“Those who cannot remember the future are condemned to repeat it. The past can never be repaired or reclaimed. The future may be reimagined at any moment, possessed at any time, and thus easily known.”
This is the journal of Griffon Macdonald, his expedition to Earth, and what he found there; being also an accounting of some other matters learnt during that doctoral investigation into mankind’s persistent use of slavery as a means; offered here with additional records from the Council Court of Inquiry as well as the emendations and notes of his brother Robert.
It is said that after two-hundred years Joe Trees still lives somewhere amidst the forests of Mars. It is a legend, a myth perhaps, but a tale retold often enough to have its own life. It is believed that men do not live so long, so perhaps he is no longer a man.
- August 19, 2247: the origin and cause of my zetetic
From various sources, but mostly the words of my father, I have fashioned here a short account of an ancient relative, Flora Macdonald—Fionnghal nic Dhòmhnaill in the old Gaelic. She was the daughter of Ranald MacDonald a tenant farmer of Milton, which is on the island of South Uist in the Hebrides, an archipelago close by to the northern reaches of Scotland, on Earth, and of his wife Marion, herself the daughter of Angus MacDonald. It is thus that our clan was from the one root, though the MacDonalds were prolifically spread throughout those lands. Flora was born about 1722. It was her father’s unfortunate death when she was yet two years old that brought on the wooing of a cousin from the Isle of Skye for the affections of her widowed mother.
Now Marion had small property of her own but was a great beauty and even more than that a woman of adamantine will. She was not interested in this cousin. However that be, the cousin, Hugh Macdonald of Armadale on the isle of Skye, would not put off his love and finally kidnapped Flora’s mother by force, as well as Flora who was then the youngest of the children and still unweaned, and carried them off to his home across the near sea to the Isle of Skye. This was often the way of those times. And thus, Flora was raised among this other sect of her clan, amidst greater fortunes, even to be educated in language and math and the truths of the Bible and that stern God and the ways of the Kirk, as was the manner of the Scots of the time. But Flora never lost the sense of where she was from, nor of the sentiments of her true father—these things being kept for her by her mother’s heart. And when Flora was old enough she returned on visits to her older brother who had maintained the family stead and managed to buy some of his own land as well on the Isle of Benbecula.
It was during one such visit and on a particular morning when Flora had been gathering seaweed at the rocky shore for her brother’s furrows and the air was thickened by the vapor of a steel grey ocean, that a pitiful young man and his companion appeared out of the veil of mist seeking refuge from the numbing cold. The fog could not conceal this man’s fear, nor his bearing. The Stuart claim to the thrown had failed at bloody Culloden some months before and now the Hanoverian troops were hounding the rightful prince of Britain, Charles Edward Stuart, to those ends of the Earth. Flora had little use for such a ‘Prince without a palace.’ Though a daring horseman, a fine bowman, and the master of five tongues, he must yet have been a sad sight in battered britches and broken shoes.
Flora’s own stepfather, who had taken the winning side, was a captain in the search. But something else was now at work. She knew her own sentiments, and that the faith of her true father were in the Stuart cause. It was being said, ‘any that helped the fugitive Jacobite would suffer punishment,’ and few others could find the courage to risk what little they had, only to trade masters, or just to be hung for the difference.
But the young prince was a symbol to many. And symbols are more important when the facts are hard against.
Flora knew of a stone cottage on the bleak inner coast of Benbecula, a poor place of moors and marsh, which was then owned by her brother. There she started a small peat fire for warmth and gave her Prince and his companion a guttering candle made of fat, and there the would-be-king huddled while the roads were dangerous with pursuers. Flora, just a girl but well traveled between these shores, was able to smuggle him food and help plot his escape. With her brother’s reluctant aid they found a good boat and fashioned a ‘fantastical’ plan.
In old clothes they disguised Prince Charlie as ‘Betty Burke’ an Irish maidservant. They were in need of a local guide across the shoals to unfamiliar landings and Flora knew that much well enough. From Benbecula they sailed together the forty miles across the sea of the Hebrides to Skye, facing fierce weather and uncertain aims. A treacherous landing was made amidst the foamy spit but only then to face dangerous roads again. With Flora brazen in her lies to questioning patrols, they hid out along the way in friendly places known only to the Macdonald clan, finally reaching her own mother’s home on Loch Snizort, with her stepfather still away in the search for these her very companions. And there the Prince slept in Flora’s bed—alone it is said.
But that is not believed by some.
A mere man might have said, “You have given me your own bed before, and slept apart and cold. Would you now sleep here where you belong, with me to warm you.”
There was no future to this romance. History said that there could be none. The Prince soon left his maiden savior for a rendezvous on the Isle of Raasay and from there fled to France and safety.
Soon betrayed by those whose faith is easily tested by a mere precursor wind before the true storm, Flora survived imprisonment in the Tower of London for her deeds but only because of her age, and by the sheer wonder and admiration her jailors had for her daring. And yet more for my own families sake, she went on to live an even fuller life than that: to marry another cousin on his way to the New World, again braving Revolution on the loosing side in America, had borne eight sons along the way, and only then returned home to Scotland to begin yet again.
Later, as a widow, she even won over the grumpy traveler Samuel Johnson and his garrulous companion Mr. Boswell, with her hospitality and grace. And as for that poor Prince who had left this jewel behind—he married into Continental Royalty for his own political survival, dressed better then for that part, and died a drunkard.
I ask, is there a micro-particle of her genetic stuff within me still? And if that be, will it now die with me? I think not.
But I know that all of this was in my dreams that first night and the day and nights after, and into all the hours beyond.
The muscle of day is spent and the exuded gloss now sours upon my skin. An evening musk has settled in a clear ether, illumined by a low orange sun. Stage-like, the proscenium arch of my window frame is gilded at one side by the light, and tricks all reference to time. The scrim of sky there is beachy with yellow cloud spread thin before an advancing tide of night. But there are no shoals amidst those high water fields, nor boats to take me safely home.
I lie still, within my embryonic envelope of sweat, born again in this old place. The scenes of my small theatre of mind pass at random and unmanaged in spite of my direction of thought, and without reference to the acting of the parts.
My conjured romance with Flora, near life-long as it has been from the time when first I remember anything at all, has since been replaced by another. Ha! How fickle we are. Sarah appears once again, as if she were in on the rehearsals, and now unwilling to give up her role. My attempt to replace her with mere history is foiled once more. The scene alters. Her black hair mingles with the green and yellow of weeds pressed low by our bodies, a patch of sweat glistens between her breasts.
She says aloud, “I am just a wish. Something you’ve conjured here. I am not a succubus—only a daydream.”
Her voice is assured and assuring.
What did I answer? I have now forgotten my character. What is my part in this play?
My eyes search for some design in the cracks of the weary plaster ceiling directly above me—islands of light float there, set apart by the shadows of half-light from the window. Now there are other faces in that thin plaster geography. None so beautiful as my succubus. But one other at least has become newly familiar.
An old man taps his finger on the table between us to secure my attention. His eyes are nearly black beneath the wild growth of his brow.
“You are the child of deceit. Yours are the people of Cain.”
I did not answer that charge. I had sought his words not for dispute but for the understanding. He thumps his stiff finger again on the wooden field of table between us.
“You have no right to be here.”
He rocks with his unyielding purpose and the floorboards squeak each time he come forward. I want to laugh. His only wish is to kill me. To crush my pale and pasty face beneath his hands.
Again I held my answer to look away.
My murderer is unsettled.
Later, pressed by the mere gravity of my situation, I turn my face to the window, again, hopefully awaiting the entrance upon that small and darkening backdrop of that point of light which is my home and my true purpose—wishing for it to appear there among the approaching stars.
Somewhere below the window of my lodging, paired heels bark on the brick like dogs, hurried homeward to a late dinner, I suppose, but grounding my reverie. I am, myself, not yet hungry, still suspended in the hollow aftermath of my illness, and I am unsure in the moment if I will ever be hungry again.
Before this, at the hospital, though my small room had seemed crowded at times with visitors, both imagined and real, only one of them had the weight to make floorboards speak.
Mr. Downs came by my lodging this morning to inquire about my health. His concern has seemed real enough. Perhaps the loss of a student on his watch would go against him with his superiors. His voice is earnest and I don’t believe he hates me, as the old man does, whatever the misbegotten notions they both keep.
I told Mr. Downs I was feeling better, though at that very moment I was squelching another wave of nausea and it was barely true. I simply didn’t want to go back to the hospital again.
If I am to die on this journey, I wouldn’t mind that it be here on Pinckney Street—not so bad that my last view of life might be this ‘Old Boston.’ Though not so poetic as a thatched cottage above Scottish shores, which is where I truly aim to be.
In little more than a week—-nine days, but only six on my feet—I have become familiar enough with this small precinct of Beacon Hill to think I know it. These Nineteenth Century townhouses are perhaps too trim and neat. But the quaint surface of things, though shamelessly artificial now, is yet infused with a real and ancient design beneath. Narrowed vertically to small rooms and steep stairs, these were once the homes of families with no time to waste, and wanting to see their money spent efficiently. I like the smell of brick and stone, basted in a quick spent rain, braised by a profligate sun. The life dust of half a millennium is caught between the seams of this hard tapestry about me.
Twice I have enjoyed the dank odors of rainy evenings when the musk of history bloomed from below the surface. The morning’s fog, which had lingered longer four days ago, was more intimate than the soup I witnessed in San Francisco, conveying upon its inner stillness the comforting buzz of many small conversations set adrift on the street from a hundred open windows.
But it is only the place that has become familiar and not the people. They are aloof. Insular. They conceal their thoughts in a plain spokenness taught in their schools as a virtue—leaving more unsaid than said, and thus saving themselves from having to commit poetry as well as any inadvertent self-incrimination. They are not so much afraid, I think, as guarded. They hide behind their shades and curtains even when out and about, given to sunglasses and garish clothes for their disguise.
Except one, perhaps. I have not met the woman who undresses each evening at the window across, but I feel as if I know her. I have watched her habits closely enough from my bed. Her window display is the practice of a prostitute, but, vicariously, I have tried to imagine Sarah in her place. Not with much success. This women is red headed and pale skinned. She is attractive in a very different way. But at least she moves with grace, as Sarah does, and stands with her back straight, and though her breasts are larger than Sarah’s, they have the same slight turn upward. She has looked across at me several times and then away as if I did not matter in her scheme of things. This tells me she has some self-assurance, and that too is much like my Sarah.
My Sarah has a steady and stubborn will—not unlike my ancient cousin Flora.
I slept at least a part of last night. I know this because I had an actual dream. I dreamed about Sarah, of course. I must be better, or else I would not be thinking so much about sex.
I never intended to write a journal—fearing that the effort might detract from my more important work here. And beyond that, Alexis would admonish me for my crippling self-concern. He would not say ‘conceit.’ My father would know the French equivalent. But old Tocqueville would be polite. He might say pride, as the French once understood pride. Before the fall, of course.
I simply haven’t yet his maturity. This effort on my part to record something beyond the proscribed might only be arrogance, then, and Henry too would object to that. He would dismiss the ulterior motive for writing about myself as an interest in the politics of the matter—so at least in part I must write to defend myself rather than to explain, he might say. I am in search of such an excuse—some abrogation of responsibility for my own actions. No, Henry. I have no peaceful Walden for retreat. I believe I have entered this rougher stage on my own terms.
To myself, I admit only the fear of saying too much in this journal and thus revealing my true weakness. But the grip of even this small reserve has been shaken loose now as the chills grappled my body over these last few days. I have been reminded once again of my simple mortality. And with this, the thought (the excuse, perhaps) has returned that it might be good for others to know what I have done, or meant to do, even in failure.
In truth and in fact, about seven weeks have passed since my arrival on Earth—-49 days–and I have done nothing of importance to anyone but myself—-and perhaps to her. For her.
I fell in love.
I suppose what should be said here in this journal is all I have found, or might find, that is beyond my essential purpose and will not be recorded elsewhere—and that I should begin at the beginning. But, is the beginning the moment when I first awoke on Earth, or when at last the journey was begun on Mars?
When Mr. Downs knocked on my door again this morning, it was just such a thought which occupied my mind.
He asked, “Have you taken your medicine?”
There is an idiom in those words. I studied their idioms most carefully before I left, because language is useless without them. I thought to answer that meaning, instead of his actual concern.
“I’m afraid I have only just begun to take my medicine for all I have done.”
He frowned. I could see the thought—was this alien attempting humor over such a serious matter. Odd fellows these Martians. Heh?
If he only knew the half of that!
Mr. Downs was dressed in a suit with the gray collar of some particular rank of which I am unfamiliar. He is a trim fellow for his size, broad shouldered, dark skinned, and has no unusual features or moles. His smile is not crooked. His eyes are the brown of pumpernickel bread. His black hair is short in a way typical of government officers and not visibly oiled in the current style. I suppose because it is the general fashion on Mars, I have kept my own hair short and tend to notice the difference in others, but longer hair is fashionable with the general public here on earth and that in itself seems to be an obvious statement of sorts. A popular non-conformity. A sartorial rebellion can be a silent disrespect toward authority. The cost is in credits rather blood. But they are a meek people who have inherited this earth.
To be polite, I made conversation with Mr. Downs—though he lacks the aesthetic interest of my more ethereal guests.
I said, “Everything has been so different here from the very first. After all those months and all the studied details and planning for this journey, the experience has been one long unexpected moment.”
Mr. Downs cocked his head in an expression of small surprise. “You say that from your bed. How will you feel when you are up again?”
I took it as uncharacteristic encouragement. He more often frowns with the same ease of his smile. But his back is always stiff with his bearing. His dark face reveals little more than the words he speaks. I am only imagining his thoughts.
I said, “I thought I would die. I wanted to die, Only yesterday. Or was it the day before? I didn’t tell you that, did I? But I am feeling very grateful now for having survived.”
The life he lives within his skull is only a guess to me. I imagine him to be bright, but not wise. His will is toughened by use more than choice, I think. His code is set. His purpose is without doubt. I flatter myself with the thought that he sees more mystery in me. I can’t tell him that my own skull hides the greater enigma to its owner, just for still being attached and thus unescapable.
He tells me then, “I thought you would die as well. Botulism is a very effective poison. I was certain. But you are stronger than you look.”
I answered with accented bravado of a street thug, “I’m glad you know it!”
He smiled again at my attempted bravado, while shaking his head at my foolishness.
“We found the source, you know. You were poisoned where you ate your dinner Friday night. There are pictures of the fellow you were speaking with. He is a member of a dangerous faction. I tell you this as a caution. You must be more careful.”
I had assumed all of that, or course.
“The old man. Yes. I know. I had a feeling from the first.”
I had many hours to think through my actions after they pumped out my stomach. I had been warned before. It was not the old man’s fault. He had made his intentions clear enough. And such poison is a common weapon here where most other arms are forbidden. Now I could be glad he had not chosen a table knife, instead.
Downs was stolid. “You should have avoided him.”
How could I? Why am I here, after all?
I offered my excuse with the diminished tone of apology. “He was an interesting subject. Argumentative. His grandfather had died in the war.” I hesitated at the mentioning of what was seldom spoken of now. But it is my thought that I should be as open with Mr. Downs as possible or else loose his best effort on my behalf. The old man was still of interest to me. I did not wish him ill. I said, “He himself had been a soldier once. He told me quite a bit about himself. He was very honest with his thinking. I suppose that’s what captured my interest. It was a chance to listen to someone speak without reservation. But he made no pretense of friendship. Since, I’ve been thinking that he simply wanted me to know why he was about to kill me. He knew I would die slowly and have time to consider the cause. Thus it was my fault.”
The frown returned to Mr. Downs. This must be a direct affront to his own purpose. Openness of thought is not an ideal here.
“I’m glad you understand that. But will you be more careful?”
I answered too quickly, “Yes.”
This was only a partial lie. I could not turn away from speaking to anyone who might be a danger. I had spoken with more than a hundred Americans in the past weeks, after all, and only one had tried to kill me.
Mr. Downs picked up on that scrap of half-truth in my words and half-turned to leave as he spoke.
“Do you know what day this is?”
He had noticed the date on my record, I suppose.
“Yes. It’s my birthday.”
He smiled again, but did not wish me well, as is the custom even here, when parting. He remained poised, half-turned toward the door and facing the empty wall of the room as if looking at a tapestry—no, I believe I mean a panorama. As if looking at a great distance through the walls and beyond.
He finally said, “Yes. And by some coincidence, I’ll have completed thirty years service this same month.” He nodded to himself. “After my first six years of non-commissioned service, I was a lieutenant for six years more. Then captain for another six. I have been a major now for more than nine years. But I have been doing exactly the same duty since I was a lieutenant. I have been in the same position I hold now since the year you were born. You’d think I’d have earned something better . . . some easier duty.”
In a few seconds I knew more about the man than I had learned in all the previous days.
I pursued the facts. “How do you mean that?”
His smile was thin now. I looked back at me. “It’s not your concern. Just that I’m still fostering students. I should at least have been assigned a Lagniappe sinecure. Business men are easier charges.”
I was surprised at this sudden judgment upon himself, having spent a deal of wasted effort quizzing him previously. “You don’t like businessmen. You’ve said so before.”
He offered a single nod to that idea. “That’s right. You were listening.”
Thus he had returned my small insult of honesty, and so, he left.
An odd man, I think now—more odd to me than I am to him after all, perhaps. I must suppose he has seen my type come and go many times before. The madness of Martians is exaggerated—born I think in those desperate tactics used in our war. But when there is no alternative between survival and annihilation, one must be creative.
Tired once again, I suddenly felt the weight of gravity as if it had just been reapplied and had not been pressed upon me all the while. All the muscle training of months had been defeated by a simple potion of malice.
I closed my eyes on the tilting of the room and swam in the darkness within my skull. I have felt this before, but without the nausea.
I have felt the world give way beneath me.
No. There is a greater difference to the beginning of a journey. The confounding moment of imminent sleep is stirred by daydreamt adventures. Fear itself provokes exhilaration. Anticipations of infinite gain are borne upon thoughts of ultimate loss. That confusion of emotions is the unique ambivalence of departure and arrival, both of these are appreciated in the once because the time between them has been lost. It can only be known to those who take the ‘small step,’ that anachronism intended as a sort of reverse understatement. What would that actually be? Certainly a hyperbole.
I may be young to Mr. Downs, but I have been away from home half a dozen times and I’ve found no humdrum to it yet.
Do not mistake this confession, dear reader. I don’t elevate myself, physically or metaphorically. There was no real journey or passage of my own doing; no rough wayfaring or trek in what I have done. I was not an aeronaut or mariner, but just so much waftage. Mere cargo. Perhaps I was the Wandering Jew, a volitant, but not a cunning Daedalus, much less the braver Icarus. My travel was merely a transfer, a transmission, a translocation—more transduction of flesh and bone and what little grey-matter I have been blessed with. My vecture was willing, but not of my actual doing.
And it was thus, despite weeks of ‘workout’ and testing of my body that I arrived as weak and delirious as Tom Paine did when he was carried from his ship at Philadelphia in 1774. Good Tom was, of course, far more daring. I am no hero, but a student of heroes.
True, I had gotten a brief taste of some real travel afterward but the great leap from one world to another remains for me nothing more than a dream, but dreamt after the fact. How can the three and a half thousand miles that Thomas Paine traveled from England to America be so much greater than my forty-five million? It simply serves to illustrate the distortions which we otherwise might assume to be the hard facts and truth of history.
Incapable in my excitement of expressing any larger or more profound thought only hours before my departure I had said, “Good bye.”
My father answered, “See you later,” as if I would be back for dinner. That is his way. He would not admit to the possibility of a final parting.
In deference to him my mother said only, “Take care.”
She smelled of morning chores and the breakfast she had made, more of buttermilk than sweat. I could not help but hug her longer than I could grip my father’s hand.
