“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.” Joe Trees
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, 2267: 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 throne 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 more, 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 again. 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 comes 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 has 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, 2267: 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, 2267: 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 again many times long after. It was their one opportunity to escape, I think. . . 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 so clean. Happy. So Marzy pink. Not at all like the gray-brown drab of Brooklyn. The shifting of the 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, Salishan, 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
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 or so even with his muscel, 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 have a new neighbor in the room below me. He has a tubercular cough but he looks robust enough. He smokes tobacco, that much I can smell. But I’ve only seen him at a distance. A ‘Hello,’ passing him in the entry, has gotten me a grunt. I put my hand out to him and introduced myself. His response was only one word. “Ojay.” Was this his name or a formal greeting that I was unfamiliar with? I chose the former and said, “Glad to meet you. I live in the room above yours.” He grunted and passed on. He is as tall as I am but larger. My guess is that he weighs 200 pounds but has little fat on him. His hair is cut as short as mine as well. I think he is a soldier, or has been one recently. His posture reminds me of my brother John’s. But unlike John, who whistles when there is no other noise at hand, Ojay is generally quiet. There has been no music that I’ve heard. No visitors. I suppose he must read to pass his time. But his presence is noted. Perhaps that is intended.
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 coquetry.
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 Widener 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 is none 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 was confused by my words and 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?
# August 25, 2267: The Exiguity of Argus
I have had another recollection of something Jordan Abbott had warned me about. It occurred while I was thinking about my encounter with Mr. Downs at the Boston Public Library. Mr. Downs had wanted to be seen. Every time previous to that, beyond his visits to my room after I was poisoned, he had found me unawares. But at the library he had intended that I discover him.
Jordan had advised me, when my watcher became too obvious, that would mean there was a second. Where was my second watcher that day, and what had I done to deserve the honor?
I was already taking other precautions. After almost three weeks in Boston, I had conducted over one hundred interviews of sufficient length to annotate and index. As I have mentioned, with only a few months to accomplish so much, I was insuring my work by posting the data at the Lagniappe Counsel Office, and for a small fee, able to transmit my vid-notes home, thus diminishing the fear of loosing the work by some accident or malice.
Trying to see my activity through the eyes of Mr. Downs, I thought that this habitual visitation to the Lagniappe offices might even be the cause of suspicion by the authorities—enough to make them watch me more closely—even though the procedure was pre-arranged and readily admitted to my watcher.
Still, I had not noticed an additional ‘amah,’ as they are derogatorily known and the next morning on my way to the library I halted after turning each corner, as if the survey the wonders before me, in the hope that a suspicious face might appear behind. I detected no one at first.
And it was in that very effort that I took a different street on my way and came to meet Judy. I will call her Judy Brown, because I don’t want to be causing her any more trouble for her friendship. From the first, she reminded me very much of my aunt Ethel. I interviewed her, as I should if pretending only to be doing only what I had come to do, but afterward did not include her answers in my study notes because I worried that she had said too much.
I had stopped to ask directions, as I often must, even when I know exactly where I am going. A common ploy. Asking directions is as good an excuse as any to stop and talk to a stranger. My accent serves me well for this. Judy had been working in the narrow strip of garden just at the front of her building and watched me closely as I approached on the sidewalk. It was also my habit to speak to people who were already aware of me and making some judgment about my presence rather than approaching someone unexpectedly. People who were too much surprised seldom had much to say.
She sized me up at least as fast as I was estimating her. She was wearing a shop apron and a sleeved shirt. I calculated her age at about 60 years. She was 63. I thought she might be partially Asian. She considered herself part Iroquois, an ancient American aboriginal tribe. She is stocky in build but not obviously fat. She is strong enough to easily lift the 40 pound bag of dirt she’d been using to replant a hedge at her doorstep and readily then to put it aside so that I might sit next to her on the stoop. Later, I lifted the bag back into its original place as I left, just to get my own idea of the weight of it.
