The Barsoom Project
“ ‘In the beginning.’ Three words spoken uncounted billions of times.”
The narrator’s voice echoed everywhere and originated nowhere. It filled the vast dark cavern of Gaming Area A with its rolling, resonant embrace. Alex Griffin peered into the blackness. Phantasmal carts danced about him in elaborate patterns, orange outlines in his infrared goggles. The carts glided through an endless, empty night, invisible to each other.
“Yet they have never lost their magic, never diminished in majesty. Ever have we looked back to the roots of our cultures, the origin of our species, the genesis of our planet.
“Come with us now, and peer into the past of our solar system, to the formation of our most distinctive neighbor—”
A darkened dome a few hundred meters across became a universe: the stars emerged.
Above and below, they flamed in primal glory. Never had the skies of Earth been so fully or brightly populated. Blobs and streams of dark matter moved across the stars, dimming them. Never had the stars made any noise at all, but now Griffin’s bones rattled with the reverberations of the best sound system in the Western hemisphere.
One dim star abruptly flared brighter than all the rest. It was blinding … it was already dimming, while shells of lesser fire expanded from the supernova at ferocious speed. There were flame- colors in the shock waves.
Griffin chuckled quietly.
The thirteen hundred dignitaries gathered here by Cowles Industries and IntelCorp were in for a hell of a show. His chief deputy Marty Bobbick had a grip on his elbow. Marty’s round face was soft with wonder, and his eyes gleamed.
“Though details differ, current theories agree that the solar system originated as a cold cloud of interstellar gas. There were snowflakes and snowballs, protocomets, scattered through it. And so it remained until the shock wave from a nearby supernova disturbed its equilibrium.”
The supernova had died to nothing … no, not quite gone. Griffin found it as a tiny blinking dot. Then the shock waves arrived with a rolling crash that owed less to physics than to Dream Park magic. The vast interstellar dust clouds bowed before it; flattened, then began to collapse and condense. There were hurricane shapes at the centers. The viewpoint zoomed in on one of the whorls as streamers began to separate, giving it the look of a carelessly spray- painted archery target. The great storm sparkled like a fireworks display. The center began to glow.
“Gravity and spin became the dominant factors. Stars began to form,” the unseen narrator said, but Griffin found his mind blanking out the words. The illusion was so overpoweringly real that his chest ached for breath.
A new sun blazed forth, awesomely bright within its murky sheath of dust and comets. In that terrible light Griffin could see lumps condensing along the rings that surrounded the sun. The solar system was still murky; comets moved through the viewpoint like white bullets.
This was the big one, the project toward which Cowles had angled for over a decade, the beginning of the largest venture in mankind’s history. And Griffin was part of it … if only as the security man who would keep these multinational billionaires from murdering each other. The 1,333 men and women taking their slow trips into the heart of the primordial solar system would be much more a part of it, if they chose.
And if they didn’t, there would be no Barsoom Project.
And if there were no Barsoom Project, then… very soon, by geological time, there might be no life on Earth.
The turgid protostellar whirl was clearing now. Sunlight boiled away the nearer comets, leaving residues that would become asteroids; boiled the atmospheres from even the closer planets. The planets flashed and flamed from time to time as smaller bodies smashed into them. The viewpoint moved toward one such body, a glowing, cratered, lumpy sphere that grew clearer as its atmosphere dissipated.
Griffin wrenched his mind out of the illusion and brushed the controls before him in the cart. Of the hundred and fifty computer-driven carts gliding through an embryonic cosmos, he and Marty had the only cart equipped with manual override. In case of emergency, he could reach another cart within moments. There was no reason to expect any such emergency, but…
He whispered to Marty, “Let’s peek in on them.” Marty nodded— he still had a death-grip on Alex’s elbow— and Alex rattle- tapped instructions to the heat-sensitive vidplate before him.
It lit. It became a quad splitscreen, and in each quadrant a cart appeared. Each cart seated ten visiting dignitaries. At upper-left were intense, serious visitors from the United Kingdom. Only one, a rotund woman in her fifties, was smiling broadly, clapping with childish glee.
