by Cory Doctorow
I didn’t go back to the Junior Colonists’ Lounge for a whole week. Instead, I spent the time with my dad, who seemed pleasantly surprised that his son wanted to hang out with him. It made me feel bad, like I’d been neglecting him. But it also made me ask myself why my father didn’t think it was weird that I wasn’t spending any time with kids my age. Dad had always been busy on Earth, traveling half the time for work, spending his time at home with his computer over his face, barking angrily at it while his hands worked the keyboard like a mad player attacking a church-organ.
I didn’t mind, to be honest. Actually, I preferred it to those times when Dad decided to get all “dad-like” and insist on throwing a ball with me or take me to some kind of sports-match or play some game on the big living-room screen with me. It wasn’t that it wasn’t fun, but there was always a moment when we stopped talking about the game or the project and found ourselves sitting in awkward silence, trying to pretend that the reason we had nothing to say was that we were concentrating too hard on the matter at hand.
On Earth, Dad had been a hotshot statistical risk-analyst. This is not an easy thing to explain. But basically, what he did was tried to figure out how to balance investments to minimize risk. Say there’s an industry that benefits when someone finds a better way of growing wheat — the bread industry, say. And then there’s another industry that suffers when someone finds a better way of growing wheat, like, maybe, I don’t know, the corn industry? I forget how he explained this, to be honest, but this is generally the idea. So what he does is figures out how to invest some money in both industries, so that if someone finds a better wheat-growing technique, the investment in bread pays out, and if no one invents it, the investment in corn pays out. That’s the rough idea. What he did was like ten million times more complicated, though.
And anyways, it doesn’t really matter now. Now we’re going to Mars, and there are no risk-analysts. When we got to Mars, Dad was going to have to start a new business, or start a job, or something. He had bought us into the gold tier for Mars settlements — that meant that we were going to get our own private pressurized space, six months’ worth of food vouchers, and a million Martian Rayguns (this sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that a pressure suit costs MRG450,000 at last count). For this, he traded everything — every penny we had, our house, our furniture, our savings, everything. What were we going to do with it anyway? It wasn’t like we could take it to Mars. Our personal luggage allowance was limited to 15 kilos each.
“Dad,” I said, as we loitered in one of the corridors, nodding amiably at the other colonists as they went past on their way to the toilets or the common rooms or wherever it was everyone else always seemed to be going.
He didn’t hear me. He was looking into space, lips pursed, brows furrowed. It was the expression he’d worn back in his office when he’d been neck-deep in work, computer plastered across his face, only his lips and nose visible. It was weird to see him making that face without a computer. More than weird. Scary. Like he was seeing into a world I couldn’t see.
“Everything OK, Dad?” I’d never asked him that before.
“What? Oh, yes, sorry. I was a million miles away.”
“15 million miles,” I said. “According to the morning Barsoom.” That was the ship’s blog, written by some crew-member in Simplified. “But we’re closing fast. Mars in 49 days.”
“Right!” he said, “right. Exciting, huh?”
He said it so unconvincingly that my heart nearly broke. For years, he’d been talking about Mars and how great it would be when we got there. He hated the Earth, hated all the rules and regulations, all the whiners who wanted him to invest in “ethical” funds that gave up on profits so that other whiners would get paid more. Mars was like some kind of promised land that we were headed to, a better world for people like us.
“Exciting,” I said. He looked away. “Dad, you don’t seem so excited, though.”
He put on a big, fake grin. “I’m excited, son. It’s just… You know. Space travel isn’t as glamorous as I thought it would be. You know me. I’m no good at sitting idle. I’m just itching to get some work done.”
“How about starting something up with someone on-board? I heard that lots of people are starting their own little corps. You know, hit the ground running.” I couldn’t believe I was lecturing Dad about business. It was quite a switch from the years and years of Dad telling me that I should be more entrepreneurial, play a harder game of Martian Chronicles.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah. Well, that’s something I’ve been thinking about. But you know, I’m investigating opportunities. Don’t want to jump into something that turns out to be a bust.”
“Dad, what’s going on? Back on Earth you were always telling me to seize the opportunity, fail fast, move on. Why are you being so…” I wanted to say scared, but Dad’s face had gone all furious, the way it did, so I didn’t finish the sentence.
“There’s some things you don’t understand, kid, believe it or not. Some things that you’re going to have to age a year or two before you can grok ’em. Why don’t you run along and play, sonny?” He said it in the tone he used when he was telling off some idiot who just didn’t get it, someone who was a whiner or a bureaucrat. He often asked those people, What planet are you living on? Which I’d always thought was funny. After all, he was the one who wanted to leave the planet and go to a better one.
It wasn’t funny now. I slunk away back to the room and found Mom.
