As Claude stepped out of the men's room and started walking back down the hall to the restaurant where he and some friends were enjoying a few cocktails, he noticed that a certain door was ajar. This door sported a gold plaque with the words "Members Only". Claude had noticed the door on previous visits to this hotel and had always wondered what went on behind it. Every time before this, of course, the door was sealed up tight, so Claude could only wonder what these mysterious members did. But today, the door was open.
Claude glanced up and down the hallway. No one was in sight. He decided to make the most of this opportunity. He stepped quickly across the hallway and slipped inside the door. No sooner had he done so that he felt a firm hand upon his chest, guiding him back through the door and out into the hall. "Sorry," said a voice attached to the hand, "Members Only."
"Members of what?" asked Claude.
The man who owned the voice and the hand stepped out into the hall with Claude and closed the door behind him. "Members of the Martian Archeological Society," he answered tersely. He was a tall man with a thick, bushy, black beard and small oval glasses, dressed in a white suit. He had a little gold pin that looked like a shovel on his lapel.
"Well, how do I join?" persisted Claude.
The man looked sternly at Claude for a moment or two. "I doubt seriously if you'd be admitted," he said at length.
This made Claude angry. "Hey, come on!" he said. "How can you say that when you don't even know me?"
The man shrugged. "Very well, wait one moment while I get you an application." He went back in through the Members Only door and returned a minute later with a little brochure. "Here you are," he said. "This will tell you everything you need to know." He handed it to Claude and went away again, the door closing behind him with a loud click.
Claude looked down at the brochure. "So You Want To Become An Archeologist" it said on the front. He opened it up. Inside he found the following list of membership requirements:
"To become a member, you must first pay an application fee of $25.00 (in cash). This fee will not be refunded under any circumstances.
"You must then play Martian Chess against 3 members in good standing of the Society. You may play up to 4 games. You must win at least once in order to become a member. This test for membership may not be repeated.
"Society members will be available to compete against at 10:00 AM on the first Saturday of every month, in the lobby outside the Member's Lounge.
"Members of the organization known as The Children of Mars are not eligible for membership in the Martian Archeological Society."
Below this was a form to be filled out. The rules for Martian Chess appeared on the pages that followed. The brochure contained no more information about the Society itself.
The brochure filled Claude with more questions than it answered, so he knocked on the door of the Member's Lounge. The door stayed closed. He waited a few moments, then gave up.
"Hey, there he is," said Damon as Claude returned to his table. "We were starting to get worried about you."
"Say, guys," said Claude, "what do you know about the Martian Archeological Society?"
Claude's merry band of co-workers collectively had no clue. They shrugged and shook their heads and said "never heard of 'em" sort of things.
"OK, then what about Martian Chess?"
This provoked a similar lack of information, followed by a flurry of counter-questions about why Claude was asking about these things. So he explained about the Members Only door and showed them the brochure. "Anyway," he concluded, "does anyone have an Icehouse set?"
"Yeah, I do," said Larry. "I got it for Christmas last year, but I've never been any good at that game. Why?"
"Can I borrow it? It says here that you need an Icehouse set and a chess board to play Martian Chess."
A couple of people in the group started laughing. One of them said, "What, are you going to try to join their dumb club?"
Claude nodded. "Sure, why not? I've got a couple of weeks to learn the game. How hard can it be?"
Although most of the group seemed to think Claude would be wasting his time, Larry was intrigued. "I'll bring in my set and we can try playing over lunch," he said quietly to Claude. Claude nodded, and then changed the subject to office gossip.
The next day at lunch, Claude and Larry took over an empty conference room and taught themselves to play Martian Chess. The game involved using 9 Icehouse pyramids for each player, of an assortment of different colors, in the corners of a chessboard. The large size pyramids were called Queens and worked like Queens; the middle size pyramids were called Drones and moved like Rooks, except only up to 2 spaces at a time; and the small pyramids were called Pawns and moved like Bishops except only 1 space at a time. The object was simply to capture as many enemy pieces as possible, as they were worth points at the end of the game, with the larger pieces being more valuable. The trick was that instead of knowing which pieces were yours by their color, you instead controlled all of the pieces in your section of the board. When you moved a piece out of your part of the board, you lost control of it, and when someone else moved a piece into your space, it became your piece. It could be played with 2 people or 4, and with 4, it was a very unpredictable game.
Claude and Larry quickly realized that the game would be much more complex with 4 players, and since the membership test required that they win 4 player games, they needed others to play with. It was obvious that no one else in the Happy Hour crowd would be interested, so they asked around among others in the office to find out who else liked games. They pretty quickly found 3 or 4 others, and soon they'd gotten quite a regular lunch time gaming session going. And the more they played, the better they got at the game.
The first Saturday of the month was soon upon them, but Larry and Claude felt confident that they'd be good enough to get in.
The lobby was relatively crowded, but not packed. Overall, there seemed to be about 15 people applying for membership and only around a dozen society members, so it took a little while for Larry and Claude's turns to come up. As they waited, they watched some of the earlier arrivals play their games.
One thing they noticed right away was that the game sets being used here had pyramids that were all of a single color, unlike the random mix of colors the rules had told them to use. "Well," said Larry, after thinking about it for a moment, "color is meaningless in Martian Chess. If you've only got one Icehouse set, then the best way to de-emphasize color is for everyone to start with an assortment of the colors in the set. I suppose it's even better to use pieces that are all of one color, but you'd need 3 Icehouse sets to get enough pieces to do that."