Upper- right held officials from International Labor Union 207, the energy people. The international unions were more powerful than some nations. Certainly they were prime candidates for the offer that IntelCorp and Cowles wished to make.
Chitchat broke off, heads swiveled right, mouths gaped. A gargantuan gas-sheathed snowball roared directly at 207’s cart. A smaller comet grazed it. A tenor scream split the air as the comet flared blindingly and passed on the right.
They laughed and slapped each other on the backs, none knowing who among them had screamed.
Lower-left was the Pan-African co alition… members who were not currently embroiled in war.
What a mess. Africa was a jungle, all right. A jungle of artificially drawn lines, so complex that things might not sort themselves out for another century. National boundaries, tribal boundaries, industrial boundaries, and union boundaries all writhed and fluxed and left bloody tracks behind, year after year for the past century. Project Barsoom might straighten them out… might give some of these political entities cause to fix them in place. A reason to forget the past, for the sake of the future.
Lower-right, ten young Tolkien elves, inhumanly tall and slender, yelled and laughed and ducked a passing comet. That was IntelCorp, the company formed by the partnership of General Electric and Falling Angel Enterprises.
Wiser heads within those companies, understanding that massive success and massive inertia are two sides of a coin, had split off some of the best young minds from the GE think tanks. These maniacs were backed with a hundred eighty million dollars and linked with the creative whirlwinds behind Falling Angels, the rogue technological “nation” orbiting Luna. The zero-gravity laboratories of Falling Angels were responsible for the Tokyo-Seoul expansion bridge, as well as a revolution in high-tensile engineering.
The result was one of the most effective think tanks in history. They already held eight percent of the most productive patents issued in the past decade, and the best was yet to come.
The sun had dimmed. The solar system was finally settling down. The cratered sphere in the foreground was drifting closer. Its rocks had breathed forth a new atmosphere, pink in hue and not thick enough to block the topography … and as the orange- red sphere grew huge, clean white polar caps and a lacing of long gray- green lines were suddenly apparent. Two cratered moons rose over the planet’s eastern curve.
There was laughter from the carts. “In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed a network of single and double lines crisscrossing the surface of the planet. Canali means ‘channels’ or ‘grooves’ in Italian, but the word was mistranslated into ‘canals,’ which implies intelligent design…”
“Quite a show, eh?” Marty grinned in the dark: a new moon. “I want to sign up right now.”
“Get out your Mark card if you’ve got the money. They’ll be passing the hat pretty quick.” Alex continued to look at Marty’s black silhouette. “We haven’t done any mat work for over a month. Have you been working the treadmill?”
“Sure. Well, not every day.” He sighed guiltily. “Guess I’m gonna pay for that, huh?”
In about thirty- six hours Marty would be in his first Game. It was a Fat Ripper Special. The monsters chasing him would be slow, and that was as well. Alex’s assistant had been muscular when Security hired him. Muscular, hell… he had come within one point of a Bronze in judo at Mexico’s Pan- American Games in ’36. By the time Griffin came over from Cowles Seattle in ’49, Marty was soft, but still strong and skilled; he could wipe the floor with Griffin in a structured randori. Now Marty’s weight was seventy pounds out of control.
They said these special Games would rip the fat right off you. And then they laughed. A week of waddling after orcs and dragons doesn’t make anyone thin.
The IntelCorp cart (lower- right) held the reason that Marty would join the Fat Ripper. Charlene Dula stood seven feet zero, tall even for a Falling Angel. Her uncle Richard Arbenz was only an inch shorter, a double Ph.D. responsible for two of those lucrative patents.
Both were possible targets for terrorists.
The exact origins of the feud between Falling Angel and OPEC were lost in a welter of crisscrossed accusations. Falling Angel swore that it began in the infamous Anansi incident, when armed mercenaries had attacked a Falling Angel spacecraft. The United Moslem Activist Front were widely held responsible, although they had never been brought to task.
The UMAF had placed sole responsibility for the near disaster on a Brazilian industrial concern. No one believed them, and the organization had long since disbanded or been absorbed piecemeal into a dozen other pro- Arab organizations, especially the renegade Holy Fire group.