One of the other moms had come over to our cabin for a chat. All the moms in our corridor had found each other shortly after launch, and it seemed to me that they’d nearly instantaneously formed a tight social club. I kind of envied them the ease with which they came together as a group. It reminded me of when I’d been a little kid at after-school programs and the moms would all be in this tight cluster, chatting away merrily, even as the dads stood off in quiet clumps of two or three, twitching impatiently at their computers.
Mom and her friend — Ms Bonilla, who spoke Simplified mostly, though Mom said she could also speak French and Portuguese as well as her native Spanish — both smiled at me as I entered. I wanted to say something like, “Mom, is Dad losing his freaking mind?” but I couldn’t say that in front of “company.”
“Hello, David,” Ms Bonilla said. She was very pretty and young-seeming, and I remembered Mom telling me that she’d had a ton of surgery and took pills all the time to keep up her appearance, because “Mexican companies are even harder on aging women in the boardroom than American ones.” Dad had made a face at that — it was getting into whining territory, and the Eagle was a no whining zone.
“Good day, Ms Bonilla,” I said. That’s what we’d all settled on on-board the Eagle, where it was always morning for someone, always afternoon or evening or midnight for someone else, depending on which sleep-schedule you kept.
Mom cocked her head at me. “Things not so good with your father, David?” Of course she knew. She spent more time with him than I did.
“Always the same for Mr Bonilla,” Ms Bonilla said. “All the men. It is the no-activity. They can’t live with no-activity.” A lot of Simplified was like that, taking a word like “activity” and making its opposite by putting “no-” in front of it.
Mom sighed. “David’s father has it big-big. From big-big important to small-small no-important. Making him crazy.”
“Mars,” Ms Bonilla said. I remembered that she had been a “big-big important” too — the head of a giant cement company — but somehow she was coping OK in transit.
“Mars,” Mom agreed. Mom liked to pore over the Ares Plain Dealer — Colonist Edition issues that came in over the ship’s radio, especially the want-ads. “My husband wants start a corp on Mars. Not me. I say work for some time, see how all is, then start a corp. Why run without looking?”
“But Dad is –”
“He’s crazy. It’s temporary. There’s many no-knowns about Mars. He wants information. Wants to try things. Can’t do either. Your father is big big information processor. Without information, he starves. He’s big crazy with hunger. Understand that, David. He’s not angry with you. Just frustrated with the delay.”
That settled it. But if Ms Bonilla wasn’t there, I would have said, “How come so many other Dads manage to cope? Why are there are all these other Dads out there trying to form corps and get ready to hit Mars running?” But not in front of company.
There wasn’t anything to say to Mom. Dad didn’t want to talk to me. My only friends on-board weren’t talking to me (or was it me who wasn’t talking to them?). There was only one thing left to do: get back into the game.
Here’s how you get to Mars: first, you boost for a couple hours at one gee, which gets your ship really moving. Since there’s nothing in space to stop it — except a few stray hydrogen atoms and the odd gust of solar wind — it’ll just coast Marswards pretty much forever. So you switch the engines off and ride your momentum ever and ever Marsward. If you’ve timed it all correctly, Mars should also be moving toward you, swinging around the Sun at 13.3 km/s and closing fast.
Once you’re closer to Mars than you are to Earth, you flip the ship over, so that your main antenna array is pointed at the red planet, and reboot the ship’s computers, bringing them back online running a Mars-compliant OS that runs on Martian time. Then, about 90 days later, you turn the engines back on and boost away from Mars for a few hours, because 13.3 km/s and closing fast is fast — fast enough to turn your rocket into a cloud of atoms and a giant shockwave if you run into Mars instead of going into a gentle orbit around Phobos Base for transfer to a ground-shuttle.
We were almost at turnaround, which meant that we were nearly equidistant from Mars and the Earth. That meant that almost no one was playing the game anymore, because it was at 640 seconds of latency, meaning that a message sent to Earth took 320 seconds to get there and 320 seconds to get back, which made playing the game nearly impossible.
I’d planned to do an orderly shut-down of DBOS-Corp long before this, liquidating my shares and giving the proceeds to a charity that helped new players get established in the game, then leaving my lieutenants to break up the firm’s assets according to their share-blocks and either merge with other corps or try to make it on their own. Without my authorization, none of that would be possible, and the company would just putter on for a couple months until the fact that there was no one at the steering wheel caught up with it and it crashed. I’d put far too much work into it to allow that to happen.
Or at least, that’s how I’d felt when we left for Mars. Now, in the middle of the black and endless sky, it was hard to figure out what was so important about this imaginary company and its imaginary money. But there was a certain peace in shuffling the paper for my old, familiar company, making the spreadsheets dance to their traditional tunes. I was breaking up my stock, modifying the board, changing the org chart to shuffle corporate officers around. My lieutenants had been sending me increasingly worried notes by long-delayed email, asking me when I’d get around to this, promising (good-naturedly) to give me a real thumping when they got to Mars if I didn’t see to this in good time. Well, now they’d be happy. I fired off the signed orders to the Earthside game-server and waited patiently while the speed of light oozed its way across the reaches of outer space and over to planet Earth, and then back again.
