Fri. Apr 19th, 2024

Tzindy was the maknae – the youngest member – of the Mpop group, Solipsistas. There were seven members in all, six of them cisgirls and one non-binary. One was a Robo sapien – very binary. Solipsistas were a success all over Mars Colony, even in the tightly controlled and autocratic Thuvian district. The group were contracted to and managed by HYPEtone, headed by the famous Mpop singer HY Peart. HYP – or HYPe as he was inevitably nicknamed – was considered a benevolent dictator who ruled over the groups in his charge with an iron hand, but who also loved them.

In the early days Tzindy had difficulty finding her place within the group. At this stage not a strong singer or dancer, she had primarily been brought on board due to her exceptional beauty. She was considered the ‘visual’ of the group: meaning she was there for her looks, not her talent (which, some thought was strange, as all the Solipsistas were beautiful in their own ways). And the fact that she was youngest also meant she was not expected to do much of the hard work. In short, she was coddled. Tall and slender, with a perfectly formed face and glossy hair, she was the epitome of elegance. Born and raised in Planitia, the original first colony, now a small satellite colony to the Thuvia district that had become its protectorate, she was the group’s foreign star. It was thought that, apart from her beauty, clever HYPe had chosen her in order to help break the group into the lucrative Thuvian market. But she was shy and still had difficulty understanding the Martian Standard that the other members spoke. She would sit with the members in their dorm and listen to their conversation in bewilderment. It didn’t help that in private, just hanging out in their dorm rooms, their Standard often reverted to city slang.

‘You the ugly one, oppie!’ said Modean to Danny.

‘No, you!’ Danny retorted, looking bugeyed at her.

‘What sorta face is that, anywayz, all white an unshaven?’ Chongyeon added, siding with her buddy, Modean.

‘It a perfectly good face,’ said Danny, defensively rubbing the stubble on their chin.

‘Why you even call yourself a Solipsista – you non-binary?’ asked Jinny, now getting into the act. Danny was so irresistible to pick on. Some of the other members laughed derisively.

Danny turned to Jinny with a look of betrayal on their face, not expecting this outburst from the group’s designated leader. They spoke slowly and with emphasis. ‘I have accepted it for the sake of the pun, thank you leader.’

‘Yah, but you not a he or a she, you a it!’ said Chongyeon, enjoying herself immensely. She was about to start in on Danny’s neck tattoo and lip piercing, but was interrupted.

‘The correct term is ‘they’’, said quiet, thoughtful Minna, coming to Danny’s defence.

‘Thank you, Minna.’

‘’They’, ‘their’, ‘them’, either way, it very annoying to have to say it,’ said Modean, theatrically glaring at Danny.

‘You the ugly one!’ said Danny, glaring back.

There was a pause, then Nana spoke up. ‘Hey, me the ugly one!’

The other members looked at each other and collapsed in laughter. Jinny went to Nana, who was assuming the rabbit girl persona she sometimes adopted as part of her Robo sapien matrix. She held her chin, stroked her whiskers and looked into her big cartoon bunny rabbit blue eyes, and said tenderly, ‘Nah. You the prettiest usagi there be.’

Modean turned from this tender scene to face Tzindy. ‘Hey what say you, Princess? Who you think the ugliest?’

Caught off guard, Tzindy chewed her lower lip and thought hard. The correct answer, the answer that would please everyone, was obviously that she thought they all looked beautiful. But she was annoyed at Modean for calling her Princess, as if she were mocking her. She knew Modean and some of the others considered her aloof, something of a precious princess, and so she replied: ‘You, oppie!’

But, she was a real princess. A princess of Mars.

The first official settlers to land on the planet had largely consisted of a conglomerate of explorers from all around Earth. Their international flavour was considered an important element for exploration of the foreign planet. In the early years as they worked to set up their colony they were given homeland support from Earth, which provided supplies and resources, including hydroponics and the early terra-forming machines so necessary to eventually making Mars habitable for later colonists. But the wars of the 2120s and the further pandemic that devastated Earth afterwards essentially cut the Martian colonists from the mother planet. They were forced to survive on their own. Since home now was the large crater Hellas Planitia in the planet’s southern hemisphere, they came to call themselves Planitians, and proudly created and unfurled a new flag and constituted a government structure that was necessarily egalitarian and cooperative. Necessary, because they were on a survival footing from the start, like Antarctica of old, and everything needed to be shared, every resource accounted for, and there was no room for prima donnas or dictators. But in their isolation, and as time went on, some colonists turned inward towards religion and to older notions of leadership and tradition. A fledgling movement to establish a type of monarchy grew out of this struggle. Almost thirty years after the establishment of the colony, King and Queen Tarqa, who were found to claim obscure royal ancestry, were crowned. Although their duties were strictly ceremonial, without ties to real governmental power, they ruled their subjects with benevolence and affection.