There had been other problems through the years—economic boycotts, military blockades, even reports of sabotage. It formed a thinly veiled pattern of hostility which had neither resolved nor escalated into open war.
The result was a highly effective war of nerves. At the moment, the battleground was the acid- ravaged stomach lining of one Alex Griffin, Security Chief of Dream Park. The industrial and political descendants of all involved parties were held in Gaming Area A of Dream Park.
Griffin tapped; the quad screen blinked and forty new faces appeared. Alex counted off Texaco, IBM, Aeroflot, and the Mitsubishi/Red Star consortium.
Mankind had come so far in some ways, and in others remained up in the trees, chittering and throwing rocks at each other.
If only the trees weren’t so close together. If only the rocks were smaller.
Perhaps Barsoom would give mankind a second chance. There would be no room on Mars for the poor or ignorant. Human frailties would follow man to the stars, but some of the simpler motivations to violence could be left in the Cradle.
“—Viking probes demonstrated that the Martian environment was not the haven for extraterrestrial life envisioned by Burroughs, Wells, and Lowell.” The viewpoint skimmed above tidy, spindly- towered cityscapes at the junctures of the canals. Alex glimpsed a street crowded with eight-limbed beasts, red- and ebony- skinned men, and tall, insectile green tharks, each group carefully avoiding all others …
Then the sky darkened nearly to black, cities and canals faded away, the great moons shrank to lumpish dots. “Rather Mars is a barren desert, without sufficient water, oxygen, or hope to support any but the simplest life forms. Its atmosphere is far too thin to resist the fierce solar flux.
Mars is lashed by ultraviolet radiation that would kill all but the hardiest microbes.
“Despite the dreams of the past, there is no life on Mars. But there will be Martians.”
The carts rolled across the surface of Mars. The landscape stretched to a razor- sharp horizon, too close, an endless plain of gray- red rocks and sand broken here and there by the rise of a weary- looking mountain.
A thin, lifeless wind whispered about them. Even with Marty seated next to him, Alex felt so unimaginably lonely that it shocked him. What was it? Subsonics? Subliminals in the light patterns? Whatever it was, it was eerily effective.
Mars seemed then a spinster sister awaiting the kiss of life, a bridesmaid to vibrant Earth, looking longingly across a two- hundred- million-mile gap, waiting, waiting …
Ever a bridesmaid, never a bride.
A light appeared in the sky, a moving, twinkling star crossing from east to west. It loomed larger and brighter, like some huge diamond, and suddenly it blazed. It was like a nearby sun when it touched the western horizon.
The ground shuddered. The sky shivered with the flash. It was as if an H-bomb had detonated. What stood above the horizon was not a mushroom (Mars’s atmosphere wasn’t that thick) but a rapidly expanding dome of flame. The dome’s rim rushed at them, rolled over them with a roar. It passed, leaving them unharmed. Orange magma flowed forth where the intruder had struck.
“—life can come to this barren world, life in a flash of fire—”
A second comet streaked across the sky, and this one seemed to come straight at them, filling the sky, filling Alex’s vision. Alex screamed with delighted terror as the world exploded. Suddenly the sky was pouring with sleet and rain. A billion tons of ice had vaporized— a thousand times the size of the comet fragment that exploded over central Siberia on June 30, 1908.
“—we can bring air and water to Mars—”
No poet had ever pictured Mars as female and Earth as male. Too bad, Alex thought. The Barsoom Project would get Mars with child.
As if by the power of time- lapse photography, the rain fell all around them now, utterly convincing. If Alex reached a hand into that, would it get wet? He did it. His hand remained dry in the midst of a torrential downpour. Marty stifled a laugh.
The rains passed. The small sun, filtered through a thicker atmosphere, seemed gentler now.
Perspective tilted until they were staring at reddish, sandy soil. Dust became gravel became boulders as the carts were zoomed down to a different level of existence. Alex found himself watching Earth- tailored bacteria at work.
The wriggling shapes became more complex; rocky soil broke under their attack; the rain turned fine Marsdust to mud. The expanding carts raced ahead of a writhing network of roots and emerged into a shrinking jungle of green plants.
