The Capitol gleamed in white marble and red stone, its columns reflecting the late afternoon sun. Behind, Phobos, one of Mars’ two moons, was rising. A pair of black spaceplanes flew low over the plastic dome which encased Barsoom, sleek fuselages slowed to a relative crawl by the planet’s thin atmosphere. From the top floor of an empty office building, Alexandra adjusted her burnished metal spyglass to get a better look at the stage.
The CEO was wearing his trademark black turtleneck and blue jeans, tailored to fit his slim figure. Behind, a giant screen projected his image to a hundred times the size, so that the staff of Mars filling the streets could see his announcement. The staff mostly kept to the edges of the Grand Boulevard, with an occasional child running out towards the parade of military hardware, before being pulled back by their parents.
Alexandra called out the security forces to her comrades, lounging around on battered office chairs whose normal occupants were probably lining the streets below. She spotted a full squadron of imperial guards, clad all in white plastic armour, milling around the stage. A half dozen of the Corporation’s finest mechs, the pride of the Security Service, cast shadows across the shorter buildings. Despite their ceremonial role leading the parade, Alexandra confirmed with a click of the spyglass that they were laden with ammunition and combat ready. Fifty heavily armoured space marines, metal exoskeletons glinting in the sun. The spaceplanes overhead dumped fuel in a display of wanton waste and power.
Alexandra turned to her leader, his dust red fatigues bulging to betray an armoured vest beneath, and asked, “Hamish, are you sure we don’t have another, better chance to assassinate him?”
“This is the first time he’s been seen in the open air since he launched the Iron Man five years ago.” Hamish’s laconic drawl hung on the open air, an inside joke among the Performance Managed. The recycled air which filled the dome ate up most of a PM paycheck. He scratched at the prickly stubble which had grown around the clean pink scar across his neck, the result of a machine malfunction in the factory where he spent his days. “This is our one shot.”
Alexandra shuffled from foot to foot nervously. This was her first serious operation with the Red Planet, a group of malcontents and outlaws who objected to the CEO’s iron-fisted law. One conversation at her workplace in the Water Refinery Division had led to another conversation, then a few weeks later, here she was, suited up in dust red camo fatigues two sizes too big for her slim frame, trying to kill the most powerful man on Mars.
“Hit the deck!” came a shouted whisper from Bea. She’d been here since before Alexandra was born, spreading leaflets and unrest. She was a shadow on the records, reported dead in a mining accident decades ago, but living on from couch to couch on the favours of comrades. Her white hair was slicked back in a ponytail, wrinkles showing every hard year she’d lived. Her faded pressure suit made her conspicuous, but for staff who had lived through the early settlement period, old habits were hard to break.
Alexandra ducked, dropping flat to the ground. She glanced up, warily, to see a small flying drone pass by the window. It buzzed past on miniaturised rotors and paid them no more heed, turning its camera on the staff below.
Julian returned to assembling his rifle, fiddling with the plastic printed pieces. These had been hard won, illicitly produced in a raid on the printing fab that cost the lives of two comrades. Julian clicked the long barrel in place and gave an enquiring look down the scope with his good eye. An eyepatch covered the other one, a casualty of his past life in the space marines, enforcing tariffs on the Belt. He looked every bit the war hero that he had once been before, in an existential crisis, he flipped sides. Alexandra was glad for the expertise, even if Bea didn’t seem to trust him. Old dogs can learn new tricks, after all.
With a whistle, Hamish pulled together the Red Planet’s finest for a final pep talk.
“We’re born into slavery, live in slavery, and die in slavery. All of us churned through the factories as little more than human machines, so that that bastard can have his fancy toys. Well, no more! This planet offered a possibility of a better world, a better life, a better way of living. Instead, we’re little more than slaves working at the whims of the CEO. This is the first step in building something better. Let’s go out there and claim Mars for the Red Planet, for everyone!”