But then it was done and the strings were cut. I was free. My company was no longer mine. I was, as of this moment, not a player in either the Earthside or the Marsside Martian Chronicles. I found I was pretty happy.
I set off down the corridor, whistling, heading for one of the observation decks, where there was a huge video-wall that displayed the view of the space before us, Mars glowing with enhanced color. I was whistling “The Red Hills of Mars,” a folk song that I’d learned at Mars camp when I was all of six years old, and as I made my way along, someone else joined in, her whistle a very tuneful trill.
Yes, her. It was a grownup. In a uniform. Specifically, it was Lainie, as in Lainie Lainey No Complainy, making her way down the same corridor just a meter or two behind me. She smiled at me as she drew near, her normal theatrical scowl disappearing. “You sure seem happy about something,” she said.
I shrugged. I never knew what to say to Lainie. She was everywhere, all the time, and always seemed to know the gossip before any of the colonists did. She was the only one on the ship who’d actually been to Mars: she’d lived there for ten years and returned to Earth on the first ship back to retrieve and orient the next batch of colonists.
“Just closed out my Martian Chronicles account,” I said. “It’s kind of nice not to have to worry about it for a while, at least until turnaround.”
She nodded. “David Smith, right? DBOS-Corp?”
“You know it?” I couldn’t believe it.
“Oh, sure. There’s only a thousand of you here — I know a lot about all of you.” She tapped her temple. “Trick memory. But you stand out, of course. DBOS-Corp, that’s a legend.”
I shook my head. “Not a lot of grownups pay attention to Martian Chronicles,” I said. “You really play?”
“I played on the Mars-side server,” she said. “Lots of us did. Gave us something to do, helped us get to know each other after we made planetfall. And so I looked up the game when I got to Earth, watched it. Didn’t play, though — no time, not while we were getting the Eagle ready.”
I said, very carefully, “I hear it’s a very different kind of game on Mars.” I didn’t want her to know about Vijay’s eavesdropping, but I also felt a weird kind of kinship with her, wanted to open up to her.
“Oh, you hear, do you?” Her face was still friendly, but I could hear a hint of the familiar sternness in her voice. “People do talk.”
I was self-conscious, like I’d said too much, blown it. I started to mumble an apology and move on, but Lainie stopped me. “David,” she said, her voice low. “I know how rumors spread. I wouldn’t want you going away with the wrong impression. Why don’t you stop by my cabin during office hours, and we’ll chat about this?” She looked away, checking her workspace — Lainie and the crew all had working workspaces on the Eagle, the rest of us had to use hand-held computers — and said, “Start in an hour. I’ll book you in for my first slot, OK?” It wasn’t really a question.
“OK,” I said, and felt a jet of sick fear. Spreading dispiriting rumors was one of the worst kinds of whining on the Eagle and Lainie had lots of punishments, big and small, that she could use to punish offenders.
The next hour was an agony of worry. I didn’t want to go home, didn’t want to go to the JC Lounge, didn’t want to run into anyone I knew, so I ended up hanging around Lainie’s cabin, on Deck One, the crew-deck, waiting for her hours to start. As soon as the clock ticked over to ship’s 1100h, her door clunked open and there she was, still in her crisp ship’s uniform, clean lines and a single gold braid around her left bicep. “Mr Smith,” she said. “How good of you to come.” She stood aside and ushered me in.
Her quarters were twice as big as the cabin that my whole family shared, and it felt very spacious, even though our house back on Earth had had bathrooms bigger than her entire cabin (she had her own bathroom, I noticed). She had a little writing desk and some pieces of red Martian rock in a frame over her folded-up bunk. The room was as neat as a pin, not a single thing out of place, no dust or dirt. Compared to the rest of Eagle — grubby, buckled — it was like an operating theater. “Sit, please,” she said, gesturing at a round fold-out seat. She rummaged in a small fridge and withdrew two cold bulbs of orange juice and passed one to me. “Thirsty air on this ship,” she said, cracking the seal on hers. “We keep using water for reaction mass as we go, which means the air’s going to get drier and drier. By the time we make Mars, you’re going to be as desiccated as a mummy. Drink up!” She slurped at her bulb. I cracked my own and drank it.
“Look,” I said, still feeling scared, “I’m sorry if I said too much. I know I shouldn’t be passing rumors –” She waved at me impatiently.
“Forget that. That’s not why you’re here. Listen, David, you’ve been kicking ass on MC for years. You’re about to start over in a new world, start everything over. And as you’ve heard, things on Mars are different. Not just on Mars, but in the Mars-side Martian Chronicles. Do you understand what things are like there?”
“I think so,” I said, carefully. “No whiners, right? No poves. Succeeding on your merits?”
Her expression was unreadable. Amusement? Anger? Impossible to say. “Yes, David. But here’s the thing: there’s always winners and losers, you understand that?”
