Monday, 10 September 2007

Welcome to Mars! - Part One


Welcome to Mars! is a story told in three episodes, posted serially by me, your sponsor-endorsing host, Cheeseburger Brown.

Related reading: The Long Man, Plight of the Transformer

Our story of interplanetary conquest begins:



1/3

Every television on Earth was tuned to same channel.

The Internet groaned under the weight of the endlessly swapped video streams, the excited and sometimes vicious commentary, the shared experience of teleparties and the insatiable thirst of the commercial concerns to capitalize on the event with sales and contests, puzzles and games, spam and swindles. Each network had tailored its own theme music and inspiring graphics; each government agency stood on alert with a stack of speeches pre-written to cover any contingency.

Words painted in laser light were spread over the face of the Moon itself, proudly glowing letters dozens of kilometers wide: Pepsi Presents - Planetfall Mars.

Sixty million kilometers away the object of the world's scrutiny plummeted through an airless void, its flotsam-pitted nose pointed into the swelling maw of the red planet. The burnished globe cast bloody highlights on the ship's proud white hull, pristine save for streaks of grime painted backward from the odd seam, and the radial halos of advertisements clustered around the exterior cameras.

She was called Pinnacle, and her name was underlined by the flags of several of Earth's wealthiest nations.

The ship was a modified Orion with an extended service module to accommodate the descent-ascent vehicle. Twin solar panels extended from port and starboard, like moth wings. They had Pepsi logos on them. By way of further decoration one of the thruster housings had been signed by a thousand children dying of cancer. The thrusters within were now dark. Pinnacle was coasting. She was engaged in a long, slow fall.

Mars waited; Mars pulled.

In her wake Pinnacle left a sparse trail of debris, like discarded plastic food containers, compressed cubes of the unreclaimable faecal detritus, and the shrouded corpse of Mission Specialist Lillian Cheswick. Cheswick had taken her own life for reasons NASA's top psychologists were still struggling to understand, her frozen body destined to spin in space for centuries, an infinitesimal dollop of jetsam too small for even the keenest telescopes to see.

Whenever the interior cameras were live the crew wore black armbands, and assumed solemn expressions.

"Naturally, Lillian's passing is still heavy on our minds," Mission Commander Major Keith Nelly told CNN, "but every man and woman on this crew stands on a lifetime of duty, and I know every one of them is one hundred and ten percent focussed on the mission at hand." After a brief pause he added, "And there's nothing as refreshing as an ice cold can of Pepsi when there's important work, like this, to be done."

The interview concluded, and the red light over the dark camera lens faded. Major Nelly sighed and ran a wide hand through his golden locks. His wandering gaze unintentionally caught the eye of Captain Grimaux floating upsidown beside him. She cocked her head at him. "Subtle," she said, her dark hair fanning around her in a micro-gravity swirl.

"If it weren't for the sponsors," Nelly reminded her, "there'd be nobody on this old trip but robot fellers, and we'd all be sitting at home watching it happen on the TV."

"Spare me the folksy twang, Keith. Nobody's listening but us."

"I'm not even listening now," claimed Captain Lawrence Abrams, MD, as he drifted by with a smirk.

Nelly glowered at him. "We've all got to do our part, folks. Let's pull together as a team. I know what happened to Lillian is a cloud over us, but we've all got to work through it and put on a good face. The world is watching."

Abrams pursed his lips as he kicked off from the helm console, his arms working in a lazy front crawl. "Actually, Major, I think the world is watching a commercial."

Major Keith Nelly had turned to examining the pores on his nose critically with a palm-sized mirror. He was painfully aware that his image was being projected fifty feet high in stadiums around the world, and though he had not heretofore considered himself a vain man over the past months he found himself increasingly obsessed with his physical presentation. His nerves buzzed with the knowledge that in a matter of hours he would become the most famous person alive.

"You look fabulous," Abrams assured him, ricocheting gracefully off the bulkhead over the mission commander's head and sailing slowly back towards Grimaux like a human ping-pong ball.

Nelly flicked his eyes over to Abrams in the mirror. "You sound sarcastic."

"I'm never sarcastic."

"You're making fun of me," insisted Nelly petulantly.

"I'm not, I'm not," claimed Abrams. "If I were a teenage girl I'd have pictures of you tacked up over my bed so you could infect my dreams."

"Everyone is always making fun of me these days."

Grimaux raised one sharply arched brow. "Now why would we do that, Keith?"

"I don't know," mumbled Nelly, teasing out his sideburns with a practiced pinch of his manicured nails. "Maybe you're jealous."

"Of what?" asked Abrams, pushing off Grimaux's console and drifting back toward Nelly.

