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Henry Jumps a Shark

by Colin P. Davies

part 1 of 2

Ratings were in free fall. Mars, One Day at a Time had lost its edge, its excitement, and was about to lose its audience.

It had all started well, back in 2099, with the United Nations’ base established in Marineris and the subsequent expansion of the frontiers. Wherever the Rovers went, the Robsons went too. They had adventures and family fall-outs, tense dramas and high comedy; and, far away, the Earth watched. There was an excitement in the air in those days, a rust-tinted, dusty excitement. This world was new and anything could happen.

But it didn’t.

It was in these conditions of shrinking vistas and increasing tedium that Henry Potts first came up with his plan. Later, he would claim he’d been well aware that he risked bringing the show to a permanent season finale, but this was plainly false. Henry was the originator and creative navigator of the show. He’d struggled for decades to finally win funding from the Ministry, and now he was too close, too committed. If he’d been able to see beyond the immediate need to save his baby, he would not have ended up with a Ministry gun at his back and a one-way ticket back to Earth.

* * *

As the floater zipped over the frozen desert, Henry made some final notes and slipped the treatment back into his case. His nerves showed themselves by a bead of sweat that tickled down his temple. In a few minutes he would meet the cast for the first time in three years. How would they react? Could he sell the idea? He believed he could.

Desperate times led to desperation.

The director, Bill Branigan, met him on the other side of the air lock. They shook hands and Branigan ushered Henry into his office — a small hut indistinguishable from numerous other small huts under the giant inflated tent.

“Take a seat, Henry. I’ve sent for Mendez.”

Henry sat, placed his case on the floor, and dropped his gloves and mask onto the table. “Just Mendez?” He pulled back his hood and ran a hand over his unkempt white hair.

“He says he can speak for the others.”

Henry shook his head. “Mendez has too much attitude. Be tougher.” He gazed out of the small dusty window. The light was tinged yellow by the translucent tent. “A good director knows managing personalities is as important as managing production.”

“This wasn’t my first choice of career.”

“Maybe Senator Simpson could have fixed you up with something better,” said Henry. “You should have leaned harder.”

Branigan’s eyes peered through the reams of rationalizations to where Henry still hid what remained of his guilt. “Simpson is a friend.”

“He had little choice. Have you given my proposal some thought?” Henry picked up one of the apple juice cartons that had been left on the table for him. The coolness against his palm only emphasised that he was too hot in the environment suit. “I have to admit to a little excitement.”

“More likely fear. You never were good at holding your nerve.” Branigan’s old and familiar face revealed no clues, but Henry suspected his one-time friend was enjoying his discomfort.

“Don’t I know it!”

“I’ve already told the cast.”

“Do they buy in?”

“No one’s in a rush to go back to Earth. So they’re buying... if not with great enthusiasm.”

The door opened and in walked Auberon Mendez, otherwise known as Howard Robson, imposing patriarch of the clan and pin up for fans system-wide. He gave Branigan a perceptible nod, took a chair and joined Henry at the table. “If this takes off I’ll obviously want a renegotiation.” His Latin voice was as smooth as his olive skin — and as fake.

Henry had seen this coming. “All options open. Everything depends upon striking the right balance.”

“I don’t aim to cripple the show,” said Mendez.

“I mean the balance between fiction and fact.” Henry stabbed the table top with a finger. “The audience know this is fiction. They want that. Soap mimics reality — it doesn’t represent it. The question is how far can you push it?”

Branigan closed the door again. “Viewers want to believe. They’ll go with us a long way.”

“But will they go all the way?”

“To a large extent that depends upon Auberon and our stars.” Branigan put his hand upon the actor’s shoulder.

Mendez gazed out of the window. “And what about the truth?”

Henry opened the juice carton and drank. The liquid slipped down his throat like a cool steel sword. “We make the truth,” he said.

* * *

The Rover crawled between the sharp boulders and its camera settled upon a darkness in the cliff-side — an opening, half-hidden by tumbled rocks and drifts of sand.

In the Lockheed Sprint, parked up some two hundred meters distant, Howard Robson pushed his face closer to the monitor screen. “Can you move in?”

