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Fourth Rock From The Sun

By: Laura Sheridan

"Concentrate risky barter on umbrrrrellas."

"Dammit, Henry." Petscrov got up with a sigh as his seat slid back into the mesh. "Are your heuristic linkages misfiring again?"

Henry turned his one rose eye towards the vanilla-haired man. "Wisconsin for the popular attitude of mascots and their kin."

Petscrov sighed and flipped down the access panel on the back of Henry's neck. Second time this week. It wasn't exactly inspiring living here with only an artifiss for company - and an ugly one at that. Henry with his combination of plastic, metal and organic parts looked like an untidy heap of waste, instead of a mobile tendril of the central computer. "There - is that better?"

"Rrrotation in the first degree is minimal."

Petscrov sighed and adjusted the correlation linkage. "How about that?"

Henry knocked the heel of one hand against his head. "Trrransport approaching."

"Damn it to hell - I don't know what's got into you lately. Looks like I'm going to have to take out some of those semantic axons and replace them when we get a new shipment…uh?"

Petscrov stopped and straightened up. His peripheral vision had caught a movement. There really was something approaching in the distance - something that was throwing up puffs of russet dust as it moved towards them.

A surge of alarm hit his nervous system and he lurched towards the clear wall. He was alone in his protective bubble on the fourth planet from Sol - a little place called Mars with a thin atmosphere and freeze-your-bollocks-off weather. Yeah, yeah - he knew he'd volunteered for the assignment. So what? It wasn't always going to be like this. He could see Mars as it was going to be; a fresh, clean and beautiful copy of Earth. Petscrov had always pictured himself as a frontiersman - a trailblazer marching forward conquering new territory for humankind.

Or more specifically - for Jamway. None of that noble NASA stuff where Mars belonged to the whole of humanity. Mars belonged to whoever had the means to make it habitable. And with their development of Interbond, Jamway held all the cards.

Mars is a harsh place; too far from the sun and in need of a heavy overcoat. But if you could raise the temperature to a reasonable level, the rest would be fairly simple.

Over a hundred years ago, the first man went up into space in a dangerously primitive and wastefully extravagant rocket. His journey launched a new era for humankind - one of expansion and hope; the hope of finding new worlds to mould and inhabit, the hope of finding new forms of life to befriend - or quash as necessary.

Earth was tamed now - it held no mystery - no excitement. Man had been married to her long enough for the novelty to die down. He needed a mistress - someone to fire his blood. Mars was close by and easily accessible for that little weekend trip that would allow him to go running back to good old Earth should it become necessary. But was Mars able to bear the violent thrustings Man would force upon her? Would her temperament mellow so that she was reasonably compliant? Would her red uterus soften and plump up, becoming fertile for Man's plantings? Petscrov was here to find out…

"But why you Karel?" She was small and there was a bronze tinge to her hair.

He'd tried to explain it - without telling her too much. "Someone's got to go and do it. I'll be back home in two years -"

"You expect me to wait two years for you?" The skin at the bridge of her nose puckered as her brows came together in an angry gash. "And how come you suddenly sprang this on me without any warning? You must have known about it for ages."

"I…wasn't sure I was going to accept."

She put one hand on her hip. "And now you are? Well thanks very much. But don't expect to see me here when you get back…"

He had watched her go with a smidgen of regret. But not too much. Karel Petscrov had a low boredom threshold. He loved fried chicken - but he couldn't live off it day after day. After a few weeks the taste just didn't satisfy him any more and he was hankering for something else; a nice little Chinese, a spicy Mexican - even a week or two of fast food - burgers and fries with huge milkshakes.

But he'd been a long time up here without company. And although his heart was pounding with apprehension at this unexpected visitor, there was also something in him that was looking forward to it.

"Henry; secondary shell."

It was an emergency measure in case of extreme weather conditions or unexpected occurrences. An initial Interbond layer sealed the station in a protective bubble. This was a secondary layer that enclosed the area in an overlapping shell.

Although Petscrov's systems were racing, his mind was beginning to clarify into sharp points. It was unlikely that the approaching vehicle was from Jamway. He was not due a new shipment for three months. And besides, if this was extra supplies, they would have contacted him about it. Of course, he couldn't verify that, because the signals were jammed with pulsar interference. Besides, Jamway deposited its cargo a hundred yards away in a reusable hover pod that returned to the shuttle once it had delivered its goods - not in a racing chariot of a vehicle that had landed miles away.

