Monday, August 30, 2010


By M.J. Heiser

Possibilities swirl through your mind. You can't help yourself from a fleeting desire to know exactly what it was that led to this -- specifically, how in the hell did you end up in Malloy's locker, anyway? The only memory you have from just before that moment was a normal one, of slipping under the sheets in your quarters, glancing at the TID (time information device), and taking a deep drink out of a bottle of water next to your bed . . .

"I really need an answer if the plan is going to work," the Janitor King says, a tone of strained patience in his voice.

"You say this thing has all the answers," you say to him, lifting the datacube slightly in your left hand. A beam of white light catches a corner of the crystal-like material, and the light splinters into a prism.

"It has all the answers a human would need," the Martian answers politically.

"You didn't answer my question. Does it have everything?"

"What are you getting at?"

"You're asking me to take part in yet another conspiracy. I don't like conspiracies. I like the thought that by agreeing, I could save both of our worlds, but what if I'm being played for a sucker? That's been happening to me a lot lately. I don't want to be involved in a murder, no matter how deserving the target is, if I'm being lied to."

The Janitor King smiles at you. "Quite understandable, and a quality anyone would desire in their leader."

You roll your eyes. "Save the political bullshit, okay? I just want to know that I'm getting the real deal out of this." Once again you heft the datacube. "I want to see what's on this."

"Very well," the Martian says, rising from his desk and offering you his seat. "Use my terminal."

You sit down. The chair is obviously designed for the unusual ergonomic needs of a Martian body, but you hope you don't have to use it for long. Naturally, you're familiar with the terminal setup, and you slide the datacube into a notch right above your lap. A holographic screen appears in front of you. Electrons swarm into a recognizable graphic interface, and you're offered an option to view the contents of the datacube in either Martian or Human English.

You turn back to the Janitor King, annoyed that he's standing over you. "Do you mind?"

He looks startled. "What?"

"I want to be alone with this."


You sigh. "Because you may be hiding some tricks up your sleeve. Maybe you've preprogrammed the terminal to show me some really impressive stuff that isn't on the datacube. Maybe you have a dagger and you'll stab me if I look at the wrong thing. It doesn't matter. I want to see what's really on the cube, and I don't want you here."

He's obviously disappointed, and you wonder if you don't sense a bit of outrage coming off of him -- but he nods. He can't do otherwise. Your logic is sound. "Very well, but how do I know you won't make a copy of the information and abandon my proposal?"

He has a point, damn it. He seems prepared to concede your condition, so you know you have to be willing to concede his. "What if I promised you that if what I'm looking for is on this cube, I will gladly go along with your plan?"

A smile spreads on his strange, but noble, face. He nods. "Will 20 Earth-minutes be sufficient?"


"I will return shortly," he says. He may have been surprised and a bit shocked by your desire to see this thing alone, but he's leaving. There's a chance there's good stuff on the datacube after all.

You reach out and touch the electron surface of the screen and choose to view the contents of the cube in English. A directory opens in front of you, listing options for Agriculture, Space Travel and Exploration, Mathematical Theory, Physics, and Women. Your eyes grow wide at the potential knowledge spread in front of you, but you have time only for a cursory glance through the subdirectories in the Agriculture and Women sections (topics include "Growing a field of wheat on a cup of water" and "How to answer the question Do I Look Fat in This?") before you abandon the cube altogether and head instead for a root menu in the terminal.

After all, the one question you want answered right now can't be answered by the datacube containing the Martian equivalent of the Book of Life. You want to know what happened to you.

You hack into the Martian Overworld databank and cross your fingers. If the Martians were as smart as they claim, then they would have hacked into NOSSA's systems for some interplanetary spying. You hit paydirt in less than a minute. You hold your breath and route an encrypted tether from the Overworld systems into the NOSSA surveillance camera files. You're sloppy, but it doesn't matter. You'll be done in less than 15 minutes. You code the transmission back to the night you remember, falling asleep in your own bed, and you switch on the feed from the camera positioned in the hall outside your quarters. You fast forward through the speedy commerce of neighbors heading to bed and rising for work and sneaking bed partners into their rooms. You take special note of the time you would normally be leaving your room to head to work yourself.

There is no activity from your door. You watch anxiously until all of your accountant neighbors have headed off to the great desk farm, and just when you think you must have fast-forwarded past something important, you notice something very strange.

You see yourself, and the image before you makes your blood run cold. It's you, undeniably so, but you're wearing something you've never seen before, a black mercenary's smock and a face of black paint. Your movements are quick and graceful, but there's no mistaking the fear in your eyes as you look around you and access your quarters.

You rewind a few times, watching this other You move like a scared cat and go inside the room. You're just getting used to the idea that either you have a twin or you've been up to some really strange shenanigans when you notice two more figures approaching your room. They're beyond suspicious -- they're familiar. Saleen and Malloy are making sure they're alone in the hall before accessing your quarters and slipping inside.

A loud noise startles you out of your focus, and with a few deft gestures, you log off of the terminal and yank the datacube from the slot. The door to the Janitor King's office flies open, and a squadron of at least a dozen armed Martian toughs enters the room. To your distress, you realize their weapons are drawn and their faces are shielded behind gas masks.

"Step away from the terminal," warns one of the toughs, gesturing at you with his raised laser rifle.

"Yeah, sure, of course," you say, and you step sideways and out from behind the desk. You shoot an accusing look at the terminal, and too late, you realize the Janitor King must have activated a remote-monitoring system. Stupid, stupid, stupid! you think to yourself.

"You are under arrest for accessing confidential Martian Overworld systems," the armored tough-guy intones gravely.

"Great," you reply. "Just half an hour ago I was going to rule the world."

"You will be executed 30 Earth minutes from now."

"What?" Your breathing has stopped. Maybe your heart has too.

"You are not on Earth. You are on Mars. Our systems of justice are a little different. All the evidence we need has been recorded and will be transmitted to your embassy after your execution."

He's smug, and you're terrified. The thing is, you've been terrified for nearly a solid 24 hours now, and you can't bear any more. It feels like a fabric inside you has been growing thinner and thinner, and it finally gives way and releases the animal lurking just below the surface.

"I don't think so," you say, your voice coming out in a silky purr.

The Martian tough guy freezes. "I beg your pardon?"

"You should," you say. "My name is Wallace, and I'm a trained assassin."

The Martian is quick, but you're quicker. He blasts a shot of laser energy at you, and you lift the data cube and let the shot hit the angled corner of the storage device. You know from your training what will happen next, and you're deeply gratified to see the laser split into multiple rays. The prismatic components of the laser are unstable, and they're capable of piercing Martian armor, which they do. Martians fall all around you, including the leader. Only five remain, and you make quick work of the stupidly surprised survivors with your own laser pistol, catching each of them at the joint of the armor between neck and shoulder.

You blow a theatrical breath over the barrel of the laser gun and tuck it away, then stow the datacube with its intact contents into a pouch at your waist. You have maybe 10 seconds to consider your options before either the Janitor King or the Martian guards' reinforcements arrive.

Will You...

A. Run out of the office with twin laser pistols blazing?

B. Use the light transporter to return to either carry out or prevent an assassination?

C. Use the light transporter to return to the NOSSA vessel to track down answers?


  1. Awesome, MJ, bleedin' awesome!

  2. Three things:

    1. "How to answer the question Do I Look Fat in This?" - "No."

    2. I love prismatic components!

    3. You've setup the end terrifically.

  3. Dun. Dun. Dun. Very Cool MJ!!!

  4. I am ready for an awesome shoot-out, AND I am crossing my fingers for martian ninjas


  5. interesting, I used to read books like this when I was young