I nodded. “Sure.”
“Even on Mars.”
I nodded again, more slowly. “What do you mean by that?”
“You’ve heard how things are on the Mars-side game?”
“Um. That a few companies control the whole game. That no one can get ahead unless they pay off the big guys.”
She nodded. “That’s one way of putting it. Another way of putting it is that there are some very, very successful people on Mars. These people saw the opportunity, took it, and made sure that they’d keep it for as long as they could. They’re playing the game better and harder than anyone else.”
“Wait,” I said, confused. “Are you talking about Martian Chronicles or Mars?”
She gave me that mysterious look again. “There isn’t really a difference on Mars. Martian Chronicles, Martian life. Why bother coming up with a functional stock market, communications system, and banking system when MC has it all built in? Martian Chronicles was built to model the kind of society that Mars, Inc and Mars Colony were hoping to build. Why wouldn’t you use it as the template for the actual Mars Colony?”
I tried to take this all in. “But it’s just a game –”
She looked impatient. “Just a game? What is any of this except for a game? Why am I dressed up like a member of some kind of space navy? Why do people who have all the money they could ever spend try to earn more? Why don’t you stab your friend when he gets on your nerves? It’s all a game, it’s all rules, it’s all play. It may not always be fun, but games aren’t just about fun.”
I struggled to get my mind around this. “The game is life on Mars?”
Her impatience grew. “Look, David, I’m talking to you today because I thought you’d be a smart kid. If you’re just going to sit there boggling at me, you can go back to your quarters. Get with the program, will you?”
Now I felt scared again. “OK, OK. I see. The game is life. Life is the game. Got you.”
“Good. Now, when we flip the antennas around, you’re going to get your account on the Martian servers and you’re going to start over as a total noob. You’re going to have to figure out how to survive in a game that’s plenty rougher than any you’ve ever played. There’s a pretty good chance it’s going to chew you up and spit you out. It’s going to do that to a lot of you. And as you know, I’m in charge of heading off whining, making sure it doesn’t happen. So I’m here to help you avoid getting into the kind of situation where you’ll be whining.”
I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about, but I didn’t want to seem dumb, so I kept my mouth shut and nodded.
“Here’s the thing. There’s a thousand colonists headed to Mars. You’re going to double Mars’s population. But let’s be frank here. You’re late-comers. The people who’ve been Mars-side for ten years, those people took a much bigger risk than you’re taking. So they’re earning a greater reward, too. That’s only fair. It’s a meritocracy, after all. But I know people. They whine. They complain. Even colonists. Especially colonists — when they discover that colonial life is harder than they reckoned for. And when colonists get too exorcised about their bad luck… Well, let’s just say that on Mars, as on Earth, there are plenty of people who are willing to take by force that which they can’t earn by their wits. And we can’t have that. We especially can’t have that when 1,000 new chums are fresh off the boat. That’s a volatile situation.”
My mouth was dry. I drank more OJ. It tasted metallic, like everything on the ship, having been reconstituted with water from the ship’s condensers. “Sound, um, complicated.”
“It’s not complicated,” she said. She managed to make me feel stupid every time she spoke. “It’s simple. The thing is, we want to head off any feeling that new colonists can’t make it on Mars. We need an example of how fair things can be, if you’re the right kind of plucky adventurer with the right entrepreneurial spirit. We need a poster-child for success in the second wave. This isn’t complicated, David.”
I reached for the OJ, but my bulb was empty. “So –” I stopped. “You want to set me up as a what? As a success?”
She smiled condescendingly. “We’re going to start up DBOS-Corp on Mars. It’ll be a very successful corp from the get-go. You’ll have lots of great contracts in hand the second you make Marsfall. Those contracts will pay off big, and bigger. You can hire your friends. Hell, you can hire your father. You will be a symbol of the fairness of Martian society. You’ll have some silent investors who’ll help you get by, starting you out with decent capital and contacts, and who’ll take a piece of the action. This is a good deal, David. You’ve proved that you can build a business once before. It’s absolutely plausible that you’d do it again. And having a 15 year old millionaire is going to be great news. Everyone’s going to go nuts for it. You’ll be a hero.”
The word millionaire hit me like an electric jolt, made me understand the scope of what was being discussed here.
“Lainie,” I said, and it came out in a croak. I cleared my throat. “Lainie. That’s really, really wonderful, but –”
She cocked her head. “I’m surprised that there’s a ‘but’ here, David. This isn’t the kind of opportunity that comes along very often. I thought you were a businessman, the kind of person who seized the moment. Hell, we did a lot of research into this. Went deep on all the colonists. There were fifty potential candidates, but you were the clear winner. Were we wrong?”
I remembered who I had been. What I had been. DBOS-Corp was one of the biggest, most successful corps in the history of MC. I’d built it with fair play, hard work, and smarts. And luck, of course. I wasn’t just a little kid. I was a success. I was smart. I had done something extraordinary. And I didn’t let anyone push me around. I sat up straighter.