At last, Claude was called, and he sat down in front of his opponents. Two were women, one in her late 20's and one who appeared to be at least 60. The third was a kid, a boy of no more than 12 years of age. All three wore gold shovel pins. They smiled at Claude and greeted him warmly, but Claude had a sinking feeling as he sat down at the table. Claude felt there were sharp teeth behind those pleasant smiles.
He was right. They tore him apart. The first three games were over quickly, and Claude was the big loser in all three.
The older lady said gently, "If you'd like, we can stop here. You can save your last game and try again some other day, after you improve."
Claude's high spirits had already been too badly crushed. He decided to go ahead and get his last game over with, rather than to try again and waste some other Saturday morning. He lost that game as well.
Claude waited around for Larry to finish up his games, and was surprised when he came bouncing excitedly over to him. "Well, I'm in!" he said, beaming. "The first 2 games were brutal, but I learned a lot from them and I won my third game. How you'd do?"
"I got crushed," said Claude, dejected.
"Oh, bummer man! Well, I've gotta go to some sort of new member briefing now. I'll see you on Monday!"
Claude went home depressed. But after a while, he cheered up a bit. His main goal in trying to join was to find out what goes on in the Member's Lounge. Well, he may not get to see it for himself, but at least now he knew a member he could shake down for the information.
On Monday morning, Claude went almost directly over to Larry's desk. "So, Mr. Archeologist, tell me all about it!"
Larry smiled sheepishly. "I knew you were going to ask me this," he replied, "but I gotta say up front that there are some things I'm supposed to keep secret."
Claude rolled his eyes. "Oh, great! Well, what can you tell me?"
Larry shrugged. "Well, what do you want to know?"
"Well, for starters, what's in the Member's Lounge?"
Larry shook his head. "I can't tell you."
"Oh, great, that's just great," said Claude, very annoyed.
There was an awkward silence. Larry looked at his computer screen. "Listen," he said, "let's go to lunch later and I'll tell you what I can."
"Fine," said Claude. And he wandered off.
Larry and Claude went out for lunch. They didn't say much until they were outside, walking along the street.
"OK," said Larry, "Here's the deal. Have you heard of the Children of Mars?"
Claude scratched his head. "No, except for on that brochure."
"Yeah, I hadn't either. But they told us all about them on Saturday. Basically, the Children of Mars is this club that you can only get into if you have red hair. It was started by the guy who created Icehouse and he's got all these absurd ideas about how redheads are descended from people who came here from Mars centuries ago. It doesn't seem like the club has any real point, though, except to be an exclusive club."
"I don't get it," said Claude. "What do they have to do with the Archeologists?"
"Nothing," said Larry. "That's the whole point. That's why the Martian Archeological Society was created in the first place. See, a bunch of people who don't have red hair decided that, since they couldn't get into the Children of Mars, they'd start their own club and refuse to let anybody with red hair join it. But since they also wanted it to be an exclusive, 'members only' sort of club, they came up with a different sort of test, namely the chess game, to decide who could join."
Claude was still confused. "If they don't want to have anything to do with the Children of Mars, then why do they call themselves Martian Archeologist and play Martian Chess and stuff like that?"
"Because they consider the Children of Mars the enemy, that's why. That's what the name is all about. One of their big things is that they want the Space Agency to do a manned mission to Mars that can prove, once and for all, that there isn't and never has been any life on Mars. The only way to destroy the Children of Mars as a group is to prove that their whole premise is false, and the only way to do that is to send archeologists to Mars to look for signs of the supposed long-dead civilization. So the name of the organization is kind of wrong... it really should be the Society of Aspiring Martian Archeologists, or something like that. "
"OK, fine. But what about the game?"
"One of the founders created it. He decided he didn't want to play Icehouse anymore since he was being discriminated against by the Children of Mars, so he came up with a new game that he could play with his Icehouse set. He called it Martian Chess because he wanted to make fun of the Children of Mars."
"Well, they have this race-memory theory, which says that Icehouse is actually an ancient Martian game, which was 'rediscovered' by tapping into these old race-memories that people with red hair have. So, I guess the guy who created Martian Chess was hoping to get the Children of Mars pissed off, by claiming to have 'rediscovered' an old Martian thing even though he's not a redhead."
"Did it work?"
Larry shrugged. "I dunno."
They walked along in silence for a few minutes.
"OK, fine,." said Claude. "So what happens in the Lounge?"
"It's just a private lounge," said Larry. "It's not all that interesting, really."
"Then tell me about it!" pleaded Claude.
Larry shook his head. "Sorry, I can't. It's a secret."
Claude sighed. He could tell that Larry wouldn't tell him no matter how much he nagged, so he gave up. He fantasized for awhile about trying to break into the lounge, and then about dying his hair and trying to join the Children of Mars. After this, he started fantasizing about one of his co-workers, and tried to put both of these so-called Martian organizations out of his mind.
But then one day, he heard about a coffeeshop over on Iceland
street, right across the street from the Saturn Cafe, where they
played yet another game with Icehouse pieces. The place was called
Planet X-33, the game they played there was called Zarcana...