She was friendly from the beginning, which is unusual by itself. From the door above us, a dog barked at the sound of my voice. I explained my purpose right at the start. But I could not automatically expect that she believed me. I began with the usual first questions.
“How long have you lived here?”
Judy answered, “Since my first boy was born, twenty six years ago. How long have you been in Boston?”
She consistently added in her own question to her statements before I could ask another.
I said, “About three weeks now. Do you have a child?”
Judy smiled and rocked a little in place, her arms looped around one raised knee as she sat, with one hand gasping the other wrist.
“Three. I had three. One was killed. Are you married?”
This felt like a dark morsel of information to be inserted in such a brief answer, but she still smiled and with a squint to one eye. She had her own game going. I wondered what she was up to. I said, “No. Not yet. Student income is a bit lean for such things. Do you own this home?”
I asked that, guessing that the brownstone behind us was probably too large to be owned by a single family, but asking was the only way to know.
Judy laughed at me. The dog barked louder.
“What a question! Do your parents own a house as big as this on Mars?”
I nodded. “I hope to myself, one day. It’s not something I’ve thought much about, yet. I have other things to do now.”
Her face collapsed to a mock frown.
“As large as this?”
I nodded. Her eyes slowly went wide as I answered.
“It’s the way we live there. Mars families usually live in the same house together even after the children are grown up and marry. It costs a lot to build your own shell. It can take years to save enough.”
That word got her obvious interest.
“Is that what you call it? A shell. You don’t call it a home?”
I figured that this might be an opportunity to learn a lot if I was willing to give enough in return.
“No. Not always. They’re also called domes. Noggins. Skulls. Calling it a shell is just a kind of slang. Our homes are all under domes there. They are usually close at the rim, for economy, the lower edge of the dome is often part of the ceiling of the home. But there’re people who will put a house in the middle of their fields. It’s an extravagant statement, but it’s their choice. The weather there doesn’t allow for living outside.”
She barely let me finish.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
She had turned the tables on me. I would have to work my way back around.
“Three children!” she waved her hand at her face like a fan for more air. “What kind of penalty did your folks pay for that I wonder?”
This was a topic that interested me but was not in the direction I wanted to go. Infanticide had been common on earth for over two centuries. Government control of the population has long been socially acceptable.
I told her, “Larger families are pretty common on Mars. Most are larger than ours. You had three, yourself. That’s above the average here I’m told.”
Her eyes lids fell shut in slow motion and rose again only after she had begun to speak.
“I had three. One was killed.”
She repeated this correction without a hint of added emotion beyond her eyes.
I quickly asked, “Did you have to pay a fine?”
She nodded dramatically. “Thirty thousand for my second—my daughter.”
I tried to grasp the amount in dollars.
“30? Would that be about a years pay for an average person?”
She let her knee go and leaned back on her elbows against the steps. “We aren’t so average. But it was nearly two years pay and worth every bit!”
I tried to consider the amount in the context of what I knew.
“How much did you have to pay for the third?”
She stiffened, sitting up straight again. “Nothing. They took him. They killed him.”
She turned her chin out to me. Her eyelids lowered again but this time without shutting. There was no way to avoid asking more about it.
“I don’t understand.”
She wet her lips. “A fact of life. They fine you for the second. They take the third. We tried to hide him, but they found out. They took me to the hospital and aborted him. Seven months old. But I heard him cry. He cried his life to me.”
This was a subject matter which might lead me off into a jungle of thoughts I had to avoid if possible, or else my survey would be finished before it was half done. Abortion is common in many places, however abhorrent. On Lagniappe it’s voluntary, but discouraged. There were too many agencies willing to take the responsibility for a newborn. At Ceres, with their libertarian twist of mind, it was uncommon but legal. Resources there had demanded a strict population control for most of its history. On Mars, of course, it’s illegal. Unwanted children are even advertised for and bounties are high. Childless couples are common enough for it to be counted as a primary cause of divorce. But the emotions this subject incurs are beyond the scope of my inquiry and I had to steer clear of it. I tried to explain this as briefly as I could so that she would not think I was engaging is some subterfuge.