Tzindy’s mother was the latest head of that line. Firmly traditional, the mother instructed her daughter in the behaviour expected of such royal lineage, with the further expectation that she should marry suitably and fulfil her duties. Her father was a wealthy industrialist, heavily involved in the manufacturing of the raw materials that kept Mars Colony thriving. Far more indulgent towards his daughter than was his wife, he saw no problem with pushing her into HYPEtone’s entertainment company as a trainee. She had seemed to enjoy dancing, singing and playing piano as a girl, and he had a vague notion that her pop star life might be character building. His wife had tried to dissuade him from placing their daughter in a position that would expose her to the usual common crowd that made up most of the talent agencies, but he insisted it would be good for her. It was a time when even princesses had to go out and work for a living. He knew she would do her duty for the good of the family and return as a desirable bride.

Tzindy also had an older brother, Jimin – the Crown Prince. Jimin was, to all outward appearances, a dutiful son. As handsome as Tzindy was beautiful, unfailingly polite to his parents and the family retinue, studious and serious, he was all these things. But he was also secretly rebellious and had ties to the independence movement that had sprung up lately in response to Thuvia’s continued control over the region. He visited Tzindy in her rooms on the occasion of her departure for possible fame and glory.

‘Sister, please do not forget us mere mortals when you are famous,’ he said as he entered her room.

She received him with the usual deference accorded the Crown Prince, though with her own informal inflexions. ‘I hardly think the Crown Prince could be thought of as a mere mortal, brother,’ she replied. She looked at the open case of clothes that she was packing, which included undergarments, and wished he had not arrived in time to see such personal things. It offended her delicate sensibilities. She quickly closed the case.

‘I must say,’ he continued, ‘I can’t believe my shy little sister is actually going to try her hand at being one of these loud, brash and very uncouth idols. Do you think you are up to the task?’

‘I think I may be, if I can be as brash and uncouth as my brother.’ He raised an eyebrow and she smiled at his response to the taunt. But then she became serious. ‘…I do not know. I confess I feel my solitary ways will hinder me in this; but as father says, this may be good for me. I know not how, but I must commit to it.’

‘Yes, you have been….sheltered, and pampered.’ He stared hard at her for emphasis.

She looked at him, then looked away, his stare was too intense. It was something they both knew, had both lived within their palace life. But he had managed to find his way out, to find himself; but she had not – yet. She was still essentially a blank slate with little experience – especially when it came to other people.

‘I-I love my people,’ she stammered, ‘and am ready to do my duty.’

‘But why do you sound so guilty when you say that? Do you even know your people? Do you know what they suffer?’

Before she had a chance to respond, he went on quickly, changing the subject back to the group. ‘It shouldn’t all be bad. Your group members may be nice people who will welcome you with open arms. And you will get to sing and dance – which is something I know you love to do. I have seen you at it, and you’re not half bad.’

She looked outraged at this. ‘Brother, have you been spying on me during my private practice sessions?’

He shrugged his shoulders. ‘It was not hard to do – I have several small hover cameras at my disposal, and I can easily break your security codes. But, truth to tell, I do not much care for the music you play, or for that popular point type of dancing you do. Idol groups in general leave me…’ He shivered theatrically.

‘Dear brother, always the snob.’ She acted unconcerned, but she was a little disappointed at his comment about idol groups.

Seeing her disappointment, he went on, ‘But don’t worry, dear sister, I shall be a supporter of your cause and stand in your corner when you need me. Speaking of which, I have this gift to graft for your farewell.’ He held out a small package.

She took it and opened it. Inspecting it, she saw that it was a type of towel with a design on it that looked like the flag of her country. ‘Uh, thank you, brother,’ was all she could utter at the gift, which perplexed her.

‘It is a tenugui towel, sister – a traditional gift for a departure such as yours. May it dry you when you perspire during what will no doubt be many successful performances.’

Scrutinizing it further, she saw that the flag was unusual, including as it did a design she did not recognise. The seven red flower petals arranged in a circle, that represented the seven sectors and the Hellas Planitia crater of home, were typical of the flag she knew. But the green borders on either side were new to her. ‘Is this truly the flag of our country?’

‘Ah, yes, it is simply a slight variation.’ He thought she would recognise the flag of Planitian independence, but she was, as always, politically naive. He did not feel the need to educate her on this point.

