A Protracted Game: 1.1.4

Zeyk Duval walked the promenade situated between the Valles Marineris-Rail and the walls of the canyon itself. He was lightheaded from a night of heavy drinking at a local pub two blocks down from Green Thumb, his workplace.

A Protracted Game: 1.1.4
If you haven't read the Previous Chapter, please do so before starting this new installment. If you'd like to read this installment on your favorite e-reader or would like to print it out, in order to save your eyes from strain, see the directions under "Read First" for an offline copy of this installment (and others). Happy reading! —G. Michael Rapp

Zeyk Duval walked the promenade situated between the Valles Marineris-Rail and the walls of the canyon itself. He was lightheaded from a night of heavy drinking at a local pub two blocks down from Green Thumb, his workplace. He was trying his hardest to keep himself from puking or falling onto the hard pavement. Every so often, Zeyk grabbed onto a light post to steady himself, to stop the spinning. Between light posts, Zeyk looked up at the canyon walls.

The walls of the canyon were lined with skyrises, reaching up toward the paprika-colored gossamer dome, like fat and skinny fingers, bruised a swatch of corporate-friendly colors and chromed, bronzed, or nickeled in the right places. Much of the architecture seen in Valles Marineris was Martian indigenous, something created by the IMDC in order to fashion together a sense of belonging and culture on foreboding Martian frontier. It also helped that the IMDC’s investors shelled out considerable capital after MAP-1 to reconstruct Valles Marineris’ image, to say all was well for those looking on from the outside. Investors seemed to buy the lie, and so did those who were supposed to know better.

To Zeyk, Martian indigenous architecture felt like a cheap artistic forgery, something ripped off for a quick profit, with little concern for context and aesthetics of the original artists. Martian indigenous was not what he’d call beautiful or even unique—hence why he saw it as derivative and eye-gouging painful to look at. Something about the IMDC’s attempts to push conformity and give indigenous Martians and migrants a sense of belonging, roots in Martian detritus, stemmed from a need to avoid the mistakes of the past. In other words, they, the IMDC, wanted to prevent another Unpleasantness, a Martian political crisis that’d rocked the supposedly sturdy Martian foundations. Such events, catastrophes in their own right, scared the international communities across the Verse, particularly those deep pockets on Earth and Luna.

Zeyk was alone in his mental ponderings tonight. He’d turned off his familiar, Guy Le Bruiser, named after his favorite cartoon characters, a Martian creation and uniquely Martian at that. He even managed to turn down his neural implants, allowing his eyes, for the first time in decades, to see unhindered. To see the world, the universe even, unencumbered by machinations of his metachines. He saw the world as it was supposed to be seen—raw and painful and horribly incomplete, a failed masterpiece.

Zeyk kept walking down the promenade, even as he heard the chimes warning of the approaching curfew, a byproduct of MAP-1. He grabbed his wallet and put it in a front pocket of his jacket, fully aware he would need to show his Green Thumb badge to the IMDC-sanctioned thugs, who patrolled the streets after curfew began. The badge bought him at least another hour of thoughtless wandering on the promenade. Green Thumb had deep pockets and produced the majority of the megacity’s food, so his high-level association bought him some leniency from the gun-toting security goons, hired to keep MAP-1 alive and well.

He swiveled his head up toward the dome and then down to the pavement of the promenade. He didn’t feel like looking at the hopeless sky anymore. Zeyk, like many before him, was the byproduct of a fate tossed upon his shoulders. A child of migrant parents, he felt obligated to stay on Mars, despite feeling a yearning for a planet he’d never quite known. He felt an obligation to tame the great Martian frontier, one of the greatest human undertakings. However, a part of him died each time he heard mention of the frontier. There was no frontier. People were huddled in settlements, towns, or even Mars’ greatest megacity, what locals called Hotel California, strewn across and entrenched in Martian detritus. The frontier was a myth, and it sickened Zeyk. He once believed he was taming a great planet, only to find out that he was helping keep poorly paid and powerless folks fed, so wealthy businesses could thrive and cut up the frontier for themselves. Hotel California was a befitting name for a frontier of delusion, Zeyk reasoned to his drunk self.