I had only briefly explained my survey to Judy by then. But this was obviously not the kind of thing I was looking for. I could not help but inquire about her own purpose, if only to have another key to her other answers.
“I understand the subject means a great deal to you, personally, but why did you tell me this?”
Her back was still straight.
“I thought you should know.”
I pressed, “I’m a stranger. Why?”
She bit at her cheeks before answering. “It matters. Doesn’t it? You want to know what people think about things. I just thought you should know.”
I could not avoid the thought that she had turned the conversation to another purpose. I was wary, but how could she be acting as an agent for the government? I had only taken this street at random because it looked residential and might offer just this sort of chance encounter.
I nodded, thinking it was best to get back to my own script if possible. The dog scratched his frustration at the inside of the door.
I asked, “What kind of dog do you have?”
“Joe. He’s a mutt. Picked him up off the street ten years ago. He’s getting old and doesn’t like to be in the house alone.”
She got up and climbed the steps to reach for the handle. As she opened the door, she asked, “Did you ever have a dog?” and with that the dog put his head out the widening crack. He was more than knee high and with short hair, black, and I thought he might be mostly a Labrador breed. My own dog as a boy had been a Golden Lab. I had only reluctantly shared him with my brothers.
“He reminds me of my Elle. She died just last year. She was just twenty-eight, but she was worn out. My parents got her for my brother John, but she always liked me best because I was a baby when she was a pup and we grew up together.”
Judy’s jaw dropped momentarily.
“Twenty-eight? Mars years?”
I had forgotten that one of the prohibitions was the discussion of age differences.
“Earth years. Mars years are twice as long but it is still the custom to count things by Earth standards. Mom said she would have lived longer if we boys hadn’t run her so hard. But she said that just to get a little pity for herself, I think. She loved Elle too.”
Judy’s eyes briefly searched the sky as she took her dog by the collar and led him out to the steps.
“I had heard that. It’s one of those things you hear but you don’t believe.”
But I had still not grasped my mistake. “What?”
She shook her head. “About you people living longer. So, even the dogs live longer. I suppose that would be something. A compensation. That would be something to make up for the dangers.”
She sat again, with the dog between us. Joe muzzled my face with a quick tongue sampling here and there. I put my arm over his back and held him closer for a little comfort so I could give the soft part of his neck a scratch. My Elle had liked that.
I asked, “What sort of dangers do you mean?”
Judy Brown shook her head at the question.
“We hear all the time about people getting killed out there.”
The managed news here reported only what it wanted people to hear of course.
“There aren’t really many dangers I know about. I suppose there are more out in the Belt. Still some debris there in places. But not so much any more. Debris is worth too much to let it just shag about.”
What would explain that? It was one of Torq’s terms for a mess someone had made and not cleaned up afterward.
I answered, “Float around, loose.”
She thought about that a moment as I tried to find my own place in the conversation. Joe settled down on his haunches, satisfied to be in the midst of the talk.
Mrs. Brown stared me in the eye.
“Just how old do people get to be there?”
I shrugged then in a realization.
“I’m not supposed to talk about that.”
She fixed her eyes in a half squint.
“And I’m not supposed to say that the State of Massachusetts killed my baby. But they did. So, tell me. How old do you people get?”
I thought it best to answer or else any hope for my interview was lost. I already knew that I liked this woman and did not want to lose that opportunity.
“A person who takes good care of themselves can live to be 140. My great grandfather Ezra died just couple of years ago. He was 130. Dad says he would have lived longer if he hadn’t been wounded in the war. My grandpa Torq is only ninety but he says he’s going to out live all of us.”
“What war was that?”
“The New War.”
She reared back and came forward with her words. “I had a grandfather in the New War. He was in Q-Corps. He never saw any killing, but he was out there.”
At least that would not add to the difficulty of our conversation.
“I’m glad he came back ok.”
She let out a sudden laugh and slapped her knee. I saw that she was as relieved of that shadow as I was. She said, “I guess I am too. Else I couldn’t report it!”