My brothers were away—John, the older, in the service and stationed on some barren rock in a far flung Belt. Hugh, the younger, was at school in Franklin. Robert alone had stayed on at the farm to help my father and learn more of his own vocation. Robert and I had spoken, of course, but I wished that John and Hugh might have been there as well.
The actual farewell to Mars was taken in a small and beige colored room, while lying on my back, with the Fourth Dunston concerto trapped in the air about me for distraction. Drama is not well contained in such unexceptional spaces. Seventy-six other passengers, gathered there from Ceres, and Titan, as well as Mars, were in exactly similar rooms to either side of mine. A wrist monitor tethered my right hand. I never actually saw the pupal enclosure awaiting me. They worry, I think, that we might feel the claustrophobia in advance.
Think of young Tom Pain, venturing beyond his home with little more than a scrap of paper in his pocket and the wits in his brain. Paine’s twelve weeks in a cramped ship’s cabin with five other adventurers, the air thick with the odor of vomit, urine and feces, cannot be compared to my comfortable sleep of six months. His was certainly a more uncompromising character than mine. Adamantine, again! If I myself have any virtue to speak of, it might be a stubbornness of faith—not even the hard faith of a true believer, but the sinuous and muscular faith of my ancestors, that religion in which I was raised, and hopefully enough of it, because I am still too ignorant to have real principles of my own. I am merely a hajji on my way, engaged in heuristic play.
The name etched on my skull is Griffon. At that last moment, as the drugs gathered my mind for the great commute, I am the fabulous monster of myth with head and wings of an eagle and body of a lion. I fly and feast. I leap and cry, falling in the timeless drift and descent within my branded cranium. Soaring close there to the meninx, the gossamer web of the arachnoid dome dazzles my eyes as it shimmers between the dura mater cloak and the pia mater seal. I perch for only a moment or two upon the edge of the universe. I think.
My name is Griffon. I am only a man. A young man at the most. May that be enough. But more than once since my arrival on Earth I have seen the disappointment in their eyes.
Can he be of the same race that beat our best?
At Boston University, a fellow said, “I thought you would be taller.”
I tried to answer respectfully. Because he was an odd-looking fellow himself and short by any standard, I did not take it as a criticism.
I told him, “My father is taller by several inches.”
This was clearly not explanation enough.
He asked, “How much is an inch?”
I could only wonder what this fellow imagined, his mind bound by rigid decimals. Martians are taller, truly, but seldom as strong as those bound to the Earth. We may live longer, but the question might always be posed (as it often is), to what purpose?
My father’s name is Kean Macdonald. He traces his heritage to the sons of Flora Macdonald of Skye. They were tall people from their beginnings, made taller by a natural leaness.
My mother’s name is Opal Duffy. Her people are not short, but they stand larger by nature. It is in their bones to be broader at the shoulder and wider hipped. When my father vaunts too long on Flora, his Scottish heroine, my mother is likely to interrupt him with the disparate highlight that the Duffys are the descendants of a Mexican outlaw named Rubio Jones and his mistress Martha, who had no surname but was certainly an escaped slave from a plantation in Louisiana.
My father, a gentleman, would answer then in some defense of her family and the heritage of the children that are his own as well.
“A Duffy worked at the first Moon base with my great grandfather’s great grandfather. His ancestor, Rubio, must have been an outlaw for good reason.”
Dad would not allow us to think less of ourselves by letting any slight pass on our heritage.
And mom would have to add in answer, “That would have been Jim Duffy. He was known as a good mechanic.”
She understood. And he would quiet.
Long before I have known them, they have made peace. Arguments are more often between my father and myself. And lately even with old Alexis.
Tocqueville asked, “Have all ages been like ours? And have men always dwelt in a world in which nothing is connected? Where virtue is without genius, and genius without honor? Where love of order is confused with a tyrant’s tastes, and the sacred cult of freedom is taken as scorn of law? Where conscience sheds but doubtful light on human actions? Where nothing any longer seems either forbidden or permitted, honest or dishonorable, true or false?”
He knows that his questions inspired the zetetic which has brought me to earth.
I say, “Alexis, you are too old to understand. You are too used to being right, and admired for your genius. Your time is past. The wonders have changed.”
This is my jest. That truth has somehow changed. He is unimpressed.
And the thesis I hoped to hand to my advisors will not truly reflect all of Tocqueville’s quandaries in any case. I haven’t the time to explore as widely on the American landscape as he once did, much less the proper permits in hand. Such a broad questioning would never suit the modern academic purpose in any case. They want focus. A specialty. I have asked instead, ‘What of Tocqueville’s concern for the danger’s inherent in Democracy? Have they been realized? Why do men want slaves?’ That was more than enough to cause Professor Tripp to groan!
I hear his voice now again.
“Are you serious? It’s a closed society! Byzantine. Turned in on itself.”
I objected, “It’s the root stock of everything we are, or pretend to be.”
Tripp is not a patient man. He knows his subject, and is not given to speculation. For instance, he told me once that he does not read novels. There is too much fact to learn and no time for make-believe. I told him then that I believed history was as much the imagined and reimagined as it was what we chose to remember or record.
The day I told him about the plan for my doctoral thesis, he seemed depressed by my wrongheadedness. All of his students are familiar with the patterns of hard flesh which map the terrain of that great bald scalp as he studies the floor at his feet for more patience and the guile to drag our minds one more step ahead. But his head remained bowed as he spoke to me that day.
He said, “The roots are dead. It’s a weedy world now. Except for the unlikely victory of your own fore-fathers, everything you seek on Earth would now be long forgotten to the mind of man.”
I pounced on that rare lapse.
“There! Good! I’ve gotten you to speculate! You have imagined something more than the desiccated morsel of fact that even the mice ignore.”
He looked up at me then with what appeared to be despair and shook his head without another word.
Thus I begin this more personal journal of my expedition, just as the great Frenchman found it necessary to keep the account of his own personal ‘Journey‘ apart from his public inquiry into the causes and possibilities of ‘Democracy in America.’ Here I might ask those more difficult questions Mr. Tripp would find objectionable, for we all know of the failure of American democracy and the Time of Escheat which followed. What we lack, I believe, is a truer knowledge of what was truly lost.
And I admit to the hubris of it! To compare my effort to that of a master is not so much blasphemy as mere folly. So what of that? If I fail, it will be in a worthy cause. If I succeed, even in part, I may honor my family.
Instead, I must adhere, more hopefully perhaps, to the purpose of old Henry. He might object to any responsibility for this, but I will not defend myself. Thoreau was not a naif. Merely a true eccentric. His journals were not guileless exposition. He simply made his case for having been there, alive—for having passed that way.
To whom do I write this then? Who are you to care about the brags of this farmer boy? An old friend perhaps? But I have abandoned you, have I not? And I was but a poor friend when close. I was always wont to spend more time with the dead than the living. . . . Or, are you an enemy I have made on my way? There is a good excuse to that too. Yes. The old man who wanted to murder me was not a bad fellow. I would have spent more time with him if he had allowed. But I wanted to understand him even if he did not care to understand me.
Perhaps you are just another student as foolish as myself then? I could not be unique in my quest. Not amidst the billions. Whatever I learn on my way might be of some interest to another moonbat, certainly. Birds of a feather. A gathering of fools. What collective noun would that be? A flock of fools? But bats are not birds, are they?
Or might you be the child I have left behind? An odd thought, that. I have no children I know of. My profligacy has been too pitiful, even by the puritanical standards of my Calvinist heroes. Perhaps then, it’s another child from whom I seek approval. If I speak to the dead, I could as easily speak to the boy I was. I have those early dreams with me still, and I always penciled neatly between the wide lines of foolscap in my brain.
It was stupid of me not to see from the start that I would need a journal. With time so short, I assumed each hour would be absorbed by my study and notes. But I am in the bosk here and unable to see beyond. The only recognizable geography is that which is closest at hand. I find annotations on every page of my notes which have no place in an academic thesis. My vid blinks at every added footnote as if continuously worried by a lack of power.
And now I see the matter is within myself.
That I may be fortunate enough to discover some fact or recognize some truth, is for others to judge. I confess, what matters more within this numbered skull are the cares of the mortal me. I see only what I am capable of seeing, perhaps. I may understand only what I am determined to understand, or fail in that effort, and thus I am compelled to record the existential facts, none-the-less. What matters will matter only as much as is matters to me. A childish rhyme sums it up nicely.
I have begun this journal on my vid mecum, lying on my bed, beside this small table I use for my meals. Across the room, barely three paces, is a door. To one side is the counter where I cook, and beneath, a cooling unit which hums uneven agreement to my every thought. Immediately to the right of that there is a sink with a faucet that drips its disagreements. To the other side of the door is a pitifully small closet, nearly full of the odds and ends I collect-—boxes of leaves and bits of flowers and weed, pieces of odd stone–even feathers lost by birds I cannot identify. I have read that some rodents do this as well. Some kinds of rat. Moon bats are rodents, I believe.
I have moved the only table closer to the window for the air as much as the view when I work, but there is little to see at this hour. The sun has expended its last color now and extinguished itself in the body of the earth, leaving no trace of its daylong frenzy. Facing south, few stars are capable of piercing the milky haze of the spire-light in this humid air. My own planet is not among them. Unrisen, or simply off-stage. Perhaps it is just now the wings.
Across the narrow street from me the weak glow of mostly shaded windows sketch vague features against darkened faces of brick. With the flood of night, the details of the street below are hidden by the amber cast of faux gaslights marching in single file, funereal, as they descend the hill toward the river and the fallen sun.
I am on the third floor of 23 Pinckney Street, well beneath the light of the city spire of Boston, located on the eastern shore of the State Massachusetts, in the United States, within the North American District of the United Nations.
This is my twenty-first birthday upon the human calendar and I feel as if I am born again now on this Earth, from the womb of all mankind.
If my mother should ever read these words, may she better understand my quest. And if my father should come upon them, may he forgive me.
- August 20, 2247: the animus of Mr. Downs
Downs has come and gone again. He appeared relieved. I am clearly better.
He took time to chat this time, and even asked about Pocatello. He was pleased that I liked it—again as if a disappointment would reflect on him. I think he was being polite, in his own manner.
No. That is not well said. He has a pride in his country. The facility at Pocatello is part of that—being the first place most aliens visitors see. It was chosen for its altitude and isolation, but its physical beauty is its greatest asset.
Again that word. It occurs too often in my thoughts. What is beauty, after all, but the chemistry of our values. I must find a few less subjective standards to extol what delights me. Or at least I should define this element beyond a single word.
In truth—I will admit to being blinded by this honeyed sun. A doctor should not be so in love with his patient. To preserve Professor Tripp’s temper, I have worked to remove every unnecessary adjective and all adverbs from my thesis notes, but find them irresistible here. Still, I discover within me a breathless accumulation of both fact and inspiration.
Tripp said, “You must not presume to determine the reader’s reaction to the facts by color or interpretation.”
I argued, “I have already selected the facts to present from a near infinite number simply by the choice of my subject, and then by the object of my inquires. Haven’t I already made that leap? You do not pretend that science or history is a filtering of all fact, do you? They attempt only a filtering of the facts at hand; what little of those that are known. My effort will be to grasp those facts that make sense of all the rest. A mere judgment.”
Tripp is, for the most part, a patient man. I admit to trying his limits. At least I hope I did.
He said, “You are not attempting to have the last word. The work of history is not a conclusion, but a further opening. Choose your facts by reason and weight. Give your choice value by a respect for those facts, and by honoring their contexts.”
An honorable intention. I assume my own honor will be determined by a lifetime of such choices, as his has been.
After all, I have chosen to return to the home of my forefathers in a renewal of Tocqueville’s purpose, certain that Mars will soon be engaged in its own great struggle; just as in Tocqueville’s time, when the United State, with all its promise, was inevitably directed on a course of self-destruction and civil war, my own country is now similarly drawn to the abyss. That the worm of slavery is in the apple.
I am too young for Council. In any case, I have no wish for the responsibility of an Areopagite. I have seen the Reeve’s worry steal the last of my father’s youth. My only hope of contribution is to study the causes of our present insanity and perhaps discern some portion of the source.
True, others have studied this previously. There are whole libraries on the subject available to anyone interested. But it was discouraging to read and be told what to think about contrary facts while still finding no answers. Again the complaint: so many books and so little time. Which one of those books might have the answer I seek? I am a fast reader, but not so fast that I could hope to read more than a small portion of what was available to me at the University.
Tripp, a dark man in every way, had worried me with caution, “Too many words,” he often said. Another fault I bear uncomfortably.
I am reminded of Stigely’s essay on American law in the Twenty-first century. Having grown to millions of words in each individual state, no one person could ever know what the law was. Thus it was interpreted de-facto at the will of the court. Judges ruled as virtual kings, appointed for life. Every human action was sanctioned and proscribed and both the essence and practice of liberty was lost.
In that time, while law presumed to determined all human pursuit, both liberty and freedom had meaning only by the absence of law. The outlaw became hero. Thence, law itself was absolute in practice only—both omniscient and omnipotent—but in fact no better than the Latin Canon of the Catholic Church to some unfortunate American native of the 16th Century. What mattered was obeisance to the law, whatever that was judged to be. By the 21st Century, Americans had come full circle from Spanish inquisition to Judicial inquest. The only expression of liberty or freedom possible to anyone was in flouting the law.
This legal indenture was only made more onerous by the cost of such static government made perpetual and permanent by that unaccountable debt which levied on generations yet unborn. Slavery made never-ending. Revolution was inevitable.
It was this fundamental expression of human dignity, when breaking the law was the only means of individual expression, that in fact made the disorder of the 21st century so profound. Not an apocalypse as so often predicted. The physical calamities of conquest, famine and war and death had been set in motion not by the four horsemen but by bureaucrats riding hobbyhorses into that apocalypse.
But this is too simple a postulation and does little to explain the facts of why humankind so willingly succumbed. The billions who died by calamity in that time were each and every one a father or mother or child of another. How could they have allowed such stupid government and misery to persist?
I have determined then that it is incumbent upon me to find the source of our failure as a species and confirm it—not to accept the words of some scholar who has copied the presumptions of a previous academic hack before him in order to pass the exams and be certified correct. The shear quantity of books which sanctify past ignorance are no better a guide to truth than the crushing weight of accumulated jurisprudence was to determining right and wrong in that sad time on Earth in our human past.
Professor Billup, always the antagonist to any Macdonald, said to me once, “Though you feign modesty, you have an arrogance of thought.”
Billup was right enough to catch my anger. I told him he was an ass.
I said, “Grade me accordingly.”
Never mind my own faults. They are not worth study any more than I am myself worthy of real interest. I trust my weaknesses will serve only to sharpen my other senses. My prejudice is not in question–it is a fact, and placed on the scale at first. I am alone, subjective, and thus seek the reference which will give me the stuff of reason and a glimpse of truth. But then, I may only be the ester of reason. Little more than a fragrance. Not the fat resin of reason but the odor.
My strength however has always been in my persistence.
I have long since found the objective voice of the vid too slow and, often enough, wrongly inflected, or even careless with the syntax of a given work, thus losing the subtle cause of the author’s thought. Such ‘brains in a can’ will not—ne cannot—interpret without cause. A bic can only anticipate with a specific purpose. For that reason I usually access the facsimile, or if possible the work itself.
Oddly then, when I read to myself, it’s not my own voice I often hear in my head, but my mother’s.
My mother is the faster reader in our family and pushed me toward direct perusal of books when I was only four or five years old. Even now, I remember the disappointment I felt when she finally stopped reading aloud to me each night. I have read with addiction ever since.
“What have you been reading?” she would say.
A recounting of author or title was not wanted. What she expected was some glimpse of content.
I remember answering once when reading Mr. Cooper, “They talk too much! They are in a canoe and escaping the Hurons under fire and chatting all the while about the practice of open field combat. Would they have done that? I don’t think so!”
She considered the criticism longer than I thought it deserved. Her face reveals nothing of her thoughts. She can appear most impassive when her mind is in a fury. My father will not play poker with her. And she shows no compassion even when she plays with her children, always contriving to win the game herself. Her eyes are black and shine jewel-like with all that she sees about her. Her lips are thin like her father’s, and move less with her words than her tongue. When I spoke of the chase and Hawkeye’s escape over the waters of the lake she nodded at me.
“Perhaps not. But perhaps by their chatter you know what is behind their thoughts and those are more to the point of the author and still true.”
Yes! Of course.
This is my own excuse then, as I relate this story to my vid. Perhaps I forget to mention some thought that is more important than the one I have chosen. I can’t pretend to be as canny as old Hawkeye in my choice of observations. I must simply work through the obvious in search of the essence. I suppose, no more or less than all those who have walked these paths before.
Yet all of those books must have missed some great something or else my people would not face this crisis in our own time. Our ‘House’ is divided as surely as the one Professor Jaffa presented of that time centuries ago, before the American Civil War, but we lack our Lincoln and Douglas. If the answer were known, it would certainly have illuminated our moment before this, branding every skull with its heat. Such knowledge would have long since enlightened our minds like a new sun. The truth of it would be undeniable and thus unforgettable. Would it not?
Truth is never neutral. Facts are neutral. Facts are what they are. Truth is an understanding of the facts. And because I cannot actually travel backwards in time to closely observe the stumbles of my forefathers, I have thought it possible to see the echoes of that great collapse of civilization here on Earth in what remains, just as a geologist might study the ruin of a mountain, or an astronomer might observe the trailing glimmer of a distant star long since extinguished.
From the time I was twelve or younger they would say, “Jewboy.”
I take the compliment. I don’t mind. I’m not so smart as that. It’s meant to put me off. To misdirect by false flattery. I have been taught from the first that it is purpose and not wit that completes the arc. Grandpa Torq taught me that.
I have the hubris of my name. Beyond the thesis required, I shall perhaps publish some part of this journal when I return, if only to be read someday by another student looking for the very answers I sought. And I say to him now: do not believe me. Do not accept what I say. Make me prove it to you!
At the very least I hope that I will have asked the right questions.
Let me tell you: this is no easy task. I plead my case, not in complaint or self-pity, but for the obvious fact. Truth be, I glory in what I am about. But more than the blinding of a honeyed sun, I see another difficulty that old Tocqueville did not face. I keep a rub of each interview. I replay each encounter afterward on the vid, looking for my own fault. I sharpen my inquiry, or broaden my search. Even so, I fear that without some additional effort, my work can never have the depths plumbed by that master Frenchman.
For example, it appears that the concerns of citizens in this United States today are seldom more than petty. With too few exceptions, the answers I have received to my questions are relatively useless, offering no illumination, and no heat—except of course as testimony to the fact of their banality. It appears that Professor Tripp was not so much right as astute and cautionary.
In Seattle, barely an hour after I arrived in that city following initial internment, I found a man sitting alone on a loading dock at the rear of a food store. I introduced myself, and then foolishly (anxious to begin) I explained the exact purpose of my survey, holding my vid mecum out where he could clearly see and would not mistake that I was being false.
“I am doing a comparative study of democracy in America today as compared to the historical work of Alexis de Tocqueville.”
He groaned, slapping a hand through the air in my direction, his eyes on my vid.
“You guys do this all the time. You won’t let me watch a game on my telly unless I answer your stupid questions.”
I apologized for adding anything to that annoyance. I told him again that I was just a student. After pleading my case against the bother of answering too many questions, I asked if he would describe himself as happy or unhappy about his life in general. At the outset, it was usually one of my first inquiries.
He said, “I don’t think about it much.”
I soon learned this was a common answer if not prepared for and placed that question toward the end of my interviews.
So I asked, “Do you think your life has been better or worse than it was for your father?”
The man’s eyes squinted to where there was no color to be seen.
He said, “How many credits is it worth to you?”
I explained that because it was an academic study, paying for answers was unethical.
He answered sharply, “It’s not fair for me to be giving away what little I know for free. On the telly at least I get an extra show for my trouble.”
It was an excellent response. I told him so. A first Martian principle: value given for value received. But I told him, “It has cost me every dollar I could borrow just to get here and I’ll have to ask thousands of questions like this before I’m through.” And then I added, “But I guess it’s like the lady says, I’m depending ‘on the kindness of strangers.’ I can only beg your indulgence.”