“Lainie, you’ve made your offer, but I don’t make snap decisions. I think things over. This is no exception. I’ll get back to you.”
She nodded and dropped her offended expression. “OK, that’s fair. Mind, if you say a word about this to anyone, I’ll push you out the airlock.” She smiled when she said it, but not very much. “Ha. Ha. Only serious.”
There was a magic time there, after the latency to Earth became too high to play on the server there, and while we were still too far from Mars to do anything except look at slowly updating spreadsheets from there, when nobody thought about Martian Chronicles.
I trickled back into the Junior Colonists’ Lounge by dribs and drabs, coming in for a few minutes at a time, keeping mostly to myself, though I nodded affably enough at anyone who nodded at me, even Helene and Rishab, who seemed to be up to something intense in their private corner. I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything.
Here’s what I sent to Lainie the day after she made her extraordinary offer:
In regards to our meeting yesterday:
I have carefully considered your generous offer, and on reflection, I have decided to take you up on it. I am looking forward to a long, profitable relationship.
David Brionn Oglethorpe Smith, III
CEO, DBOS-Corp (Mars)
CEO, (ret’d) DBOS-Corp (Earth)
Not that I didn’t agonize over it. I wanted to make it on Mars because I was smarter and better, not because I just got lucky. But I didn’t just get lucky. Lainie’s syndicate picked me because of the job I’d done running DBOS-Corp on Earth. And let’s be honest: if the only way to win the game was to get in good with the big guns, I’d be crazy not to get in good with them. There’s no nobility in failing. Plus, I’d get to hire my Dad, which would be just delicious. Boy, was I ever looking forward to that.
That’s really what got me. Daydreaming about what it would be like after Marsfall, when we’d all pour out onto that strange world, bounding high in the fractional gravity, our body-clocks already adjusted to the Martian day from three months with the Eagle‘s systems running on Mars standard. We’d go to our housing, grubby new chums around the sophisticated, happy, settled Martians, and we’d start to try to find our fortunes. No whining allowed! Even when there were no fortunes to be had, no whining allowed. There my pals would be, my father and mother and everyone, trying to find a way to get ahead on their new planet, where all the good opportunities seemed to have been taken, and there I’d be, rebuilding DBOS-Corp, catching all these great breaks, growing more profitable, growing bigger, getting famous. Being a poster-child. A hero.
And I could be generous! I could welcome in the new colonists, give them positions in my big, successful corp. Even Helene and Vijay, who’d come to see me as the kind of titan of business I’d always known I could be. I’d been shocked by the idea that on Mars, Martian Chronicles didn’t just influence life, it was life. But after giving it some thought, I realized that I’d always been better at MC than real life, so why shouldn’t I be glad that I was heading to the place where Martian Chronicles ruled?
Nobody was thinking about Martian Chronicles in the Junior Colonists’ Lounge. Not even me. Once I sent that note to Lainie, I realized that there was no way I could possibly end up as a debt-haunted drone in someone else’s corp and my subconscious mind stopped worrying about it. The crazy anxiety dreams I’d been having ended. The fact that Dad was still all tied up in knots didn’t phase me. My future was set.
The second day after apogee, I drifted into the Junior Colonists’ Lounge. It was my morning, along with a third of the ship — I was on second shift, which ran from ship’s 0800-1600. I had a couple of my computers with me, a handheld and a bigger control unit that I used to drive my goggles and other devices. Both had just received Mars OS, the Martian operating system that ran on Martian time (each second lasting about 1.03 Earth seconds) and used Martian protocols and converted over the whole interface, spellchecker and everything, to Simplified English. In theory, it ran on everything that was computerized — phones, handhelds, tape-measures, music players, PCs, pedometers, headphones, cameras…
But in practice, Mars OS didn’t work as well as we’d been told it would. Lainie just shrugged her shoulders at the complaining colonists and told them, “No whining, gang. The engineers who built Mars OS have been living on Mars for the past 10 years. Technology has moved on. The source code is on the ship’s server. Some of you are wicked-techie. Figure it out. Or throw away your gewgaws and get used to living with fewer gadgets — or hell, wait until we make Marsfall and see if anyone’s made a Martian replacement you can buy.”
So that’s what we were mostly thinking about in the JC Lounge — how to get all our toys working again. Most of the cheap handheld devices were DOA, which was especially hard on us kids, since no one wanted to be a dork carrying around a huge computer that you needed a handbag or a backpack for. If you couldn’t wear it around your wrist or neck, or shove it in a back pocket, you wouldn’t be caught dead carrying it.
The kids who were really into the tech side of things had suddenly become monster rock-gods, able to lay hands on your precious device and bring it back to life with a few incantations. They were charging all the market could bear for it, too — getting some of the best stuff on the ship, filling huge, floating low-gee net-bags with booty: painting kits, knifes and multitools, jewelry, prize t-shirts, musical instruments… The pathetic possessions we were able to squeeze into our luggage allowances. A lot of kids were way pissed at them, accusing them of gouging, but I shrugged and went back to our room for my harmonica and my set of permanent grease pencils. If they could do it and I couldn’t, why shouldn’t they charge all the market could bear for it?