The dog raised his head to see what was happening.
“Where do you work?”
“A kitchen. I’m a cook.”
Misunderstanding what she was saying, I asked, “Were you able to work while you were raising your children?”
She smiled at my obvious attempt to get control of the conversation. She was no longer hiding her own intentions.
“Raising those kids was work enough for a time. For most of twenty years, that was my job. My fella did what you might call ‘the heavy lifting’ then.”
She had yet to mention her husband. I wanted her telling me more about that in her own way. I knew that the custom was for most couples living together to avoid marriage unless they got a license to have a child.
She had said her ‘fella.’ Were they married? I would have to find a way to ask.
I said, “What does your husband do?”
But she had turned first, staring down the street at something I could not see. She said, “Census Bureau. He does just about what you’re doing only the questions are a little more direct. He has to get to the point and move on, you might say.”
She was still looking intently toward the end of the block. Cars passed. A few pedestrians gathered at a stoplight. Several children at this side of the intersection were playing a game. Following her gaze, the dog looked that way as well.
I asked, “What is it?”
She squinted at me to answer.
“Did you know someone was keeping an eye on you?”
I looked back toward the corner. I saw nothing unusual.
“What makes you say that?”
Judy turned back again to the corner.
“It’s what I see. There is a small person over there. Not a child. Maybe a women dressed like a man. I don’t know. They’ve moved by the corner there three or four times and given a look at you every time. I think it was the same one who passed right by the stoop here after you first came, but I wasn’t paying much attention then because you was talking to me.”
I scanned the corner more carefully, hoping to see something. The group of children were playing a sort of tag around the watchpost at the near end of the block. High atop that pole was the usual faceted globe, gray for lack of color, containing monitors. Others just like it were common throughout city.
“If I was being observed, wouldn’t it be from there?”
Her eyes raised to the gray of the globe.
“No. That’s just a machine. It counts. It calculates the number of people passing or cars or whatever. There’s a bic someplace in the spire all that monitors traffic. If something odd were to happen, the rub might be studied afterwards, but not otherwise. The one who’s watching you is just beyond those children—there by the corner building.”
I looked again. There was in fact someone there, only part of the face just visible now. Our notice had clearly made them shy. But I wondered. If I was being observed, would talking to Mrs. Brown result in her being interviewed by the authorities.
I asked, “Do you think that person could be looking at you?”
Judy laughed. “Me? I’ve been here 26 years. Nobody ever looks at me.”
Of course, it was the anomaly that was usually studied. And what could I do about it in any case?
I decided to ignore it. Mr. Downs might have someone looking after me for all I knew. It was more important to finish my interview.
The most important fact to me at this moment was that her husband worked for the Census Bureau.
There is a mandated process here carried out by the government which is known as a ‘census.’ It is very similar in purpose and intent to our own ‘reckoning’ on Mars, even having originated in the first United States Constitution, because our own mandate had been copied from that. A census was intended to gain an accurate head count of potential and rightful voters in each state for holding elections, given that the number of elected representatives from each district would be determined by the population. On Earth, that purpose was long forgotten now. Like all such assignments of power, this simple governmental function had grown into an ongoing numeration of all aspects of everyday life for the entire population worldwide. The census bureau here was the single largest agency of the authority, employing millions of trained workers who canvassed every street and every apartment, every desert outpost or jungle road, day after day, year after year. All questions put to any citizen by a census worker must be answered. Any avoidance or incorrect answer was punishable by set fines and repeat offenders were be arrested or detained for re-education.
This process has even led to customs here which seemed odd to me at first, but over the past weeks I have come to better understand. A man in the street might hail a girl friend ‘hello, two fifty-two’ in the same way some youths on Mars might call to a friend using a family name like ‘Hey, Johnson,’ but here using the last digits of a citizen’s census number instead of their name. This was originally meant as a disrespect to the person, but it had evolved into a sort of humorous kidding.