Frowning, he asked, “What lady?” and then plowed the air again with his hand, “My daddy told me not to talk to strangers,” and gave a short laugh as he turned away.
This was a use of an idiom I did not understand at the time, even though I knew that many people here had no knowledge of who their actual fathers were.
Others answered more readily when I adjusted the explanation of my purpose to the essential and left aside any mention of that long forgotten Frenchman. The original forty-eight questions outlined in my proposal to the Doctoral Committee had also been submitted with my visa request and thus I was careful to include as many as possible in each interview so that there would be some consistency, and no mistaking my intentions. No need for the Administration of the United States to think I was here on a rouse, or with any other purpose than the one posted in advance. But I was soon made to enlarge the inquiry, especially if there was some local issue I had noticed on the vid, or a new development in the national news.
In Denver I asked a young lawyer, “Do you think judicial power has so far weakened the Executive in both national and international bodies that all government is now reactive? And does this make all proactive effort impossible?”
He answered, “The judiciary is independent of such concerns. The consensus of all rulings bears witness to justice alone.” But what else might he have offered in answer to a stranger if she had any hope of advancement.
That naive question had been prompted by a recent United States Supreme Court decision in support of a Presidential order to increase protein production which had just been overturned at the United Nations World Court in the Hague. Depending on the answer, my thought was to inquire further if such a mandate might result in local authorities assigning a larger workforce to cattle or hog production—an unpleasant labor that would in most cases be forced. But I never got that far with the interview.
I encountered an elected Representative of the Missouri legislature in a bar in Kansas City. She seemed friendly enough at first and somewhat taken with my accent.
After getting a colorful response to me inquires concerning her job and background, I impetuously asked, “Do you think the frequent shortages of electric power are increasing due to mistakes in allocation or expectation by the government agencies responsible?”
She herself had mentioned that the curfew caused by the power shortage gave us little time for small talk as she encouraged the start of my inquiry. It appeared that all electrical power to nonessential users would be cut off between midnight and 6 A.M., throughout the South-Central Division in the aftermath of two successive hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. But then she was bothered by my change of subject. What smile she had first offered disappeared. Though common enough, such a regulation of personal electrical use had obvious ramifications.
She said, “We have attempted to develop new resources and have high expectations for positive results from our efforts.” And right there she left me and wandered off to find friendlier conversation.
At a grocery in Buffalo, after the usual smalltalk, I asked the proprietor, “Do you personally feel the loss of freedom inherent in the recent proscriptions on individual driving?”
The fellow behind the counter answered immediately, “I’m happy to contribute to the betterment of public access. I support the efforts of my elected officials.”
How could anyone have such an answer at the ready? New mandates on unauthorized vehicle use were announced the morning I arrived at Buffalo, and that in response to a police emergency which was only vaguely described on my vid but might have involved the dissident violence of an unnamed ‘faction.’ I suppose the shopkeeper had to always be prepared for a more serious interrogation in order to keep his license.
This certain world of small cars and restricted lives and public sex is in fact a democracy, with a small ‘d’. Every issue is voted upon, even sexual accomplishment. Every concern appears to be worthy of popular deliberation. But all public knowledge is reduced to the lowest common denominator—no more than the ‘brains in a can’ awareness available on any vid. But even a bic is smarter for being fearless. A bic will not judge the value, only the number. It can efficiently offer what it knows–without agenda or purpose. For these Americans, true opinion appears to be dangerous. If they can’t find it readily on their bics, it simply does not exist—at least in public or to strangers. Value is a judgment left unmade whenever possible. Even worse, value judgments are actually considered rude.
Lt. Tom Allen Parker identified this very phenomenon while a prisoner of war when he described the reticence of his captors by comparison to the prisoners at L-7. Beyond our cells the prison was quiet, even during shift changes. Within, we attempted to entertain ourselves as if any hour might be our last. By the third month of the war, our jailors were hanging about, listening to us, not to spy but to comprehend. How could we be happy?”
Clearly they have succumbed to Tom Pain’s worst predictions. Having “so confused society with government as to leave little or no distinction between them.” The drill result suits the scope of their fears. These citizens are the product of worry and not wonder. After my first awakening here and the hopes engendered by the discovery of that first unique mind with Sarah, I have since become mired.
I cannot help but think Alexis would surely recognize this place and not be surprised.
He might observe again, “There is little energy of the soul . . . Life is not very glamorous, but extremely comfortable and peaceful.”
I myself settled on a more ambiguous word. What was lacking in the everyday life I witnessing was dignity. A life without dignity. Said not with the false voice of the comic actor in that ancient musical film. But ‘dignity,’ it was. This identification offered me some room for argument. The smallest beast has a natural dignity in his own environment. And, as in those made-up photographs of dogs wearing human clothes, my first objection is for the animal’s loss. The dog looks happily, please with the attention, unaware of any implication. But this is a human value, just as the loss of it is a human failure. Sex, by its natural intimacy, is made foolish as a spectacle. I suppose a public presentation of a sexual act could be made with dignity, but not before a mob. Any more than an artist’s rendering of a nude can be the act of a committee.
There was before me a fundamental lack of dignity in the common life of these citizens. When did that become the fact? And importantly, like the panting dog in pants, were they happy with the circumstance–regardless of my judgment?
I made the effort to repeat the more specific questions on my survey as many times as possible during each brief stop along the way to Boston, to gain as large a spectrum of individuals as I could. Nevertheless, the results have the homogenized flavor of processed milk.
That there is reticence in speaking openly to a stranger is easy to understand, perhaps. On Mars it is just as likely that a stranger would be ignored altogether. Either that, or invited in for supper. Reticence either way would not be common. But here, my task was to understand the words of these people from their own aspect, not from mine.
My prejudice was to be made unimportant to the survey. Yet repeatedly I have been made aware not only of my bias–not just my prejudice, but my own bigotry.
I am reminded of an incident of this in a reversed order. At home one autumn I met a salesmen from Ceres who was selling a new kind of tie—a balestrap made for quick and easy gathering. Dad and mom were off to Burk to recover their wits after the harvest and I was in the charge of Aunt Esther, who was visiting us then as she often does for months at a time.
The salesman had arrived two weeks late for the harvest and lacking any other audience, he insisted on showing me everything his small device could do. I was flattered by the respect.
In fact, I was actually bailing up the broken ties in the aftermath of the finished harvest at the time. The fractured pieces collect as they are discarded by the machine and work their way into every crevice, often clogging up other machines as well, and it was one of my jobs after school to sweep up the bits and pieces and bundle them. It could take a week and was pretty boring work so I enjoyed the unexpected conversation. And this fellow’s device was ingenious and seemingly would not break. I worked one onto a bale I had made in less than a second and it held the weight—at least forty pounds! At fourteen, I was easily impressed at things which worked so smoothly and promised him I would tell my dad all about it.
The name he gave was Bob, an unlikely coincidence given that most of the ties we already used on the farm were made by the BOB company in Ceres. I imagined him to be a disaffected employee who had developed his own ‘Better Organic Balestrap’ while working for the older company. He was taller than me at the time by at least a foot and heavier in the way people from Ceres often are, given their natural love for the pasta made from the product their device was intended for.
In any case, I was more interested in hearing about Ceres and pestered him with my questions as he demonstrated. How was their baseball league this year? Had he seen the new ion racers. That kind of thing. Thinking of it now, he could not have been a few years older than I am now. What was clear to me, however, was that he seemed rather depressed at his lack of success as a salesman. This obvious fact had me finally repeating to him something my father often said: being on time was half the battle. If he had arrived a month earlier, he might have sold ten thousand ties to my father alone. This seemed to hit a nerve, and in the course of our conversation he managed to tell me more than I actually wanted to know.
I learned that, like myself, Bob had two brothers, but that he had two sisters as well who were just about my age. His parents were divorced. He had never known his father very well. His mother was a manager of a cleaning service at one of the Hotels there. He had flunked out of the trade school at Tres for smoking dope. He had then spent four years in the service, mostly stationed at Vesta or Jib-jab-—which I know now, from my brother John, is a lonely duty. After he had gotten out of the service, Bob had worked for an unnamed company in a fabrication plant, but was not happy there. Using all of his savings, as well as some borrowed credit, he had manufactured his own design for a tie and here he was trying to make a go of it. But the manufacturer had been mysteriously late in delivery and that was the cause of his own delayed arrival on Mars.
Bob had said, “I think my old boss slipped them a few credits to miss the deadline.”
Even at fourteen, I was not about to accept such an excuse.
“I’m sure you thought they would be very pleased at what you were doing.”
He was clearly ashamed. It was a snotty remark on my part. Not the least of my faults.
So, as some recompense for my rudeness, I invited him in for something to eat. Esther was always willing to feed any male who came along.
Naturally, I asked what books he liked. It was one of my ready conversation pieces because I was already more than willing to tell anyone else what they ought to read, and had accomplished little else in my own life to speak of. Bob seemed reluctant at first, mentioning a few juveniles, perhaps because of my age–and then, for Esther’s benefit, mentioned half a dozen authors I had never heard of. So much for my pride in what I had read.
But all of this was merely preamble to a greater revelation. Half-way through dinner, with Esther enthused over his interest in the theatre, he responded by pulling out his vid and showing us a manuscript he was writing. It was a play! I was dumbfounded. Aunt Esther was doubly thrilled.
At fourteen years old I had already become something of a snob. I knew my family history, of course. And lacking any other bearing, I assumed far too much born credit for myself. But blood is nothing more than liquid soil as Torq would say. It’s all a matter of what you plant. And here was a young fellow who had no Old Joe or Rubio Jones or Flora MacDonald to conjure for himself, but he was writing plays as he worked his way across the rills of Mars trying to sell a new kind of tie he had invented himself. How could I not think of Thoreau and his better pencil? How could I avoid admiration for his courage? I hope some day to hear that he has had a play staged at the Empire Theatre in Burke. In the mean time, he has already taught me something and he’s not forgotten.
My point is not that a Shakespeare might arise from such an unlikely source, but that I have learned from an early age that people are likely to have unexpected facets and there was work to be had in trying to see them from a true perspective. To merely join an audience of ridicule, in facile judgment on the foolishness of my species, was pointless and wasteful of an opportunity. I must find a way to see beneath the facade.
In every interview I attempted to find the right bias to understand the subject. If their clothes were fashionable, I complemented this. If their diction were sharp, I might assume a care for education. If they expressed any curiosity about Mars, I obliged as best I could. Yet, even with added effort, I must admit to achieving little satisfaction.
A few weeks ago, in San Francisco, when I was a bit weary from lack of sleep after a rough passage caused by a meteorological depression the night before, I was a little more bold. This was in a district of that city which is still somewhat famous for its radical past and I attempted to ask my questions without the cloak of academic inquiry.
The air of the coffee shop where I stopped was moist with steam and the close breath of too many people in a narrow space. I struck up a conversation with a friendly woman whose scalp was shaved to a decorative tattoo of black fuzz–the silhouette of a bird of some sort, difficult to distinguish against the beard of new growth surrounding it. She had repeatedly touched my hand on the table during our conversation in an act of intimacy I thought encouraging.
When our initial conversation had made it clear just why I was visiting the Earth, I hoped for something more than the usual guarded response.
She seemed uninterested in Mars or my purpose, as if such a background were common. Perhaps she dismissed it as some sort of flirtatious gambit. To the concerns inherent in my inquiries over the loss of both freedom and liberty in this ancient republic, she had offered the observation that many people were repressed. At least I thought at the moment that was her complaint.
I said, “What freedoms do you think you’ve lost in your own time that you wish you could have back?”
She seemed awed by the question at first. As if no one had ever broached the topic before. Then, momentarily, she appeared to be charged by the prospect of saying something she felt was deeply important, her face reconfigured from sleepy indifference to wide-eyed indignation.
She said, “I like cotton. We used to be able to buy real cotton. It’s all reprocessed garbage now. You know? It’s not the real thing. I miss the feel of the real thing, and they’ve made it impossible to get. Growing cotton is bad for the soil they say. What idiots! It a plant!” Then she halted suddenly, her face falling to a childlike remorse over spilt milk, “But you won’t take my name now will you. You won’t be needing my name, will you?”
And she touched my hand again, as if begging me not to hurt her.
The acceptance of my application by the United States Department of Education was enthusiastic. This should have been a forewarning in itself. A new study of ‘Democracy in America’ could not mean the same thing to the authorities here as was meant by me.
Not only has the very definition of ‘democracy’ changed, but any interest in the institution of that political faith must inevitably have a different purpose. Where the Great Frenchman was both enamored and worried about the freedom of the individual under a political system thrown open to personal interests, the current government is proud of its progress toward a kind of equality which beggars all to the interest of an approximate average. This is the isotropy of a civilization reduced to a common denominator instead of opened to the nuclide disturbances of the unique individual. The animus I find is not really so much toward myself as the very existence of someone of my kind—come to study the natives like some mad Englishman, umbrella against the sun, painting the ancient ruins. But there again I am foiled. The great David Roberts had an endless array of antique treasures before him in Palestine and Egypt, all exotic and new to the English eye. Here I have the monotony of fiberous concrete and the ‘correctly’ educated minds of spiritual eunuchs who have seemingly had their wills removed with their spiritual testicles! And not by some Byzantine satrap but by their own hands!
I find nothing from the America of 1832. Am I surprised? And these are certainly not the kind of people who answered de Tocqueville’s briefest inquiries with pages of heart-felt opinion on the matters of their day as well as the issues of posterity. Professor Tripp was right, as I should have known!
What did I expect? I thought my prejudice was clear enough in the very choice of my inquiry. What should I make of this opportunity then? In the end, of course, it is only up to me to ask the right questions.
And then again, there is the possibility that my journal will be filled with just these sad discoveries: the consequences of conformity on the human spirit, the loss of all enlightenment, and the death of courage. But that was not my actual quest. That was not why I came here! I sought the cause of these effects. But I have only pursued the reason for unreason.
My personal adventure may matter very little in the larger scheme of things, but it is mine and of obvious importance to me. And then, I must keep my private mind alive if only to be alert to the nuances of this public inquiry. Would I find that the flaws of my own world were genetic, arising from the loins of my forefathers, or were they made only in their minds and thus perfectible?
I think of the old proverb: The liberty of a bird is in the freedom to fly. The liberty of a man is in the freedom of pursuit.
And that pursuit was in fact much encouraged in my very first days on Earth. There was an ecstasy then, the memory of which I must rely on now for sustenance.
- August 21, 2247: How Pelagius came to Rome
I dreamed again of Sarah. All the rest of my thought and effort has been arranged in a new order of importance. I dreamed that I was once again in Pocatello.
This would make a nice a song. ‘I dreamed that I was once again in Pocatello.’ I’ll work on that.
The sound of the very name, Pocatello, is like some ancient musical instrument. I had repeated the name alone, over and again, from my itinerary the day I received my acceptance—sang it to my mother until her patience was lost. I sang it again, and aloud, to myself in the dark before dawn—the cadence pulling me from the last grip of my long sleep of passage.
The air was as hard and sweet as a newly ripe apple that first morning when I awoke. I could not have known it would be so magnificent if I had read a thousand more books. Of course, I had been told what to expect. I have studied the Earth, and most especially the portion still known as the United States, for two years in preparation for the moment. It was not enough.
I was expected to remain in my bed that morning. I think I was supposed to be asleep for hours more. But I awoke to my little song—pulled from the ‘puddle muddle’ of sleep and had the strength to rise and part the curtain to see the tinsel of sun on the Snake River below, and the simple green of that basin, all the way to the purple rim. The window would not open. My door was locked. I felt as if I had never seen so far in my life. I had to breath it.
The T5-A4 segment capsule in which we arrived is similar to a Phoebe Shuttle. Acclimation to the change of atmospheric pressure had begun the moment we were placed in the pod on Mars and continued gradually throughout the arrival at the moon base at Armstrong and the transfer to the earth shuttle-bus, all the way to the receiving port at Galveston, on Earth. The segment capsule with all seventy-six passenger pods was separated there from the moon-bus and flown by airship from Galveston, Texas to Pocatello, Idaho. I was soundly asleep, of course, and knew nothing of it. The sleep is maintained throughout to avoid anxiety. I can understand that well enough now, just from my confinement at Pocatello. Weeks of travel in such close quarters would have been unbearable if I were awake.
And thus Sarah was the very first person I actually saw on Earth.
I suppose that makes what happened afterward unfair. I have been overcome by some deep sentiment. Like a baby goose and the goose-girl. My reaction was not rational.
I was naked. And I was crying. The window had not opened easily and I had used the narrow edge of an electrical plug to remove the screws. The whole window frame came loose and I set it aside and the soft air rushed in to that small room, pulled by a vent above the door. I know the smell of ripening apples too well, and perhaps some portion of my sentiment was started in that.
I did not hear her enter, summoned by silent alarms. I have no idea how long she was there before I turned and saw her. But it was not my nakedness that concerned me then. I knew the reason for the procedure. I had no real excuse for opening the window. It was forbidden.
I said only, “It would not open,” while my mind stuttered with thoughts. She frowned without anger.
She answered, “It is not meant to. You’re in isolation.”
She was nearly as tall in her shoes as I was barefoot. I watched her eyes for the first time and speculated on their color. Grey perhaps, but ‘grey’ would not do.
I told her, “I couldn’t breathe it. I had to breath the beauty of it.”
What I was thinking was that my breath had been stolen again, but by the very sight of her.
She said, “I hope you’ll think it worth the experience later. In a few days you’ll likely be paying a price for it.”
I imagine what she saw—so opposite to what I beheld!
I was sick for two weeks afterward–some sort of cold or pneumonia. I thought that the shots they had given us on-flight were enough. Instead, it seemed, some inoculations must take place after arrival. It was stupid of me to assume anything else. I was then made to stay for three weeks more, and I was the last of my group to leave the facility. But as it happened, I was happy with every moment of it. A true lagniappe. But a truly unexpected gift at that.
Her name is Sarah Ye and she was there each day. More than once she supposed aloud that I could have died. Equally, I supposed I was in heaven, attended to by an angel.
How rational was I? What would dad say to that?
I was on a quest to save my world from utter destruction and I paused to fall in love. As in some old romaunt. And I have a theory for this: My senses were rubbed raw by reason. I was not weakened so much as made more sensitive. I will need the excuse when I offer my report.
Trying to correct my course, I made proper use of her presence. I asked her all of those questions I would later ask anyone if I was to complete my task. In fact, she was the first of all my informants to answer my queries. It was she who first gave me false hope for the success of my journey.
I said, “Do you think the average citizen is informed enough to make intelligent choices at the time of elections?”
She answered without a smile. Without a hint of posing.
“Of course. You‘ll understand when you have had a chance to study the politicians who run our government. The citizen is perfectly adapted to the task of electing such leaders.”
I was not prepared for the irony. I had studied current American politics enough to guess at her meaning, but I was not expecting such subtle criticism.
I said, “Are there any of the current political leaders whom you admire?”
Sarah put the tip of her tongue to her upper lip before speaking.
“It’s too difficult to choose. So many have mastered the political arts so well.”
I understood there was no real privacy at the facility. What could she actually say without compromising her position? Still, if most citizens were as critical as Sarah, I was guaranteed success! The disappointing discovery that she was nearly unique was still ahead.
Typically, historians argue over theory. Not entitled to their own facts, they choose instead to bicker over interpretation. They support their theories by selecting the facts convenient to their cause. In my own studies I have found it to be the same in that respect today as it was in the time of Thucydides and his judgments upon the Peloponnesian Wars. Because, even with all the advances of current medicine, I will not live long enough to read every book in order to see if the truth is lurking in some deep chapter. I must gather my own facts.
My questions were deliberate. What is the sense of these people? Do they have any residual understanding of their past? Did I come with my expectations low enough? Yet the very first person I encountered was as aware of her predicament as I am of mine own.