Hotel California was the unofficial name for Valles Marineris, one thoroughly despised by Ares, the head of the IMDC. When Zeyk was still attending university, his parents joked about the IMDC’s attempts to create a new name for one of the largest canyon systems in the solar system. Locals didn’t say, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave,” for no reason. It encapsulated the mood of those who lived, day in and day out, on the Martian frontier—poor, tired, and feeling the hopelessness of a grand endeavor they never wanted to partake in or endure.

Zeyk continued his trek along the promenade, feeling queasy and unsettled. He was tired from a long day of mind-numbing meetings. He wanted to do something with some purpose. He found a faux wood bench, placed neatly between two light posts. On either side plants, purchased from either Green Thumb or one of its competitors. Designed, from what Zeyk knew of his own work, as a sort of carbon dioxide sink. It was also purely psychological. Humans, Zeyk thought, loved greenery. The greener the better. Add in colored and scented flowers, people tended to flock near them. Greenery impressed monkey brains, and Zeyk believed the IMDC used it as a sort of propaganda tool, in order to maintain the façade.

Zeyk’s head swirled while he sat on the bench. He thumbed the spiral carved into the faux wood. It was neatly polished and sure to resist any corrosion that his thumb’s oils might introduce. Zeyk began dosing off, still thumbing the carved spiral. He awoke a few minutes later, only to find that he was still on the bench, still on the promenade. He hadn’t been picked up by the IMDC’s goons—not yet anyways. He pushed himself up from the bench, only to find a loose pamphlet near his right foot.

Zeyk stared down at it for a while. It was a cheap pamphlet, probably using second-cycle recycled paper and inexpensive organic inks developed and sold by companies like Green Thumb. A picture of the Martian landscape filled the background. At the top of the pamphlet were white letters, outlined with a deep cobalt blue, and they read: MAP-1 Needs to End. Below that another line struck Zeyk as odd: Join the Indigenous Martian Political Party and Save Tomorrow for Martians. He let the wording sink deep into his consciousness, giving it some mental real estate to be nurtured and grow, before grabbing the pamphlet off the ground, shoving it into an empty trouser pocket.

***

Zeyk nursed his liquid hangover cure, while he read the fragile pages of the political pamphlet he’d found the night before. He’d managed to read the damned thing three times before collapsing and falling asleep, and now he’d begun marking nuanced points and wrote down marginalia for future reference. Each reading felt like a lightning bolt. With each jolt, he felt more alive, felt he had purpose, and he felt something was beckoning to him to act instead of sitting on his ass at Green Thumb. Zeyk kept his familiar, Guy Le Bruiser, switched off. He even used the security and privacy features on his neural implants to ensure they were recording anything he was reading.

Zeyk was, technically speaking, breaking the law. He didn’t want Guy Le Bruiser to be a witness to the crime. Under Martian law, familiars could be coerced into giving information to the authorities. Political literature, except the occasional approved political literature sold in respectable bookstores in Valles Marineris and elsewhere in the Martian Sphere. The seedier stuff, the books Zeyk craved, could be illicitly bought from those black-market purveyors. On principle, he refused to buy such literature. He knew his job was entwined with the fragile political structure on Mars, but he also knew that such purchases were never quite anonymous, as the street vendors liked to claim.

Zeyk relied on alternative methods to get his hands on the political literature he craved. He found database access to those Earth-based learning and research institutions Green Thumb worked with to be a wonderful source of uncensored political literature. He used scripts to download millions of peer-reviewed files, with the occasional political book being snagged up. Although artificial intelligences could sift through the millions of pull requests and deny his requests for such things, he knew it wasn’t a concern for most. It also helped that many of Earth, and elsewhere in the Verse, found MAP-1 to be a violation of ALLYA membership protocols, and Zeyk knew this thinking reached the deepest levels of the academy, and some governments actively opposed MAP-1.

Zeyk checked the kitchenette’s digital clock, and it read 0800. He gazed at the blue square numbers for a few moments before he kept reading the pamphlet. He’d an hour before his shift at Green Thumb started—one of the perks of being a high-level researcher with the company. Once he finished rereading the pamphlet, Zeyk folded it in half, showed it into an empty trouser pocket, laced his boots, and headed out. He wanted to stroll the promenade, so he could mull over what he’d read.