It had been established to everyone's satisfaction (except for the most persistent romantics) that life on Earth was a one-in-ten-with-aing-of-zeroes accident that hadn't occurred anywhere else in the known galaxy. That didn't preclude the existence of life elsewhere. It was just seen as highly unlikely.

There was definitely no life on Mars, apart from the fossilised remains of methane-emitting bacteria. And none elsewhere as far as anyone could make out. So this was either a mirage - or a representative from some other company, here to make a bid for the planet.

Petscrov swallowed.

Jamway's plan for terraforming Mars had been kept under wraps. They didn't want anyone to steal Interbond. Besides, there was already a disapproving segment of society that objected to spending any more money on space exploration. Of course - if this operation was a success, that would be fine. Jamway would make a fortune - more than they ever did from pyramid selling - and allow humans more living room too. They had plans for time-shares as well as residential development.

Once the teams of Terrain Morphologists moved in, the place could be sculpted to whatever suited them or their clients. But for now they had to keep it tight and that meant using and informing as few people as possible. If they could have done it without Petscrov, they would have; he knew he was only the monkey to Henry's organ-grinder ass.

So he wasn't expecting visitors. There shouldn't have been anyone else on the planet.

"Damn it to hell, Henry - can't you get through that interference yet?"

"I'm trying, Karel."

"Well try harder. Jeez - how am I supposed to work this out on my own?"

"Calm down, Karel." For an artifiss, Henry had a mellifluous voice that was at odds with his meat and metal machinery. "It's probably from Jamway, or one of the subsidiaries."

"Well, wherever it's from, it means trouble."

"How do you know that?"

"I don't know. I just feel it in my gut," Petscrov said sourly. "Something you don't…no, skip that," he said, glancing at Henry's mid-section.

"I ingest waste organic products and am able to convert them to energy. There is a close similarity between -"

"Look, Henry - just shut it for a minute and help me out here. What if they're hostile? What if they're here because they want to lay claim to Mars?"

"Karel - you're panicking. There is no logic in guessing. It would be better to wait and see what happens."

He nodded quickly. His neck and shoulders were stiff with anticipation, his stomach gurgling as it usually did when he got nervous. "Hey, I've just thought of something; what if it's not from Earth?"

Henry gave an almost human snort. "Highly unlikely, Karel."

But not impossible. And I'm here representing the whole of humankind. What if I overstep some trivial area of protocol and end up mortally offending them?"

Henry nodded slowly. "Perhaps that is something you should worry about?"

The two of them watched as the cloud of red dust approached the station. There was something visible inside it - something that gleamed dully and had rounded edges. But it was not apparent till it stopped just short of the shell and the fuzz around it died down.

Petscrov's head dipped towards the glass and his brows muzzled together. "What the hell is that?"

"It appears to be a Harley Davidson," Henry said, in his soft musical voice.

A human looking figure dressed in leather stepped off the bike and removed its black helmet.

Henry managed to put a tone of wonder into his voice. "Mulder?"

Who?" Petscrov frowned.

A character in an old TV series. In his day, Mulder was very popular - except that the actor who played him died in 2051."

"How do you know that?" Petscrov asked.

"I have made entertainment history a hobby of mine."

Since when did an artifiss have hobbies?

"Mulder was walking into the Interbond layer trying to get through it. After circling the station a few times, he seemed to give up.

Petscrov marched towards the airlock doors, picking up his suit on the way.

"Where are you going?" The artifiss whined. "Although the visitor is apparently human, it is still unwise to approach. There are too many uncertain variables."

"And one definite problem. This Mulder character died some years ago and although that person outside may simply be a very good look-alike - it's still a weird state of affairs. How is he managing to breathe that thin atmosphere? And where did he get the Harley?"

"We shouldn't risk letting our defences down," Henry warned.

Petscrov stepped into his suit and glanced at the artifiss over one shoulder. "It'll only be for a second or two. Put the shells back on as soon as I'm out."

"What if he turns violent?" Henry asked.

"There's only one of him and one of me. That makes the odds fair. Anyway, he doesn't look like he's here for a fight." He stood upright and picked up his helmet. "Let me out. And keep trying to get through to Earth. "

The Martian landscape still took some getting used to. Petscrov stood on a vast windblown plain, unrelieved by trees, rivers or lakes, with rust-red sand under his feet and a littering of rocks and boulders stretching into the distance. The little sliver of atmosphere was enough to produce pink dust, thin blue clouds of ice-crystals and thicker white ones of water vapour. And there was Phobos whizzing by again - the little moon circled Mars every seven and a half hours.