Her surname is Ye. Most of her family is originally from China. Her mother’s father is a Levine. She thinks they were originally Russian. She knows little of the rest.
When she told me anecdotally that her mother’s father was the last Jew in Shanghai, I told her that I was called a ‘jewboy’ at home. She thought that was funny. There is no such expression here on Earth. The closest synonym for a lover of books was called a ‘bookworm,’ an earthy image. But then, precocious children are put in special classes here to correct their behavior and are seldom noticed. I could only then imagine the loneliness of the last Jew in Shanghai.
But my very first question had no academic purpose at all. It just occurred to me.
“What is your favorite flower?”
She did not smile. She was still angry with me then, having to deal with the medical result of my disobeying orders. The constant cold clammy sweat and the vomit of little more than mucus, and the need to monitor the intravenous feeding.
She answered instead, “You will be fortunate if the antibiotic is sufficient.”
I said, “A rose? Roses have thorns.”
She was thorny enough.
She said, “Gardenia.”
I slept with that knowledge, the antibiotic unable to smother my dreaming.
I suppose sensation would drive us mad if our brains did not adjust to new feelings. The first moment of discovery is not repeated over and again. This, in some way, is connected to our innate understanding of the ephemeral beauty and fugitive moment of a flower, a day, or a child. It’s our capacity to appreciate such transient treasure and store it away in our dreams that prolongs our happiness and increases our estimate of the value in life itself.
I had never heard the chant of crickets before. I awoke from a nap one evening and my window was open. After the worst of my sickness was past, they opened the window in all good weather. The exercise program was not so rigorous but I suppose my supplemental running on a stationary device in the room had taken more out of me than I expected. Shortly after, I had fallen asleep trying to read. The screen on my vid had darkened. It was the sound of the crickets then which had awakened me.
As with smells, sounds take their own place in the mind.
At home, we keep chickens. This is for tradition rather than need. They produce more eggs than we can eat and mother would never consider killing one of her ‘girls,’ as she calls them, for the meat. So I have grown up with those sounds and the protest of Dan, our rooster, each morning. Dan is a lucky fellow and he proclaims this fact often, no matter the time of day. And the common sounds of a place, especially home, are dear. In quiet moments I miss the low conversation of ‘the girls,’ as well as Dan’s interruptions.
That particular night, twilight was captured in the girders at the upper reach of the Pocatello spire, the exposed steel returning a copper glow to a sun which was for me just below the bloody rim of the hills to the west. This spire was not an enclosed building like so many of the others, but a structure of naked girders with the lower portions were lost in the dark of the hour except for a descent of disembodied red warning lights winking in the deepening well of night. There was no sign of the atomic reactor within its base, as there would be on Mars. The lowered sun did not reflect the shimmer of the vizard shield on the upper reaches that makes it so impregnable. The brilliant spire light at its top had a distinctive blue green hue I had not yet seen elsewhere. Oddly, I thought of Christmas.
Sarah knocked as she always did after that first time. I knew the sound of her hand. I was standing at the window again, and she smiled at this in a way that made me think of our original meeting. But I was dressed this time, of course.
I said, “What is that?”
She was puzzled by the question. She was wearing her street clothes instead of her uniform and just checking on me before she went home for the evening. I was already aware that her worry for me was beyond any sense of duty.
She said, “It’s called a skirt.”
The answer caused me to laugh. She laughed with me. Her puzzlement grew.
I said, “I know that. My father wears something like it on holidays. He calls it a ‘kilt.’ Just a colorful skirt as well. No. I meant the sound. What is that?”
She cocked her head. The short fall of her black hair swept one shoulder as she cocked her head.
“Crickets. Insects. They come out at night. And how was the exercise? How is the calf muscle?”
I lied and told her, “Fine.” It was cramping even then. “It needs a long walk. Would you walk with me? Tomorrow?”
The smile left her face. “I have to work.”
I said, “In the morning. You don’t come on duty until eleven.”
Her pause chilled me just a bit as I stood there in the air from the window. She had already admitted in a previous conversation that she lived alone. But I knew also the reluctance of further establishing a friendship which had no future. I had already confounded myself with the problem.
But she said, “Yes. What time?”
Knowing then what the sound was, the fascination of it kept me awake for hours more. That, and the noise of my thoughts, which more than accompanied them. The air cools quickly in that valley at night, and the sounds sharpen. The smell of it was sweetened with grass as well as apples. We have too little of the smell of grass at home. On the upper equatorial plateaus of Mars above our dome, the stunted su-grass holds its green for less than the full six months of our long summer before is goes brown, and reserves its scent as it does its moisture. Most of the year this is a stiffened mat in the cold. The commonplace of such aromas here is extravagant. Gaudy, if a smell can be that.
The six weeks I spent at the Detention and Rehabilitation Center in Pocatello, Idaho should have been excruciating, not because of the physical demands of recuperation, but the delay. I had so much to do and so little time. Perhaps three months remained to me in total. Of course the isolation was necessary. The control of disease alone is reason enough. Yet, after all, my time there passed too quickly. My true focus then was on her.
Sarah is a physical therapist by specialty—a muscle therapist, but also a medical nurse. An NP we call them at home. Here she was more often called a ‘Medic.’ The muscle loss of long flights as well as the low gravity at most stations often causes atrophy and weakness, which can be permanently debilitating if not treated regularly. And Martians are particularly prone to this difficulty from the start. The gravity of Earth is that much greater, and makes you feel as if you have been terribly sick for weeks. I have read that businessmen who have never been to Earth before often have panic attacks after their drug therapy has been reduced. It’s odd to awake in the night with your skin moist with sweat and the weight of your own body seemingly greater than you can lift. The fear grips you with the thought that you must stay awake to take the next breath or suffocate, while the exhaustion draws you down. Moreover, the synthetic opiates they use to quiet travelers produces lethargy. My best efforts at an exercise program would have been futile without Sarah. But her constant attention made any practical purpose unimportant to me.
True, I tried to befriend some of the other medics there as well, by way of beginning my studies. These people are professionals and are used to the foolish questions of the tourists and travelers. They are there to make us ready to deal with the gravity of new situations in all respects. I think they have gone well beyond the point of seeing us as strange or exotic and look upon us with some of the disdain I used to feel for vacationers when working during college breaks at the ski resort on Mons. But from them, their reserve always at the ready, I received only what I would come to realize was the usual safety of cant, and none of Sarah’s obliquity.
My questions were probably not all that different or more cunning than those of an average businessman preparing himself to meet the competition for some unusual marketplace. Thinking about it, perhaps less. A businessman’s perceptions would be sharpened by an exact purpose and an immediate focus. My questions, by comparison, were like a child asking why the sky is pink or purple—or as in the case here, blue.
After asking what they thought were common characteristics of their fellow Americans, I tried to get some context.
“What are the differences you notice in the travelers you meet?”
One medic said, “Impatience. You folks are always in a hurry. I’ve never understood why.”
A common answer was, “Not much. People are mostly the same. Some are a little more rude than others.”
What can you ask a medic that might expose their unique understanding?
I tried, “Does so often seeing the delicacy of life make you less disturbed by death?”
It was a question I had wondered about long before this journey and used then in the hope that it might be an opening into more personal thoughts.
All but one of the other doctors simply said no, offering little explanation.
One of them humored me—an older woman who carried a weariness in her eyes and a wariness in her demeanor that made any argument moot, and spoke with a voice as empty of sentiment as a traffic announcement at a transit port.
“There’s nothing special to it. We only imagine our own importance. Should I cry at your death if I might have saved you or at my own incompetence? It’s all irrelevant emotion and hinders judgment. I wish you well, and I do the best I can. But I have to get on with it. Don’t I? There are others waiting.”
Sarah would not answer that question as easily as the others. She had remarked that Americans were an unhappy people. Travelers often made that clear to her by the contrast of their enthusiasm. But for my question about death she made me run a treadmill for half an hour as punishment and took my pulse and blood pressure with a bit of anger in the tightening of the strap.
Then she said, “Yes. Death is a failure, isn’t it? It’s an irreparable exposure of what we’ve done wrong or don’t know. It’s an end to one small part of the future, because no one really wants to know why or what we could do to keep it from happening again. There’s no fault. No blame. Just acceptance. But it’s something stolen, isn’t it? I feel like I’ve lost something when someone dies in my care. A little more each time. And I worry that someday I’ll find myself empty and it will be too late for me to care.”
She appeared hurt by some hidden accusation she saw in the question.
I told her one of my child-patent thoughts, “I believe the soul refills itself every time we stop to take notice of something beautiful.”
It was derived from something my father once said. Something I wanted to believe now, for myself as much as for her.
She squinted as if in disbelief, but it was only to hide her eyes, I think, and I saw then that she wanted to believe my small trope as well.
That last morning, we agreed to meet at dawn. Impatient, I was there, at the door, before dawn and in time to see a fiery rose of sun topping a distant edge. The songs of the birds were too many to calculate. Unreflected by a dome of glass, the sound of each was distinct. Crystalline and pure.
And then, silently, she was there.
I said “Splendid! A feast!” as she approached, pretending I was speaking of the dawn.
She said, “Yes. It’s actually why I chose to come to Pocatello. The first appointment was Chicago. I refused that.”
I realized, in all our conversations, I had never asked much of where she was from. I had assumed this was her home. Perhaps she had spoken so little of herself because I had I spoken too much of me.
I asked, “Where were you raised?”
She tilted her head down with some regret.
New York. I knew too much about New York. That was my second destination after Boston, if they allowed it. The revelation was suddenly a collision of unattached facts in a busy brain.
I foolishly asked, “Manhattan?”
She said, “Oh, no. Brooklyn. No one lives on Manhattan anymore.”
But I knew that.
So I asked, “What else was it that brought you here?”
She licked the center of her upper lip with the tip of her tongue. I had seen her do this before. It was part of a hesitation to answer.
She said, “To get away, I think. To escape. To find someplace that was not like all the others.”
A few crickets still made work of the last scraps of night at our feet. Their sound was a harsher counter point to the lighter chorus of the birds above.
The Pocatello Isolation and Rehabilitation Facility is a package of concrete painted blue and yellow and strapped by the windows, which run in continuous bands at each floor. The sun had reached this glass and turned it red and gold.
That captured my eyes a moment. I gestured.
“This is more of what I know. My world is made of glass.”
She tossed the hair away from her face with the sudden turn of her head. The re-reflection sparked in her eyes.
She said, “I was there once. I remember.”
This was an actual shock. Mostly because she had never mentioned it before in all the weeks she had attended to me. And I’d been told I would meet very few who had ever been to Mars, and should expect many questions. But this was a second revelation in mere minutes. What a glorious morning!
She smiled at the question, pausing to consider her answer I suppose. We were still in the shadows just beyond the door of the facility.
Instead, she said, “Where would you like to walk?”
I told her, “Wherever you would like to go.”
She surprised me then by taking my hand and turned me up the road toward the open hills behind us. I had felt her hands before. I think I can remember each time of every day. She had embarrassed me more than once with her touch. But this was very different than the touch of a therapist.
She said, “When I was a girl of seven and eight. We lived on Mars for two years. In Burke. But we had to leave. My father is a technician. A ‘mechanic’ he calls himself. I think they wanted to stay, but could not. I know it was a great disappointment to him, but he never spoke of it again. My mother cried at night for weeks and then many times again long after. It was their one opportunity to escape. But I loved it. I loved the gardens. I loved the neat edge of things beneath the domes set out there against the angry rise of your mountains. Everything so ordered and safe within the chaos and bluster of the winds—your siroccos. You call your storms that, am I right? And everything is so clean. Not at all like Brooklyn. The shifting hues of the day upon glass is unforgettable. The ‘web,’ I remember your word for that too, but spiders are not a friendly image to a child, so I called it ‘the lace.’ I thought it was like the stained glass of some ancient church.”
I shook my head, not to disagree, but in the rush of the thought. Yet another revelation. I repeated the word aloud myself.
“The lace. But not like this–” I turned and swept my hand over the breadth of what was behind us. The rising sun had captured the bosk atop each of the lower hills and turned them to coins of gold buoyed above the last shadows of night.
She said. “No. Not like this. How does it feel to be in the open here without a dome?”
I pulled at the thin fabric of my shirt.
“Naked. You may recall, the suits we wear outside the domes are thin but they’re tight. As thin as they are, you always feel enclosed. One never gets this true feeling of being in the open. Exposed.”
But my mind was still caught on her recollection. Her parents were made to return for some reason she never knew. The illegal immigrants who have become such a problem on Mars in recent years are often the victims of simple math. I could not guess from Sarah what the matter might have been for her parents. Defensively, I tried to explain the technical difficulty of making room in a place where every livable space is private, every pound of breathable air is manufactured, and every ounce of food is produced by the specific sweat of a farmer whose name is known.
She nodded, “My father may have been seduced by some get rich quick scheme of the moment. He went there with his brother. My uncle George is a salesman by profession. Always enthusiastic about his product. I’m afraid he’s a ready mark for other salesmen.”
There are certainly a lot of such schemes on Mars. I have noticed that the best salesmen, like Bob, the bale-strap man, always believe in what they sell. I had some sympathy for her in that regard.
Beyond the cluster of buildings on the slopes above the river, the apple orchards began. Unfortunately, July was just too early in the year for harvest. Most of the clusters were only blushed with red. My mother grows apples. A different variety than these–called ‘Yellow Tops.’ They go from green to yellow and then to bronze when they are ripe. They harden over the long summer and stay hard until the skin wrinkles in storage and then, the few that have not been eaten become Christmas applesauce.
I told Sarah about this and our small harvest each fall. My mother only kept a couple of dozen trees.
Sarah seemed enthused by the idea. “I love the apple trees. Maybe the apple flower is my favorite now.” I recalled her previous answer of gardenias and wondered silently if there could be two flowers as different and yet so much alike in this one person. She added, “But they are here too briefly and then gone. . . . I even picked apples last year. The workers are brought in by the truck-load in mid September. I just walked right up amongst them one morning and began doing what everyone else did. Then I kept a few in my shirt and brought those back to the Center. The other medics were so shocked. As if I were a thief. It was funny. They wouldn’t eat them. So I ate them all myself.”
I turned to her in a sudden reversion to the academic, looking for some deeper essence of this civilization in a simple act.
“Why? Why wouldn’t they eat them?”
She shook her head. The soft line of her shoulder beneath her shirt distracted me from the foolish inquiry of my mind.
She said, “I’m not sure really. No one would say. Perhaps they thought it might be observed.”
It was an odd world. I had said so before for exactly the same sort of cause, but I was no longer thinking about that. She smiled. There was mischief in the turn of her lips.
Suddenly, she ran away. Into the thick of the orchard, and I reacted and followed a moment too late and even lost sight of the flash of her bare legs within the drooping limbs of trees heavy with fruit. I was still not up to a good run. Winded after a few minutes, I waited a moment, called her name, and then turned back toward the road.
A wasp buzzed about me, as I stood there at the edge of a dirt track and waited to see what she was up to. The wind tossed the branches of the trees at the roadside so that the color of the leaves altered back and forth from light to dark. Another difference: there is no wind in the domes, and few flying insects other than bees and flies. The air moves silently except when an entry is opened or shut and the sound then is like the squeal of a pig as the seal closes. I had never before heard the chatter of leaves until standing at the window of my room.
On Mars, in the open, the great legacy of Old Joe is the growth of fir and pine and spruce, which crowd the great equatorial valley below the Fold in their stunted growth. No taller than a man, and too thick in their tangle to allow any passage, they cry to the wind. They moan with the torture of the cold. They don’t chat like the leaves on apple and oak. This new sound was more of distant conversations just beyond distinguishing. It recalled to me the secret talk of ‘the girls,’ and the hours I spent as a child imagining what it was the hens said to each other.
Suddenly, I could distinguish the toss and argument of some leaves being moved even above the will of the wind. I suspected Sarah as the cause of this. And after a moment she returned. She held an apple—small but red nearly all around—plucked from some high limb that was likely more exposed to the sun. Her hair had come loose from its clasp and she tilted her head to see the reaction on my face at her accomplishment.
She was obviously pleased with herself—her arm outstretched, offering her find at the middle of her open hand, fingers arched back. The size of her smile narrowed her eyes to a sweet glimmer.
Her offer was my command. I took it from her and bit half of it away at once. But it was bitter. What kind of game was this?
My mouth was too full of the sour to bring my lips together.
I tried to say, “Your theft bears bitter fruit,” a line from some play or novel otherwise forgotten, but my words were probably unintelligible. I thought I was being funny.
She frowned and took the remaining half of the apple from my hand and bit into it herself, and then spit it out.
Her head shivered with the reaction.
“It’s sour! Spit yours out too!”
But too late. I had swallowed mine. I have eaten many green apples in my short life.
She said, “I thought it’d be ripe. It was so red. You shouldn’t have swallowed. You’ll get a stomachache.”
I had an answer for that.
“But then you’ll take care of me.”
The worry on her face altered with some new concern.
We were standing beside the road. Milkweed brushed at her bare legs.
I have always been a runner. There is something to the physical feel of it that I cannot easily express. I ran spontaneously even as a very small child. When you run, you think. You have time to consider matters that are not clear in other moments. The cadence of your steps makes a graph of things on your mind. I believe that running made the containment I naturally felt beneath the domes as a child more bearable. But more than that, there is the odd bliss of it. There are moments then when you feel that everything is attainable, any goal may be reached, and the standard of all time is the beat of your own heart.
In school, running was a way to avoid all the other exercises required by the gymnastics program, excepting personal defense. Runners were excused from other team sports lest they turn an ankle or pull a muscle the wrong way. And though I was never the best runner in my class, I was always at least good at it because I did not begrudge the practice time. I took too much pleasure in it.
I had first stepped outdoors at the facility only the week before, just in an area behind where there are a few trees by a parking lot and you can look out over the Snake River basin without a fence or barrier in sight. It was exhilarating. I stood then for the first time in the rapture of my release. Truly free of the confinement of glass walls or the envelope of a skinsuit for the first time in my life and feeling some part of that sensation I have always known only when I run. Limitless. Beyond simple freedom there is something else. Another territory! That first day I began to move unconsciously, running at a trot. It was only a few minutes before I was exhausted, but in that brief moment I had already gained a part of that bliss.
With Sarah looking at me there beside the road, I wanted to run, not away from her, but with her. My heart punched in my chest as if I were already bounding along. I wanted to leap. I wanted to yell. The world was open and I was free. I was filled to overflowing and beyond the limits of my own skin.
Her eyes are not grey, but perhaps a kind of brown–as a matter of fact, hazel, I think. I’ve never been so good with such colors. But I felt that overflowing then, and I took her hand as if to take her with me in some kind of flight. I was looking into her eyes and not the big open world around us, and I spoke the words that were in my mind.
I said, “I am in love with you.”
How stupid is that?
She smiled. Was I the fool?
In my stupid state, the other thought did not occur until long after.
She took my hand then, and walked me back into the orchard.
She said, “Perhaps we can find another apple, more ripe. You are taller than I am. Perhaps you can reach.”
Was this then my original sin, or was any such mortal transgression possible? I must take the side of Pelagius. I am no monk, but I have not sinned. There was no devil hidden in that orchard, only bright, warm, Godly sunlight and the sweet and sour perfume of crushed grass. Any heresy will have to be found by others. Nor am I the votary of any orthodoxy. What I have found on my quest has been honestly discovered. My Eve was innocent, and I was suddenly as free of guilt as I was of walls.
For those few hours.
But of course, our relationship was circumscribed by the reality of rehabilitation program. I suppose if I was truly vigorous enough to pick apples, I was well enough to leave. Or perhaps we had been seen from the glass of the Center as we walked hand in hand up the road.
They unceremoniously dumped me out the door, tickets in hand, the following day.
