded in focusing on the scene rushing by outside the taxi window and tried for the umpteenth time to put his finger on what it was that always bothered him about Barsoom's cityscape. The VR projections were uncannily realistic, unmatched in resolution and attention to detail, but still...

"Personally?" The driver hadn't stopped talking. "I'd like to see a rainy Paris street scene, early 1950's, somethin' with some soul, you know, my man? How can you play jazz in a city like this?"

Jazz had found a home on Mars. It was smart music and it was honest and the people that lived here didn't like bullshit.

"You play?" Larco asked, mildly interested, glad for the distraction now.

" Tenor sax. Nothin' like it to free your spirit." the driver said. "Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, now that was livin' back then. Wish'd I'd been around to hear those cats blow.

Larco nodded in agreement. He had a point there. Larco had spent much of his time growing up listening to music in Moscow's jazz bars, although that was being generous. Most of them were really just abandoned basements that some enterprising young capitalist had set up shop in. Cheap Paristroika Vodka drank out of plastic cups soon brought an escape from the misery of their wretched, pointless lives in the blind drunkeness it offered. Vile handrolled Cuban cigarettes would set the whole place into coughing fits. And no one ever bothered to clean the dark stains dried on the walls and floors from the fights that broke out on too many nights. But the music made you forget all that. Larco knew exactly what the driver meant.

The taxi flashed through a zipper zone and they were back where they had started from, the myth proven true. If you travel far enough through Barsoom City, they say, you'll eventually end up where you started. Larco had soon found out that there was nothing profound attached to that notion, nothing behind it at all except the laughter of the city's good citizens at the expense of new arrivals to the great underground Martian colony.

"Revolution comin', you know what I mean, my man? People weren't meant to live like this. Know what's underneath this movie they've been holdin' over forever? Concrete walls, that's all. Shiny smooth concrete walls with VR projectors built in like big black assholes. Thousands of 'em spewin' out this shit we gotta live in day in - day out. Just one big goddamn 3d holo-fuckin' theatre is what we're livin' in here.

At least they change the movies in the theatres every week, Larco thought. You have to put up with this for a whole year before they vote in a new cityscape. And the whole thing repeats itself over and over again, stitched together by zipper zones every couple of miles. No matter what the ads claimed, it was still artificial reality; even a lifetime of conditioning couldn't change the fact that the brain is an animal not easily fooled. No wonder so many people lose it up here.

"I was here when the power failed once some years back," the driver continued. "Scared the hell outta me. Things livin' underneath all this pretty sugarcoatin'. Things crawlin' and scurryin' under the emergency lights like I never seen before."

Larco thought he felt a bump on the road.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Prologue To A Future - 2

Harry swatted at the flies again, then fumbled through the pockets of his soiled jacket until he found a half-smoked butt and his old Zippo. He lit up the butt and hauled off on it a few times. The dizzy euphoria spread through him and smoothed his head out enough to let him take stock of the situation. So where do we go from here ? Harry thought.

With the net down, a lot of those young Special Forces soldiers down there would be bare-eyeballing it for the first time in a whole lot of years. The holowraps these kids had grown up wearing were good - too good. But if you had the credit, who could resist a designer reality? Or ever want to go back to realworld? Once you were hooked, the only escape from it was the old cold-eyeball, and that took some getting used to if you had been wearing a wrap since you could walk. What made it even worse for those young soldiers down there was losing the terrain scanners built into the holo-arrays of their battle helmets.

Jesus, those guys are running around like blind dogs with their noses cut off! He shuddered at the thought of how strange the world had become.

You're old man's money is no good here, kid - take a good long look at the real world. It was bound to catch up with you sooner or later.

"Seeing is believing!" The words hissed unexpectedly out of Harry's mouth, startling him. The reflection of his voice off the surrounding rock walls sounded like someone else, and he didn't like the sound of it.