Besides, once DBOS-Corp was running hot and black on Mars, I’d be able to buy back my stuff and more.
But as I lined up to hand over my treasures, Vijay and Helene drifted over to me. They were bungeed together, which was a convenient way to stay close enough to speak quietly amid all the eddies, breezes and drifting debris in the JC Lounge. As they neared me, Helene held out her hand to me, as though she wanted me to help her brake so that they could join me in waiting in line. I was unexpectedly glad to see that hand. I’d missed them more than I’d dared admit to myself.
I took Helene’s hand and braced myself to help absorb their minimal inertia. As our fingers made contact, Helene whipped her arm up, keeping a tight grip on my hand, and jerked me out of the queue. We began to do slow donuts in the JC Lounge, dizzying whirls that stopped only when we reached a bulkhead and Vijay stopped me.
I went from glad to furious in three nauseous circles around the JC Lounge. Once we were Velcroed down, I glared at them. “I’d been waiting in line for an hour,” I hissed. “Now you’ve blown it.” That was the line rule on the Eagle: get out of line, lose your place. And the Eagle was all lines.
Helene crossed her eyes at me and stuck out her tongue. “First of all, it’s nice to see you too, stranger. Second, who cares about the line? Third, I can fix your stupid computers, and I won’t charge you anything for the favor. Fourth, we’ve got lots to talk about.”
I took a moment to absorb all of this. “You can fix my computers?”
She rolled her eyes. “Duh. I’ve been fooling around with Mars OS for years. I can’t believe the rest of you didn’t bother! It’s the bloody operating system that our new planet runs on! Knowing how it works is as important as knowing how to work a rebreather or patch a cold-suit. Give.” She held out her hand. I passed her my handheld and my main computer-pack and some of my peripherals. She pulled a chopstick out of her hair and stuck one end of it — it was tipped with memory pins, I saw — into the handheld and began to poke at it. “You’ve got your data backed up?” she said. I nodded. She stuck the tip of her tongue out of one corner of her mouth and unfolded a keyboard and screen from her back pocket and rubbed them against the handheld to get them connected to it, and then went to work.
Vijay had been silent until now. Finally, he said, “Dave, I’m very glad we found you. We have something we would like to discuss with you, in utmost confidence.” We were tethered to a relatively deserted stretch of bulkhead in the JC Lounge, “deserted” for the JC Lounge would have been “crowded” anywhere Earthside except for a mega stadium-concert.
He smiled. “My place,” he said.
He led us back down his private maintenance corridor, where his tiny leftover toilet was. We were strung out sideways again, Helene behind me and Vijay in front of me, and I hunched over a bit, so that they could see each other.
“You’re a very mysterious person sometimes, Vijay,” I said, trying for a joke and failing. Vijay did me the courtesy of a weak smile.
“You know what the crew are planning to do with MC?” he said. “You remember? Forming a syndicate? Offering their labor as a package?”
“I remember,” I said. “It’s totally illegal. And doomed. If the MC market is as tough as they say it is, the big corps will laugh them off and then crush them like bugs.”
“I agree,” Helene said.
“Me too,” Vijay said. “The problem is, they’re not thinking big enough. Look, these syndicates have clobbered competition on Mars. They have the whole thing sewn up. But there are only 1,000 Martians today, plus a few kids born Marsside. We’re about to double their population. That is going to be massively destabilizing.” I started to get deja vu. And I started to get uncomfortable. Didn’t I just have this conversation with Lainie?
“Here’s the thing. When the markets there go into chaos, all bets are off. If there was a leadership team with a new corp, a better corp, one that would give the new chums a better deal than the syndicates would, well –”
“Who wouldn’t join it?” Helene said behind me. I wished I could see her face.
“Even the old timers who are at the bottom of the food-chain. Imagine if there was a trio — a former senior auditor, a former high-powered raider, and a former successful CEO. Imagine the power of a trio running a company with the integrity of the auditor general, the guts of a raider, the acumen of a leading CEO! We wouldn’t have to take whatever deal the syndicates there are offering. We could topple the syndicates, institute a fair, competitive market –”
My mouth was dry. The thing was, it was a good plan. A wonderful plan. If they’d made me this offer before Lainie had made hers, I would have jumped at it in a second (and that’s without knowing that MC was real life on Mars). But now that I’d made my deal with Lainie, I had already committed to the same syndicate Vijay and Helene were planning on destroying.
I had a momentary vision of going to Lainie with this, telling her that I had two clever friends who’d be perfect at helping provide cover for her plan. We could start our radical, destabilizing corp, bring all the new chums into it, let everyone think that we were destroying the old order, and meanwhile, we’d be taking our own orders from the syndicate. We would be the syndicate.