- August 22, 2267: My Aerie
The rain this morning was a surprise. A wind from the Northeast forced me to shut my window far enough to make the room close with thickened air. The wet had turned the brick of Beacon Hill a sober brown. After a time, I quit my work, mostly then a catching up on translating my notes, and went outside walking to relieve the claustrophobia, but drawing stares from the few passersby. What mad man is this who walks in the rain? If they only knew! In minutes I was thoroughly wet. My shoes hissed back at the wind with every step.
Gravity alone drew me down the hill, without objective, while enjoying this first real stretch of my legs in days. I bought milk at a small market on Charles Street and the clerk seemed amused at the sight of me with my clothes fasten to my skin. When he asked me if I needed anything else, I had no thought in mind. Buying the milk alone had been an excuse for having walked out in the rain like a fool. He suggested graham crackers, so I bought those as well. Then he asked what I was going to put on the graham crackers. I shook my head. He suggested peanut butter.
My little adventure from my sick room cost me four and a half credits. The moisture on the plastic of the ticket made it jam in the register, causing a momentary fuss. But the rain alone was worth it. The storm punches and quarrels in splatters of unbalanced fury between the buildings—nothing like the steady drizzle of irrigation wheel. The clerk had called this fuss outside a ‘nor’easter,’ as he poked at his machine.
The spark of lightening from the sky is not gaudy or dazzling as I imagined from the old films, but more the blinding arc flash of an overwhelmed dynamo, and then done. The bellow and grumble of the closely following thunder mimics the unhappiness of a velo sheet being tortured by the wind on Mars. I have imagined this to be the voice of God before, when out in a storm beyond the domes, and now wondered if any deity would be so cruel as to punish a fool for the pursuit of peanut butter and graham crackers. Enervated by the return climb even on that gentle hill, upon return, the drained muscles of my legs folded weakly on the stairs. After it all, I came back from my jaunt with just enough energy to write, and little interest in the food.
Frankly, after my three-week delay in Pocatello, and my parting with Sarah, I had lost any interest in the tourist centers allowed by my visa as well. I would have gone directly to Boston if I could, but the authorities were ahead of me on that. And no permit for additional travel follows the end of a single journey by less than 24 hours. My grand tour was set in the magnetic tattoo of my transit ticket. This meant a minimum of two days fairly wasted at each stop, excepting the once when weather forced a third day upon us, and that was barely enough time to properly survey more than a few dozen citizens in each place. It was understood, I think, that these frequent interruptions might allowed the truly Byzantine bureaucracy to keep up with the passage of both goods and people.
My reserved flight from Pocatello, Idaho was through Spokane, Washington, and on to Seattle. But I was not allowed to leave the airship in Spokane. After two days, the flight from Seattle was to San Francisco, California. The flight from San Francisco ended at Salt Lake City, Utah, just a hundred and fifty miles south of Pocatello, but without a direct connection it appeared. By that time I thought seriously of jumping ship and hiking overland just to see Sarah one more time. I would done it if I thought my legs would manage even that short journey.
There is no airship port without a spire, and I first thought perhaps the mountains between Pocatello and Salt Lake might have been too difficult to permit the building of one. But Jordan, a fellow passenger, informed me that this was more likely because the area was hostile. An airship could be easy pray to a faction with the right resources. Besides a spire in such mountains would make little sense by itself. With only my past reading of novels to color my conjecture, I thought immediately of some kind of Indian attack, but I was corrected with a polite smile at my foolishness. This was the first time since my arrival that I had actually heard about the ‘factions’ so often reported on the news from Lagniappe.
True, the aboriginal Indians have long since vanished, but the disaffected bands of these new ‘tribes’ have taken up the cause, living from the land beyond effective government control. They have no larger confederacy beyond their immediate geography I was told, and often fight amongst themselves. Their sole purpose is seemingly to live in a state of anarchy for its own sake, lacking any larger purpose. I doubted that, of course, and regretted out loud that I would not get the chance to speak with some of them as some small balance to my general study. Jordan advised me to avoid contact. The tribes were rabid and would eat someone as easily as talk to them. At the moment I took the warning as mere metaphor and had no idea of the regular exterminations conducted by the authorities, or the use of infrared detectors from satellites to track the movements of hostiles. I could not then have imagined the deliberate use of infectious disease keep those populations in check.
From Salt Lake we went to Denver. From Denver we reached Kansas City. From Kansas City we made Chicago. I had wanted to go through St. Louis because I have a record on my vid of a distant uncle who once lived there, but this was not permitted. Chicago connects with Buffalo. Buffalo, at last, directly connects with Boston.
Unlike the sleek-bodied airships on Earth before the New Wars, these are slow beasts. Lumbering. More like the first airships. Prevailing winds might offer some help, but typically these dirigibles travel at less than 100 miles an hour (on Earth, of course, they use the old French metric system but the conversion is simple enough.) On Mars I might go from Pelos to Bede in half an hour, but on Earth, the same distance might take a week and several stops. I suppose this is at least partly for other reasons as well. These airships use less energy moving their cargo at lower speeds and it is known that there have been shortages of fuels. And because they travel primarily at night, the darkness offers little to see from the air and thus prevents the observation of restricted areas. Other than the distant spires, there are few lights. The occasional star burst below of some small town or the wandering beam of a car, or more likely, a truck, on a infrequent road invisible to the eye becomes a curious surprise.
There is, however, a wondrous period at the first and last of every day’s flight, at dawn or dusk, as fingers of shadow give way the grasping arms of darkness. Old roads and highways, long since overgrown, can be detected then upon the palimpsest of the land, like the rubbing of an old and unreadable gravestone. The civilizations of the past are there. Shrubs are thin at ancient building sites. Trails once called ‘interstates’ carried trucks powered by internal combustion engines. Their abandoned paths still slice through mountains with a nearly precise and inexorable purpose that is now lost to us. The drift and wag of the airship makes the old highways seem like genius. One may get a brief glimpse then of the America that once ruled this world.
For as much as an hour after lift, the setting sun plays on the horizon. And there are more subtle beauties in that. While on mars we cherish the small bosk we have captured beneath a dome, and are easily awed, even by the stunted larix ‘woods’ of Old Joe, here the profligate forests may span from planet rim to planet rim before the eyes, their color variegated by a hundred different species. Where we know the hard brown dust of shifting plains, the gold and mottled green of prairies here clothe the dark flesh of a fertile earth. Deep into one sleepless night above Kansas I saw a prairie fire that had no beginning and no end, the smoke eddied opalescent beneath the moon in a setting of garnet flame.
I asked, “Why do they burn?”
Jordan said, “It’s probably out of their control. Just mother Nature at work. Lightening, maybe.”
I was fortunate in my journey to Boston for having had several days with that one fellow traveler, a businessman from Lagniappe named Jordan Abbott. He was the second friend, after Sarah, I found on Earth. He has a large and muscular build and negro complexion, neat mustache and short cropped hair. He dressed each day in one of several obviously expensive dark blue silk suits and sported a cream white silk shirts he had purchased, he told me, on a previous visit to China. His silks always appeared freshly pressed beside my cheaper twill and poplin. My good luck was in the fact that he spoke as well and as easily as he dressed. After those few days, I found myself looking to his example over and over again as I sorted my own way through the vagaries of conduct in this ancient world.
Generally, he acted without reserve. Or so I thought. There appeared to be no pretense in his conversation or his actions. I guessed quickly that this might be the reason for his great success as a salesman. I trusted him immediately, and I supposed others did as well.
He is over fifty, but never revealed more of his age. From Lagniappe now, but born on Ceres, he works for the Forman Industries and specializes in plastics, especially the lightweight ‘Smoke’ products we have seen even on distant Mars because of their high tensile strength. These are, in fact, the same ones used for tickets and credits. Abbott explained to me how the company exchanged hundred pound ingots of plastic, each the size of a full grown man, for raw lumber, delivered by the multi-ton. He told me the Authority on Earth was still using the same magnetic slings for delivery built over a hundred years ago.
He shook his head after that. “It’s the philosophy here. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
That fit with the rest of what I was seeing.
“But the old days, when wood was gold, are over.”
“Forman has the greater advantage though. We can turn the wood into veneers and use the scrap for the plastic.”
We boarded together in San Francisco and said goodbye in Chicago, by which time I had extended him a solid invitation to visit Bastiat and stay with my family. For his part, he seemed especially interested in introducing me to one of his daughters, Noreen, who is not yet married and seems to offer him some otherwise unstated concern for her conduct.
We were forced together first in the boarding line at San Francisco, and while I complained about the wait and inconvenience—still unused to the sort of uncoordinated planning that is common to Earth’s bureaucracies, Jordan kept me entertained by relating small jokes and stories about his recent adventures, though after a while he became a little more serious. I knew fairly quickly that I had found a surrogate father.
Later, as the ship rose toward the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, we settled ourselves onto a couple of stools at the bar. Without preamble Jordan went right to another tale.
“I met this young woman in Honolulu who had other things on her mind. She wouldn’t let me go. I would come out of a building and there she would be. I’d be eating my lunch and she’d take the stool right next to mine. You know a fellow in my profession has to be judicious. We all get lonely, but you have to keep your distance or else you lose your sense of judgment, along with any honor you might have left. True, these creatures aren’t all working for the Authority. Some are just smart enough to be working for themselves. But finally, I said, ‘Ma’am, I’m a well married man and among my brood I even have one daughter about as old as you.’ This seemed to be a line she had heard before. She said she had a natural appreciation for the maturity of older men. She was weary of over-anxious boys. She went on like that. So I used the sharpest tool I had. I said, ‘I know you’re just trying to earn a living, and that’s good enough, but I must guess that you’ve never been in love.’ She didn’t know how to handle that one. It shut her right up. I said, ‘I can tell, because a woman as young and as pretty as you are wouldn’t be trying to make a living off the abuse of her body if there was a man somewhere that she loved.”
Now, as I listened to Jordan, I was thinking, of course, about why he had chosen this subject, especially with someone he had only known for a few hours.
I said, “Did one of your boys—you said you have two sons back in Lagniappe, yes? Did one of your boys get himself into a fix? Is that why you’re telling me this? Is this a warning?”
Jordan laughed out loud, shook his head as if admonishing himself.
“No. Maybe, yes. Thank God that hasn’t happened yet. But I’ll tell my boys this one when I get back, I think. I’m just trying it out for the first time on you because your ear is in convenient proximity. I can restrain myself with a comely woman, but I’ve never been able to resist an open ear.”
I had my own laugh at that.
“I’m sorry. Go ahead. What did she say?”
He sat back, and started again.
“Well, that was the last I saw of her. She looked at me with sorrowful eyes and said, ‘No. I’ve never been in love. Not that way. I don’t think it’s in my fortune.’ Of course, she must have meant her horoscope, or some foolishness as that. And I said, ‘Fortune is what you make of it. It won’t be good for you so long as you’re settling for so little in return, and trying to take advantage of the weakness of men for their credits. That’s not the way the human heart is made. You know the heart really beats twice every time, and that’s for a reason. There just isn’t any credit that’s worth that second beat of my heart.”
And so I discovered Jordan was a Romantic fool as well as a fund of such anecdotal advice.
At one point late into the night, as the ship turned in its path through the Sierra Nevada, he came and got me from the seat where I was reading.
“The moon is clear. I want to show you something.”
There is an observation area at the forward point of the gondola which is entirely made of marglass, and offers the feeling of walking on air. It is so popular with passengers it’s seldom empty as it was at that hour. In spite of the full onslaught of summer, glistening ice sparked moonshine from swaths of bright snow in a collar surrounding the darker rock, high at either side. One mountain towered above us to our right, outlined by the stars beyond, and another peak to our left was so clearly revealed by the capture of moonlight on its snows, it might have been the break of a false dawn. Flashes burst from below in rapid progression where ponds of water caught the moon in the angle of our passing.
“Splendid!” was all that I could manage to say.
“Yes. And right there,” he pointed. “In that dark path between. That was where human beings once ate each other to survive.”
I turned to him with the shock of the thought.
He nodded and smiled, pleased with me for knowing my history.
The surface beauty of the situation was suddenly lost, altered by the darker knowledge. The stark contrasts were now fierce and the reaches of shadow were ominous.
Because he was not a student, I was perhaps as surprised at my new friend’s knowledge of history. But why did such tales hold thrall? The Donner Party, the wreck of the Medusa, the rescue of the Gygis. Even the tragedy of Arc-5. Was it only the cannibalism? Cannibalism, like slavery, was common enough to human history. Even now it was an easy accusation with which to condemn factions. Was it a wound that would not heal? The Hyde of barbarism beneath the benign Jekyll of civilization. The delicate fabric rent as a sham. Was that fair?
As if reading my own thought, Jordan tapped at the glass.
“My grandfather worked for the old Simple Lines as a pilot for most of his life. They were cargo carriers between Lagniappe and the Belt until the Government bankrupted them with regulations and taxes. He had worked his way up from a handler, and he was for a time the First-Assist on the company flagship B-Simple.”
Jordan stopped to look at my face to make sure I knew the story before going on. I knew it pretty well. I nodded back at him. The B-Simple had only one connection in history, that encounter with the crippled Gygis, and everyone knew it well.
He said, “My grandfather, Marcus Abbot, helped with the survivors as they were taken from the Gygis, still unaware at first of the horror that they had been a part of, and with them only half awake from their hiber-sleep and not yet comprehending the salvation they had met with by sheer chance. He had looked into the eyes of those who had previously awakened too early and, given what they had only done to survive, and knowing they would have to be left behind. He told me—for one moment, before the seal was made at the very end, he even thought he should stay behind with them as a pilot, and offered his place on the B-Simple to one of those faces. They had suffered enough, hadn’t they? He was possessed with the thought that he was no better, and amazed at the courage of their resignation. Thankfully, another mate took his arm and held him back. And, thankfully for me, he let himself be held, or I would not be here today to tell the tale.”
This story, passed on to Jordan Abbott, was not so different from the facts often reported. What was new to me was the immediacy of the account and the emphasis on the small good to be found at the heart of the tragedy. Knowing full well that the odds of their survival were slim, ninety-eight people remained behind so that an equal number of their friends and loved ones might reach safety in the small cargo hold of the B-Simple. The news reports spoke colorfully of the horrors found on the Gygis and the heroism of the crew of the B-Simple in offering every inch of space they had available, even to the jettisoning other cargo, and thus risking their own survival to save those they could. The history spoke only of the stark facts. The more complicated truth was in the ultimate rescue of the ‘sleepers’ who had no idea why they were being moved to another craft until after they were already saved. I could not help but think again of those who were awake to the choices being made throughout the rescue, quietly accepting their fate in remaining behind.
That Jordan could relate a story to me which would never have been recorded had his own grandfather left the safety of the B-Simple and volunteered to stay with that forsaken remnant on the Gygis, gave a darker edge to a nightmare otherwise pushed aside by the human mind as mere history. As if a Donner had sat beside me to speak of his ordeal.
As every schoolboy knows, the remaining passengers on the Gygis did not reach port in time and the cannibalism which had begun before the chance encounter with the B-Simple continued afterward, practically to the very end, with the ‘ghost-ship Gygis only arriving as the last survivor put a laser to his brain.
Jordan had business to conduct while we waited for our next flight in Denver, and I missed him then for those two days. When we finally huddled together again on the forward deck after our next departure, he had ordered two small glasses of authentic Scottish whiskey and I was talking mostly of my recent encounter with lawyers and my father’s antipathy for those particular mechanics of law. Soon thereafter, the wind at our backs, the crepuscular light of the evening made an ocean of the undulating grass as we drifted above the first of the Nebraska Sand Hills. Jordan pointed out the enormity of the cloud in a storm ahead, another and more developed portion of the same weather system which had led us for days. The cumulous heights of it from our angle were caught in the last light of a sun already falling behind the barricade of the Continental Divide. The gold and crimson billows gave the appearance of the cloud being a mountainous rise every bit as solid as what we had passed. Crosswinds buffeted the airship even at that distance. I suppose it was lightening from the edges of that storm which had ignited the grass fires we later saw later.
I lowered my voice, “I want to get off here and wander over those grass hills. I want to ride a horse. I’ve read so many novels but only seen a horse in a zoo. I want to inhale the breath of that land as it lies beneath a warm sun. Now that I know what’s out there, I’m not sure I can stand the restrictions that are set on this journey. I feel as if a lifetime spent under the domes is not enough.” I turned to see his stare through the glass and thought he might be unaware of my words. I said, “Tell me. Have you ever broken away? Have you ever been free down there?”
He didn’t answer quickly. I was sure he would say yes. I was not sure he would tell me the story he related. I waited.
Finally, “A few times. The first was during one of my earliest sales trip from Lagniappe. I wasn’t doing well then. I was too eager. I didn’t think there would be another chance for me so I conveniently dropped my vid beneath the wheels of a truck as if it was an accident—so that they couldn’t follow my path. I was in Denver that time as a matter of fact . . .” He hesitated, pressing his face closer to the glass to examine a low ridge marked by a solitary and broken tree. As if he knew the place we saw. In the light of a rising moon, distance and perspective were altered, and the tree and the shadow it cast might have been a man standing alone and pointing away to the East. Jordan took a reluctant breath and kept his voice low. “And the last time was just this past year. I brought a little bug in with me that screws with their signals. They were very upset. But I had it worked out so that it appeared to be their fault. I pretended that I had simply gone about my business as usual. I even tipped a few of my regular customers to fib a little on my behalf.”
I waited anxiously for him to continue as he sipped from his glass. He was obviously unhappy with something.
“What did you do?”
“The first time or the last?”
He laughed. It was a hollow effort at resistance. He looked me in the eye once more to be sure.
“The first time I won’t tell you about but it involved a young woman. Women here are different. I’ll say that. And I was young. And the last time was to be able to climb Pikes Peak. An odd thing to do, I know. Not the prettiest of mountains. Not nearly the hardest climb I’ve ever done. I just wanted to do it. But that time I got to camp out in the mountains for a week with a friend. It was awfully good. The air up there in the early summer is an intoxication. And a campfire is magic far beyond the warmth. I believe the actual burning of wood is a primordial thing. It releases spirits—a thaumaturgy!” Jordan’s face reconfigured into a sudden smile with the thought and he turned to me with his small pleasure in the term. “That was the word you used before, wasn’t it, when you were trying to describe the dawn, just as we reached Denver. I liked that. Thaumaturgy. What were your other words then? ‘The alchemy in an iron night transformed to the gold of dawn.’ Such words can be religious. You should be careful with them.”
Those were my father’s words. I was determined to make more of my vocabulary while I was away, but often found myself simply repeating things my father had said to me. Dad had said more than once that an adventure was what one made of it. I was not going to return home with the same pale words I had left with. But I was more concerned about Jordan just then. There was a real sadness in his face as we left Denver behind. I was glad to see him brighten now. And then I made a poor guess.
“Did you do that—I mean the camping at Pikes Peak—Did you do that with the same woman you had fallen in love with on your first adventure?”
He looked at me as if taken by some surprise. Again I knew he would tell me. It was a strange thing to have found such a friend so unexpectedly.
He said, “No. It was with our daughter, Noreen.”
I answered this revelation with some intelligent word like, “Oh.”
He told me he had just seen them both again while he was there the previous day, but he had nothing else to add and finished his drink with a quick tip of his hand.
Selfishly, not wanting him to go, I asked him if he had any hints about ways of getting away for a day or two. Here I was, just arrived, and already anxious about being on my own. He said he had a few ideas and told me what he could, along with some caution.
“You may evade their surveillance, but you’ll find it more difficult to avoid being tracked. You must consider that being beyond their trace is almost as telling to them as being followed. And tracing an alien is easily done, even without the vid. It’s your accent. Your appearance. And wherever you go you’ll be in some sort of community. Everyone in a given place knows everyone else. A stranger is easily noticed.” He studied my face a moment to see if I fully understood. “I can mimic one accent or another and pass myself off as some other kind of tourist simply enough, but I still make it a practice to stay away from anyone I can avoid. That’s why I like camping so much. And fishing. I learned to fish about twenty years ago with Noreen’s mother. That’s addictive. You’ve never spent a better day of your life than standing in ice-cold water beating off the mosquitoes. You won’t believe me until you try it yourself.”