It seemed like all the staff of Mars had turned out for the parade. Alexandra, Hamish and Bea worked their way through the crowd, a broad cross section of Martian society having turned out in their finest for the big day. So, grubby coveralls and jackets, mostly. For most regular staff, there was little enough left after air and water fees to pay for a shared apartment, let alone for luxury clothes. Life was hard for the occasionally washed masses. The CEO cared more for hard work than extravagance, anyway, or so his hit viewscreen show declared.
On the street, several space marines in hulking exoskeletons milled around, exchanging greetings with the crowd. A young boy by the side of the road offered a salute, and the nearest space marine returned it, with a smile briefly cracking his gruff exterior. But the metal carapaces of these hydraulic machines were buffed to a fine sheen. Alexandra noted that their arm-mounted Gatling guns carried a full load of ammunition. Not quite a purely ceremonial role, then.
The marines turned to attention facing the stage. For hulking two and a half metre tall steel machines, each encasing a man, they were surprisingly nimble. The crowd leaned forward as one, with a shuffling of feet breaking the silence as each member of staff sought to catch a glimpse of the CEO. Each person, except for the three mobile members of the Red Planet. Alexandra checked Julian’s window with a glance, to receive a corny thumbs up from her comrade. He would stay and take the shot from here, where the security protocols were relatively lax. With repeated apologies, Hamish led the crew to the back of the crowd, where the red Marstone columns of the Corporate Service buildings which lined the thoroughfare partially concealed their movement toward the stage.
A floating viewscreen drone passed over the top of the crowd, rotors offering a quiet buzz which blended into the murmurs of the crowd. In it, the CEO took one last glance at his notes, before he swatted them away. The camera drones buzzing about him grew closer, all hoping for the perfect shot. He was in his mid 40s, with close trimmed brown hair and a black turtleneck. Handsome, with a chiselled jawline that suggested surgical enhancement as well as stage-management. It was rather unlike Hamish’s more rough-hewn charm, as he led Alexandra and Bea down an alley away from the Grand Boulevard.
The CEO cleared his throat. It rung out on all channels, including the Red Planet’s radio communicators. Bea cursed and thumbed the off button by her neck, but Alexandra kept listening. Six months ago, she’d been hanging on every word of the CEO through the myriad channels dedicated to helping staff be their best selves. The Corporation’s definition of best, of course, meant more like the CEO. Alexandra had agreed, once upon a time. Now she only listened out of morbid curiosity.
“Mars, today is an important milestone for the Corporation.” The CEO’s voice was clipped and refined, with all the confidence his infomercials recommended. “Through the hard work of our committed staff, we have built a home for the Corporation here on Mars. It has now been 69 years since Barsoom was first founded. 69 years of fruitful prosperity.”
The CEO loved to try and relate to the common staff through archaic references like this. It was part of the charm, a world-bestriding colossus of science and technology who also spoke the language of the common people. Pity his memes were at least a decade out of date.
“In that time, thanks to the dedication of the brave 777th legion of Ares, our stock valuation has risen to magisterial heights. So, in recognition of this achievement, all of the 777th legion will be allocated an additional half litre of water in next week’s paychecks.”
A cheer rose from the crowd, echoing off the Marstone walls of the alleyway.
“Maintain the creed, 7am to 7pm, seven days a week. For work will set you free!” announced the CEO to the baying masses. Alexandra shut off the communications channel and spat in disgust. What a condescending prick.
“There’s nothing new under the twin moons. Those bastards will have you working every hour of your life and thanking them for it.” Bea said. As they jogged through the empty backstreets, her speed belied her advancing years, a legacy of a childhood spent under Earth’s harsh gravity.
“Not if the Red Planet has anything to say about it!” called Hamish as he rounded the corner ahead of Bea and Alexandra.
Alexandra peeked around the solid Marstone corner of the building. It was some kind of corporate office, lined with row after row of computers and desks. The lights were still on, indicating that staff would be expected back after the frivolities. Those who wanted to keep in the good graces of management and out of the PM crypt would, anyway.