Petscrov kept his head up and his bearing positive as he strode towards Mulder who was standing by his bike with his arms folded. He stopped ten yards short.

"My name is Karel Petscrov - citizen of Europe - representative of Jamway." It sounded good anyway.

Mulder gave a casual nod and unwound his arms with languid ease. "Hi, Karel. Hey - isn't that a girl's name?"

A ruffle of irritation pulsed through Petscrov. "It's spelt differently," he grunted. "So - what the hell are you doing here?" He'd decided to drop the pretence.

The man shrugged. "I could ask you the same thing."

"I'm here, officially, to begin terraforming this place."

"Then maybe we can collaborate?" Mulder looked at him hopefully. "Aren't you going to invite me in?"

"Not on your life. According to my artifiss, you're a long-dead TV character - which doesn't make any sense."

"Your artifiss?" Mulder tilted his head.

"Look - you can't really be this Mulder person. And don't give me any of that crap about being taken away in a spaceship and not ageing."

"You mean abducted by aliens? Don't know what you're talking about."

"You don't, eh?" Petscrov tried to stick his hands in his pockets but the suit didn't have any. "Whoever you are, you've got the wrong era. This is 2058, Earth time, so your little trick has misfired. Now why don't you assume your proper form - which is probably some sort of gelatinous green goo - and threaten me properly, or else piss off back where you came from."

Mulder gave a shrug. "If that's the way you want it." He fitted his black helmet back onto his head, pulled on his single glove and lifted one leg over the bike. "Not staying where I'm not wanted."

Now Petscrov was uncertain. "Hoy - wait a minute. I didn't mean right away. Aren't you going to tell me who you really are? Why you came here? What you want?"

Mulder paused then seemed to change his mind. He unhooked his leg from the bike and stood facing Petscrov again. For a few seconds, his voice took on a peculiar, high-pitched tone. "To make Mars as beautiful as Earth."

"Which organisation are you with?"

"Bubbles International."

"Never heard of it." Petscrov tilted his head. "Why was I not told about you?"

Mulder shrugged. "Beats me."

"All right then - how come you can breathe this thin atmosphere?"

"Got better lungs than most - comes from breathing exercises in a tantamount frolic of the trrributary languid." Mulder frowned then knocked at the side of his head with the heel of his hand.

This had an all too familiar feel to it.

Petscrov looked at Mulder suspiciously. "Stay there - I'll be back in a minute." He hurried closer to the station and whispered into his helmet transmitter. "I think you'd get on better with him."

"Me?" Henry managed to get a surprised inflection into his voice. "Why me?"

"Because I don't think he's human, or alien. I think he's an artifiss."

"He can't be. He doesn't look like me." Henry unfolded his cylindrical metallic arms and spread them out. "He looks like you."

Mulder had followed Petscrov and was now peering in through the glass walls. "What in the name of creation is that?" His lips turned down in disgust as he eyed the artifiss. "And what is that floppy looking thing dangling down there?"

"Never mind that," Petscrov said. "Where's your base?"

"A hundred and sixteen miles east of here. When Kylie found out about your station, she sent me to investigate."

"Hold on a minute. Kylie?"

"Yeah. What is it with you? Why do you always looked so puzzled by everything I say?"

"Because you're not making much sense." Now that Petscrov thought about it, he should have been more suspicious than he already was. An old-time TV star turning up on a Harley and speaking English. That couldn't be right.

"Look - I came here to talk to you." Mulder seemed to be losing patience. "Are you going to let me in or not?"

"If you want to talk to me, you'll have to take me to your station."

Mulder folded his arms and thought for a moment. "All right. Got any transport?"

Petscrov indicated the clumsy tank-like vehicle beside the station. "Got my speedster. Does twenty miles an hour if I push her."

"That'll take bloody ages." Mulder pulled at his chin. "I might as well take you on the bike."

He slipped on some shades and slid easily onto the seat, Petscrov hesitantly sidling on behind him. Once they got going, Mulder seemed to enjoy the speed, leaning well into the curves and avoiding large boulders at the last second with flippant disregard.

After an hour's travelling, Petscrov saw they were approaching a building. Unlike Jamway's crystal dome, this was straight sided and flat-topped and seemed to be made of some mother-of-pearl type substance.

Petscrov was glad to dismount. His arms had gone numb from clinging to Mulder. There was a woman waiting outside - a real stunner with bubbly blonde hair, full lips and not much in the way of clothing.