Now the carts moved through a fall of Marsdust. Great bucketlike vehicles dropped out of the sky, each of a different bizarre design, puffing flame only at the moment before impact. Men erected the spiderweb- thin skeleton of a dome, then filled it in with rhomboidal panels.
The carts were semi- independent now. They would go where their occupants pointed them, though they remained out of view of each other. The central computer controlled them still, so that there was no chance of the invisible carts colliding with each other.
Griffin cruised closer to the dome. It seemed huge: bigger than Gaming A, big enough for a small city, an environment that could house an entire community of engineers and scientists.
“—there will be Martians. We will be the Martians. And you will be part of that pro cess. This is the future. This is how it will begin.”
Griffin accepted a glass of wine from the hand of an eight- foot indigo thark. Its four arms articulated gracefully. It delicately picked its way through the crowd, dispensing a seemingly endless stream of wine and beverages. For an instant he wondered how the illusion was sustained. Surely it was solid. Perhaps a human being within an external shell, the upper arms controlled by waldos?
This was futile. The magic of the Dream Park technicians should be accepted as magic, and there were more important matters to occupy his mind.
A brass-voiced Brit was telling half a dozen amused Americans that “cannelloni means ‘pasta’ or ‘dinner’ in Italian, but the word was mistranslated into ‘noodles,’ which implies intelligent design…”
Japanese investors chatted excitedly as they admired the Phoenix Fl, the rocket vehicle IntelCorp had bet its roll on. It was a truncated cone, shaped much like its little brothers, the Phoenix variations that had served between Earth and moon for fifty years. But the Phoenix Fl wouldn’t be just bigger. It would be fusion-powered. The kind of plasma torus that powered Bus-sard fusion plants on Earth would form the base of the beast; it would leak half- fused deuterium plasma to form a rocket exhaust.
Special Effects had been playing with the Fl. Most of the model must be a hologram, but part of the base had children crawling all over it. No adult in the room was likely to live long enough to see the project’s completion, but these children might. One day they would control Barsoom stock, and they would remember.
“A neat trick, eh?” The voice as a low grumble, and Griffin turned to see Harmony’s face looming above him.
Alex said, “Good move, getting them to bring their children.”
“We gave them all a week’s free Gold Pass to Dream Park. What better way to make these people take the investment seriously?”
Thadeus Harmony was a bear of a man, with the shoulders of the linebacker he had once been. But time had sloped those shoulders, and a desk job added to the thickness of the waist. There was extra gray in Harmony’s hair now, more lines in the blunt features, and a bitter twist to his mouth that hadn’t been there a year ago.
In his first year at Dream Park, Alex had dived into the work headfirst, sometimes not emerging for weeks at a time. Harmony was the one who hauled Alex kicking and screaming from his desk to ski in Aspen or cast for shark in the Bahamas.
All Alex wanted was to return the favor. He had not yet been able to find a way. All he could do was watch a close friend turn into an old man before his eyes. The sense of helplessness was numbing.
With a sudden clankety- rumbling sound, the Leviathan IV model rolled up to them, and stopped. The demo version of the mining rig was only two- thirds the size of the actual unit, but at seven feet high, still impressive. A flock of children rode the vehicle like dogfaces riding a Sherman in World War II. The Leviathan chattered about its specs. Alex paused a moment to listen, and to watch the digging jaws and claws extend, watched the tank- treads and steel sides turn translucent as the whole thing went schematic: ore sample tank, three- man passenger cabin, minilab, communications, powertrain all detailed.
“Looks like a crab on rollers,” Griffin said, walking on.
Harmony was silent.
The Security Chief waited a couple of seconds, and when no comment was forthcoming, ventured another comment. “Everything seems to be going well, don’t you think?”
“Yes, everything,” Harmony said. Griffin stopped. A flat note of disgust had taken root in Harmony’s voice, suddenly growing strong. Harmony’s eyes were tight and wary, and moved too quickly, as if looking for something to avoid.
“What’s wrong?” Griffin asked, voice low. “Don’t bother saying ‘nothing.’ Your nostrils twitch when you lie.”
Not a trace of a smile. Harmony shook his massive head. “I have it on the best authority that nothing is wrong. The very best.”