‘How patriotic,’ she pronounced, draping the towel over her shoulders. ‘I like it, brother. I shall keep it on hand when I perform. Thank you.’

Tzindy worked hard to improve and to gain acceptance within the group, but her early performances, in holovids, on the net and in concerts, were stilted, lacking depth or emotion. A popular meme of those times showed her dancing and singing with Robo sapien Nana, with the joke that Nana showed far more animation and feeling than did Tzindy. But this was more a reflection of how well Robo sapiens were able to mimic human behaviour. Their technology, based on a polymer tough as metal but pliable and flexible, with an articulated titanium skeleton and fibre optic neural pathways, also included sophisticated vocalizing software that enabled entertainment models like Nana to sing in perfect pitch and multiple range. Nana was also equipped with empathy circuits that allowed her to detect Tzindy’s difficulties and to help her with her human deficiencies. Tzindy, for her part, was more comfortable in the company of the Robo sapien, feeling that Nana, as a synthetic creation, was not judging her in the way the other members were. She was her first close friend in the group.

‘Do you feel emotions the way we do?’ she asked Nana one time during dance rehearsals. They were sitting on the cold floor of HYPEtone’s studio, watching some of the other members limbering up. Chongyeon, as always, was eating some ramen; Modean was practising an energetic dance routine; and Danny was speaking to some fans on their holophone.

‘I feel nothing the way you do, as I was not constructed with a limbic system within my body,’ said Nana in her precise, formal tones. Despite the formality of her speech, there was still an expressive note in her voice, as though she were a little sad of the fact. ‘But I can think of feelings, I can emulate them, and so, in a way, I am them. Whatever we do, we are.’

Tzindy considered that but was not satisfied. ‘How do you know when to help them – like when Chongyeon was sad?’ She was now thinking of an incident that occurred the day before. The group were leaving an awards show, being interviewed before departure, when Nana noticed something was wrong with diminutive Chongyeon. She was very quiet, not smiling – in fact she looked like she was about to cry. Tzindy also noticed, just in time to see Nana instinctively (but was it instinct?) taking Chongyeon’s arm and comforting her. Jinny also noticed and took Chongyeon’s other arm, and together the two girls gently guided the distraught member past the throng of fans and hover cameras to the waiting air taxis. The incident had made a great impression on Tzindy and she needed to get to the bottom of it.

Nana looked at her, surprised. The answer was so obvious. ‘I saw it on her face.’

The fans – called Slippers – had unprecedented access to the group’s lives, which played out on the many holovid shows screened on the Mars Colony net that the group were required by HYPEtone to appear on. These included guest appearances on variety programs and cooking shows, sporting competitions with other pop idols, and a series of game show challenges that were silly – even a little degrading – but popular with the fans. Each one provided favourite memes of the group’s interactions that were infinitely examined and discussed by the Slipper fandom. A series of clips showed certain members, like Jinny, being overly friendly to certain other members, sparking gossip about intergroup sexual relationships. One particular series showed the progression of flirtatious Jinny’s overtures towards a disorientated Tzindy, who at first did not know what to do about them. Keen observers could see that Jinny was simply being her open and affectionate self, that there was nothing necessarily sexual in her actions. It took a while for Tzindy to realise this, and longer for her to let down her natural reserve and shyness (her parents had never been big on expressing physical affection), but she eventually caught on and by the end of the series was happily accepting Jinny’s warm hugs and kisses.

The cooking program showed up Tzindy’s lack of cooking skills. To be fair, it did the same for many of the other group members. Thanks to the ease of food replicators, actual cooking was something of an esoteric art. The novelty of watching other people make meals was one of the program’s main attractions – the other was the fun of seeing the Solipsistas fumble their way through various cooking disasters. It was only Minna, softly spoken, intelligent Minna, who showed herself a dab hand with culinary skills.

At one point, whilst attempting to make Martian macaroons, Tzindy, who was working beside her, asked Minna, ‘Do you like cooking?’

‘I guess so. How about you?’

‘Oh, I’ve never really had to learn. We have a cook at home to do it for us, and there’s always the food replicators.’

‘Oh.’

Minna remained silent for a while after that. It was one of the things Tzindy liked about her – she was comfortable being silent. Most of the other Solipsistas were real blabber mouths, unable to shut up, especially on camera. Throughout her training Tzindy had found herself irresistibly drawn to Minna. Both were the quiet members of the group, both with dazzling good looks (Minna was considered by many to rival Tzindy in that department), but Minna had something extra about her. Tzindy figured this was what they called charisma.

