The Oil of Zozz
by William Michaelian

The time I spent on Mars was interesting indeed. For three weeks, I was submerged in this weird, chilly sand ó and that was only at the airport. According to the Martian Minister of Travel, my passport was a forgery, my birth certificate proved nothing, and my barber should have been shot. My barber is shot, I said. Why do you think I look like this? That was when I discovered Martians have no sense of humor. Your barber is shot, but not dead? the Martian minister said. I donít understand. While I tried to explain it to him, an angry line of travelers formed behind me. Thatís another thing about Mars. As soon as you get there, you get mad. The main reason for this is that the sudden change in environment makes you need to use the bathroom. But there are other reasons, not the least of which is the Martian Law of Lines, which states that those waiting in lines must do so without their clothes on. This law was enacted years ago, to help satisfy Martiansí insatiable curiosity about their earthling cousins. Since then, watching naked travelers has become the second-most popular spectator sport on Mars, right after the uniquely Martian game of pezzleball. For those new to pezzleball, the game is played on a field of jagged ice. The object is for teams to hit the pezzle (Martian for head) through holes at opposite ends of the field, using a club full of slivers. What makes it so challenging is that the holes are smaller than the heads, which come, by the way, from politicians who have broken at least twenty of their campaign promises. So, there are plenty of pezzles to go around ó enough that the sport is played all year, except during the month of Gurn, which is when the Martians harvest eyes. On Mars, eyes are a staple, much like bread is here on earth. You will be interested to know that the typical Martian has approximately one thousand eyes scattered over his body, with new ones sprouting all the time. This, coupled with the Martian penchant for recycling, has led to the use of eyes in the Martian diet.

But, as that quaint earthling tribe known as Americans likes to say, enough about culture, get to the punch line. Very well, I will. After my three-week sand dune experience, I was allowed to leave the airport and get on with my sight-seeing mission. But I was only pretending to be a tourist. I was really a spy, hired by a vague outfit known as the Oil Institute. Yes, I was on Mars to search for oil. If any was found, I was to immediately alert the Institute, so they could send their experts to find out exactly how much oil there was and who they would have to kill to get it. In a tape recorded memo which has since been shredded, a man known only as the President said that he was quite curious about the possibility of enslaving the entire Martian world, and making the Martians work in their own oil fields. Sick. Jumping back just a few years, this same so-called president bulldozed an entire section of his home planet in order to gain control of the regionís oil supply. But, as happens with so many grand plans, his backfired. The thousands of people who were killed ended up forming a kind of human sponge, blotting up all the oil. Thatís how he hit on the slave idea. Still, many members of the Institute are old-fashioned. Theyíre used to killing as a means of getting what they want. Anyway. If you want to know more about this particular aspect of the case, there are several good comic books ó I mean newspapers ó that deal openly and fairly with the subject. For my part, I intend to relate only what I know ó from personal experience, and from Martian hearsay, which is like human hearsay only in its incoherence, and is otherwise quite reliable.

So. I rented a flondula and set out. I love flondulas, because they drive themselves. All you have to do is pick up your little microphone and tell the contraption where you want to go ó in my case, the small town of Zozz, and then on to the Zozz Game Preserve. Flondulas donít rely on oil. Imagine that. Instead, they are dirt-powered. Martian dirt, it turns out, is a very useful compound. Not only does it shine your shoes, it is a fine sealant for bicycle tires. Its use as fuel, though, goes way back. And itís really handy. All you need for a long trip is a little shovel. When you run out of dirt, you simply pull to the side of the road and scoop some into the regurgitator. My particular flondula got in the neighborhood of seventy-two crizzles per zoop of dirt, or, about twenty-seven miles per pound, if my conversion is correct. And dirt is entirely non-polluting. This leaves the Martian atmosphere crisp and clean. In fact, quite a few humans find this intolerable and leave immediately. Those who stay, though, are rewarded with renewed vigor and energy, not to mention an enormous appetite for bugs. But, again, I digress.

The town of Zozz was completely unremarkable. Zozzites are simple folk, engaged primarily in the weaving and sale of rugs made of colorful neez hair. A neez is a lot like an elephant, except neez hair is like wire and very durable. I saw neez rugs that were more than two thousand years old and yet in perfect condition. As for the nearby game preserve, the neez herds are so large that itís nearly impossible to enter. But enter I did, beginning with a strenuous climb of about four crizzles. At first I thought I was climbing a small mountain. I soon realized, however, that I was actually making my way up a steep mound of neez carcasses. In no time, my shoes and pants were covered with a thick, tar-like substance. Tests proved this to be the basis for oil ó or, as I called it in my notebook ó Martian gold, or Zozz tea.

I also found several caves in the area. The caves were guarded by Zozzites with speech problems. But they were very cordial and invited me right in ó then clubbed me over the head. When I came to, I was in a dimly lit room beneath the planet surface, where Zozz tea was literally dripping from the walls. Iíd found oil, all right. Lots of it. Like the dinosaurs on earth, the neez had been rotting for endless centuries, giving a new and powerful meaning to the word crude. One whiff removed all doubt. I also found out that the Zozzites were guarding the caves not for the oil they contained, but because they had nothing better to do. After all, not everyone can sell rugs. I jotted this down in my notebook. If the Zozzites liked to guard things, I reasoned, maybe they could be hired to protect our new drilling operations. Of course, there would be other hurdles. The Martian government, for instance. But government has never been my area of expertise. And since I was well aware of the Oil Instituteís disdain for sovereignty, I didnít bother writing that down.