Zeyk made it to street level after a five-minute descent from his apartment’s floor. He pushed the double-door and turned on his neural implants and reinitialized his familiar. Guy Le Bruiser appeared in his peripheral vision.

“D’you know what time it is?” Guy asked in a drunken French provincial accent.

“Fuck off, Guy,” Zeyk muttered. “I needed some time alone—away from your sorry ass.”

“Well, somebody’s in a sour mood,” Guy said, sobering up some, with a stray hiccup or two impeding speech. “What can I do for ya?”

“Nothing,” Zeyk answered. “I’m thinking about taking a trip out into the country.”

“Ahhh,” Guy said. “Tres nice, monsieur. Tres, tres nice.”

“Cut it with the fake French, Guy,” Zeyk muttered under his breath.

“How dare you!”

“Stop it, Guy.”

“You’ve insulted my honor, dear sir. For that you must pay!” Guy blinked out of existence for a short moment only to reappear as a knight in shining armor, with lance and war-horse at the ready.

“Guy, I need tickets to the countryside,” Zeyk said. “I’ll throw in a little vacation for you, how does that sound, good sir?”

Guy nodded a stiff nod. “I will be forever in your debt for such accommodations, good sir!”

Zeyk laughed. “Good. Get me the tickets, and I’ll give you leave to wander the Sprawl for as long as you want, my good man.”

Guy blinked out of existence again. He reappeared, but this time his appearance was that of a travel agent in Martian indigenous fibers grown by transnational conglomerates like Green Thumb. “Where would you like to go, monsieur?”

Before Zeyk could answer his familiar, he felt the loud bass notes of multiple nearby explosions. He cupped his ears, but it was already too late. His ears were ringing. He grabbed onto the yellow railing outside his apartment building. He looked up, still cupping his ears. A billow of black and gray smoke rose upward, toward the protective dome overhead. A belching staccato of machine gun fire sounded from the general direction of the explosions.

Zeyk decided it was in his best interests to stay put, to stick closest to the safety of his apartment building. He knew in such situations IMDC security usually shot anyone who looked out of place, including civilians. The local substation of the Valles Marineris Prefecture would send a heavily armed response team, decked out in heavy body armor and carrying the very best of Martian indigenous weaponry.

As Zeyk knelt next to the railing, he was sent a Priority One skim from the Bureau of Public Safety: THIS IS A PRIORITY ONE BPS ALERT. ALL CIVILIANS ARE TO SHELTER IN PLACE. LOCKDOWN PROCEDURES ARE IN EFFECT. BPS ALERT 0820. He reread the message sprawled out across his wrist three times, before deciding he needed to move back into his apartment building.

Zeyk sprinted toward the double-doors. His security badge was scanned, accepted, and then the double-doors opened. Zeyk said a silent prayer to the universe, thanking the building’s super for not adhering to the lockdown procedures.

“Guy,” Zeyk muttered.

Guy Le Bruiser appeared in tactical response gear. “Yes, Zeyk.”

“I’m going to need those tickets worked out,” Zeyk said, his ears still ringing from the blasts. “I need a fuckin’ vacation from this place.”

“As you wish, monsieur!” Guy exclaimed, changing his avatar’s outfit into something more reminiscent of a travel agent with Martian threads.

***

Zeyk arrived at the little-known resort, just a hundred kilometers from Valles Marineris some twelve hours after the bombings forced the Bureau of Public Safety to lockdown Hotel California. It was routine—the bombing and the aftermath, that is. Some faceless organization claimed responsibility and proclaimed they would shake the very foundations of Hotel California. The authorities, particularly the IMDC and the Valles Marineris Prefecture, offered their own responses to the bombing: they would root out the perpetrators at all costs.

As far as bombings went, Zeyk understood this one to be a serious affair. Four people died permanent brain deaths—a euphemistic double-speak indicating there was nothing left to salvage from the victims’ atomized remains. Three others were in critical condition, and fifteen had managed to get away with a few scrapes, bruises, and bumps.  Zeyk tried to ignore the coverage of the bombings by focusing on the contents of the political pamphlet, which served as his reason for spending a month’s salary on a trip away that took him away from Hotel California.