‘So how come you’re so good at cooking?’

Minna smiled at her. ‘I follow the recipe’.

‘Hmm,’ Tzindy murmured, staring in fascination at the adorable beauty mark above Minna’s upper lip. It sounded like good advice, but Tzindy was still uncertain if there was any point to it. Never a big eater (she always had to be conscious of her weight), she wondered now whether it might be a good idea to learn to cook. Certainly such skills would help her gain favour with any future husband – even if she would rarely get the chance to use them. Perhaps they would be useful for herself and her bandmates?

‘You’ll make a good wife,’ Tzindy said finally, as she tried to kneed some dough for the batch of macaroons.

‘Do people still say that?’ Minna laughed.

‘No, I guess they don’t – at least, not here. In my country they still do.’

‘Do you think I want a husband?’ Minna looked nervously at the hover cameras that were whirring around them like annoying insects, and that she knew were recording their conversation. She didn’t want to give away too much of her thoughts.

‘Uh, I assumed so. Sorry.’

‘It’s alright. I hadn’t really thought about it. Why do we have to have husbands?’

The thought of not having a husband seemed absurd to Tzindy, but think about it she did. Everything in her upbringing had impressed upon her the need for young women to have husbands, eventually. It was a part of the royal Planitian tradition. She imagined life without husbands.

After the group had been together for one year they marked the anniversary with a special one-off concert that was to be performed at the Olympus Mons Stadium within the Thuvia district. It was the first such concert ever allowed in the region, and HYPEtone – and the group – were anxious that it should be a success. Preparations were intensive and strict, including a ‘no dating’ rule instigated by HYPe, who wanted no distractions for his charges. All members were instructed in diplomatic etiquette and made mindful of not offending the host nation’s culture, for the Thuvians were the real economic power within the Colonies, and everyone knew it. Mars’ stability depended on them.

They were the second wave of colonists to come to Mars, having made the journey after the upheavals of Earth’s wars and pandemics. When they arrived they were much surprised to find the Planitian colonists still in place, barely surviving on the inhospitable environment. The newcomers quickly gave the older colonists assistance, and then eventually (with the grateful survivor’s co-operation) annexed the territory. As more colonists arrived, setting up new territories, and trading became more viable, an exchange system was introduced. Because that system was basically Capitalist (although there was provision for Basic and other forms of social security for those who had been dispossessed from production due mainly to automation), the usual signs of inequality were soon manifested. Drugs also came onto the scene, and the inevitable result was a series of ghettos. Soon, the Martian lands were divided up like so much real estate, with one of the most prized territories claimed early by the Thuvians, the Olympus Mons.

Olympus Mons was the tallest mountain (in fact it was a volcano) on Mars and one of the largest anywhere else in the solar system. It was approximately 21 kilometres in height and 600 kilometres in width. Seen from space, and depending on the images taken, or the viewer’s fancy, it either resembled a festering pustule, or a single breast, with the areola made up by the caldera and its darkened extremities at the centre. Its overall dome shape also gave it the resemblance of a gigantic concert or sports stadium, or even a circus tent. When the second wave of colonists came to Mars they discovered enormous hollow formations within the mountain, and many smaller ones throughout its entirety. It was honeycombed with chambers, almost as if they had been drilled out by an earlier civilization. But mostly they were the remnants of cooling magma chambers left over from the mountain’s earlier volcanic activity. These colonists, who were part of the Thuvian contingent, and who controversially claimed the Mons for Thuvia at the time, set to work adapting the mountain’s natural chambers to create their own habitations, which naturally shielded them from the elements, especially the severe Martian wind storms. They also ingeniously tapped into what was left of the thermal heat to provide heating for its inhabitants. As other man-made structures appeared on the exterior, in time, the mountain came to look like a giant castle or fortress with towers and openings and viewports and spires set directly into the natural rock formations. The many coloured lights manifesting from these openings gave the Mons a surreal, hallucinatory aspect, especially when seen at the Martian twilight.

One of the structures within the mountain was the Olympus Mons Stadium, a large venue carved out of the natural chambers found within that great super-mountain. The large hollowed-out ampitheatre that became the stadium was fitted with tiered seating for over 20,000 people, with balconies and a stage that included a proscenium arch. It was a splendid venue for concerts, acclaimed throughout Mars, with superb acoustics and lighting. This was where the Solipsistas were to perform for their Thuvia district concert. They were lucky to be playing there, and HYPEtone Organisation felt their luck.

