Standing against the back wall of the overcrowded funeral parlor, Ray Barker watched a holo of his brother’s well-dressed body rise from the casket and rotate upright. With eyes open, the holo paused to raise a hand in a solemn goodbye, then closed its eyes and continued its ascent toward the rustic pine planks of the parlor’s cathedral ceiling. Barker saw his mother sitting in the front row sobbing into a handkerchief. Next to her, Barker’s young niece, sitting on her mother’s lap, stared at the floor and fidgeted with her braids.
As the holo’s shoes disappeared into the cathedral ceiling, Barker’s head hummed the familiar tone of the New York office. When the priest stood, adjusted her robes and stepped to the podium to deliver the benediction, Barker slipped out the rear door and into the dim hallway. His head was humming again.
“Piper, what’s up?” Barker said.
“Something’s wrong with MarsDestiny,” Piper said in Barker’s head. “The lander’s not responding and NASA thinks only one colonist is awake. This could be big. We’re going live with the story after ‘Prelude to Destiny.’ Rindell wants you in Houston to do some weepy-relative stuff.
“I’m at my brother’s funeral,” Barker said.
“We signed off on you leaving Chicago, not taking a vacation,” Piper said. “You know the rules. Something comes up, you go to work.”
Barker saw a doorless room down the hall and walked toward it. “There must be something in my contract about family funerals.”
“Let me know when you find it. In the meantime, get to Houston.”
“There aren’t any real airports in northern Michigan. The closest one is a couple hours south.” In the small room, scattered folding chairs faced a wall screen that showed short clips of his brother’s abbreviated life. On the screen he and his brother built a snow fort behind their home in Oak Park when they were kids.
“Then get moving,” Piper said. “The lander’s going to hit soon. If we’re lucky we’ll get live vid of the crash but it looks like it’s far enough off course that we’ll have to search. We need you ready when we see bodies.”
“Last I heard Gainsbro had Houston.”
“Rindell fired her and a couple other casters middle of the week. I suggested you and he agreed.”
“Ray, be realistic. This is a house show. Straight time basis. Hang on a second, Rindell’s buzzing my assistant.”
Barker dropped into one of the folding chairs. “MASSnews-Now,” he said, and the wall screen changed to a live view from Mars, shot by a TractorPix, a bot the size of a golf cart with a camera mounted on top of a flexible wand. On the screen five glowing GreatWall MotorWorks luxury sedans in vee formation sped across Moskey Basin, the landing site for the first-ever colonial mission to Mars. Coki Peps, wearing a red vinyl mini dress with a hundred holes punched in it, stood like a ship’s figurehead on the hood of the lead car. Her bandmates, pawing at their instruments, rode the hoods of the trailing cars. Coki’s golden hair fluttered against the rusty hills west of the basin as she broke into “AutoErotica,” her latest hit. For the occasion the refrain was changed from “Ain’t nothin’ like gettin’ down in GreatWall cars,” to “America’s stars are goin’ down on Mars.”
The formation skidded through a turn and slid to a halt in front of three conjoined plastic and metal tubes that formed the Gemini Cricket Family Restaurants Mars Station. A holo of a giant two-headed cartoon cricket rose from behind the station, waving an American flag in each of its six hands and nodding its heads to the beat of Coki’s song. Pipped into the lower right of the screen was a live view of the MarsDestiny lander streaking through the Martian atmosphere, its long, bright tail like a tear in the pale blue sky.
“I’m back,” Piper said in Barker’s head. “Rindell just talked to NASA. They’re pretty sure the lander will overshoot the basin, so that should give you time to get to Houston.”
“Who’s doing production for the ‘Prelude’ show?” Barker said. “I’d swear Coki was really there.”
“Zimmel,” Piper said. “We’re lucky we still have him. DisneyNews made him an offer earlier this morning.”
“So they’re raiding our sinking ship,” Barker said.
“We’re not sunk yet.”
“Anyone else get an offer?”
