Friday, September 01, 2017

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 planet Mars
Hiding like a thief amongst the stars
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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What happened to HARRY? Larco Bengolin?????
What kind of a fuckin' name is that??
You call yourself a writer?????

Anne Omni-mouse

October 23, 2004 at 7:32 AM  
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