The Slippers arrived in their multitudes, with their HYPE-approved glowsticks and boundless enthusiasm. Backstage, the Solipsistas assembled where they could not only hear but feel the crowd’s roar of anticipation for the concert to come. Adrenaline levels were high – even Nana sensed the excitement through her neural networks. The group formed a circle, arms around each other with Jinny leading them in their group theme chant of Sista Sista Solipsista. Each of the members in their various forms prayed to the gods of entertainment for a great performance, even though at least a couple of them knew prayer as a form of solipsism. To them, considering the band name, it seemed appropriate.

Tzindy was especially nervous this night, as both her parents were in the audience. Her mother had visited her in her change room earlier.

‘Mother, you are here?’ Tzindy muttered in surprise when she appeared, dressed in a formal royal gown, her greying hair dyed and shaped especially for the occasion.

‘Yes, daughter, your father is here as well. Did you not expect us?’ She seemed disappointed.

‘Oh, of course.’ Tzindy now recalled her parents, as Planitian royalty, were afforded the use of a royal suite within the Mons at the pleasure of the Thuvian government. There was also a well situated royal box placed within the stadium. They were clearly making use of both in order to attend the concert. But she was pleased to see her mother and to know she was thought well enough of to be granted this courtesy.

‘Your father and I have been following your career on these holovid programs.’

‘Yes?’

‘And we have been pleased. You have represented us well – although your performance on that cookery program was disappointing.’

‘Oh, I am sorry, mother,’ said Tzindy. She reflected, it wouldn’t be her mother if she did not mix an admonishment in with any praise she might offer.

‘Never mind,’ said the matriarch, now suddenly all business. ‘Beside offering praise, I am here to inform you your father and I have organised an Introduction for you with a suitable young man from a good family.’

‘A suitable young man?…Oh…’ Tzindy remembered her old family duties, as if she could ever forget them. A dark cloud seemed to hover over her head.

‘I believe you have some time off scheduled after this concert,’ continued the mother, her imperious tones now rising. ‘We expect your presence at the family manse to prepare you for your Introduction.’ She looked around the room, suddenly noticing how small it was. ‘Uh, enjoy your concert, daughter. And what is it they say – break your femur?’

‘Leg, mother, it’s break a leg,’ said Tzindy, already regretting her mother’s visit.

With a blast of brilliant white light the group took to the stage in matching white dresses with plenty of ribbons and bling and went straight into the uptempo Ooh Like Ahh, their very first hit. The crowd waved their glowsticks and roared their approval. The glowsticks were special HYPe-approved, lollipop-shaped sticks that could light up in varying colours, and display varying patterns that were co-ordinated through a central app.

The songs were typical Mpop – bright, colourful, mixing genres but always with an earworm chorus and lots of hooks and opportunities for all the members to sing. Most of the songs were written by HYPEtone’s resident songbot, Nakata, an ingenious collection of algorithms and databases of stored riffs and ideas. Sometimes one or other of the Solipsistas would add a verse or chorus of their own. The main point of the music, which was always pre-recorded (the musicians deemed unnecessary – or too expensive – by HYPe), was to provide a background to the concerts and music holovids that showcased the member’s dancing and visual skills. These included Nana’s spectacular transformations into various hybrid animals that her robotic matrix enabled, such as a fox-girl, complete with bushy tail, a rabbit-girl with floppie ears, big blue eyes and big front teeth, or a cat-girl with adorable furry ears and paws. There was also Modean, who was the fittest and most dedicated dancer, and who could dance up a storm.

Once the group had warmed up the crowd with a series of their hit singles, it was time for some introductory ments, where each group member spoke passionately about their feelings, or whatever else was on their minds. Jinny thanked the Slippers for their overwhelming welcome; Minna remarked about the remarkable venue they were performing in; and Tzindy, still shy, gave a shout out to her parents in the royal box and asked the Slippers to ‘be kind to them’.

There was a brief interval for a wardrobe change, and then they came out in green and red outfits to perform a series of covers. For this they broke up into various sub-units, with first Danny, Chongyeon and Tzindy – the green unit – throwing sharp move after sharp move to Baby Barsoom’s Two Minutes. Then the other four – the red unit – took to the floor for HYPe’s own Invader Townas choreographed by Modean. After a short but impressive piano solo by Tzindy, the group joined together in matching black outfits as Nana, now assuming her kitty cat persona, lead them in a rousing rendition of Black Cat Fever, featuring a dexterous rap from Danny. The screams and endless fan chants continued among the Slippers, who were loving it. Even some of the Thuvian officials seated at the front seemed impressed.