But there were so many ways that could go wrong. Could I trust Helene? She was a raider, after all — she specialized in dismantling corps without regard for the work that went into them. Could I trust Vijay? You don’t get to be an auditor without being stiff-necked about the rules and regulations. And what if Lainie said that she didn’t want any “help” from my friends? What if she made good on her promise to shove me out the airlock for discussing it? (No, I didn’t really think she was serious about spacing me, but with Lainie, there was always a tiny corner of me that believed she meant it).
And there I was, trying to talk myself out of trusting my only two real friends for millions of kilometers in all directions. I felt, I don’t know, disembodied, like I was hovering over myself, watching myself decide to turn my back on my buddies.
I wanted to turn and run, but in the narrow slipspace with Helene behind me and Vijay before me, there was no way I could. And there was a better me, the me that wasn’t floating above myself, but the me that was in myself, sweating so hard it ran down into my eyes, that needed to talk.
“I need to talk to you,” I said.
“We are talking,” Helene said from behind me.
I ignored her. My eyes were locked on Vijay’s. “What did you call it, ‘utmost confidence?’ I need to talk to both of you in utmost confidence.”
Vijay looked grave. “Sounds like you have a secret.”
Helene sighed. “How come everyone’s got a big, dark secret around here?”
Dad burst into the cabin, outraged. “Is it true?” he said, his eyes red-rimmed, burning, his chest heaving. Mom leapt off the bunk where she’d been working with some of the ship’s polymer maintenance putty to make one of her little abstract sculptures.
“David, please, calm yourself,” she said, in her I-really-mean-it voice. We all listened when Mom got that tone. It made Dad pull up short like he’d been whacked over the nose with a rolled-up magazine.
He took a deep breath. “Sorry,” he said. “Sorry. OK.
“I have just heard the most remarkable rumor about our son here,” he said, gesturing at me. “A truly incredible rumor.”
Mom started to say something, but I got to my feet and she stopped.
“It’s true,” I said.
“What’s true?” Mom said.
I reached for my handheld and dialed up the ad we’d sent to every mailbox on the Eagle:
Announcing an altogether new kind of corp: The Martian New Chums Co-Operative is open to anyone who is willing to work for the cause of a fair deal for all Martians.
Because the deck is stacked on Mars. Four large companies monopolize all the wealth, power and privilege on our new home, and when you land, you can expect to spend the rest of your life working your guts out for the new aristocrats. You may think that this only applies in Martian Chronicles, but we’ve got news for you: life on Mars IS THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES. No one’s mentioned it to us yet (I wonder why not?) but it makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, why set up a government, stock exchange, messaging system, and all the other machinery of society when you’ve got a perfectly good one sitting right there on your game-server?
Oh yes, there’s LOTS they haven’t told you about life on Mars.
Rather than whining about it, we’re DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT.
The New Chums Co-Op will not trade with the cartels. We will make our own oxygen, generate our own power, and manufacture our own goods, buying and selling from anyone except the cartel. We won’t have the same stuff, but your rayguns will go to fellow New Chums, and their rayguns will go back to you, and we’ll all prosper together. We’ll be a democracy: one member, one vote. And we’ll help each other.
Want to join? Great! The New Chums Co-Op will begin signing on members in 72 hours, which should give you plenty of time to get your kids to show you how to use Martian Chronicles, get you set up with an account on the Mars Server, and verify what you’ve read here.
In the meantime, watch out for dirty tricks from Mars, Inc! Watch out for unexplained network outages. Watch out for your fellow colonists being arrested in the name of “preserving morale.”
Aren’t you old enough to make up your own mind about what’s true and what isn’t? Do you really want a big daddy corporation locking up people who say things that it disagrees with?
Membership opens in 72 HOURS! Meantime, any questions: ask the Co-Op’s founders:
Vijay Mukherjee (senior auditor, retired)
David Brionn Oglethorpe Smith, III (CEO, DBOS-Corp, retired)
Helene Gonzales-Ginsburg (liquidity specialist, retired)
PS: If we get arrested, the Co-Op is still on. Organize yourselves. No whining!
Mom looked at me as if I’d sprouted another head and three extra arms. Dad was trembling slightly, suddenly looking much, much older.
I leaned back in my seat. I’d known this was coming, had feared it, had come through the fear. It was a relief to have it out in the open after all the stress of wondering what would happen when my parents found out. When the whole ship found out. Helene had said to me, “The fear of the consequences are always worse than the consequences themselves.”
“I don’t think they can afford to arrest us, not after everyone on the ship has read it,” I said, trying to sound casual, trying to convince myself that I was calm.
Dad slumped. “I can’t believe that you –”
Mom put her hand on his arm. “Is it true, David?”
“Which part?” I said, again, trying for a nonchalance I didn’t feel.
“All of it!” I could see that, beneath her calm exterior, she was ready to lose her cool.