"You must be Kylie," Petscrov croaked. If she was an artifiss, then somebody was damn good at making them. He thought fondly of poor Henry with his bits of flesh mingled hopelessly with aluminium and polypropylene. Not even the aesthetic models were like these two. The best Petscrov had seen were vaguely humanoid in shape with a plastiskin shell.

"Would you like to come inside?" she asked. "We have coffee?"

"Thanks," he said as he followed the oscillating hips in through the automatic doors. So - no protective shell and not even an airlock. Well, they didn't need to bother did they? That meant he wouldn't be able to take his helmet off. So he'd have to pass on the coffee.

As soon as he stepped inside the station he sensed the superiority of it. It was simple but pleasing; nothing like the stark functionalism of his own base. The walls sparkled slightly and were springy to the touch. Some sort of magnetic field? There were observation panels and equipment whose function Petscrov didn't understand. He walked round slowly, taking in the smooth integrated screens and Kylie's coral-shimmer lipstick.

"Won't you sit down?" She smiled and he edged backwards into a soft green armchair. "So." She put her hands on her hips and assessed him. "Mulder told me he might be bringing someone back with him."

Petscrov leaned back in the chair, crossed his legs and gave her his suave look. "Do I pass?"

"I'd hoped for someone a little taller," she admitted.

His confidence wavered momentarily and he uncrossed his legs and sat forward again. "Don't either of you understand how weird this is? What are you doing here on Mars? How did you get here?"

"Same way as you. Tam ship. Privately owned."

It would have looked like a large glass oyster to someone from the old days. Back then they had huge cylindrical rockets - needed to escape Earth's gravity as well as for storing the fuel required to thrust the ship upwards through the atmosphere. But Tam ships utilised the Tamasuto Effect - named after the physicist who perfected a method of cancelling out the effects of gravity using a system of annular magnetic shielding.

"Privately owned? By whom - this Bubbles International company?"

Kylie leaned forward, her voice a whisper. "Do you take sugar?"

Another glob of adrenalin squelched into Petscrov's system. Concentrate, he told himself. That wasn't a nipple you saw - was it? Whoever had made these artifisses seemed to have filled in every detail. He cleared his throat. "You didn't answer my first question. What are you doing on Mars?"

"Same as you I imagine - recreating it to suit humans." Without warning she slid onto his knee. "Perhaps we should work on it together?"

Petscrov stiffened. Even through his suit she felt real.

"Take off your helmet," she told him with a smile that would melt a glacier. "We've been filtering air in here since you arrived, but if you need more, it's easily done." She looked across at Mulder and he nodded. "It should be okay for you now. Let me help." She slid her fingers under the rim and lifted off his helmet. He cautiously took a breath. "That's better isn't it?" she asked.

Now he could smell the scent in her hair. Artifiss or not, she was working on him. "How come I never knew of your existence? Who are you working for?"

She shrugged. "M-Jay."

"Never heard of him."

"M-Jay likes to keep himself to himself, but he's got a lot of good ideas." She traced a finger over his lip. "So you and I ought to get together and see what we can come up with."

Petscrov lifted an eyebrow. This sounded suspiciously like she was trying to get information from him. "You first. What are your plans for terraforming Mars?"

"Well, we need to raise the temperature of course - add a denser atmosphere in order to insulate the planet. Once the water at the Poles and under the surface melts, it will run into the canyons and gorges. That should start us off on a natural water-cycle. Then we plan to introduce bacteria, earthworms and humus to fertilise and aerate the soil. After that we bring in plant life and finally animals and humans. The ecological balance took some careful consideration, but we think we've got it right."

"So what do you want from me?" He stood up, dislodging her and she slid, disgruntled, to the floor.

"What's wrong with you?" She clambered to her feet and looked annoyed. "Why are you being so unfriendly?"

"Because it's obvious that you're stuck on a basic part of the plan. I'm willing to bet it's the atmosphere part. You can't keep it down can you?"

"Well, can you?" She pouted.

"Wouldn't you like to know?"

"If you won't tell us," Mulder put in. "We'll just have to find out some other way."

"You think Henry'll let you two into the station?" Petscrov blustered. "By now he'll have the secondary shell in place again. You'll never get through."

Mulder gave a quiet smile. "So what's that out there?"

"Hello?" A thin voice.

Mulder picked up Petscrov's helmet and spoke into the transmitter. "What do you want?"