The evening’s farewell ments were emotional. Jinny stepped forward to tell how during her long years as a trainee she had often fought to overcome her fear of failure. Chongyeon told the fans how she remembered growing up in the rough sectors of Mars Colony and how she would never forget where she came from. Even Tzindy, inspired by the emotion of the moment, said a few teary words about her own background and her parents and how she loved them. As an extra, impromptu piece of theatre, she took out her brother’s tenugui towel – the one with the Planitian flag – and held it above her head as a tribute to her people and how she was looking forward to returning to them.

After a series of encores, they finished with their latest song, Truth or Love. Another tune by songbot Nakata, it featured all that was great about their previous hits in a three and a half minute bop, but it went a little deeper. Amongst the winding synthesizers and explosive choruses, it dared to ask the listener to choose between its title subjects. The chorus implored: ‘It’s truth or love, but which is the greater?’ Clever Nakata had incorporated a bassline that swung from C to E and hovered within D as a musical metaphor for the choice. And at the end there was a pause where the group members (and the audience) could shout out their choice – either ‘I say truth’, or ‘I say love’. On this occasion all the members, including Tzindy, went with love.

As the group left the stage one last time, the crowd waved their glowsticks, cheered and cried and generally had a good time. It had been a flawless concert and the Solipsistas had clearly given their all for them. Everyone was thoroughly happy – everyone, that is, except the officials near the front of the stage. Consulting each other as the crowd dispersed, they agreed that they had just witnessed Tzindy, the young maknae of the group, holding up the flag of independent Planitia. It was a clear insult and incitement to Thuvia, which did not recognise Planitia’s independent status, and would require a severe response.

‘This is bad,’ said HYPe with some understatement to a nervous Tzindy the day after the show. HYPEtone had just received notification of Tzindy’s breach in diplomatic etiquette and the repercussions that would follow. ‘Several Thuvian companies are withdrawing their sponsorship of the group, and many of your booked appearances will have to be cancelled. What were you thinking?’

‘I didn’t know I’d done anything wrong,’ said Tzindy, distraught at the commotion caused by her actions. ‘It was just a flag – a towel with a Planitian flag on it, actually.’

‘Well, this has the possibility of turning into a major diplomatic incident,’ said HYPe, pacing frantically around his office. ‘I suppose we hold some of the blame,’ he conceded. ‘We should have given you proper guidance in these matters. However…’ He stopped pacing, looked straight at Tzindy and said in no uncertain terms: ‘You must apologize, Tzindy. The Thuvian government expects it. It’s the only way to make this better.’

Tzindy gasped, then lowered her head in thought. She thought about her parents, the effect this would have on them. She had disappointed them. And she thought of her brother. Why had he given her that flag? Why hadn’t he warned her? Either way, her duty was clear. She raised her head and looked at HYPe with resolve, although inside she wanted to cry. ‘Yes, senior, I will do what you ask.’

The next day Tzindy appeared on HYPEtone’s official holovid channel, sombrely delivering a statement that said, ‘There is only one Thuvia. I am proud to consider myself thoroughly Thuvian. I am terribly sorry for the harm I have caused and I feel ashamed.’

HYPEtone had allowed all the Solipsistas a much-needed break after the big concert – although Tzindy lamented the timing of it. She returned to the family home in Planitia for her vacation with the disgrace of her apology hanging over her head. Her parents were not especially welcoming, considering the circumstances.

Her mother was especially vociferous. She swept into her bedroom upon arrival and said, ‘Daughter, I have received word from your suitor’s family, and the Introduction has been cancelled. What do you think of that?’ She stared down at her seated daughter, her hands upon her hips, expectant.

Tzindy felt like crying again – though from relief rather than sadness. She had never wanted the match. Most of all she simply felt weary. ‘I’m sorry, mother. How many times do I need to say it?’

‘As many times as is necessary!’ was the mother’s retort. ‘I worked hard to get you that Introduction. They were a very good, very respectable family.’ A look of genuine emotion passed across her face, of her expectations waylaid by her recalcitrant daughter.

‘What does father say?’ Tzindy wondered why he was not present. But, then again, he was always a busy man.

‘Your father,’ said the mother, softening somewhat, ‘is pleased that you have done what was needed to be done for the sake of the country. He told me to tell you in his absence.’

‘And brother? What does he say?’

‘He is here,’ she said in surprise, as though it was an unusual occurrence. ‘You may ask him yourself.’

Tzindy found Jimin in the family library. His nose was in a book of old Eastern literature. She had many questions for him. He looked up at her with undisguised pleasure. ‘Ah, the repentant sister returns. What trouble you got yourself into this time, sister. Well done.’