The Rover’s brain had estimated the chances of getting stuck upon the rough terrain and followed the First Rule — self-preservation. “Negative.”

“We’ll send a dozer to clear a route.” Howard turned in his seat and spoke to Joan, his teenage daughter, who was staring out of the porthole window at the pink midday sky. “Could be interesting,” he said. “It’s certainly worth a look.”

Joan shrugged her small shoulders.

“What’s the problem?” Howard asked. “You’ve been like this for days.”

“It’s nothing.”

“You always say that.”

Marion, Howard’s glamorous yet homely wife, a slim blonde woman with a fondness for foolish phrases and a penchant for common sense, leaned over to look at the screen. “By ‘nothing’ she means Charlie.”

“Stay out of my diary!” Joan snapped. “His link has been closed for days. I just know he’s avoiding me.”

Howard tousled his daughter’s short neat hair. “Don’t be too quick to condemn the poor guy. There’s been a sun-storm. The particle flux is waxing and communications with Earth are glitched.”

Joan nodded almost regrettably and picked up a hair brush to restore equilibrium to her scrupulously managed style-mag image.

“Mr. Robson,” said the Rover. “I see a light in the darkness.”

The three grouped around the monitor screen. Young Richard pushed in, crunching on a candy bar.

“Can you give us any more information?” said Howard.

The Rover’s camera fixed upon a bright spot. It was moving — no doubt about it.

“Maybe it’s a weather station, or a seismic sentinel,” said Marion. “Or one of those illegal rovers, like the pirate prospector that nearly killed us last year.”

“I get no readings other than the visual image. No heat, no EMR. Curious.”

“That covers Marion’s suggestions,” said Howard. “Move closer.”

“My tracks may snag.”

“That’s a chance we’ll have to take. We can’t wait for the dozer.”

“Are you overriding my protocol?”

“You bet! This could be the biggest event since the first footfall on Mars.”

The Rover edged towards the cave. The camera juddered and pointed up and down, focusing first on drifting cloud, then peering close at wind-worn rocks. Again the image settled, this time much closer to the cave. The light resolved into two small circles, fixed side by side, like bug eyes.

“It’s moving, Mr Robson. It’s coming towards me...” The Rover sounded almost breathless, fearful — a tribute to Howard’s programming skills.

The image on the monitor flickered, became unclear.

“We’re losing you,” said Howard. “Can you get out of there?”

“Mr Robson. MR ROBSON!”

The monitor went black and the family fixed each other with eyes round and fearful and fired up by that ages old, and so very human, dread of the unknown.

“So...” said Howard as he cast his gaze over his pioneering family. “Who’s going out to investigate?”

The hiss from the monitor sounded louder in the extended silence.

Howard sighed. “I’ll get my suit.”

* * *

“The ratings are through the roof,” said Henry. “And I don’t mean my apartment roof, I mean the valley roof.”

Branigan’s face beamed out of the vid-phone. “Now we’ve just got to keep them there.”

“I’ve got people working on that day and night.”

“Have there been any questions. Any skeptics?”

“There are always skeptics. No one listens.”

“I suppose it depends upon what you want to hear.”

“As cynical as ever, Bill?”

“Being cynical is not the same as understanding people. Anyway... congratulations.”

“You just keep up the good work and I’ll keep you up to date.” Henry cut the link and relaxed in his swivel chair. Odd that Branigan was being so affable, considering what had happened between them.

Henry turned to look at his files; shelves and shelves of them. Everything was here: his stumbling efforts for the college magazine, his early reporting work with Bill, every show of his ill-fated docudrama Asteroid Amateurs. He hoarded the past while Branigan preferred to sweep clean, grab opportunities and make new friends.

Still, Henry had the office with a view.

Through the glass wall of his slope-side office he could look out over the Ribbon, the City in the Valley — the Valles Marineris. The grid of columns securing the roof that held in the atmosphere was powerfully magnificent in the manner of a Brunel bridge. Henry admired the skill of the engineers and the grandeur of the vision. By contrast, he often considered his own profession somewhat pedestrian, even vacuous... but people had to be entertained.

The government said so.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2010 by Colin P. Davies

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