He knew it really wasn't them he should blame. Maybe it was more his fault in the end than theirs. After all, he had been born into that world in the not so distant past where you trusted your own god-given senses - not the narrow lens of someone else's VR machine. Maybe he was as much to blame as anyone for letting it get away from them all the way it had. Not that it mattered now.

Harry lifted the cigarette to his mouth again and realized it had died. As he cupped a hand around it and thumbed the Zippo to relight it, he heard the helicopter return. He squinted through the smoke. This time it came into view, though still at a distance. It was an ancient twin rotor Chinook dressed in flat army green with the powder blue Virtual Nation Cavalry insignia painted on its nose.

Astonished, he watched the the thing fly past, blowing a long trail of blue smoke behind. It moved away to the far end of the valley, fading out of earshot for awhile, gradually beating its way back again to full volume as it passed by below his position. The helicopter was working its way up the mountain slopes, getting closer each time it returned. He knew it must be looking for him.

Where the hell did they dig that relic up from? Harry thought, shocked at the sight of the thing. And where would they find a crew to run it? Maybe the government had been prepared for the Net going down. Or at least the military. They couldn't all have been lulled to sleep by it.

Harry took another long drag off the butt, feeling the heat of it against his fingers.

They got burned. Boy, did they get burned.

The military had relied heavily on the Net; like everyone else they had bought into the idea that it was indestructible because it was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. They had gambled on it to give them the virtual eyes and ears they needed to wage successful war. They had gambled and lost.

Well, they weren't all that stupid, thought Harry. They must have had a bunch of old surplus stuff salted away for a rainy day like today.

He knew it would take awhile to reconfigure computers and cockpit displays before getting their flyers back into the air. One thing hadn't changed - you still had to be able to see where you were going. With the old Chinook all you did was look out the window and there you were. WYSIWYG. What You See Is What You Get. Beautiful. Couldn't be simpler.

Seeing is believing!

Harry ground the butt into the dirt beside him. That was his last, and he felt the ache of an uncertain future begin to open up ahead.

The ocean winds began to rise, sweeping up into the valley; sighing like surf as they pushed their way up through the thick stand of forest surrounding him. The winds brought the cold of the sea with them, filling him with an awful dread. He didn't want to die here like this; his bones picked clean by wild animals and left to bleach on this pile of rock. Would anyone even miss him? Probably not. He had no family that he knew of. He'd met more good women in his life than he deserved, and he'd turned his back and walked away from them all. He'd been a fool; he could see that now. It came to him now with an alarming clarity that he may have left the most important things in life too late.

Why do we always put off these these kinds of realizations until the worst of times?

Harry had never felt so alone.

He pulled himself back further into his rocky shelter as the chopper roared by again, quite near now, raising clouds of dust as it buffeted the air with its big blades. It might be a relic, thought Harry, but the waist guns the crew manned were deadly medium lasers.

The world will have to start all over again.. Will we learn anything from our mistakes?

Harry didn't like being a pessimist, but his life had ground it into him, one bad day after another. He looked up into the remarkable blue sky above him and he laughed: at his present predicament, at everything that had happened in the last six months, at his whole life up until that moment. He laughed until his leg began to take notice and sent him a message that made his face knot up in pain again.

A weariness swept over him now that could not be resisted. His eyelids, heavy as tombstones, slid down and locked shut. There was some kind of writing chiseled in wavy red strokes across the back of them, but it was too close to focus on. Anyways, he was more interested in watching his feet; they were slowly being swallowed up by a luminous hole that had opened up in front of him. A white flourescence shone from somewhere deep inside it, licking first at his feet and now his lower legs, surrounding them with a warm lambent glow. He could hear voices as well; one of them he recognized as his own. It was telling him he should run, run as fast as his legs could carry him. But it was useless to run any further, he told himself. Fact was, even if he could, he didn't want to. He wanted it to end now, one way or the other.

There was no running left in him.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Prologue To A Future - 1

The net was down....