I was enchanted by the very thought.
“How can I keep them from being suspicious about being off their trace.”
He considered his answer but did not look around to see if anyone might be close enough to hear. I could see that we were safely apart, but he always seemed to sense it without looking.
“I hire someone to do a part of my job for me. I’ve trained a couple of assistants through the years. And I put my vid in the package. The police never know.”
Breaking away then seemed mostly to be a matter of common sense and choosing the right moment.
Jordan went back to the bar and returned with his glass filled to the rim. I had hardly touched mine. It was powerful stuff in my condition.
I asked him, “Do you worry about the factions when you’re camping.”
He said, “No. There aren’t many in Colorado. Too much mining, thereabouts. The drones have it well covered to avoid any losses. But you may find getting away more difficult than I did. I’m just a salesman, after all.” He paused, perhaps taking a new direction from his thoughts. “And you know you’ve reached some special status when they have more than one watcher assigned to you. It’s usually just a Census Bureau type—they dress badly and they’re rude. They don’t try very hard to be unseen. They want you to know. To keep you in line. But watch out. If they put a second person onto you, they’ll be harder to spot. The trick I learned is that the first watcher is likely to become just a bit too obvious. To draw your attention. That’s when you’ll know there’s a second.”
I asked him who was his watcher, looking around the compartment at the couple of dozen faces in view.
He did not look around, but took another sip from his glass.
“Not here. They’ll pick up on me when I reach the terminal. Watchers don’t travel. They’re not trusted outside of the zone where they’re assigned. Who would watch the watchers then? No, if you have someone with you from zone to zone, you’re dealing with the Service. Probably military. I’ve had one of those fellows only once myself. You’ll know them by their size. There’re bigger than most. For them, what they do is a contact sport.”
He seemed to be contemplating the past, his eyes focused on the shadows of the land beneath us.
I said, “Why did they put a second watcher on you?”
He half smiled.
“Yeah. That was a story and a half, but it probably won’t interest you much because you’re not in the business. It was my third or fourth trip I think—after I refused to renegotiate the terms of a contract for about two hundred tons of refined nickel ore we had already delivered. Forman had sold it to a kitchenware manufacturer in Delhi. At least we thought so. Actually, the U. N. wanted the stuff for armored vehicle bodies. We had a prohibition against military use. Still do. And this was before the U. N. started manufacturing that crap on the moon that they flooded the market with later on. I don’t know what they were up to, really. Following me is a waste of time. They knew each client I was here to see and the time I spent with every one of them right down to the minute. Or think they do. So, I figured they probably just wanted to catch me saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and maybe arrest me as a hostage in further negotiations with Forman. They’ve done that before, you know. They always interview my clients after I leave. And one of our competitors, Sunblue Products, had faced a situation just like that. But Sunblue is a hard-assed company. That’s why they’re so successful. They were not going to play Mars-ball with them.”
He stopped with that inadvertent slur and smiled in apology. I knew the subject of baseball on Mars was a matter of some humor around and about. The density of our baseballs was a necessity of physics, but lent itself to jokes about the softheaded foolishness of some Martian businessmen.
I raised an eyebrow.
I said, “But we did win the war. Case closed.”
“You folks didn’t do it alone, buddy . . . My granddaddy was there too.”
He took a breath. It was often felt that Martians assumed too much credit for winning the war. Ceres had been in it from the first, of course. But I had been raised to believe that Lagniappe had been neutral for too long. Had they entered the war sooner, perhaps Mars would not have suffered quite so much. But then, as an artificial planet so much smaller than Mars, they might have suffered a terrible fate if they had entered too soon.
I said, “probably so.”
He nodded again at that acceptance.
He said, “But anyway, Sunblue simply refused to deliver on contracts with the other manufacturers who supplied the Earth syndicate until the original contract with them was secured. They sucked up losses for a year or more. Very brave. They almost went bankrupt doing it, but they knew then, correctly, that everything was on the line. They would not be bullied. Other companies, like Forman, joined them in the boycott. And it didn’t take all that long for the U. N. to fold. So I figured the same thing would hold for us, and I confronted the watcher and told him to pass along a little message. If I saw his face or any other like it again I was going to leave on the next ferry and they would have to get along then with the spot market for used product. The guy was gone from my sight within five minutes. They never tried it again. At least not so obviously as that.”
I smiled at the story. Lagniappe companies were famous on Mars for their highhanded tactics.
“I don’t have anything like that to negotiate. I can’t threaten that my father will refuse to sell carrots to anyone who deals with the syndicate.”
He tilted his head down and looked at me from below raised eyebrows just like Professor Tripp would often do.
“You have more than you realize. Otherwise they wouldn’t have approved your visa. They want something from you. You have to assume that.”
I gave a false laugh. I shouldn’t have.
I said, “Like what. My thesis will likely end up on the vid omnium and seen only by three professors who have less interest in Earth than they do in a new pair of comfortable shoes.”
He rose and went back to tap his glass on the bar for another scotch. Because the liquor on the airship was at least the real stuff, made in Scotland, he was not about to lose a chance to enjoy his favorite beverage. I had noticed how quickly he emptied his first two glasses. I just hadn’t developed a taste for it yet and still nursed my first.
When he returned he began again, “I don’t know your personal business, so I can only guess at an answer.”
I protested. “It’s not business. It’s a study. I’m just a student”
He waved the comment off and gave me his best fatherly smile.
“It’s all business. Everything is just business, isn’t it? You make something or do something and you get something in return. That’s all business is. Your research is not a game. You want something. Knowledge. You want to change things because you aren’t happy with them. Right? That’s what every healthy young fella is looking to do. But what price are you willing to pay in order to find a way? That’s the question you’re gonna have to answer. Everyone wants something. It’s just sad that most people are willing to settle for so little in life. That’s the pity. So many just want money, or credits, even when they have no good idea what they want to use them for. They’ve got no concept of value. What’s a credit worth if you don’t know the value? A lot of people want something they can’t define, or just won’t, and they go from one thing to the next hoping to bump into the special something that’ll make them happy, as if they are going to live for a thousand years—and life is too brief for such meandering.”
I wasn’t going to argue with him until he finished making his case. He was already saying a lot more than I could easily digest.
I said, “I think I know some of that.”
Jordan tapped at the observation glass with his forefinger as if pointing to some object in the gathered darkness below. He was getting a little impatient with me. Or himself.
He was trying to say something he had not quite made clear.
“Listen. The medic you mentioned the other day—the one in Pocatello—she’s in business. She works for the government.. For the authority. She has a product, and she has sold that to you. Herself. You are the buyer. Break it down that way and you might be able to see what’s going on. Everything is business of some sort. But I can only guess what the Authority wants from you.”
My answer must have sounded a bit naive.
“That’s like saying everything is for sale.”
He kept his eyes on me directly.
“It is. Everything. If you don’t think so, break it down like I’m telling you to. Take a look. Its elemental. People who think they’re not in business are dangerous. They lie to themselves. They pretend they have a higher cause that makes what they do better than others. Their self-deception makes them liars and liars are all cheats. They’ll lie to you to get what they want, because everything they do is for some higher cause. Then they’ll sell you anything they’ve got, especially what isn’t theirs to sell, because they think there’s no cost to what’s stolen so long as its taken from anyone who’s not as enlightened as they are.”
I was not given to such cynicism, but I understood it. The scotch had loosed his fears. Still, I was disturbed.
“But what does that have to do with Sarah—with the nurse I told you about in Pocatello?”
He shrugged and tapped the marglass with the finger once more.
“Of course. You have to understand you’ve paid for her services. It’s just business.”
I winced at having to make my point more obvious.
“No. I mean—I am talking about her relationship with me.”
I had told him about that the very first day—I suppose because I just needed some fatherly advice. He had said then that it was hard to avoid such things. There was nothing to be done about it.
Now he looked a little bewildered. I got the feeling his thoughts had not been going in that direction. He held his whisky with both hands.
He said, “Love? Sure, love’s the most serious business of all. That’s life and death—no—“ he looked at me face to face. “More the other way around, isn’t it? Death and life.”
But he had no more to say about it just then. I was left with the simple math that must be at the heart of what he was trying to tell me. A new thought penetrated my thick skull. Was this caution the root cause of his very first story about the girl he had met in Honolulu?
I thought of all the advice I had ever received from those who cared enough to offer it. My brother John had been in love before he left for duty in the service. He had even asked Jen to marry him. She had refused. How could he leave her, then? How could he go away for three years and expect her to wait? And he had said—I know he said it because he told me that very night—How could she not wait if she loved him as much as she had made him believe? She had always known of his dedication to the Service. It was his profession. Why had she toyed with him? What would my brother have said to me now?
Alone in my cabin, I spoke to Alexis about the matter some time later that night. An odd choice you might think. But old Alexis knew something of the habits of the heart. The French always have.
I asked him, “You said once, in a letter to your wife, that ‘If I ever become a Christian, I will owe it to you.’ Did you mean that in the old spirit of Christian self-sacrifice, or was it a simple recognition of the glory of your God’s creation—of your wife herself and the depth of your love for her. Is that too cold to ask? How does love translate itself into philosophy? Only in action, am I correct? And you married your Marie.”
Tocqueville frowned at me with his answer. He scolds with the slightest grimaces of his face.
“I said to her, ‘I love the good more because I love you than any other reason.’ Is reason not a part of that?”
What reason did I have for my love for Sarah? She was strong. Of course! Willful, naturally. Witty. Wittier than I. Funny. Very funny. Intelligent? Smart enough to escape the confines of Brooklyn. Brave. Brave enough to make a solitary life with no other hope than what she might find there.
Tocqueville spoke to me again.
“You did not mention beauty. Are you Martians so inured of beauty that it no longer matters? Can Mars be so marvelous that it shadows the wonders of a woman?”
I laughed out loud. Did the fellow in the next compartment hear me then?
“She is the most beautiful woman I have ever met,” I said. “She holds my breath. She blinds me! I am deafened by the pounding of my heart. Her touch steals all of my strength.”
Old Alexis smiled at my protest and confession.
“You are made foolish! You are in love then. Your judgment cannot be trusted. Let a jury of time pass sentence on your fate.”
And Jordan Abbott could not know about my heart. I had not told him that—only that I had become involved with the woman who had cared for me. I probably sought some excuse for my actions.
The ‘Colloquy,’ that conversation that comes naturally between the mind of the student and that of his master when he has studied long enough to reach such a rapport, is a reward not often spoken of, lest it summon ridicule from others and bring self-consciousness to the pupil. I know there are those who are unable to engage in this for more than a moment before becoming embarrassed. But perhaps because of my father’s library, and the isolation of the farm, I had become used to this exchange at a very young age. I was lucky in that. More even than my brothers. And as a result, they refused to argue with me for the fact that I might too easily bring the words of a master to bear on a dispute over whose turn it was to keep the ditches clear. But, perhaps because of my physical depletion, such conversations had been infrequent since my arrival.
I slept badly despite the whiskey and the gentle cradle and sway of the airship.
In Kansas City Jordan took me to a ball game where we watched them play beneath a small dome as it drizzled rain outside and then afterward to a little restaurant in an alley basement that Jordan already knew for their barbecued ribs. The ball game was good but the ribs were ‘damned’ good. That was Jordan’s expression, again and again between mouthfuls, “Damned good.”
Our hands and our beer glasses were crusty with sauce, and we stayed for too long and ate too much. I was sick that night. I’ve never had ribs as good as that before and pleaded my case to the four walls of my room. It was probably the sauce. It’s the sauce I think that makes it hard to stop eating, but then my mother, as good a cook as she is, was never big on spicy foods. Perhaps aware of the disservice he had done, Jordan came to my room several times that night to check on me in my misery. He probably needed the walk himself.
I finally got the chance to bring the subject of Sarah up with him again just before we landed in Chicago.
He came to the forward seat where I was watching for the first pale whisper of light in a dawn still draped by unseen clouds and dark.
I said, “It’s a little bit like waiting for Christmas.”
He had no idea what I was thinking of.
“You mean, the excitement of getting closer to your destination?”
“No. That too. But I was looking for the spire. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of it in a break between the clouds. Haven’t you ever noticed the spire lights—that they look a little like a Christmas tree?”
He frowned—not unlike Alexis had frowned at me a few hours before.
“No. Never did. I didn’t know you had much of a Christmas on Mars.”
I protested. “Oh, we do. It’s the biggest celebration of the cycle. Once every two years. Of course, Christians celebrate on the exact day they believe to be the Earth anniversary for Christ’s birth, no matter when it falls, so they get it twice a cycle, but most Martians celebrate it during the midwinter solstice. It’s a week-long holiday. We bring in a larix, one that we have cut especially for the purpose that is just small enough to bring through the doors, and decorate it until it looks wonderously silly, and then we open presents each morning for eight days. At night we light a candle. All other lights are extinguished except for the candles. The nights are darker then, and the candles reflect as if collected on the glass of the dome above, joining the stars. It’s a ceremony we take very seriously.”
Jordan shook his head.
“Why do you call it Christmas?”
I didn’t really know. “Tradition, I guess. There aren’t many Christians on Mars. We even have our own Santa Claus. He looks about the same as the one they have here, but more of a ghost that an embodiment. Just a spirit of the old elf. But we have our tree, of course. Every dome has its stand of larix. And before each Christmas we cut one down like Aztecs going about the ceremony of a human sacrifice. You can imagine, cutting a tree down is a big deal on Mars. For us, it’s the beginning of the weeklong feast that honors the abandonment, the time when the remaining colonists lived on rations for eight years before the first successful harvests. It’s important not to forget such things. Don’t you think? Not only because so many died, but so that it will never happened again,” I paused to add emphasis to my usual brag. “You might even know it was a Macdonald who was responsible for that first dome? They called it the Aerie Dome and it’s standing yet in Argyre. The name was meant as a joke, I think. It’s a museum now. So small and cramped. Difficult to believe that it was large enough to feed one family much less a thousand.”
The galley had just opened and Jordan nodded at my pride and got us both a coffee. We chatted about the ball game in Kansas City again for a bit before I took a chance and tried to bring up the subject on my mind. But I could not bring myself to mention his reference to Sarah directly. Maybe I was afraid his assessment might be true. And so I started with another loose thread we had left in our conversations.
“You said you could guess about why the government may be interested in me. Why is it, do you think, that they approved my study?”
He frowned again, this time with consideration as if it was just too early in the day for that kind of thinking.
“You don’t have any idea?”
I shrugged and then felt ashamed of my apparent innocence.
I said, “No,” trying to sound as if I was less stupid for not realizing the obvious.
He took one of those breaths of patience again. I suppose he had a right to take several.
“Well, if I were to guess then, I’d have to say it’s just because you’re a Macdonald.”
It seemed so odd to me, at first, to think that way. Still, if Joe Trees had not been such an obvious obsession for the first U. N. forces when they attacked Mars during the New War, I probably would not have taken Jordan’s guess seriously. Nor, for that matter, would I have even been born.
“You think they’re after some revenge?”
Another breath. He seemed tired. With a stomach perhaps still recovering from all that barbeque and beer, he probably hadn’t slept any better than myself—or perhaps at all. And I had been responsible for keeping him awake with my own bellyaching.
As he had held his whiskey before, now he clasped his coffee with two hands to capture its warmth.
“No. Look. I’m sorry I got drunk the other night. I was a little unhappy about some things. Just a personal matter. I’d looked forward to seeing them in Denver too much and the time was so brief. And I have a bad habit of lecturing people when I get that way. It’s just me lecturing myself really. But I know this much. The first day in San Francisco, when we were standing in line, I saw that you were being watched by more than one. I was feeling a little combative. They’ve been on me like ticks since an incident last year. And I thought they were watching me at first, and then I realized it was actually you they had their eyes on, just ahead of me in line. I wanted to know who you were. That’s why I struck up the conversation. And when you introduced yourself—I knew. There are probably a million Macdonald’s in the Solar System. Right? But I heard your accent and I knew just who you were.”
He hesitated a moment, looking to see if I understood.
Then he said, “I have nothing to sell you. I don’t want anything from you. This goes against everything I said the other night. Everything isn’t a matter of business. No. Most things are, true enough. But I suppose the most important things aren’t. I’ll be damned if I can tell you how to keep the two apart. I sure as hell haven’t done too well with that myself. But I just liked you right off. That’s all. And I want you to take it easy. They want something from you. You better believe that . . . You take care.”
I thought I understood then.
There was no mystery to my stumble into that swamp of emotion—or is it a quicksand madness. Once before, falling in love had obliterated my sophomore year at college. But this was something different. I felt suspended in my dream. For a brief idyll my body was an airship above the worry of the earth. I had lost all sense of gravity. I looked down for the expected abyss and found none. Instead, I could bound, weightlessly. I swam the air. I lost both expectations and inhibitions. For weeks I was becalmed by my dreams so long as I did not question them, and I had welcomed the peace they brought.
And this was contrasted by another dream I had soon after. A phantasmagoria, Aunt Esther would call it. In that nightmare I was helplessly drawn to the churn of white blades as we drifted toward the hundred or more wind-power mills on a ridge in Kansas. The magnetic wind turbines on Mars are so small they might go unnoticed if not pointed out to a visitor. Most are mounted close to the peak of the dome where the joinings of the glass are dense and thus the least shadow is made.
The windmills on Earth are enormous, each blade perhaps 10 yards or more. They churn slowly and conjure the image of a rising flock of white birds at a distance. They are antiques now, used only to store energy in large reservoirs of water close by. But one evening on our journey, a line of them on a bluff above the Missouri River were caught in the setting of a bloodied sun and became ominous as the airship approached, with the storm we had followed blackening the distance ahead. A cut in the low hills to the west opened the surface of the water to the color of the light behind us. The plastic of the windmill blades shimmered with red, dipping repeatedly from the last crimson blaze into shadow, with the slicing of a butcher’s knife.
Later, approaching Chicago, the airship turned into the wind as I watched and just then some point of loosened fabric pressed against the metal of a restraint, causing it to cry loudly enough to penetrate the cabin. This unnatural shriek caught me by surprise, and my gaze instantly conjured that bloody bright vision of the blades.
It was such a contradiction of dream and nightmare, so soon in my expedition, that awakened me to the total weight of my ambition. How did that blood dream relate to what I had come to do any more than the Eden I had left behind with Sarah? What I truly wanted was to accomplish something of great importance. I sought nothing less than to alter the course of the human future by my discoveries. Like a two dimensional flick hero, I dreamed godlike of stopping the machine of fate. Yet I could fall in love, just as easily as I might save mankind. Perhaps we would only play Quixote and Dulcinea in the ongoing slaughterhouse of human history.
Grasping then at the larger picture, I still believed there was a good case for finding answers in the remnant of the past that lives on in this America today. The opportunity should not be lost. I understood that if I did not act quickly, I may never have the chance again to live that full life that I had once imagined before me. On Mars, the lowering of civil war would likely destroy my generation. We are the young bodies who will be the fodder going to battle as the elders direct us with all the prejudice of their own mistaken beliefs. But before our mothers begin to weep at out graves, I would like to find an answer to this: why do men believe so profoundly in slavery?
- August 23, 2267; Alimentation; Abby
My brother John’s love of the military surprised me—surprised us all, except my mother. She always knew. My father had hoped his oldest son might indulge his own love of philosophy and pushed that on my brother from the very beginning. You have never heard Nietzsche or Grande discussed properly until you’ve enjoyed such madness raised above the chur and grind of a dry fertilizer. John is the more serious of us. Prolonged games annoyed him. My brother and I had never played, Bendigo-Jack or prowled the fields like cowboys and Indians. John liked to build things. When he was only nine, he took the gear from a discarded shredder and joined it to the frame of a bicycle to create a three-wheeled deal that my younger brother Hugh was still playing on years later. I figured John for a natural mechanic.
John looks like my father more than any of us, but he has always been his mother’s child. I have described him, to his face, as a Torq—less a 100 pounds, and with an excess of education. He was pleased at the description.