Two imperial guards stood before the entrance to the understage. The door was a single beacon of white in an ocean of red Marscrete. Their white plastic uniforms shone in the afternoon sun, helmets covering their features. They turned away from the floating viewscreen and toward Hamish, whose effervescence had gotten the better of him, as his words echoed down the street.
Their leader’s voice echoed with a radio crackle, “Red Planet sympathisers, are you?” He stepped toward Hamish, brandishing a black rifle. “You’d better come with us.”
“Can’t it wait until after the CEO’s speech, Luke? He’s giving out some great advice on maintaining productivity.” said his colleague. They were still a good hundred metres away, as Alexandra and Bea watched from the corner, out of sight for now. Although this street was a dead end, there was still plenty of street furniture between Alexandra and the guards. The offices supported a substantial market in vended food and drinks, while the wall of one building was painted with a mural to the last CEO. She was depicted in high heels and a pantsuit, jumping through a glass ceiling. Artists looking for a Corporation approved girl boss tended to leave out her father, who had been CEO before her, and her brother, who she had run through with a high powered rifle at age fourteen.
“Negative, Tony. Can’t let layabouts like these cause any trouble for the CEO.” said the leader, Luke, as he raised his rifle at Hamish, now 80 metres from them, walking down the centre of the quiet street.
Hamish raised his empty hands, palms facing the imperial guards. He continued to walk toward them, heedless of danger. He could have given the CEO lessons in confidence.
“I don’t want no trouble, boys.” he drawled. He tapped his right heel on the ground twice, signalling his hidden comrades. “I just want to go back to Kansas.”
Alexandra withdrew her knives from a hidden pocket of her fatigues. She took one in each hand, edges sharpened to nanometre scale. Short, squat, Earth-born Bea preferred something less elegant. She withdrew a massive steel mace, twice as thick as one of Alexandra’s lithe arms, from her bag of tricks and hefted it in one hand. They watched Hamish and the guards, poised for action.
As Hamish reached the guards, the one named Luke kept his rifle raised and motioned to his subordinate Tony. “Don’t let him pull any funny business.”
Tony had barely begun patting down Hamish’s pockets before, in a white gloved hand, he pulled out a pistol with a glance of surprise to his colleague.
Alexandra advanced quietly in the shadows of the buildings, taking cover behind a water vending machine. Bea hobbled along the street in the bright light, using her mace as a walking stick and playing a role. Nobody ever suspected her before it was too late.
“Now what’s this, then?” asked Tony. He took a closer look at Hamish’s pistol. “We’ve got a serious violation, here. Looks to be an old imperial guard sidearm. Highly illegal for civilians like yourself.”
Alexandra crept from cover to cover, light as a mouse, approaching behind the imperial guard. Across the street, Bea shuffled closer, glancing at Luke’s rifle, which was still pointed at Hamish. It was the role Bea played in public, the little old lady who wouldn’t harm a fly. And perhaps the flies were safe, but the Corporation’s goons were not.
“Excuse me, sonny, I seem to have gotten lost. Can you point me to the nearest viewing area? I don’t want to miss the parade.” asked Bea. Luke turned to her, lowered his rifle, and Alexandra dashed in.
The solid plastic imperial armour could stop a bullet. But only if it was fired directly at the wearer’s chest. Alexandra was much more precise than that. She lodged one knife deep into the guard’s neck, and the other in his left side below his shoulder, slicing past his rib cage into his vital organs. The thin mesh covering the articulation points offered little resistance to her knives. The guard offered only a wet groan of pain, as he slumped to the ground.
Hamish reacted quickly, grabbing his pistol from the guard’s hand as he fell. He turned and pointed it at the other guard.
He was just in time to see the man’s plastic helmet cave in as Bea swung her mace hard and fast. The flesh and skull gave way with a sickening, meaty thump, and the man fell to the floor, unconscious or worse.
Alexandra, Hamish and Bea strolled into the understage area, the coordination centre for the whole ceremony. Above, the CEO’s speech continued.