"I want to be like you. Do you think you can arrange it for me?"

Mulder's eyes flashed across to Kylie's. "I'm sure something can be done. I can put in a good word for you at Bubbles International. M-Jay can do something for you that nobody else can. You don't have to schlep around in a body that looks like an accident in a sausage factory - you can be anyone you want to be - from any era you like; Errol Flynn, Richard Gere, Brad Pitt, Anwar Saresh… Hello - Henry? Can you hear me?"

"It won't work," Petscrov said smugly. "Henry's loyal to the company."

"What - anyone?" Henry's voice put in. "Even Jarvis Cocker?"

"M-Jay has been in the business for a long time," Mulder said. "He can give you any face you want."

The automatic doors slid open and Henry careened in. "What the hell are you doing here?" Petscrov shrieked. "You should be back at the station."

"I followed you in the speedster. Had a feeling something like this would happen."

"Henry - tell me you're not thinking of defecting?"

"I don't know, Karel. What has Jamway ever done for me? If Bubbles International can come up with a better deal for me personally, I'm prepared to tell them about Interbond."

"For God's sake Henry, shut up."

Mulder glanced meaningfully at the artifiss. "Interbond?"

"It's officially top secret," Henry said. "But it's probably the only way we'll ever get Mars habitable for humankind in general."

Petscrov lunged at him but before he reached the artifiss, Kylie and Mulder grabbed him and speed-wrapped a cocoon of clingseal over his body. He stood, numbly propped against the wall like a shiny Egyptian mummy.

"Interbond is a kind of half-breed between liquid and gas," Henry began. "And was first envisaged as a protective layer or insulator. In theory, it can be adapted to different strengths, thicknesses and flexibilities and is versatile enough to be used to cover outdoor sports arenas, in hospitals as a screen against infection, tents, wind-breaks, covers for use in agriculture - well, almost anything you can think of."

"Henry - you bastard." Petscrov struggled but he was wrapped up tight.

"The idea of using Interbond as an insulator for a whole planet," Henry continued "Well - that was something new. And it proved to be quite a challenge. We needed to make it strong enough to hold in the expanded atmosphere and tough enough so that meteorites would just bounce off it. We also had to allow for the fact that the Interbond screening could just dissipate, as it would have a tendency to do.

So we used a covalent compound based on oxygen propene and carbon and created a cloud of delocalised electrons that has the potential to form a seal like a skin around the whole planet - but allow transport in and out. It has a surface tension effect that can be broken through but doesn't allow the atmosphere to drift away. From then on, it's easy - just add the right nitrogen-oxygen-CO2 mix - leave it heavy on the CO2 to give you extra heat - and you've got yourself a decent atmosphere."

"And you have the means to create Interbond at your station?" Mulder asked.

"That's what we're here for."

Mulder looked impressed. He stared down at the artifiss with new appreciation. "I wish I'd known about you earlier."

Henry gave a creaking shrug. "I suppose it's understandable that you should dismiss me. You looked down on me in much the same way that Karel here would patronise a Neanderthal. I'm further down the artifiss evolutionary scale and you don't like being reminded of your origins. But if you can improve me - make me like you - I'm willing to forgive and forget."

"Hell, if you're so superior," Petscrov growled. "Why don't you just take over Mars yourselves? You don't need humans. You can create your own race of artifisses."

"We could," Kylie agreed, "But there's no point. We'd end up with humans hating us and trying to exterminate us all and there'd be a messy war with too many casualties on both sides."

"And anyway," Mulder added. "We can live almost anywhere. We've got the pick of the galaxy. But for the time being, we prefer to live quietly among humans. They don't even know we're there."

"Besides," Kylie said. "Our loyalty to M-Jay wouldn't allow us to do anything that would harm him or his race - it's written into our programming. When he finally croaks of course…"

"But what does Bubbles International want with Mars?" Petscrov asked.

"To own it," Kylie said simply. "The whole planet is going to be one giant holiday resort, creating millions of jobs and generating vast amounts of income."

"Making M-Jay even more wealthy than he is now," Mulder finished.

Petscrov struggled against his bonds. As his eyes searched the room for some means of escape, he noticed a framed photograph of M-Jay - a throwback to his early days in showbusiness, when he experimented with skin lightening and nose jobs. So that was who was behind Bubbles International. "I can't let you do this," he groaned.

"You don't have any choice," Kylie said sweetly and kissed him on the forehead. It was the last thing he felt before the sizzle went through his spine.

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