This morning I found myself regretting all of the arguments which had come between us and re-examining my own fault. My brother had more often been right. I should have joined the service myself, after graduation. I needed the discipline. I was lazy. And now, I was not physically prepared for this task that I had set. And this continuing argument with myself was cut short once more when Mr. Downs dutifully arrived at nine. Satisfied with my apparent progress, he did not stay long, and I insisted on walking down to the street with him when he left, knowing that the return trip up the stairs again might be the greater challenge of my day.
I was anxious to feel the weather. The casual emersion of the body into air and sunlight has not lost its thrill, or perhaps was renewed by my confinement and the storm of the day before. And I was probably hoping that I might grab some unsuspecting passerby in conversation, so I lingered there on the steps for half an hour in the sun after Downs was gone, happy in the warmth but feeling progressively more foolish in my pitiful effort, before resigning myself to the fact that I would accomplish more in my room with my vid. When I turned to climb the stoop, a voice echoed across the street.
“Giving up so quickly?”
I turned, but there was no one there.
I said, “Hello?”
From above came the voice again. It was the redheaded woman from the apartment directly across the street from my own. She was dressed, but her blouse gapped at the buttons as she leaned from her window.
“I noticed you were sick”
I smiled as best I could through a grimace against the bright sky.
“Yes. A little. Flu, perhaps. I’m getting over it. Thanks.”
I was not about to tell her I was poisoned. She pushed the palm of her hand at me.
She disappeared and in a moment came out the door directly across the narrow street. She was not as tall as I had imagined. I suppose I had placed her on level with Sarah in my mind.
She looked at me with a serious glare of intent and command.
“Take this.” She said, handing me a small paper sack. “It’s a Chinese herb. Put a spoonful in your tea, three times a day. You’ll feel like a million bucks in no time.”
I was puzzled.
“What’s a buck. A male deer?”
The glare turned into the smile of a mother to a child.
“That’s very dear, indeed. Where are you from?”
I told her and for my excuse managed to add that I was a student.
She said, “A buck is what they used to call a credit in olden times when they were made of paper. Just think of it as a single credit. What do they use for money on Mars?”
“Dollars. They’re about the same as credits.”
Close as she was now, I guessed by the wrinkle of her eyes that she might be forty or more. She was clearly plump where Sarah as not.
Feeling a little tired, after all, I sat again on the granite step behind me and hoped she would follow, but she stood a moment more so that I was confronted with her face above a full presentation of bosom, thankfully covered by her blouse.
She said, “I could see you were sick. I almost came over and knocked on your door, before, but I noticed the cop who comes to see you every morning. I figured he might not like it.”
I objected too readily, “He’s not a cop. He’s just a watcher. He works for the Department of Education.”
She offered a knowing smile emphasized by a half squint. “He’s a cop. Take my word for it. Whatever he calls himself. They always keep an eye on the foreign students when they visit. I’ve talked with more than a few. Let me tell ya.”
I nodded rather than disagree, and held the bag up at her.
“Thanks. Can you sit a moment? I could use a little company.”
She hesitated just enough to make it obvious, looking quickly toward the watchpost at the nearest corner.
“Sure. My name is Abby. I suppose I can sit for a minute. And company is what I do for a living. But you know that. Don’t you?”
She sat down. I told her my name and offered my hand to shake. This surprised her somehow and she took it with a noticeable hesitation.
She said, “When you’re feeling a little better, Griffon, I’ll give you all the company you want.”
My left hand was braced on my knee and she gave this a pat. Even in the sun, I felt a blush. It was the same gesture as the woman I had met in the café in San Francisco.
The custom here seemed a little too raw and I protested. “I just wanted to chat. I have a girlfriend already.”
She straightened up a bit in theatrical surprise.
“On Mars? She’s not going to keep you warm at that distance.”
“In Boston? Why isn’t she looking after you then?”
“Actually, she’s in Pocatello.”
Abby raised her frown, making a joke of her chase of information, rolling her eyes rather than repeat what she had already said.
“That’s in Idaho then. She might as well be on Mars.”
Her eyes were as blue as the sky directly above us. Her skin was truly pink. She had used some makeup to cover a cluster of freckles at the top of her cheeks.
I said, “It does feel about the same.”
“Is that who you were sitting here thinking about?”
This was oddly personal. Unexpected. “No. Actually I was thinking about my older brother.”
“Where is he?”
“Jib-jab. A piece of rock in the belt. He’s a soldier.”
She appeared to be completely absorbed by my answer. I wondered if this was some habit developed in her work that made her company that much more appreciated.
She asked. “What kind of place is that?”
John had told me a great deal about his assignment. He had ample time for letters. “Mostly iron. But not worth mining. About forty miles from end to end. There is a small nuclear plant and two hundred marines with nothing to do but complain. I miss his letters. I haven’t heard from him since I arrived.”
I told her a little of why I was visiting. She seemed more interested in that. I took this as an opportunity to actually interview someone, and I told her more. About half way through a much shortened biography of Tocqueville she interrupted me.
“Is that all you want to do? Study? What do you do at home—for fun?”
I told her a little about the farm. And for no reason at all I told her that I liked to run.
She said, “You got the built for it. All the guys I ever met who run are skinny. Boney. It can hurt, I tell you. Lucky I don’t bruise so easy.”
She was certainly as intent on her own interests as I was on mine. Still, I was thankful for her consideration. I held the bag up.
“Maybe I’ll be feeling better soon.”
She was pulling a thin vid from a pocket in her dress as if alerted, looking at it with the squint of poor eyes.
“I’ve got to go. I’ve got an appointment. But look. If you need to chat, just wave at me. I’d love to talk some more. I never talked to a Martian before.”
She was up and half-way across the street before I thought to ask.
“What’s your last name?”
She stopped short and turned her hip at me in a quick pose of theatric coquettery.
She was cute.
That was my adventure of the day. By the time I made it up to my room, her window was closed and the shade drawn.
I wrote a letter to Sarah as penance for my recent dereliction of thought. I studied my notes. Abby’s name then reminded me of a biography of John Adams, once a citizen of these parts, which I had intended to read and I managed several chapters of that before becoming sleepy again. So I slept. I feel as if I have slept away at least half of my opportunity here. And when I awoke again, I studied my notes some more. Twice I drank tea with a teaspoon full of the brown powder from the bag that Abby had given me, as instructed on a piece of paper, hand written and dropped inside. At the least, I imagined I was feeling much better by the time it was dark again and too late to go out.
Now I was actually hungry, and ate some of the peanut butter and graham crackers, and with that I reconsidered my judgment about human beings. After all, I was much more in agreement with the irritable Mr. Adams than I was with my father’s Mr. Jefferson. Dad had failed, in fact, to convert any of his sons. Human beings were not nearly perfectible, and we knew it despite his hopes. Yet attempting to correct ones innate flaws was the ideal of all high-minded gentleman as much as it was the wish of most governments as well as libertarians. I am in favor of letting people be—-accepting the premises of William James and Robert Stapledon and, of course, my own professor Gerald Lippman. I was not an idealist. Or, at least, I tried not to be that. Ideals were good for comparison but no match for reality. I believed in letting people be only because I wanted them to let me be as well. No more. The rest was rationalization. But there’s the rub, as Shakespeare said. If, in fact, a society based on this golden rule existed, wouldn’t that be an ideal and make me an idealist de facto. After all, though, it was all a game not of words but of human lives.
But, more important then than this debate upon the merits of human freedom, I was hungry.
Peanut butter on graham crackers with milk is fine enough, but I wanted something more.
The guidebook issued through the Lagniappe Travel Advisory suggested the avoidance of processed food. What exactly did that mean? Wasn’t all food processed? Fresh vegetables. Freshly cut meats. Whole grains. But I had never learned to cook and the small burners above my cooling unit were inadequate for much more that coffee or tea.
Suddenly, I could taste the beef ribs I had eaten with Jordan Abbott. That meal had now assumed mythic proportions in my head.
Instead, I read until I slept once again.
My mother is fond of okra and collard greens. She will eat a turnip like a carrot. She makes sweet potatoes in so many different ways I have never counted them. The sweet potato pie is my favorite. My own preference has always been for black eyed peas and pork gravy. Grits with cheddar cheese. Pork chops friend thin in a pan with the bacon grease from breakfast. Blackberry pie. My mother’s blackberry pie. You’d eat the crust alone and been happy if you didn’t know how good it was beneath. I told my father once that he married mom just to get her cooking and he blushed. Maybe that was almost true.
I awoke, hungry again, in the deep of night. My brother’s caution to me had returned. I was not physically ready for the work I had chosen. And the fact that I had ignored this truth meant that I was probably not smart enough for it either.
- August 24, 2267: the limits of demesne
I was not surprised, after all of those changes and delays on my way from Pocatello, to be met at Logan Airport in Boston by Mr. Downs. He seemed immediately familiar to me for reasons I did not consider then and he watched my approach on the gangway so directly that I was certain he would be of some importance to me even before he stepped forward extending his hand. Almost immediately then he extended his identification card for the Division of Research and Academic Studies of the Department of Education and asked me to press it to my vid.
Mr. Downs was ‘all business,’ as they say, right from the first. No small talk. No comments on the weather or inquiries about the difficulties of my trip. He carried the new visa for my stay in Boston as well as a revised list of restrictions. He managed to recite all of these out loud, despite my interruptions, before leaving me at a bus stop outside the terminal.
Most of the prohibitions are those I had studied before I left home, but there were several alterations. Importantly, I would not be allowed to go to New York without a new specific permit. This had been the next destination on my agenda after my research in Boston was finished, and I reapplied immediately. Mr. Downs offered the advice that such applications could take as much as a year and my visa for Boston was only good for three months, so there might be a major problem looming. He assured me of his assistance. I did not trust him, so I also applied for a three months extension on my stay in Boston as well.
He said, “It is unusual for a visitor to be staying quite so long. Are you writing a book?”
He knew, of course, exactly why I was here. My application was explicit. But I had already learned the cant of my hosts.
I said, “If my studies are successful in achieving any new insight, I would like that. For the time being, however, I must accomplish enough to please my professors and achieve my Doctorate so that I might get a decent job when I return.”
He obviously understood this motivation. I knew he would.
As a measure of his own comfort in dealing with me, this morning, when he arrived, he said, “It’s a fine day. I hope you’ll be able to get out again without getting wet.”
He did not mind that I knew about his knowing of my swim to the market. It might even have been the real reason for his comment on the weather. But nonetheless, he seems to be softening in his attitude toward me.
And it was only this morning, as he stood in the doorway, that I realized why he recognized him that first day. In Chicago I had met another man I thought might be some kind of enforcement officer with the same manner as Mr. Downs. He was dressed casually, without uniform or obvious rank, but he had the muscle of a soldier.
I was standing at the very end of a breakwater northwest of the city in an area they call Lincoln Park. A hard wind had cleared away most visitors, despite the bright sun. Slate gray water slapped at the rocks in a low but constant fury at one side and at the other an eddy of brown foam had collected over the calm expanse of Lake Michigan in the direction of the city center. Few buildings were actually visible behind the trees of the park and most of those were the typical hive of residential apartments made of fiberous concrete and were innocuous in their pale colors. I had raised my vid to locate what landmarks might be found. For some reason then I had turned toward the idle foam, rather than the excitement of attacking waves at the outer side, perhaps only to quiet the wind in my ears, yet I did not hear this fellow until he was close beside me.
Suddenly he spoke, “Once there was a building there. A ‘Skyscraper.’ That’s what they called them. Right there above those trees. Tallest in the world.”
I must have started at his voice and turned as much to look him over as to answer. I had gained much strength since my arrival a Pocatello, but I was far from any Earth standard, and I was much aware that, and that with very little skill he could easily overpower me if he knew how to use his own weight.
I said only, “When was that?”
He took an extra moment to answer, “In the Twentieth Century,” while his eyes still focused on the open sky above the trees.
I said, “I thought New York had the tallest buildings then.”
He nodded, “A common mistake.”
I turned a bit more to face the Chicago Spire. I had not yet gone to see it any closer than the Airship terminal, but from this distance of only a few miles it appeared impossibly high, rising in three parts and joining near the top in a loose crown like a series of stacked plates. All texture of the surface skin was lost in a haze of gray which I understood to be caused by the vizard. For reasons of physics I do not understand, atmospheric moisture is attracted rather than repelled by magnetic field which protects the structure.
“How much taller is that?”
He said “Three or four times, I’d guess. More. Buildings then were less than 400 meters.”
He offered nothing more. He stood there silently after his short answer, looking again toward the empty sky above the trees. His skin was black enough to reflect the sunlight in a shine from his cheek and darken the squint of his eyes beyond any telling of his thought. Of course I knew about the devastation in the 21st century, but I wondered something else.
I said, “Do they teach much about that time in the schools?”
He looked at me briefly without speaking, as if considering how to answer my question, but more likely to consider my motivation.
He said, “Not about that. It’s just something my father told me once. We used to fish out here on the rocks. Back in the day, when that was still permitted.”
I wanted to ask him more, remembering my duty, but he turned away. I spoke to his back.
“What did you catch in those times?”
He answered me over his shoulder as he walked away, the wind grabbing at his words.
“Not much. It was mostly just something we did.”
The encounter, as brief and simple as it was, had stayed with me. And what had struck me on my arrival in Boston was that Mr. Downs looked so much like that other fellow. The resemblance was not only in their size, but the military baring of way they stood and walked, recalling the warning of my friend Jordan Abbott.
In our first meeting Mr. Downs asked me about my agenda and once again I went over everything I had written in my original request.
He said, “Have you any other plans for your time here?”
An odd question. I tried to interpret the cause.
“Of course, I hope for at least a few surprises. I wouldn’t want to find only what I expect.”
His cheeks rose in a smile that betrayed no humor.
“Be careful. Don’t associate with difficult people. Don’t be the cause of any trouble.”
Because Boston is the home of several universities—and once the home of many more—I assumed there to be some tradition and appreciation of scholarship. I hoped my student status offered a buffer against common prejudice toward strangers. Even so, from the time of the New War, there has been a lingering distrust of anything Martian and I have been repeatedly told to beware.
Once I read a novel by William Faulkner which spoke of the disdain Southerners in the United States once felt for anyone from the North until long after the American Civil War. This might be something of the same treatment I should expect.
I spoke defensively, “I’m here only to learn.”
Mr. Downs said, “Don’t expect too much then. Accept the limits and make the most of what you have.”
The blandness of Mr. Downs’ dress in comparison to most of the people I had met, and his obvious physical restraint, also reminded me just a bit of my Uncle Bob. I was always aware that Uncle Bob was too long in the military to have many idiosyncrasies of the type I was used to with my other uncles, or my father. It was common sport at home to sabotage Uncle Bob’s calm whenever opportunities arose. His ability to maintain his composure beneath the onslaught of three nephews was now family legend. However, Mr. Downs sparked a contrary curiosity in me. What did he think of his charges? How did I fit the profile of students he normally met?
I started, “I suppose you primarily deal with students?”
He quickly answered, “No. Not as often as I would like. Mostly businessmen now.”
The unexpected answer left me at a loss. But I thought the tone of voice betrayed some added animosity in the way he said the word ‘businessmen.’ I turned my inquiry in that direction. Perhaps it was unfair of me, but I knew immediately that a good tactic on my part was to play on whatever slip of emotion I could find. It was my responsibility to reinforce my specific goals in any way I could. There were limits on my research I could not control. Any advantage that would aid my ‘scholarship’ was fair. Wasn’t it?
I asked, “Are the businessmen very demanding?”
I knew they were. Why would it be any different here than it was on Mars?
Mr. Downs said, “Yes. They always want more than they’ll give. They’re always ready to take the upper hand.”
The decline of manufacturing and production on Earth began long before either of us were born. The falsely high value the U. N. places on their credits makes them useless in general trade beyond the Earth, and Mars dollars have been the common currency of the League and even Lagniappe since the New War. I was learning that the hurt of being made to barter raw materials such as wood in the general market was like an old aunt forced to trade her jewels in order to survive and just another cause for habitual complaint by authorities here on Earth.
There was a less aggressive question I used in my study survey, but I altered it for Mr. Downs.
I said, “Do you object to increasing the tourist trade? If the Authority loosened up a bit, the U. N. could make a fortune off visitors from the League just wanting to look at a field of wild flowers on a sunny day.”
His face offered only the blank warrant of his position.
“Yes. I do object. This Earth is our true treasure. If we let more tourists in, we would loose that last thing we have that we can call our own. The Earth is not a disney.”
Nor was the actual self-righteousness of the words betrayed in his voice. I was quickly learning to respect the willed control of that voice.
I poked again, “Who exactly is the ‘We.’ Why do you presume to be the arbiter of the Earth’s treasures?”
He smiled—about as much of a smile as typically turned the flat press of his lips.
“Why would you assume otherwise. You left. We stayed. Your people abandoned their rights of demesne long ago.”
This seemed like an opportunity.
I said, “What rights are those?”
He shook his head at me, but with the smile still present.
“It’s not for me to presume the role of your professors. Perhaps you might include an inquiry into that matter as you complete your studies here.”
During his visit this very morning, I asked, “Do you know where I can get fresh vegetables, or any fresh meats?”
I had awakened hungry from my dreams. He seemed to hesitate with doubts about my reasons for asking.
“Is this for your health?”
I told him only, “Yes. For my digestion. I have been advised to find fresh vegetables and to avoid synthetic or processed foods.”
He was defensive without changing expression. “That’s a canard. Our food processing exceeds all others.”
I shrugged. I was not about to argue. “I don’t have an opinion on that. I’m told it matters that the food be fresh. I grew up on a farm, you know. I suppose it’s what I am used to.”
He did not answer at first. He was standing close by the door, as he usually did and I sat down at least to let him understand I was waiting for some reasonable answer. Perhaps half a minute passed.
Then he said, “Head west on Beacon Street. About three klicks out there is a cross street that goes to Cambridge and Harvard. You’ll see an open park at the corner. Once a week, on Saturdays, there’s an open market there. People bring in the things they grow in their home gardens to sell. Try that. But be early. They often sell out.”
I went out to the library shortly after he left, feeling giddy once again to walk in the simple sunlight beneath the open sky. How could anyone take this joy for granted? Still, I wondered at Mr. Downs hesitations. Was he actually trying to protect me?
In fact, because it was uneconomical to ship farm produce from the earth, any comparison of food processing was fatuous. The rumors concerning outbreaks of botulism and other sorts of food poisoning on the earth were seldom established as fact, and might easily be the same sort of lies that were often told about Mars. True, such events were common enough in areas of the Belt, though they were almost unknown at home. As with most things, Lagniappe was self-sufficient and famous for the most rigorous standards in the League.
I suppose, in essential ways, all that I was about was a matter of comparing standards. And my standards were not arbitrary, but a product of my society and my personal experience. Was there some inherent absolute in what had been decided by social practice. No. Certainly not. On Earth, my guess was that fresh food was more probably discouraged because it could not be monitored by the authorities. This was not a matter of culture, but politics. The liquid that was labeled coffee here was little better than a mock flavoring with doses of added caffeine to equate to simulate weak, medium, or strong. But that was the custom.
This is a fascinating area, in and of itself, that I might one day explore. Scholarship anywhere in the United Nations is not what a professor on Mars would accept for credit. The operative word here is ‘consensus.’ All study is directed toward the reinforcement of those truths which have already been assumed. New ideas are not forbidden so much as they are simply ignored. An individual wishing to become a professor could never graduate from any school on Earth without proving his dedication to the accepted wisdom. Certainly they would not be paid to be disagreeable.
The insular nature of the culture on Earth is well established, and in fact, religiously protected. The random public access for most vids was programming entirely produced, directed, and distributed under the auspices of the authorities. There were few alternatives available. I had been told that sometimes during a new moon, signals directly from Lagniappe might be received, but otherwise the clouding of alien broadcasts was thorough. Naturally, the prohibition had created a blackmarket for the unauthorized rubs called ‘newies’ which then could be purchased on the street for a few credits within a day of the event. And because any vid found to contain unauthorized material could be confiscated, the usual procedure was to keep a second and cheaper bic handy for just such things—something one could afford to lose quickly.
