Sequel : Arisia, Mars

Prequel : Rarhbhoom, 2099

It was the night before the Orcus Festival that was scheduled over the weekend and the Kakori Bar was buzzing with excitement. Almost everyone  in Arezia was planning to head out to the traditional venue of the festival  at the Orcus Patera crater. The weekend of course, was an alien, imported-from-Earth concept because on Mars it was the norm for everyone to be working from home. Home would be a personal living unit embedded deep inside the bowels of the planet, shielded from the deadly cosmic rays and the toxic perchlorates that still littered most of the the surface.

When Arezia was established as the major Martian habitat, around 2100 CE or 80 ME,  in the caverns of Hebrus Valles, living underground was the only way that humans could survive on Mars on a long term basis. Initial attempts at living on the surface, inside translucent domes had proved dangerous and quite a few early settlers had to endure tragic deaths.

First there was the perchlorate dust that was very difficult to remove from the space suits of the early adventurers. Many of the initial settlers would race around the surface to explore, to excavate or even for entertainment in what they thought would be like rides on a dune buggy. But they soon realised that the dust was more than just a mere irritant. It would get into all kinds of equipment as well as cling to their clothes, or pressurised suits. But what was really bad about the dust was the inherent toxicity brought about by the presence of perchlorate. This was a big hazard because what would start as a mere itch would persist and eventually turn into festering sores that never healed.

So was the case with the cosmic rays. People knew these to be harmful but many of the early settlers were the wild, lawless, frontier type and quite a few of them would generally ignore the dangers. This had continued unchecked until a number tragic deaths made it mandatory for everyone to seek a permit to be allowed on the surface.

Living underground was not all that bad. It would have been claustrophobic had it not been for the giant wall-sized screens that covered the walls of private rooms, public spaces and even the tunnels that connected them. With abundant power from thorium based nuclear plants, these large screens could continuously show what the terrain outside would have looked like had they all been on the surface. It was like a view from a window – complete with daily and seasonal variation of sunshine and weather. In a sense, the feeling or illusion of being on the surface was so complete that for a majority of the population it no longer made any difference.

But to the Hermit it did matter and in fact he had done something about it. This is what he was talking about with Knut, Kaliyanei and Chantrea. The Hermit was a tough, wizened Mars veteran. Not only had he been on Mars for a long time but he was also the kind who had biohacked himself to enhance his biological senses. He could sense cosmic rays. What was most unique about him was his ability to use various bits of technology, both silicon and carbon, to create new solutions to old problems. He commanded immense respect in the Mars community and despite his advanced age was quite a hit with the ladies of Mars.  Knut was a microbiologist and true to his Nordic origins he was minimalist in both words and emotions. Which is perhaps why he had lost Līlā, one of the most celebrated of all Martian settlers, to the Hermit. But that was a closed chapter and now the two were good friends and business partners.  Kaliyanei and Chantrea were a Cambodian couple who operated an excellent medical facility in Arezia. They had helped the Hermit bring up his son, Shibu, when his mother Līlā had to go back to Earth to complete a mission of extreme importance. All four  were now permanent residents on Mars. [ for more, click here]

State and district borders had disappeared long ago leaving a landscape that was delineated instead by ill-defined areas of power and influence. Which is why the area between the Hooghly river and the Chotanagpur plateau was now referred to as Rahr or Rahrbhum. This land was no longer ruled by the laws of a long forgotten Constitution but by the eternal Second Law of Thermodynamics that mandated a regime of increasing disorder. A general chaos was, paradoxically, the order of the day.

It was not as if technology was missing in this last decade of the twenty-first century. From solar and nuclear power through magical materials to extremely efficient farming techniques – there was nothing that was not known about how to solve any global problem. What was missing was the circumstances,  the ability, the organisational structure that could put it all together in a fair and equitable manner and ensure peace and tranquility. Globally, people had been far too concerned about their rights but not about their duties. Freedom of expression and action had become a licence for anarchy, of entitlement. The general stupidity of the dominant majority meant that everyone now had their own, usually erroneous, point of view on everything that mattered. Those who were blessed with insight had the misfortune to lack any influence in any matter or over the larger population. The few who knew what was going to lead where, were marginalised in the general clamour of political correctness. Idiots ruled, or rather evil people ruled idiots while making them believe that they were indeed masters of their own destiny until one day the scales covering their eyes fell away. But then it was too late. Almost everyone, all across the world, was trapped in a world of their own making. But then again everyone was quick to blame the other - the other community, the other country, the government and finally god!

One by one, stuff that was taken for granted stopped working. First was law and order. Intense inefficiency and rampant corruption brought the judiciary to a standstill and out-of-court settlements became routine. It could have been averted with technology and smart management processes could have slowed and stopped the decline but people with a vested interest in a faulty system would have none of it. Every effort to improve matters with technology or modern business processes was thwarted by people who were either generally too incompetent or specifically evil. Then they were those who could broker deals and take a cut from the litigants, or as more often was the case, combatants.  Initially these efforts were peaceful but as people increasingly refused to accept an adverse outcome, these out-of-court settlements became increasingly confrontational and violent requiring enforcement by money and muscle. This was the genesis of a whole new and parallel administration.

Next to collapse was tax collection. Land revenue had dried up long ago but a corrupt and porous tax administration made sure that only the foolish were still paying any kind of taxes at all. With no real revenue and the corrupt exchequer leaking like a sieve, there was no money for the maintenance, let alone development of any infrastructure. Eventually, there was no money to even pay salaries to government employees. Which is when what was left of the government stopped functioning, leaving everyone to fend for themselves. Many were doing this anyway but now there was the additional irritation of there being no one to blame any more.
The good thing was that though they had been vanquished from the public arena, the intellectual elite had not vanished from the face of the earth. Their native competence meant that they knew how to survive in the face of adversity. They existed underground and lived in the cracks and crevices of a fractured society. All of them were thought leaders in diverse fields ranging from technology through business to management and governance. Quite a few of them were rich, in fact very rich and it was rumoured that between them they held more than half of all the wealth on the planet in one form or the other. But they kept a low profile and never tried to draw any attention to themselves lest they be set upon by the hungry hordes. Some of them were well connected to their peers if they happened to be in close geographic proximity. But the tyranny of distance and the difficulty of traversing the same made it very difficult for them to reach out to similar people in other geographies. Nevertheless, there did exist a faint and feeble network of digital data that hopped across isolated servers and left-over satellites that had been somehow saved from falling into disuse. This was a pale shadow of the once ubiquitous world wide web. Traffic was slow and surreptitious because being digitally visible was just as dangerous as being physically so. Once in while important messages would float around and eventually reach people who were supposed to know about such things …

Prabha had received one such message. A month ago, his partner Arko had stumbled upon  a strange piece of text hidden in one corner of an innocuous weather update and the two of them had managed to decipher it. What they had understood had sent a shiver up their spine and had convinced them that the time to act had come. [ for more, click here]