‘I think you are partly to blame, brother.’ She chose a comfortable reading chair across from him and sat down.

‘If I am, it was with the best intentions,’ he said, putting aside his book.

‘How so?’

‘To educate you in the ways of this world. You are still naive.’

‘How so?’ she repeated.

‘It would seem you didn’t know what you were doing when you held up the towel. That is ignorance enough. You should learn more about politics, about the world. You have been too sheltered, too focused on yourself.’

‘Well, if I have, then I am no more, brother. This incident has opened my eyes.’

‘Has it? I wonder. Your capitulation was impressive. But did you really mean it, or did you simply say it out of duty?’

She paused. ‘I admit, I didn’t like saying it, it didn’t feel real. To tell the truth, it made me angry.’

‘Good!’ said Jimin with passion. ‘It made me angry, too. Angry for our country and the road to independence.’

She laughed. There was a hint of mockery in it. ‘How can that be, brother? How can we, a tiny colony, stand up to the might of Thuvia? And what of this independence movement you talk about, and this flag that has landed me in disgrace?’ she persisted, seeking to confirm suspicions she had had about her brother since the incident. ‘What is your connection with it?’

‘Why, I am a member of the movement, sister.’

She looked at him with wide eyes. That a Crown Prince of the royal blood should be such a thing was unheard of. She knew she should be shocked and outraged, but deep inside, she was thrilled.

‘And yes, it is a thing I would ask you to keep to yourself, sister.’ Folding the book away, he looked up to a point in the distance as if pondering something. ‘I think it a pity we have brought our boundary disputes and petty political and ownership concerns here with us. But, be it so…’

‘I wonder,’ said Tzindy, suddenly, impulsively, ‘this independence movement you are a part of, brother. Could you arrange an Introduction for me?’

Two years passed, during which the Solipsistas consolidated their fame and their popularity. Every song, every album and holovid performance they released was hailed as another breakthrough in their development. They continued feeding the beast that was HYPEtone, participating in award shows (many of which they won) and the many holovid series that seemed to detail their every move. After the Olympus Mons concert and Tzindy’s diplomatic blunder, there were more setbacks, more blunders to come: dance routines where members slipped and fell, public meltdowns, weird behaviours and arguments with HYPe about the group’s direction. But all these adversities and challenges helped mould them into an incredibly tight unit. They came to know each other so well, their friendship became a solid bond – they were like a street gang united against all opponents. The impression was further emphasised by their latest direction, which was a version of the old genre, cyberpunk. Chongyeon, the artistic group member, had come to the others with her designs, that featured each member decked out in tight bodysuits, boots and gloves, brandishing katanas, whips and other weapons, looking boss, sporting various bright hair colourings and eye lenses and generally exuding danger and darkness. It was a direction HYPe had not approved of, but he was voted down by the members, who played the look for all its girlcrush worth – bringing it even to another concert at the Olympus Mons Stadium in the Thuvia district.

It had taken two years and many diplomatic assurances on HYPe’s part to attain this return engagement for the group, but return they did. For their part, the Thuvians could hardly refuse them – they had become ‘the Martian Group’. Their popularity had transcended all barriers; so much so that the concert was being broadcast live throughout Mars on the holo-net. Within the stadium, agents of Thuvia circulated among the crowd, on the lookout for the Planitian Liberation protesters that had begun to appear at Solipsistas concerts lately. Security was understandably tight and the fans were thoroughly screened for placards and other propaganda by the state of the art Thuvian scanners at the gates. All they found were the harmless glowsticks the many Slippers carried.

As the lights went down, the crowd were witness to something they had never seen at a Solipsistas concert. There were musicians on the stage actually playing live. There was to be no pre-recorded backing tracks for this concert. The crowd had no sooner taken this in when their idols appeared, dressed in their various cyberpunk outfits, brandishing their weapons and adding their vocals for the opening song, their latest tune Insurrection.

The crowd went wild, waving their glowsticks that flashed colourfully in time to the beat of the music, throwing synchronised shapes and patterns back at the group.

As she danced and sang, Tzindy recalled the conversation she had initiated with the group about the possibility of bringing a band of musicians into their concerts. They were in a hotel room and had been discussing further new directions, when she said: ‘We should have a band of musicians play with us. Aren’t you sick of singing to those backing tracks?’

‘Keepin’ it real,’ interjected Modean enthusiastically. ‘I like it. What made you think of that, baby oppie, it’s inspired?’

‘Well…’ Tzindy paused, smiling in the glow of the compliment.