“Ah-hah. Well, I can accept that. But tell me.”
Nobody in earshot? “If there was something wrong— and there isn’t, of course. But if you were listing the people you’d most like to watch sky- dive into a school of sharks, who might head the list?”
Harmony’s face creased in a reluctant smile. “Ah. Evocatively phrased.”
Harmony opened his mouth and shut it again. “Never mind, Alex. I’ve been told that what’s done is done. ‘Are you racing toward the future, or are you mired in the past?’ That’s what I was asked.” Harmony smiled politely as a flock of chattering Japanese businessmen scuttled by. The instant they passed, his face went flat and bitter. “That’s what they asked me.”
Thirteen hundred guests milled around “A,” poking into this, peering at that. They tended to form distinct clusters. The Arab delegation moved toward Griffin and Harmony as they inspected a 1/10 scale industrial complex, a computer- drawn hologram that pumped and hissed right down to the last detail. Its miniature lights made it a jeweled crown in the light of a Martian sunset.
Alex watched Harmony’s face darken. Was it here, someone in this group of men? Who? His eye went to the tallest man in the group. Their leader, an industrialist named Kareem Fekesh, met his gaze. Fekesh was six feet of effortless elegance, darkly feline in a suit that made Harmony’s Ralph Lauren look like a Salvation Army special. Fekesh inclined his head politely and turned back to his conversation.
Anyone else? If someone posed a clear security risk, Harmony would have spoken of it regardless of orders.
The group from Falling Angel was nearby. Griffin directed himself and Harmony in that direction.
Ambassador Arbenz inclined his head gravely. “You are the Security Chief?”
Alex nodded. “Alex Griffin. And this is Thadeus Harmony, Deputy Director of Operations for Cowles Industries. He used to be my boss.”
“Kicked upstairs.” Harmony’s smile was purest porcelain.
Alex watched them shake hands. It tickled him to see Harmony looking up at the man. Arbenz said, “This is a great success, I think. To have collected so many different nations and interests at one place and one time. I wonder if any other organization could have accomplished it.”
“Time will tell whether the victory is real or symbolic, Ambassador. There are greater things at stake than raw human ego.”
“Nothing else costs so dearly.”
A painfully thin and awesomely tall brunette came to stand at Arbenz’s side. “Have you met my niece? Charlene, Thadeus Harmony, Alex Griffin.”
The girl smiled shyly. She was pretty, in that elongated Spacer way. Alex saw her as a bit flat- chested and far too thin; but there was a basic sweetness and cheer to her as she said, “I’m so happy to be here.”
“It’s been a long eight weeks, hasn’t it?”
“Yes, and only my second time down.” She shook her head regretfully. “I built up my legs in the centrifuge and on the exercise bikes, but I’ve still twisted both ankles.” She bent her legs experimentally. “My knee hurts.”
“I hope you’ll be all right for the Game.”
“I’ve got two knees,” she said, suddenly mischievous. “There’s only one Dream Park.”
“You don’t know any of the other Gamers?” Where was Marty?
“I have a companion. We met through Compunet. She’s a Gamer too, and we partnered on some frantic vid campaigns. I’m looking forward to playing with her here. Wow.” Her eyes glowed. “I still can’t believe I’m really here.”
“I know the feeling.” He’d heard it too often. Alex realized that he hadn’t a whole lot more to say to Charlene.
Her hand pulled at his arm. “These effects. They’re so… real. How do they do it?”
Alex winked. “Santa’s secret. I tell you what— after you’re out of the Game, I’ll introduce you to the elves. How’s that?”
Excerpted from The Barsoom Project by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes
Copyright © 1989 by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes
Published in 1989 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
LARRY NIVEN is the award-winning author of the Ringworld series, along with many other science fiction masterpieces, and fantasy novels including the Magic Goes Away series. He has received the Nebula Award, five Hugos, four Locus Awards, two Ditmars, the Prometheus, and the Robert A. Heinlein Award, among other honors. He lives in Chatsworth, California. STEVEN BARNES’ first published collaboration with Larry Niven, The Locusts, was nominated for the 1980 Hugo award. He has also written several episodes for The Outer Limits, Baywatch, and other television shows.