“All of it is true,” I said. “Mars is run by four corps, and everyone works for them. You can verify it for yourself — just create a Martian Chronicles account and start looking around. And yes, Mars runs on the Martian Chronicles server. Have a look and you can see it: our quarters are assigned, in the Burroughs warren, the spaceport is booked for the Eagle‘s arrival. The city hall forum is full of people talking about real life.” We had decided not to mention Lainie’s offer to me. I had promised her that I’d keep it a secret, and I didn’t want her to be able to go around telling everyone that I didn’t honor my promises. I needed to be squeaky clean if I was going to be on the Co-Op’s steering committee. “And it’s true that we’ve started the Co-Op. Technically, it’s just another corp, but Vijay structured the by-laws so that it gets to run like a co-operative. He’s good at that sort of thing.”
“Vijay?” Mom said.
“The pove,” Dad said. “The one he pals around with.” He sounded shell-shocked.
“We’re all poves now, Dad.” I swallowed, looked into his eyes. It was hard to do. “We’re headed to Mars to clean the toilets. That’s the thing that we discovered. And the people Mars-side, they’re fine with that. After all, if we were too good for toilet cleaning, we would have been in the first wave. They’ll say that they’re too good to clean toilets, and they’ll prove it by pointing out that we’re all broke and the only jobs they have for us are the worst, crappiest jobs. Anyone who disagrees will be a whiner.”
That had been the real surprise, once Mars OS was running on all my devices: the message boards filled with Martians fantasizing about how great it would be once the next wave of colonists arrived, how they’d be able to “solve the labor shortage” and finally hire people at “affordable wages” to do the real work of running the colony.
A tear slid down Dad’s cheek. “David, you’re making trouble for us, for our family –”
Mom pulled him into a hug. “Shh,” she said. “Sounds like trouble was already there.” Dad kind of collapsed into her arms and she met my eyes and made a little scooting gesture behind his back. I took the hint and left.
Standing outside the door was Lainie. She was perfectly composed, leaning against the corridor wall. There was no one else in the corridor. Lainie had that effect on people — if you saw her standing somewhere, you’d go somewhere else.
“Hello, David,” she said.
I’d talked this over with Helene and Vijay, too. Helene had been busted dozens of times, and Vijay had made plenty of busts. They knew how it went.
I nodded and held my wrists out, as though for handcuffs.
She smiled and shook her head. “Oh, I’m not going to put you in the brig, young Mr Smith. Not at all. The last thing I want to do is create a martyr for your little cause on Mars.”
(When I told Vijay about this, he nodded curtly and said, “Smart.”)
“But I just want to put a little whisper into your ear, a little seed of doubt for you to remember when we land on Mars, when the people I work for take serious steps to ensure that you don’t upset the apple-cart. You ready for it?”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak — barely trusting myself not to wet my pants.
“It’s this: you could have been a king. A CEO. Rich. Famous. Powerful. Admired. You could have had it all. But now, no matter what happens, no matter whether your little ‘co-op’ is crushed or soldiers on raggedly, you will always be a pove, and a leader of poves.”
She whispered it like a curse, and I knew she was right.
They arrested us 48 hours after Marsfall. Every Co-Op member. Conspiracy in restraint of trade.
We put up quite a defense, and accused Mars, Inc. of the cardinal sin of “whining” at every turn.
And they did let us go, eventually. And by the time they did, nearly every New Chum had signed up for the Co-Op, and the game got really, really fun.
About the Author
Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger — the co-editor of Boing Boing (boingboing.net) and the author of WALKAWAY, a novel for adults, a YA graphic novel called IN REAL LIFE, the nonfiction business book INFORMATION DOESN’T WANT TO BE FREE, and young adult novels like HOMELAND, PIRATE CINEMA and LITTLE BROTHER and novels for adults like RAPTURE OF THE NERDS and MAKERS. He works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is a MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate, is a Visiting Professor of Computer Science at Open University, a Visiting Professor of Practice at the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science and co-founded the UK Open Rights Group. Born in Toronto, Canada, he now lives in Los Angeles.
About the Narrator
Adam Pracht lives in Kansas, but asks that you not hold that against him.
His full-time day job is as Marketing and Volume Purchasing Program Coordinator for Smoky Hill Education Service Center in Salina, continuing his career of putting his talents to work in support of education.
He was the 2002 college recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy award for writing about the disadvantaged and has published a disappointingly slim volume of short stories called “Frame Story: Seven Stories of Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Horror & Humor” which is available from Amazon as an e-Book or in paperback. He’s been working on his second volume – “Schrödinger’s Zombie: Seven Weird and Wonderful Tales of the Undead” – since 2012 and successfully finished the first story. He hopes to complete it before he’s cremated and takes up permanent residence in an urn.
You can also hear his narration and audio production work on two mediocre Audible audiobooks, and as a regular producer and occasional narrator for The Drabblecast.