It was early evening when I hit the Mariner Strip, and up in the Lamina they were trying again for rain. With limited success, I’d say. Got this thin, cold stop-start drizzle weeping down out of a paprika sky.
I didn’t have the detail on it; I’d been too busy. Some newly written subroutine was what I’d heard, something consulted in from the edgy end of the industry, coded and cooked and cut loose somewhere up there amid the vast shifting gossamer layers that keep the Valley warm. Must have had some solid marketing muscle behind it, too, because the streets were crowded for a midweek night. When the rain kicked in, it felt like the whole city jammed up to watch. Everywhere you turned—people stopping to crane their necks and gawk.
I spared the sky a sour glance of my own, didn’t stop. Shoulder on instead, keep the pace through stalled knots of rubberneckers and eco-geeks talking shit. Anyone looking to actually get wet behind this shit would likely be waiting a while. In the pushy seduction of the marketing, people tend to forget—nothing falls fast on Mars. And new code or not, this attempt at downpour wasn’t going to be breaking any basic laws of physics. Mostly, the promised rain just floated and blew around overhead, scornful of the halfhearted gravity, tinged in the dying light to a blood-red spray.
Pretty to look at, sure. But some of us had places to be.
The Strip loomed around me—five-story Settlement-era facades in scarred antique nanocrete, repair protocols long exhausted. These days the inert surfaces are lathered by decades of storm wind and grit into something that looks more like flat expanses of coral at low tide than anything you’d call human-made. Back in the day, the COLIN engineers were all about huddling down—they ran the build either side of a broad channel dug out between the exposed foundations, mirror-image structures rising on either side. Sixty meters wide, that channel, and three kilometers long, bent just a little out of true to take advantage of existing fault-line geology in the Valley floor. Once upon a time it housed hydroponic gardens and manicured recreational spaces for the original colonists, all of it roofed in under glass. Parks, velodromes, a couple of small amphitheaters, and a sports field—even, they tell me, a swimming pool or three. Free access for all.
Now the roof is gone, and so is the rest of it. Knocked down, torn out, cleared away. What they left in its place is a scuffed and littered sunken boulevard, tangled up with barrows and street stalls, all vying to shift the cheapest product to the crowd. Get it while it’s hot, people, get it now! Last season’s discounted coding spikes, semismart jewelry, branded Marstech, faked or stolen—it’d have to be at those prices—and fast food, lots of it, steaming from myriad different woks and pans. Street chemists hang about on the fringes, pushing Twenty Tailored Ways to Get Out of Your Head in a Hurry; street boys and girls stand at corners, flexing a more basic route to the same escape. You could argue, I guess, that you’re still in a recreational space of sorts. But it’s a pretty gaunt and garish spirit of fun that stalks the Strip these days, and if you ran into it, you wouldn’t want to meet its eye.
For those chasing that particular ghost regardless, you reach bottom via long escalator tunnels hacked inelegantly right through the original structure—there’s one at the end of most of the cross streets where they back up to the stretch of Settlement-era build, hemming it in on both sides with architecture altogether less hunkered and hermetic, conceived for a generation that could suddenly Go Outside. The cross streets end, the expansive aspirational leap and soar of the Outdoor New butts up abruptly against the somber, ragged backsides of the Settlement Old. You step on the escalators under big cowled openings in the worn nanocrete, and the endless alloy belt ride carries you through and down.
Or—if you’re new to Mars, fresh off the shuttle, or some kind of nostalgia freak—you do the loud tourist thing and ride the gargantuan antique cargo elevators at either end of the channel. Twinned thousand-square-meter loading platforms, still pistoning massively up and down like the breath in slow lungs, smooth as the day they were put in. Got these tacky fake-historical stand-clear messages blaring out on a looped track from bullhorn speakers along the safety railing. Rotating yellow warning cherries, the whole deal. The grimy heavy engineering prowess of the old High Frontier, preserved today for your jaded delectation.
Either way—platforms or endlessly moving covered stairways—you’re left with pretty much the same sensation. You’re easing down slowly, sinking into the belly of something huge and probably hazardous to your health.