In the meantime, I made friends with the Zozzite guards, who in turn recommended several bars I could visit once I got back to town. Later, I enjoyed a pitcher of Zozz ale with a beautiful young Martian from the university, who claimed to be doing research in the area. She was an intriguing woman with beautiful eyes, and I do mean eyes. And she was doing research, all right ó on me. But she wasnít a pro. I knew sheíd been sent to follow me by the Minister of Travel to see what I was up to. Well, I was up to a real good time. I may have been sent to Mars to look for oil, but Iíve been around long enough to know you have to grab for the gusto whenever and wherever you can. After finishing our Zozz ale, I asked Koogle if she wanted to dance. She did. Then I learned a little about Martian dancing that isnít in any of the guidebooks, and for good reason. To the thunderous applause of at least a hundred other Zozzites, Koogle dragged me around the floor by my hair, jumped on me, and extracted my teeth. It was great. What wasnít great was waking up the next morning in her apartment three hundred crizzles away. The first thing I did was take a shower and wash the stray eyes out of my hair. But when I walked into the kitchen looking for a cup of coffee, I found Koogle dead on the floor, murdered. Either that, or sheíd eaten my can of insect repellent. There were voices outside. Angry voices. Soon the whole building was on fire. I jumped from the window, fell for at least ten minutes, then landed in a pile of feathers. Looking like an ostrich, I was stuffed into one of the biggest flondulas Iíve ever seen and whisked away. We drove for hours. Whenever we were low on dirt, automatic shovels scooped in more fuel without us having to slow down.

Finally, we reached our destination. In a stupendous slashing move, the driver wrenched the flondula into a big garage behind a dilapidated building that looked like a mushroom. After heíd parked, I was hurled into an elevator and taken to the center of the planet. The center of Mars is hollow and very much like the earth. There is lots of greenery and running water, and even a few clouds on the horizon. The Martians who live and work at the planetís center are different than their relatives. For one thing, they have only two eyes, both of which are in their head, like ours. And they are remarkably human-looking. So much so, in fact, that I am more certain than ever that we are descendants of ancient Martian travelers who colonized the earth ó or maybe it was the other way around. It doesnít matter. What matters is that one after the other, the center dwellers gave me their business cards and suggested we have lunch sometime soon. A few even had brochures. What were they selling? Insurance. When I told them I was already well covered, a gruesome-looking gent pressed a button that catapulted me back to the surface of the planet. Not much of a salesman, that guy. I had to laugh.

On my own once again, I decided to make use of the time by investigating the area. Posing as a butterfly collector, I wandered into the town of Nerb, home of the annual qwell festival. Due to a milder climate, the qwell growing on the Nerb Plain are particularly bountiful. Yet I found them surprisingly bitter. I wrote this down. Bitter qwell, I said. Why? And of course youíre thinking what Iím thinking. Oil. Only this time there were no handy caves, and no handy Zozzite guards to lead me by the nose to the mother lode. I had to use my senses instead. And so I made a divining rod from some old antlers I found and started walking. I walked five crizzles, then ten. Nothing. I walked some more. Finally, at the base of a hill, I felt the antlers tug at my hands. I put down my divining rod and tasted some qwell growing nearby. It was absolutely nasty. Good qwell is sweet and looks like moss. This qwell looked and smelled more like shag carpet after a wild party. I sat on a rock and made some more notes.

That night, I was put up by a hospitable family in Nerb well known for taking in travelers. I knew this because they had a sign in front of their house that said, You can pay us to stay here. Less than clever, but effective. But, as I said, they were really nice. So nice, in fact, that I stayed an entire week, during which time I fell in love with their eldest daughter. Luckily, she didnít fall in love with me, or I donít know what would have happened. During my stay, I learned all about the history of the area, and about how it had once been the home of neez herds. Once again, oil. Knowing they could be trusted, I told them about the oil we had on Earth, and how important it was to a handful of men. Much to my surprise, they knew all about it. Martian astronomers had been reporting on the black cloud encircling the earth for decades. To them, the whole thing was a joke. When I went into more detail, and explained how wars had been fought for oil, they shook their heads in wonder. What a strange thing, they said. Well, I said, maybe if our dirt was as potent as yours, all this nonsense could have been avoided. Maybe, they said. Maybe. The other thing they couldnít understand was how we could take something out of the earth without first finding a way to replace what weíd taken. So I told them about how we had systematically raped our planet, denuding it of trees, boring into it for minerals and metals, and then dumped whatever was left over into our lakes, oceans, and rivers. And then something very strange happened. Why donít you stay here? they said. How can you live on a planet that has been so compromised? I thought about this. At first, I didnít know what to say. Then I remembered. Because, I said. It is my home. And for the first time in my life, I actually felt homesick.

The family understood. And I understood that I had told them far, far too much. They were simple people, but they loved their planet, and for that reason I knew they would report me to the authorities. Thatís why I promised to say nothing upon my return to Earth. I will see to it that your oil remains undisturbed, I said, and that you remain undisturbed. I will use my influence. I will explain to the president and to the other members of the Oil Institute that I was sent on a wild goose chase.

At this, everyone smiled, because Martian geese are docile and kept as pets.

And for some reason, they trusted me.

I went home. When I got there, I was just in time for another war.

William Michaelianís newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelianís other books and links to this siteís other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.

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