The pamphlet’s contents included an ambiguous invitation to a Martian-Earth resort with a rather unsavory reputation. Zeyk didn’t much care for the resort’s reputation, as the Martian frontier tended to corrupt those endeavors it touched. He couldn’t blame the establishment for such things. Instead, Zeyk decided to consider this an exercise in seeing the true face of Mars. He’d been sheltered from most of it his all life. His parents, conservative people they were, couldn’t hide everything from their only son. Things tended to seep through, and the vileness of it all didn’t corrupt Zeyk, as his parents had thought it would. The vileness softened him, and it reminded him that life wasn’t all it was made out to be.

When Zeyk arrived, he found the Martian-Earth resort to be quaint, low-budget, and in need of some renovation: worn furniture, peeling paint, and few human staff members. He also found that his reservation included a stay in what the virtual assistant called, “the most luxurious accommodations known to Martian or Earther.” Zeyk doubted that, but he offered his virtual signature on the paperwork. He was sent a personal skim with his credentials for the pool, the dining room, and other niceties offered by the resort. Zeyk went up to his room, using the synth baggage carrier, a robot without its false human flesh, to move his heavy bags. His bags were filled to capacity with printouts of various political literature he’d managed to squirrel away over the past decade and a half. He’d made sure to hide the illicit materials with clothing, sanctioned novels, and the occasional gadget or two.

The luxurious sleeping arrangements were anything but luxurious. The room smelled of secondhand smoke: a mixture of tobacco, vaping residues, and marijuana. The room’s furniture seemed to be Landing Days chic, and the bed was lumpy from what he could see. The synth baggage handler placed his heavy bags near the bed and began leaving the room. Zeyk paid the synth baggage handler with a swipe over his wrist. The synth gave an inhuman smile that put the Zeyk on edge, but the synth didn’t say a word. It simply left. The room wasn’t much, but Zeyk felt like it was the first step into the unknown. Not a frightening unknown as he’d first imagined it on the overland train. Instead, it was an exciting unknown, one pregnant with possibility.

***

Zeyk headed down to the convention center of the resort: a small room with peeling yellow paint, broken viewing screens, folding chairs, and faux wood tables. The synth baggage carrier from earlier was doubling as the convention center’s maintenance staff, wiping down tables and sweeping the floor at the same time. When Zeyk crossed the threshold of the convention room, a purple-skinned human female avatar appeared in his peripheral vision. She was the convention center’s virtual assistant, who went by a name that was garbled in the software’s attempts at modern Martian English.

[How may I help you?] she asked through his neural implants. Zeyk didn’t say anything at first, but the virtual assistant repeated herself and pointed at him.

[I’m here for the meeting,] Zeyk answered. [I’ve an invite, you’d like to see it.]

[That won’t be necessarily, sir. The convention asked for more laxed invitation protocols. You’re welcome to any refreshments found within the convention center space. Please remember that we ask all visitors to be kind to our synth maintenance staff.]

[All right,] Zeyk said, using his neural implants. [Sounds like I can abide by those rules.]

[Good, sir.]

Zeyk walked over to one of the faux wood tables that’d been cleaned by the synth maintenance worker. He swiped his palm again, sending the synth a small tip, hoping it would keep him from saying anything about Zeyk’s appearance at an illicit political event. He knew it would be too much to ask for, but he also understood Martian social etiquette as well. Tips usually kept working people, synths, and other types quiet. Tips were the Martian equivalent of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” He’d learned that a long time ago, during his time at the university. The synth gave him a polite nod, as it moved across the tile floor at inhuman speeds. The floor seemed nicer than the rest of the convention center, and, in turn, out of place. It was a Martian Red, another IMDC propaganda tool, probably crafted indigenously and from Martian materials at that.

Zeyk sat back in his chair and began rereading the political pamphlet. He’d read it about three dozen times on his way to the resort. He’d used most of the whitespace of the margins for his marginalia. Now, he just read to pass the time, wondering if someone else would show.