Fine by me.
I’d taken the escalator down from the end of Crane Alley, which put me about a klick away from where I wanted to be—slow going with the weather geeks clogging up the flow. And as I came out under the exit cowl, against all the odds, there was some genuine street-level rain to contend with. It slapped my face as I moved through the crowds; it dampened my collar. Put an unaccustomed beading of moisture on my brow and the backs of my hands. Felt pretty good, but then, so did everything else right now.
Three days awake and running-hot.
Over my head, early lights were coming on behind long-redundant storm slits in the upper levels of the build, hinting at sultry mysteries within. Club names and logos clung to the antique architecture like a plague of gigantic luminescent beetles and centipedes. And across the drizzling sky, the first of the ’branegels spread their almost invisible soap-bubble wings. Silver flurries of preliminary static shivered down their surfaces, like coughing to clear your throat. The images shook out, and the long night’s video pimping began.
I’d thought maybe, with the shuttle in from Earth and just docked that morning, we’d have some ultratripper montages or standard profile spots for Vector Red and Horkan Kumba Ultra. But tonight the rainmaker publicity led the parade—moody intense footage of taut young bodies cavorting on nighttime streets in a rainstorm the likes of which no one around here would ever get within 50 million kilometers of seeing for real. Thin dark clothing drenched through, ripped and torn, a kind of favela-chic thing, clinging to curves and declivities, molded round nipples teased erect, framing cold cuts and slices of water-beaded flesh. Marketing copy bannered repeatedly across the pan-and-grab footage—
Particle Slam Dunk—Get Wet, Why Don’t You! A Joint Coding Venture, Brought to You by Particle Slam, in Capital Partnership with the Colony Initiative.
Yeah, COLIN strikes again—ubiquitous, all-powerful corporate midwives to mankind in space. A couple of centuries back, when they kicked off their efforts, you could reasonably have called them a special-interest keiretsu. These days, that’d be like pinning a badge that says lizard on a T. Rex. Kind of misses the scale of the thing. If it has to do with the human footprint anywhere in the solar system or transplanetary haulage and trade between, then COLIN owns it, runs it, sponsors it, or will do soon. Their capital flow is the lifeblood of the expansion; their co-option of antique legal structure back on Earth is the overarching framework that holds it all up. And their supposed competitive market dynamics are no more real or significant than the posturing dance steps and face-offs of those svelte young things up on ’branegel display in the fun and friendly rain.
Meantime, the rain—the real rain, back here in the real world—stuttered abruptly out. It blew away to nothing, left a long pregnant pause, then started in again, weeping slow. Hard to know if the new code was working well; it could have been running that staggered feed as part of an energy-saving protocol, could have been teasing for effect, or could just be buggy as fuck. Eco-code geeks stood around all along the Strip, squinting up into the sky, arguing it back and forth.
“Toldya they’d get it sorted. Particle Slam are solid, soak. Whole other kind of outfit than those Ninth Street guys. Feel that on your face?”
“Yeah, just barely. Feels like some crap standard seepage to me.”
“Oh, fuck off. Seepage wouldn’t even make it down here. Look there—it’s making puddles already.”
I slipped past the debate, avoiding the puddles, filing the detail for later. Particle Slam—never heard of them. But I’m used to that kind of thing when I wake up. Eco-coding is a fast game even back on Earth, and out here with all the brakes off and gentle commerce smiling down, it’s so fucking Darwinian you get tired just thinking about it. Out here a code house can go from next big thing to dinosaur bones in less time than it takes the shuttle to do the long season turnaround. Takeaway for down-at-heel ex-overriders scrabbling to make a living: when you’ve been dead to the world for the last four months, you can miss an awful lot.
But some things never change.