"You're being purposefully dense, Doc," grumbled Nelly. "You know exactly what's going to happen when I step out onto the surface: I'm going to be bigger than Neil Armstrong -- hell, I'll be bigger than Suri Cruise. It's going out hyper-definition three-sixty: top-notch historic TV. They'll be playing the clip for centuries."

Abrams considered this as he floated, his expression philosophical. "A man lands on Mars, sure, they put it on television," he said. "But when the first Jew lands on Mars -- that gets written down."

"Are you trying to be funny?"

"I'm completely serious."

Nelly sniffed. "Since when is print bigger than TV?"

Abrams spread his arms in a hapless shrug, but said nothing...

PLEASE NOTE: This is a free preview only.
To read the complete novelette get it for Kindle!

27 comments:

Mark said...

Fun start.

A monolith, huh? Or is Abrams just kidding? We know he's a joker.

I couldn't quite tell whether any kind of terraforming has begun on Mars. Or did I miss something?

Love the illustration of the suited astronaut waiting patiently with his briefcase. Looks like a job interview's coming up for him.

Simon said...

This first chapter left me feeling mildly disgusted. Which I think was partly the intent. My disgust has been brought to you today by the pharmaceutical arm of Fellcorp.

I also loved the header graphic for this one, and I got a real kick out of the related reading links. (An addition I've appreciated since you made it a habit, by the way.) Gives a guy an inkling about who we'll be meeting up here on Mars.

Does this choice of stories just incidentally coincide with the Discovery Channel's release of their fictitious account of the first manned mission to the red planet? 'Cause I think yours here is going to be more entertaining.

Also coincidentally (?), a recent article I read mentioned that a newly developed Photonic Laser Thruster could be scaled up to shorten the now projected six-month journey to Mars down to a mere week. Do we know (or will we know) how long this particular trip took our intrepid crew? 60 million kilometres is a LONG way. That's only a 400 second round trip for a beam of light. So, a week for a manned mission is hella fast next to six months, but that's still only 0.0007 c. We have so far to go!

The interplay between the crew was done very nicely, but I had a hard time keeping everybody straight (except Frank, ha!) in such a relatively short span of time. A little bit of character overload in a single chapter, being introduced all at once. I don't know how you'd do it otherwise, but I made myself re-read a few parts to connect names with characters.

Mentioning The Long Man brings with it a whole raft of its own characters, but Plight was more restricted in its cast, so my first (hopeful) thought is that we'll somehow see Lallo up here. One of the Long for sure, I figure. But who?!

sheik yerbouti said...

Fun indeed. As usual, your characters could stand on their own in any situation, and your postmodern predictions of overcommercialization put me in mind of The Man Who Sold the Moon (albeit in a more nauseating way).

Like simon, I was jazzed about the related reading links... though it doesn't look like Lallo ever made it to Mars with the Shah's contingent, so we're still totally in the dark there. Maybe Zoran has set up shop out here already...?

Thanks for putting out a day early, though of course that means we have to wait an extra day between episodes. We're just never satisfied, are we?

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Mark,

Personally, I think he's dead serious.

This Mars is the Mars we all know and love, just as it appears in the skies here and now -- unformed, raw, orbitted by little chunks of aging hardware.

The illustration should make sense by the time we get to Chapter 3. I'm glad you like it, though. I struggled with it a bit. I still think the astronaut's feet look too small.

Dear Simon,

The related reading tags can threaten to spoil a story (or, worse, build up false expectations) but I've decided it's a risk I'm willing to take in order to help orient newer readers.

Hello, newer readers!

I'm afraid I'm entirely ignorant of what might be on the Discovery Channel. Hopefully the science they showcase won't shine too bright a spotlight on my own shortcomings in the research effort.

This is one of your standard six month journeys. If history proves me wrong I'll be happy to have my stories dated by technologies that outstrip my optimism -- like the early Asimov stories in which sentient robots can interact, run, jump, rescue children...but they can't talk. Asimov figured synthesizing speech would be just too damn hard.

Heh.

To be honest, I really had a tough time with this chapter. Instead of it taking up 50% of my writing time (as intended to push the novel ahead) it took 110% of my time and suffered several dramatic rewrites (I tossed out more than 2,000 words along the way).

Part of it is because of the new format (posting only once each week) which forces me to condence what I would normally put into the first two chapters into a single post. I don't have the luxury of starting off with an "intro chapter" anymore...I feel I have to get into the meat more quickly.

Another part of the trouble came because I started off with six people with distinct personalities, and then quickly realized if the thing was to be at all digestible I'd have to a) limit the number of players and b) delineate them in a couple of quick exchanges, rather than a few paragraphs of biography. So, Lillian suicided and everyone else lost a little bit of backstory in favour of a sleeker presentation.

Candidly, I'm a little bit scared about tackling Chapter 2. Wish me luck!