Inspector Harry Monday rested in the sunlight, high up the river gorge, his back pressed against the warm mountain granite that lined the walls of the stony pocket he had taken refuge in. The mountain fell away in front of him, throwing the river cascading out and down into a steep forested valley that plunged towards the thin grey line of old Highway 99, and beyond that to the shining silver plate of Howe Sound.

He opened his eyes and brushed at the flies that kept gathering over the open burn wound on his leg.

"Not dead yet!"

He swore as he swept them away with an open hand.

It was just plain bad luck that had finally caught up with him. He still hadn't been spotted by any of the Special Forces search teams that were combing the tangled mountainsides for him, but he knew it was just a matter of time.

Harry leaned out to look over the edge of the cliff in front of him, then gasped as pain ripped through his body. The shock ran like bad electricity from his injured right leg up through the twisting nerve ends in back of his teeth, exploding somewhere just behind his eyes. He held his breath and sat completely still until things swam back into focus.

"Would've made it, if it wasn't for this," he muttered in disgust, wincing as he moved back carefully, waiting for his leg to quiet down.

Harry eased up against the wall again and reached around to check that his pistol was where he had left it, tucked into his belt behind him. For the hundrenth time that morning he ran his fingers over his police badge to make sure it was still hanging from the left chest pocket of his beat up old fatigue jacket. His fingers were scraped and stiffened from the climb and exposure to the cold of the night before.

"Won't be playing piano for a while," he said, as he held his hands out in front of himself to view them. He tried to laugh. A wisp of wind carried faint voices and the clatter of equipment up from the valley bottom, silencing him.

Harry rubbed with renewed energy at the filthy gold badge, polishing it with his dirty sleeve until it glinted in the sunlight like new. The lettering on it became clear; it read City of Vancouver Police Department - Homocide Division. Hopefully they'd see that first and slow up long enough to ask some questions. A week in the bush could change the way people look at you.

Harry had to keep reminding himself to keep his hands away from his body, but not too far. He might need his gun after all. It wouldn't do to give those totally freaked military types down there an excuse to just blow him away. He still wanted some questions answered, although he didn't think the people he wanted to talk to would be in any mood to talk to him. Judging from all the trouble they'd gone to, he suspected they had other plans for Harry Monday.

Harry had awakened earlier that morning to the rattle of helicopter blades approaching. He had fought through the fog that clouded his head, struggling to hear more clearly as the helicopter came closer. A kind of nameless peace had attached itself to the sound. It was as if the noisy machine was part of some forgotten scene from his own lost childhood, a moment where he had been truly happy. But he was uncertain; there were no pictures in his mind, just a sense of place, of feeling home. Was it memory or the first intoxicating flush of fever that was beginning to course through his body? Thirst took hold of him, and he had pulled himself close enough to drink from the mountain stream that plunged over the cliff before him and crashed into the rocks of the river bed far below.

The craft had approached unseen along the base of the cliff below, hovered for a moment, then seemed to turn at the foot of the falls, probably to follow the rocky riverbed downstream. He felt the sensation leave him as the blades thumped off into the distance, and he had slipped off to sleep again.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Preface

I started working on this novel, Vitual Nations, several years back and didn't finish it due to circumstances in my life that forced me to abandon it for a time. Now I'm back more or less to where I was before and am interested in pursuing this thing again. The reason I say "thing" is because it's a monster; a gigantic future world that could take several books to tell the whole story. I'm afraid to start again to tell the truth. That's why I've started this blog... or blogel as I'm beginning to think of it.

I'm thinking that if I start feeding out what I've done up to this point in short, easily assimilated, daily blog bursts I might be able to get a sense of whether or not there is an interest in this "thing". If so, I'll continue to write it. Maybe even get a publisher interested in it.

At the time I started writing Virtual Nations I found that I was having a difficult time finding books that I could sink my teeth into and hold me, so I thought I'd try and write something that I would like to read.

Only you, the readers, can tell me if I've been successful.