Every evening, the Strip flickers to languid life like some faulty neon tube given a kick. It blinks and fizzles and settles down, gleaming slantwise and constant across the street grid of Bradbury’s old quarter like a cryptic grin, like a signal for eager moths. Saw it once from LMO—I was drifting in decanted, mission’s end on a mutinied belt freighter I’d sooner forget. Nothing better to do than prowl the silenced decks and stare out the window as Mars rolled by beneath. We chased the terminator in across Ganges and Eos, and as night fell I watched the Gash come up and around. Brooding rift valley walls sunk thousands of meters deep in the Martian crust, colossal piles and drifts of tectonic rubble across the vast open floor between. Here and there a dim, dotted crop of settlement lights, thickening and tangling together as they closed in on the big bright blotch of Bradbury itself, farther up the valley. And there, slapped right across the old city’s heart, was that big, bent grin, 3,000 meters long.
Everywhere across town, corporate logos and COLIN promo panels sparkle the skyline with liquid crystal fire, doing their bit to hold back the encroaching alien dark. But there’s only so much brand loyalty and belonging you can buy against that darkness, and the forces inside you know it. Deep down where the human hardwiring runs, the clock is running, too—turning over its lurid numerals like the cards in an endless losing hand. Just a matter of time before you wake up to that fact. And when you do, the knowledge is chilly on the nape of your neck.
Sooner or later you’re going to spiral on in and batter yourself against the lure of the Strip, like all the other moths.
Used to think I was different.
Didn’t we all.
Filament-thin whine past my ear, and the inevitable needling sting. I slapped distractedly at my neck—pointless irritation reflex; the code-fly was there and gone, as designed. Even in Earth Standard gravity the little fuckers are way faster than the flesh-and-blood mosquitoes they get their basic chassis from; around here, tweaked for local conditions, they’re like little stinging flecks of quicksilver in the wind. Touch, spike, payload delivered. You’re bit.
Not that I’m bitching. I mean, you live out here, you need to get bitten. Can’t live any other way. This is the High Frontier, soak, and you’re just one small part of the giant rolling upgrade that is High Frontier Humanity.
Problem is, four months behind the hatch and you’ve missed so many upgrades every c-fly on the block has you in its evil little postorganic sights. Three days back out and you’re a human fucking pincushion. Your skin itches in a dozen different places from the delivery punctures. Fresh gas exchange turbos for your lungs; melatonin reup version 8.11.4; booster patches for the latest—and shakiest—osteopenia inhibitors; corneal armoring 9.1. So forth.
Some of this shit you’ve paid to have inflicted whenever the new mods come in; some of it COLIN gifts you with out of the goodness of its efficiency-oriented little heart. But it all has to be balanced and bettered and optimized for performance and then bettered all over again, version by version, upgrade by upgrade, bite by bite.
And that makes it a dependency you’ll never quit so long as you live anywhere other than Earth.
Not that I’m bitching.
Vallez Girlz was right where I’d left it four months back. Same tired old frontage, just past the escalator outflow point for Friedman Boulevard; still flashing the same old looped enticement footage from five-meter display panels either side of the door. Same sleazy Fuktronica backbeat and subsonics from speakers hidden away. The screen on the right was still cratered and cracked from where they’d smashed my head against it in the fight, and something looked to be wrong with the feed—footage of the dancers kept shredding to a confetti of airbrushed flesh and hair, laced through with bobbing, disembodied long-lashed eyes that floated like tears in zero G.
Or maybe it was supposed to look like that.
Moving too fast here, soak. Where’s the pressure leak?
I forced my pace back down to a rubbernecker’s amble. Slouched with hands in pockets, hood up against the intermittent rain. It gave me all the time I needed to scope out the front of the club. Loose crowd of hopefuls queuing to get in, milling about in the wash of Fuktronica heard and unheard. Two blunt guys on the door in time-honored fashion, headgear the usual wraparound shades thing. And the same old superannuated Port Authority scanner hanging spread-winged from the lintel like some prehistoric bat about to take flight. Skinflint Sal Quiroga, same as it ever was—he bought that scanner at a decommissioned tech clearance sale nine years ago, and even then they say he put the levers on someone in the Port Authority back office to get a chop on the price. Leverage, he told me once, is the whole key to this place. You don’t got leverage, you might as well go right back to Earth.
Copyright © 2018 by Richard K. Morgan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.