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

SaintPeter said...

Missing Comma:
Manoeuvres One, Two, and Three went off without a hitch, and after just a few laps around the planet (comma goes here) Midas was aligned at the starting altitude for planetfall.

Otherwise it sounds like the planet is named Midas.

It's funny to me how the light the comercialization is put in puts a sneer on my lips. I do wonder if, at a future time when such things were common, if cultural norms would had adjusted to accept it?

For example, in the 50s, before pre-taped commercials it was much more common for hosts of shows to give a commercial tag-line. Over time we've gotten away from that model and attitudes have shifted. I think that in that time we didn't have contempt for the hosts - they were doing their job paying for the show you were going to watch.

With DVRs being more and more common, I do wonder if we'll get back to the older promotion model . . or maybe do something new . . .

One last thought - if we're so skeptical of the commercialisim, would those brands even have bought into something like that? I think it might do them more harm than good.

--

When the guy said "The one where the computer went crazy?", I expected the Micro-googel to say "Error" or something. Daisy Daisy . . .

Oh yeah -
Great story, as usual!

Mark said...

I guess I have a blind spot where the related links should be. What gives? Are they still there somewhere?

Anonymous said...

Boy these guys are in for a frustrating discovery. The claiming of Mars is going to be more of a legal matter... that, or the landing took place on the blank side of a Snickers bilboard (Mars would be too cliche' now would it...)

Incidentally: is there yet any evidence of the Long in later history of Solarkind? Or did Lallo managed to fulfill his mandate sooner rather than later?

Teddy said...

Get out your meter-sticks, that Black Monolith should be one meter by four by nine (1^2 x 2^2 x 3^2).

Mr. Burgermeister, don't force-feed us! I like those intro-chapters, the speck of recognition we the reader get at the end as we realize just what's going on or who's doing it is one of the best parts of your work (imho).

Sheik: they still do that on the radio a lot, live commercial spots.

TRH

sheik yerbouti said...

teddy: true, but to the people on the radio, selling out is part of their job. Besides, I was thinking more of the fizzy-drink-ad approach to decorating the Moon (a concept that D. D. Harriman used to his advantage when negotiating with sponsors).

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Saint Peter,

Thanks for the fix. Integrated.

The commercialization certainly is generating some sneers, but I think you're right -- imagine our bewilderment and potential disgust were we to be digesting this story without the context of early 21st century commercialism with which we're already so agonizingly familiar.

We may indeed be suspicious of all-pervasive advertising, but there's no doubt that it works. Ever tried to look out the window of a moving vehicle in a major city without reading? If you're even remotely literate, your mind won't let you ignore all those messages. They all tumble into memory, ready to light up next time you see that logo or hear that slogan.

Of course, people in the seventeenth century might have felt the same way about artworks that included tips of the hat to the reigning regent or some other fabulously well-to-do patron. After all, there ain't no Brandenburg in Bach's Brandenburg Concertos...the work was retitled as a tug of the forlock for the guy footing the bill (the collection was originally called "Six concerts for many instruments").

Dear Sheik,

Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon has been a favourite of mine ever since I first read it as a kid. It can definitely be counted as one of the influences for this story, along with certain elements of other hyper-commercialized future visions like Max Headroom, Blade Runner and The Stars, My Destination! (another long time favourite of mine, as I've mentioned before).

Note also how Earth culture as represented in this story hints at the approaching shadow of the world depicted in Two Moments of Invention in which privacy has been packaged and re-sold as an opportunity to earn micro-payments from a planet of electronic voyeurs.

Another story, which shall be told very soon, will bridge the gap in Earth's story between The Bikes of New York and Two Moments of Invention. That story, which is requiring a bussel-load of linguistic research on my part, will be called A Reasonable Expectation. I've been working on it on and off for months.

Dear Anonymous,

They are truly on Mars. That part is no deception.

As for the long people in the future, I hesitate to spoil as the answer to that question figures heavily in the plot of another upcoming story, Robot Camp.

Dear Teddy,

I just want to make sure you're getting bang for your buck. If there's only going to be updates here once a week (until I finish the new novel) I'd like that one update to have enough meat for you to chew on for a while.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

sheik yerbouti said...

Thanks for the tidbits, CBB. I've read RAH's "The Past Through Tomorrow" anthology half a dozen times; great stuff.

I still want to know where Slimfast Metamucil turns up in Bikes, though. I read the whole thing through again, just to find that part, and I didn't see it.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Sheik,

That answer comes in A Reasonable Expectation.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

Simon said...

Mark, it appears that Mr. Brown has removed the 'Related Reading' links for the nonce. (Or at least for this story.) I think he's realised that some of his readers are just too goddamn perceptive and could ruin parts of the story for everyone else.