I believed my own vid mecum was secure, having entered with it as a declared reference tool in my research. The Para format, common from Mars to Lagniappe, is not compatible with bics here on earth, purposefully so, and not easily cloned. Still, I had been warned by my father to regularly dupe everything I had done and send a copy home, and I did this weekly. With Mars having no official diplomatic status here, my habit from the first was to go to the Lagniappe Counsel office and make use of their relay service. Every Saturday evening in Bastiat, Professor Tripp receives a copy of whatever I have done for the week at his office. These are raw notes, of course, and thus not officially ready for his judgment, but I relied on his curiosity. Almost every week following, there was a message waiting for me at the Counsel with his comments. I found this guidance comforting.
At the same time I relay a rub of my journal to my brother Robert. He had promised not to read it without my permission, and I knew that much was sure. He has a degree of self-control and patience I lack. I suppose that has been part of his success as a farmer. But more than once I have wished for his advice as well.
On Saturdays I also send a short letter to my mother—something she will share with Dad, and occasionally something more to Hugh. Hugh is a problem, and I can’t encourage him. He’s the smartest of us, and the more likely to be delinquent. He was quick to praise the idea for my expedition, but also ready to criticize my expected and presumed foolishness before the fact.
Hugh’s advice was offered immediately and without reserve, “Don’t just act like a damned bic. Put your ass on the line, for Christ’s sake. You’ve heard the reports. Things are going on there. If you act like some soul-dead academic you’re only going to come back with what you expected to find in the first place. Take some chances.”
If I were to report to Hugh more often and he was aware of exactly what I was up to, he would be likely to send back an answer with a detailed account of my every mistake.
But I have a responsibility to fulfill my mission. There have been few sociologic studies of this society in the past hundred years. More than a backwater, the culture of Earth is confined as securely as any prison. The government controls all education. Entertainment is licensed and thoroughly censored. Business is conducted according to the strictest standards of the Authority. The common pastimes are sports and sex.
We have always received the odd report, of course. More than the official news clips there is often some salesman or representative from Lagniappe, for instance, with no interest in ever returning, who will publish the occasional expose and a kerfuffle will follow. But curiosity is generally limited. News events are the equivalent to the ‘standing headline.’ Professor arrested. Student disappears. Tourist dies in accident. The tourists who can afford the exorbitant charges are escorted on prescribed paths. For 10,000 credits you can stay on a ranch in Montana and ride hoses for two weeks. For the same price you can buy an entire vacation dome on Mons or stay in a Casino on Lagniappe and be waited on like a prince for a year—so long as you don’t gamble it away too quickly.
In my research, I have often encountered comments from intellectuals here arguing that this very isolation is the reason there has been ‘peace on earth,’ for that hundred years while the League roils in one outbreak of hostility after another. True, there are the disturbances of factions here on Earth, but they seem to be minor relative to violence in the Belt—but then too, both Mars and Lagniappe have seen a common peace as well. And I note that the New Wars are conveniently judged apart from the rest because they mostly took place so far from the Earth itself.
Still I am curious. The random idiosyncrasy of a culture might reveal some deeper truth not clear in more blatant actions. For instance, why does a representative of the Department of Education deal with businessmen? Not wanting to be more confrontational, I waited until our second meeting to ask Mr. Downs.
I had found my way to a table in the Weidner Library at Harvard within 24 hours of my arrival, and he had tracked me there. He asked his usual perfunctory questions about how things were going without a hint of friendship in his tone.
I took an opportunity to ask, “Have you ever had the chance to visit any other place beyond the this?”
I suppose he was caught off guard by the inquiry, coming as it did amidst his own questions. After the usual hesitation, he appeared to take this inquiry as only an attempt to increase my field of information.
“Once. I went to England. During college. I was a Shakespeare scholar then. Quite an unpleasant place. I was warned in advance. Nothing there is the way it was. The disney they have created at Stratford is little more than a few buildings. But I went anyway. I sincerely hope your quest is more successful than mine.”
I had meant some place off the Earth. In just six weeks I had encountered several medics who had been to the Moon and the Resorts—even one who had worked for a year on Titan—not including Sarah. Now I had new questions, but I judged by his tone that it was better to let them wait.
At the very moment he approached I was reading a recent reference to the New Wars to see how they dealt with the issues of that period from the Earth’s point of view. He sat down across from me and waited until I noticed him.
I felt more aggressive after the implied challenge in his account of his own failure in England. I went right to my previous curiosity.
“Why must you deal so often with businessmen?” calculating then that the question might have some sense to him of being sympathetic.
Instead, his face altered. It might have been the first unrestrained expression I saw on those features.
He said, “Because there are so few students these days. Expeditions cost too much, I suppose. It’s easier to simply stay at home and study data on the vid. What’s to see, after all? The ivy on the wall here at Harvard is transplanted from a ruin in France—the original ‘Harvard Yard’ is long gone in the Catastrophe. So they loan my hours out to the Department of Commerce to save credits. The people at Commerce are of the kind who prefer to stay at a desk than to deal with yet another greasy salesman. Because the Department of Education is just that much lower on the totem pole, they send me instead.”
His complaint ended in a flinch of his eyes. He had undoubtedly said too much. I was fortified with a new belief that I could penetrate his armor.
He continued his usual daily questions to me then, confirming what he already knew of my activities, and left me with a passing thought that there was an invisible distance between us, as if we might be of a different species, in the same way humans once arbitrarily broke themselves into races and determined their social status by the color of their skin. I wonder now, has some subtle evolution occurred in just these few hundred years since mankind had first left the confines of the Earth?
I had actually seen an actual totem pole in Seattle, at the visitor’s center there. At least the plaque said it was authentic. The paint was chipping from ghoulish semi-human faces sandwiched animal features. The wood was deeply cracked and darkened beneath the paint. The topmost creature was the head of an owl, and the face at the bottom was of a squaw—that is a woman of an aboriginal tribe. The plaque instructed the viewer that the face at the bottom was likely that of the wood carver who had fashioned this columnar menagerie. What sort of being was the human who imagined themselves to be at the bottom of such an assemblage? Have such beliefs always infected the mind of man?
Even the old Darwinian theories were useless for such conjecture.
I asked, “It’s occurred to me that I should go to see a ’sling’ in operation. I’m told it’s an amazing thing to witness. But there isn’t one close to Boston. Is there a chance you might let me travel up to Lebanon, New Hampshire? I think it’s the closest one.”
“It is not on your itinerary. You’d have to get that approved.”
“But that could take months.”
“It could, But they would likely refuse you in any case.”
“Security, I suppose.”
“Slings are old technology. What security can there be?”
“Your own. It would be difficult to guard against someone who wanted to express their feelings about you as a Martian. Too many died in the war. You have already experienced some of that here.”
“That doesn’t make sense. So many more from the League died at eL-5.”
“It is what it is.”
I went out this afternoon and walked as far as the Boston Public Library, stayed there for several hours, and when I became sleepy, left directly for home. Though tired, I was feeling significantly better and I was struck with a sudden desire for pizza on the way and tried a small piece of that delicacy at a place on Charles Street but this then made me immediately queasy. Still, I feel a good deal better overall. I drank juice, using more of Abby’s magical brown powder and spent part of the evening reading again in David McCullough’s biography of John Adams to gain some insight into the ancient Boston that lay beneath me. After noticing the light come on across the way, I sat with my back to the window trying to ignore the activities of my neighbor.
But this was not to be.
Not long after dark, my named spilled into the street with an echo behind it. I turned and Abby waved at me, leaning from her window, her blouse agape as I now assumed it always was.
She said, “Are you feeling better?”
I opened my own window further and told her. She smiled and bounced a little with the reply.
She asked, “Can you drink yet?”
I knew she meant alcohol and told her I probably shouldn’t. I was drinking soda water.
She said, “I have lemons. Lemons are the best in soda water!”
I nodded, and that was all she needed for encouragement. A minute later she was at my door. I had to assume this kind of friendliness might be very profitable for her, but that it also came naturally. There was nothing artificial in her smile or manner. Frankly, I found myself a little engaged by her shear enthusiasm.
She set three large lemons on the table next to my vid and then made a turning appraisal of the room, ending with look across the street at her own window.
“Your room is smaller than mine. I guess you can tell that from here.”
Mr. Downs never bothered to sit down during his visits and my second chair had accumulated various pieces of clothing over the past week. I cleared these off with a grab and stuffed them in the small closet atop my collections of leaves and dried flowers and such.
Abby pulled the soda water from the cooler as if she were at home and sat right down as I found a second glass. She watched me quietly, as I cut the lemons, expecting me to speak first I suppose. I was at a loss for the moment. In the closeness of the room I was much too aware of her body heat and her smell, which was pleasant if not familiar.
She finally said, “What are you reading?”
I told her. I added that Adam’s wife was named Abigail and that it was a beautiful name.
“I’m just Abby. Not Abigail.”
She seemed amused by my mistake. If I was going to avoid anything unfortunate, I must take the offense in this. I resorted quickly to my usual tactics.
“Have you ever read anything about John Adams?”
“No. I don’t read very much. I’m too busy.”
I launched into the thought I was having only a few minutes before.
“A terrific character. Both admirable and interesting. That’s not the way with all of those fellows from that time, but many were. Think of Washington. A hero. Or Jefferson. A genius. I find those two a little boring by comparison. Though Washington was a farmer, of course. And a good one. But Jefferson was never good with anything but words. An arrogant thought on my part, perhaps, but I can never seem to reach any sort of understanding with them. Both of them seem remote and seldom return answer to my questions. But Adams is a bit of both of those two, combined. I find I understand him. I can speak with him.”
She tilted her head like my dog used to do when he had no idea what I was up to.
“Really. I didn’t know. But does it matter? They’re all dead now.”
I figured I was on just the right bulwark then. This was the perfect defense against what other charms might be within reach.
“Yes. It does. That’s why I came 45 million miles. Because it matters.”
Her head went upright with full attention as she took a sip of her lemonade.
She said simply, “Why?”
I was challenged. It was time to be obscure. “I think because—Because of the difference between sympathy and empathy.”
She seemed pleased, “What’s empathy. I like the way you say the word. It’s your accent I think.”
I wondered if I had taken a wrong tack after all. “It’s an understanding for another human being which is empirical rather than rational. You might have sympathy for someone because you know their condition or situation and understand it. But empathy is more a state of imagination based on your own experience. It’s informed by your own prejudice. You can imagine yourself in their place, or not. For instance, Jefferson had great sympathy for his slaves. He understood intellectually what wrong was done by enslavement. But his intellectual appreciation was colored by facts which overruled his empathy or gave it a secondary importance. Intellectuals often see issues that way—which is why very smart people can do very bad things. But Jefferson had little or no empathy for his slaves. He could not imagine himself as a slave, else how could he have kept them. He could not imagine the true loss of their humanity to themselves. Not for an instant, or else he would have overthrown all of his intellectual appeasement. He could not have self-justified such an institution.”
She shook her head at me slowly with some obvious concern.
“I heard that he slept with a slave. He might have had some feeling for her.”
I was clearly up against a bias here which could upset my immediate purpose. I should have been more careful.
“True. Maybe he did. Maybe not. You can have sex without emotion—“
She smiled with a confidence in the new subject and waved a hand at me.
“I know that much.”
I was definitely going in a wrong direction.
“But my point was that Adams had an empathy for others which was uncommon. He imagined himself in their place. He was the rare lawyer who could conjure the plight of his client as his own. He could not bear the thought of slavery, or owning another human being, because he could not bear the thought of being a slave himself. What was right to him was what was right for him.”
She nodded with an apparent appreciation of the thought.
“I think I like him then. I try to think like that myself.”
I took this as my opportunity. “I think it’s why I couldn’t ever pay a woman for sex. I was raised to associate sex with love. I could never take money for sex, just as I can’t imagine giving anyone else money for it.”
She widened her eyes at me as if in wonderment.
“If you’re asking me to do it for free, you don’t have to go into the history books. I came over here on my own. I like you. You’re a nice fella. You’re cute. I’m happy to have sex with you for free.”
I felt like an idiot. In light of my complete failure, I managed to say, “I’d rather be your friend than your lover.”
She smiled at that with eyebrows up. “We could be both.”
Again I was an idiot. I tried once more.
“Could we just be friends?”
She squinted at me then as fast as the smile had come, and as if there was something printed in small type on my face.
“You’re not kidding? Really? I’ve never had a guy who was a friend that I wasn’t having sex with too.”
I took a breath for relief. “I’ll try to be the first then.”
“Really. What do we do then?”
I could think of no other answer. “Talk?”
“Whatever you want to talk about.”
She nodded a bit slower at that. The room was quiet enough to hear the plumbing from the toilet down the hall, which was as loud as the sip of the lemonade in her straw. Then she sat straight with a new idea.
I am not a true conversationalist. Not like Hugh or my Uncles. I like asking questions and listening to the answers. I had very little ready material to work with beyond what I was doing everyday for my research. But then, I suppose, in a way, that was likely her problem as well.
So I asked her one of my forty questions. And then another.
She answered a few. But her answers spread in odd and unexpected directions, like liquid on an apparently flat surface.
Her mother was a schoolteacher and Abby had trained for that as well, but found the routine boring. She never knew her father. She speculated that getting pregnant was something her mother must have done just to break the routine. But having a child meant her mother never married. Unmarried women who became pregnant were sterilized. It was the law. Men never married unless they were wanting a child and her mother had used up her one opportunity. Now Abby had no intention of ever getting married herself.
“It’s not a natural arrangement. Is it? A guy will have sex with anyone that appeals to him.”
Without disagreeing, I asked, “And what do woman want?”
And without missing a beat she said, “Happiness. I think that’s all. Men don’t seem to care as much about that. Do they?”
I said, “No. It’s the pursuit of happiness that interests us most, I think, more that the fact itself.”
She looked suddenly serious now—even sad.
“Does that mean, I don’t appeal to you. You don’t find me attractive?”
I was on a razors edge.
“The opposite. You’re very beautiful. You make me think of Sarah.”
Her frown became a squint again. What fine print on my face was she looking for?
“Is she the only woman you love?”
She nodded. Nothing more. The blade of the moment turned broadside. She smiled happily.
In Chicago, the telescreen in my hotel room refused the command of my vid, and late into the night, with all sporting events completed, and unable to sleep even though tired of reading text, I watched the screen awhile in some disgust as local couples displayed their sexual prowess.
Ha! Do I protest too much?
I might have enjoyed this abuse of human dignity a bit more than I should have—despite my moral disgust, just for the darkest sort of humor displayed by the spectators. While goaded on with snorts and remarks by the show host, an audience of forty or fifty watched every move with apparent relish. The host was a woman of ample endowments who was referred to, incredibly, as Madam LaFarge. The first participants included a young woman with a flower of yellow hair, who looked more like someone’s teenage daughter than a sexual actress. Rather than use the stage bed, she presented herself using the back of a chair for support, just beyond the groping hands of the first row of the audience, as her partner attempted intercourse from behind. Following the introduction of the participants, like boxers in the ring, the audience never shut up from the moment the robes fell from the actors shoulders until the last, limp parting.
The couples each gave their names in turn, the way children do in a school play, before proceeding in the struggled to make their brief moment unique. Each pair had ten minutes—with commercials and judgments, this then amounted to four couples in an hour. A few attempted a dance of intimacy before they went to the raised bed. Others had choreographed a short routine of semi-athletic jumps and tumbles. The spectators howled at foolish attempts to pretend ecstasy. Overcome by apparent enthusiasm, some in the audience even left their seats to nudge the couplers into better positions before being escorted away by stage marshals. Meanwhile the next participants, visibly awaiting their turn in a short line on a balcony behind the broad podium, all of them barely dressed in their flimsy robes, began their foreplay prematurely so as to distract attention from their competitors. Two of waiting couples, in the midst of all this frenzy, briefly exchanged partners, drawing the loudest whistles from the audience. The two amateurs officially engaged at that particular moment took the audience noise as approval and exaggerated their every move even more. Somehow, beyond the obvious caricature they already had become, the two had found a reserve of talent to make a whole ham out of a meagre sausage. When finally done, gripping the large white towels which had been efficiently presented by barely clad assistants, they were more aglow in the stage lights with the oil they had applied to their bodies in ritual foreplay than any true exhaustion of lovemaking. They stood facing the audience at the last, holding hands, seemingly unashamed of their nakedness and smiling—I supposed, just at the thrill of being there. After each act, three audience members were chosen at random by whirling stage lights, and came forward to the judge’s stand. The first of these seemingly critics were two men and a woman, dressed in little enough themselves, and I supposed, rejects from the days applicants. The men each in turn and then interrupting each other expressed contempt for any lack of artistry and originality. The women merely complimented the performers on their appearance and effort. The contestant numbers flashed on the screen. Home viewers all over the city spoke to their vids. The vote tally appeared instantly, reeling upward like a carrot counter during harvest. 116,486. Jeers rose from the audience amidst hoots and calls. The contestant faces fell with disappointment. They released their hands and left the stage as if they had been there alone all along. At least 116,486 people were then lying awake with me in the night and watching this show. The thought disturbed me more than the act that I was guilty of participating in just by watching it.
But why did they do it? Why present their moment of meager ecstasy for all to see and judge. What was their actual gain? There was no immediate answer.
All of this is not so dissimilar to the the Earth’s gambling casinos. The Grand Casino in Buffalo is built like a large arena, the levels in a continuous strip rising all around in an enormous oval as if cut from one single sheet of concrete surrounding a broad and open floor. I supposed it might have once been a sports stadium but was now converted very usefully for the purpose. The floor area is primarily reserved for table games: cards, dominoes, backgammon, and several games I did not know the name for. The electronic games and slot machines filled the upper reaches ascending at all sides.
From every level of the Buffalo Casino a gaudy flash and twinkle of color demanded attention. The constant din of voices set against the artificial whir of electronic machines was punctuated irregularly by the whoop and holler of some fortunate winner of the moment while thousands more quickly resumed their pursuit of . . . what? Credits.
On Mars, the casino at Mons is a miniature by comparison. A small dome built for the singular purpose—the skeletal supports are chrome-like, giving the place its flash when lights explode, the marglass is polished to a paten leather shine by the night sky and wore a rose pink electro-canopy by day. The main floor is loud and gaudy and the arc of glass above reflects the shouts and much of the light as well as the ebb and flow of sound which has been much studied by sociologists. But there the most common sound is laughter. I observed those people many times when I worked a concession stand there during one summer break. Only one in twenty of those vacationers will go home with as much money as they arrived with, but they are always laughing. The winners at Mons have what fortune they make, to use it as they wish. Their losses are their own, and they are proud of it. I saw a man convert his winnings to gold coins once, even though he could barely carry the weight. Just because he wanted to. A saw another have a brand new sedan delivered to the door and watched the dealer drop the keys into his hand less than a half hour after he had hit a jackpot. Applause there breaks in waves.
At the Grand Casino in Buffalo, there is little laughter. The general cacophony is harsher, high pitched and yet grounded beneath by a low growl and moan—not in any harmony but in contest for the nerves of the ear. There is no giddiness to be seen. And the sheer size of the arena masks any ebb and flow in a continuous chorus with no melody or theme. Winners receive a slip of paper, which says the winning credits will be deposited to their accounts. Losers fade away quietly, their heads lowered from the moment that the machine refused their token or the mechanical dealers rejected their bet—the electronic instant their available account balance had reached its minimum. Given that all accounts on Earth are processed and monitored by the government and levied a tax depending on income, it did not seem worth the trouble, to me. So it was there, in Buffalo, that I wondered first, was it the act of gambling itself that drew them? Or was it only the pursuit of happiness, after all, that really mattered, more than the happiness itself?
[new chapters will be added here weekly, I hope, until the novel is complete at last]