In recent times Modean in particular had warmed to her and become one of her strongest supporters. Despite her own earlier reservations, Tzindy had proved to be a good fit for the Solipsistas, and the Princess taunts had long disappeared. These days Tzindy was either ‘baby oppie’ or simply ‘Tzin’. Since the Olympus Mons concert and the flag incident, she had blossomed in confidence and ability and became relaxed around her fellow band members enough to speak her mind. The real revelation had come for Tzindy in knowing her mind.

‘I was thinking of the musicians who play on our songs. I mean, our songbot Nakata comes up with great songs, and its demos are nearly as good as the real thing. But it’s our studio guys, Mephisto, Rina, Jake and them that really bring it alive. And I think they should get more acknowledgement for their work. They’re so anonymous, it’s not fair. I want to see them play behind us, I want to feel their energy.’

Turning to look at those musicians now at this concert, seeing her dream come alive, Tzindy revelled in the energy of their music. The band, which consisted of the very same Mephisto, Rina and Jake, and others, were clearly having a ball.

By now the Solipsistas had amassed an impressive number of hit songs and they blasted their way through them in an incredible medley of music, singing and dancing. The light show dazzled, and the musicians played their hearts out. Tzindy took on keyboard duties during a couple of the numbers, and Chongyeon strummed an acoustic guitar during the ballads.

During the first series of ments at the half way mark, Tzindy gave tribute to her parents, who were again in attendance in their royal box. She couldn’t help but think of her mother’s repeat performance in appearing back stage to announce, yet again: ‘Daughter, I have arranged another Introduction for you. A fine young man, a fit family.’

‘Mother, I decline the offer,’ said Tzindy.

‘Ungrateful cur,’ her mother scolded. ‘What makes you think you can decide that? You belong to us, your decisions are with us.’

‘Mother, I have entertained lately the notion that I belong to myself, that I may decide for myself.’ She glared at her mother, who seemed taken aback by this outburst. It softened her stance, somewhat. ‘Please don’t think I am not appreciative of all you do for me, mother. I realise your efforts are – at times – meant to increase my station. But please, stop them. I have made up my mind and will not be persuaded, no matter what the consequence.’

‘So, what are you saying, daughter – you do not intend to marry?’

Tzindy considered her words for a moment. When they came, they were the words of so many who had come before her, in actuality and in story. ‘Someday, I might marry – although I have learned it is a custom little known in the wider communities of Mars. But I will choose; and it will be for love, not for duty or fortune.’

After a brief break in the performance, the group returned for the encore, lining up in a row close to the edge of the stage, looking exhausted yet still excited. They were now wearing matching red tops with matching short sarongs that were light green. The crowd quietened down, expecting a final round of ments. But the group simply stood there, looking out at the crowd for the longest moment. The Slippers began to get restless and expectant. They knew something was about to happen. The Thuvian agents in the crowd looked up nervously at the group. Some stared suspiciously at the group’s new outfits – the colours were similar to those of a certain flag. Then Tzindy stepped forward and spoke to the crowd.

‘Thank you all for coming. We’re going to do our final song in a moment. But first, I’d just like to say, last time we were here I apparently got into trouble for waving my country’s flag of independence…’ The crowd roared in approval at this. Tzindy laughed guiltily. ‘You remember that? I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time. But let me just say…I do now.’

At this point she flung off her sarong (revealing a modest pair of green shorts beneath) and held it up above her head. The crowd could see that the inner design of the sarong, now revealed, was that of the Planitian flag of independence. It had the green fields on either side of a red seven petaled flower. Behind Tzindy, the other six group members also removed their sarongs and held them high. Now all seven members held aloft flags of Planitian independence. The crowd gasped. Those at home or in public places watching on holo-screen stared in amazement.

To the crowd and the hover-cams buzzing around her, Tzindy shouted out defiantly, ‘Long live Planitia!’

The band took their cue to begin the final song, Truth or Love. The Solipsistas sang and danced their routine, waving their flags as they went. Out in the audience another gasp went up as the Slippers found their waving glowsticks were now being synchronised to a new design. On either side of the big stadium the glowsticks flashed green. In the middle a pattern of seven red flower petals flashed on. Seven for the sectors of Hellas Planitia, and seven for the members of the Solipsistas. The Thuvian agents in the crowd ran aimlessly around the stadium desperately trying to put out the lights, but to no avail.

As the song came to an end all the members chose to sing Truth.

In the streets of Thuvia and across the planet, the riots and demonstrations had begun, sparked by the simple, defiant gesture of the Princess of Planitia.

THE END

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