About an hour into his ruminations and re-readings, Zeyk noticed three individuals crossing the threshold into the convention center. The purple human female avatar greeted each of them, Zeyk assumed based on their body language. He waved over to the small group. All three waved back, before walking over to his table.

Zeyk stood up from the table, placing the political pamphlet down on the table’s polished surface.

“Name’s Zeyk Duval,” Zeyk said, when the three-person group was arm’s length from the table.

“I’m James Rodriguez,” one of them said, his voice clearly synthetic in origin. He wasn’t your typical synth, though. Rodriguez sported a human surname, something indicative of his human past. Zeyk assumed he was someone who’d been ghosted into his current shell. An expensive procedure, but not entirely prohibitive.

“Nice to meet you, James,” Zeyk said. He motioned for James to sit. The other two appeared somewhat apprehensive about the whole arrangement.

“Andre Smith,” the tallest one in the group finally reported. His voice deep and his shoulders were broad. He held a synthetic leather briefcase, probably Martian indigenous.

“Nice to meet you as well,” Zeyk said, motioning him to a seat at the table.

The last member of the group, who appeared as a human female with short-cropped hair, didn’t say anything. She sat down near James Rodriguez, who appeared to be packing a Martian black-market special: a nine-point-five millimeter automatic.

Zeyk sat down and folded his hands. “I’m assuming you’re all here because of the pamphlet.”

The woman and Andre Smith nodded, but they didn’t say anything.

James Rodriguez laughed and said, “I don’t usually come to places like these.”

Zeyk laughed at this, as did the woman and Andre Smith.

“Well,” Zeyk said. “I motion for this meeting to begin. Anyone want to second that?”

James nodded and rose his hand. The synth body he wore was perfectly molded to appear baseline human. “I’ll second that motion.”]

Andre cleared his throat and said, “I agree that we should start, but shouldn’t we consider being more discrete about such things.”

“To hell with discrete,” the unnamed woman chirped. “I think we need to be louder.”

Although her voice seemed soft, Zeyk felt that the unnamed woman was a loud personality when well inside her comfort zone.

“I agree,” James Rodriguez said. “To hell with discretion. I’ve already broken at least a dozen laws getting here. MAP-1’s gotta go.”

Andre shook his head and said, “I guess you’re right.”

Zeyk chuckled and added, “The first things that gotta go is the organization’s terrible name. Anyone agreed on that?”

Everyone laughed. Even Zeyk felt himself laughing.

Rodriguez said, “I so motion.”

“I second that,” Andre added.

“All in favor?” Zeyk asked, looking at the other three.

Everyone said, “Aye!”

“The ‘ayes’ have it,” Zeyk reported, leaning toward the faux wood table.

“What are we going to call it now?” the unnamed woman asked.

“That’s a good question, partner,” James commented.

“Any suggestions?” Zeyk asked.

Andre cleared his throat again and said, “What about Concerned Citizenry?”

“I like it, partner,” James answered.

“Same here,” the unnamed woman chimed in.

“Sounds better than the crap we got in our pamphlet,” Zeyk commented.

“I motion for the group to be named, ‘Concerned Citizenry,’” the unnamed woman said.

“I second that motion,” Andre said.

“All in favor?” Zeyk asked again.

Everyone replied with “Aye!”

“The ‘ayes’ have it,” Zeyk reported. “Let’s carry on with other official business then, shall we?”

Andre laughed. “Why not?”

“I agree, partner,” James added.

“I’m thinking it’s going to be a long night,” the unnamed woman said.

Zeyk nodded and asked, “May I ask your name?”

The unnamed woman frowned and answered, “Dr. Olivia Abel.”

“Welcome to Concerned Citizenry, Dr. Abel,” James said, slapping his hand down on the table. “Well, we’ve got one helluva illegal political party here, folks. Might as well have fun while it lasts. I’m thinkin’ about asking that fellow synth for a round of drinks. What say you?”

“I second that motion,” Andre said with a laugh.

“All in favor?” Zeyk said jocularly.

“AYE!” the other three yelled, before laughing or chuckling aloud.

“It appears the ‘ayes’ have it,” Zeyk reported.


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