Since Mars doesn't open up with any of the same characters that appear in the two stories previously linked, I think it sort of opens up the floodgates to rampant speculation, where we might be better caught off guard were some hints not hitherto provided.

Anonymous said...

Dear CBB,

Thanks for the tips, which suffice me for now as i'm not into spoilers.

I'm not questioning the team's arrival on Mars, just their expectation to find a virgin place. I expect them to find either

a) an already established House of Ares settlement as undisputable claimer of Mars,

or

b) a pile of pre-launched advertisement bilboards already littering the landing site

Or both.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Simon,

The "related reading" fields appear in two places:

1) In the preamble of each chapter as it is posted on this blog;

2) At the end of the archived story page on the main site, appended only when the story is finished serializing (along with the tip button and, where applicable, the buy-in-print box).

You do you think I should have the related reading fields included on the main site story page before the story's finished serializing? I don't have a reason not to...I'm figuring this stuff out as I go along, eh?

In this case, the related reading items do not connote a carryover of characters (I'll spoil this much: we won't see Lallo on Mars in this tale), but rather a connection of references. In both related stories there are brief discussions on the subject of extra-terrestrial colonies.

I'll leave it to you to find them.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

gl. said...

i'm with teddy: don't forcefeed us or worry about "bang for the buck," just tell the story the way it wants to be told. whether manna drops from the heaven once a week or three times a week, we'll still be grateful.

Simon said...

CBB, I don't think it matters much if the 'related reading' links are included on the main story page prior to story completion. It was just that, in relation to Mark's previous question, the links seem to have disappeared from the preamble of THIS story. That's all. I saw them yesterday when the post was first published, but no more.

"xakjafdb" -- the name of the love-child Frank Fisher will unwittingly leave behind on Mars.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Simon,

Aha! When I corrected some typos I mis-pasted. Now fixed.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

Tolomea said...

As much as it's going to hurt only getting my fix a week, I have to agree with the others, tell the stories they way they are meant to be, we can be patient.

BalRog said...

CBB,

I have to agree with the others on the subject of chapter frequency versus chapter density, but with one caveat.

I hope you never let the perfect destroy the good. With your talent, no draft or formulation would ever be perfect. Once your mind is whirling with new possibilities you could take forever (or at least a really long time) to let anything out of the box. And that would be a shame.

But again, I hope you can find a way to let these stories develop naturally without losing either your audience or your long term projects.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to punch Nelly in the face every time he read an ad or fretted about his lines. On the other hand, I think I fell for Anoush a little bit upon seeing her disgust with her own celebrity.

Stories that make you feel things are grand.

I'm in agreement with the rest of the folks saying that you should let the stories come out as they will.

Good luck with chapter 2!

-Tomas

Mark said...

I wanted to say that this site feels like I've found an eternal garage or estate sale with wonderful books for just a few small coins -- except that here it's free! So, donate if you can, folks. I know I have, but I'm overdue for another.

I KNEW I was not crazy! Those links are there now, but at least there's a record of their not being there, even though they're there.

Simon, you get a cookie.

Oops! I smell my banana bread! Gotta go pull it from the oven.

Teddy said...

I just want to make sure you're getting bang for your buck. If there's only going to be updates here once a week (until I finish the new novel) I'd like that one update to have enough meat for you to chew on for a while.

No user fees on the site yet. You've cut back time in favor of content before, but this is cutting content in favor of time! I protest!

Also, I sent you my address through Facebook. UND Student, picture of me in an airplane in sunglasses.

TRH

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Teddy,

I got your address.

The comp copies of The Bikes of New York will go out as soon as I can my next paycheque (end of this week).

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

cdjaco said...

CBB,

As usual, a pleasure to read. One minor technogeek quibble however: depending upon their relative positions, Earth and Mars are 8-9+ light-minutes apart. Unless NASA has some FTL communications by the time of the story, this makes Nelly's exchange with Houston a bit problematic.

I feel like the ubiquitous advertising is right on the mark. God help us when it gets that bad, because at that point its probably plastered all over the walls in our homes ("your reduced-rate mortgage with Citibank sponsored by Johnson & Johnson!").

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear cdjaco,

At the time of the spatial distance between the two planets is roughly 60 million kilometers, giving us a signal distance of just over three light-minutes.

Maybe I missed something, but I'm pretty sure no conversation in this chapter implies violating this delay. Did I overlook a bit? Let me know.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

cdjaco said...

CBB,

My bad. Apparently the lag time between Earth and Mars varies a lot more than I thought: it was as low as 3+ minutes in 2003 (at its closest approach in centuries) and can be as great as 20 minutes (based upon what info I could find). That said, 3-4 minutes in the story isn't out of the range of possibility, and I stand corrected. My apologies.