“They talked to me, too. I told them we’re going to make it, and I’m not leaving New York for California anyway. I doubt they’ll call you. Thirty-four is getting a bit old for a caster. Hang on a second. Rindell’s buzzing me again.”
Down the hall the funeral parlor doors opened and Barker heard muffled voices as people wandered into the hallway. He considered stepping into the hall but he heard Piper’s voice again.
“Good news,” Piper said. “Rindell said the board delayed their emergency meeting until Monday because of what’s happening on Mars. That gives us four days to turn things around.”
“I heard Jaspers paid fifty billion for the exclusive.”
“Fifty-five billion plus twenty-five points on all advertising and spin-offs.”
“There’s never been a show worth that much,” Barker said.
“So we’ll make history while we save our jobs. Everyone needs to pitch in on this, so get moving.”
Barker looked up at the wall screen. As “AutoErotica” rushed to its climax, Coki leapt off the lead car and landed in a puff of sparkling Martian dust. She turned away from the camera and raised her skirt to slide down one side of her panties. The TractorPix zoomed in and the screen filled with a MicroSoft logo tattooed on her right cheek.
“I don’t know, Piper. I really should go to the cemetery, and then there’s a reception. I’ve got family to think about.”
“Barker, I’m tired of having this discussion with you again and again. If you want to quit, just quit. If there’s another job that’ll give you a chance to get rich everyday, go ahead and walk. Otherwise, this is one hell of an opportunity to get face time on what could be our biggest show ever. I need to know right now.”
Barker stood and stepped outside the room. Down the hall he saw his uncle put his arm around his mother. His sister-in-law hugged a woman he didn’t recognize.
“All right, all right. I’ll head back to the airport in Bay City. Have someone arrange the flight and a car in Houston. And tell them to send some flowers to my mom’s house. I’ll send the address.”
“We’ll take care of the transportation. You deal with the flowers.”
Don’t Do This
MASScorp CEO John J. Jaspers sat at his desk, alone in his corner office atop the MASSworld building, a magnificent glass and steel structure that spiraled sixty-four stories above Times Square and revolved around its spindle once every hour. Jaspers wore a pinstriped suit and his thin gray hair was pulled back into a ponytail that lay on his collar. His hands were folded over his slight paunch as he stared at the silent wall screen opposite his desk. He hadn’t found the courage to turn up the sound.
On the screen, Coki pulled up her panties and danced toward the lead car to the beat of “Skanky Panky,” another of her chart-toppers. When she jumped onto the hood, the formation drove off toward a narrow pass that led into the rugged hills west of Moskey Basin.
Ivan Smith, NASA’s media relations chief in Houston, filled the right side of the screen, and Sally Timmens, MASSnews morning anchor, filled the left. From what Jaspers remembered of the script, after Coki showed her tattoo there was supposed to be live vid from the lander’s interior as the crew braced for touchdown. The unexpected change made Jaspers’ heart beat faster.
Smith, a bearded man in his forties and sporting a backward NASA baseball cap, looked anxious and kept glancing behind him at the rows of techs who all seemed to wear the same worried expression. Smith exchanged a few words with a flight engineer who shook her head as they talked. A man standing next to the engineer looked like he might cry as he examined data on his screen.
The MarsDestiny lander, pipped into the bottom center, was close enough that the TractorPix’s zoom could see the MASSnews logo in large block letters that ran from top to bottom of the fuselage.
Jaspers couldn’t stand it any longer. “Volume-Five-Now,” he said.
“Ivan, we understand that only one of the crew is awake,” Sally said. She wore a shimmering blue top and there were matching blue streaks throughout her dark hair.
“Yes, that’s right,” he said. “It’s Vlady’s kid, Mirellen. Mirellen Garasovic.”
“The youngest of the seventeen colonists,” Sally said.
Smith nodded. “Right. She’s fifteen. We think the other crew members are still in their pods.” Smith turned to say something to the flight engineer. She shook her head and Smith turned back toward the camera. “The lander … isn’t responding. The comm links are dead.”
“No,” Jaspers whispered to himself. “Don’t do this.
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