Each individual on Earth, alike Mars, has a number assigned at birth. These numbers, joined to the individual name, appear on every visa, and every transaction. It is imbedded in a magnetic code in my C-Card. Given along with the name of the individual, this number meant every person and their every interaction could be precisely tracked.
Unlike the far-flung Hebrides of Mars, Ceres, or Lagniappe, where every child is given an alphanumeric identifier branded on their skulls at birth, new identification cards on Earth are issued every ten years for each citizen, in keeping with United Nations statute law, and delivered in person by a specific census taker.
But if Mr. Brown worked for the census, it was probable that both he and his wife took some interest in the information he collected. That was only human nature. Simple curiosity. It explained why she took such a quick interest in questioning me. And given Mrs. Brown’s straightforward assessment of the watchpost, I wondered just how much interest they took. It might be assumed, I thought, that most census takers were also government spies. I might, in fact, be talking to a spy at that very moment. But it was more likely that the whole business had long since devolved into just another self perpetuated bureaucracy with little interest in supporting any other department.
Judy’s interest in the unknown observer continued while we talked.
She answered, “My husband and I met when we were at the Census Bureau. I was doing census work myself for ten years before that. Now I’m a cook at a little restaurant over on Huntington Avenue. I had to learn to cook so that I could feed my family a little better, and there was no use wasting all that knowledge. Census work is just too hard after a certain age. Fred does it because he likes it. He’s a talker. He’s not unsociable like me.”
She laughed at her own joke. The dog settled down with his head on his paws.
She wanted to know about my University. Her second son was in college and she was not happy about the education he was getting.
She said, “They’re all the same. By high school they have you culled out by whatever you’re good at. In college they just teach you what they want you to know. Only that’s getting worse lately. Teachers are not as good as they used to be. I think it’s because they don’t care so much. My Jim doesn’t even know the name of one of his professors. He’s never seen her. Just the instructors and they change from week to week. He wants to be a doctor. He’s smart enough.”
I told her, “Colleges are small on Mars. Because they’re private, and paid for just by students and alumni. They are fairly competitive. There are only two Universities. One at Bastiat. The other at Pelos.”
She squinted at me in a way I started to see was characteristic.
“Did you go to a good school?”
I nodded, considering my next question.
She spoke up immediately to that.
“What school is the best school on Mars for what you do—for the study of the history like you say you’re doing?”
“Prescott. It’s a college of Bastiat University.”
She asked again, “What school did you go to?”
She smiled. Her look of dissatisfaction vanished.
“See. I could tell you were that kind of fella. I have an unmarried daughter I’d introduce you to, but I don’t want her running off to Mars where I’d never see her again.”
I said, “You don’t even know me,” while squinting back at her the way she had been doing at me as a way of softening any perception of criticism.
She answered, “I know you. I knew you the minute you sat down next to me.”
She straighten her back again and raised an eyebrow at me. I could ask her just what she thought she knew, but she had taken me again too far from my own routine.
I said, “What is it that your son is learning that you don’t like?”
She rocked a bit with the thought.
“How do they teach that?”
She answered, “Very carefully.”
What was it she meant? I asked, “Is it disrespect for you, his parents—is that what you mean?”
She looked back toward the small sliver of a face behind the edge of a building that still watched us from the corner.
“My boy has lost respect for his parents, and with it some of his own dignity.”
She had done it again. I was lost a grasp on my own effort and was fully in the grasp of hers. We talked into the evening, and when Mr. Brown came home I was invited to supper. Foolishly, I refused. I can’t say why. At the moment I thought it was out of some fear for her being seen taking me into her home. Afterward, I reconsidered the matter as a fear in and of myself.
But one thing she said did seem most appropriate to my own aims.
She said, “We used to build monuments. You understand. We had respect for those who came before us.”
I had reason to understand that much very well.
# August 26, 2267; Demiurge and Tympanum
I must ask, why will these people relinquish their rights so readily to a demiurge?
Abby appeared at my door this afternoon, soon after I arrived home. She carried a bag of oranges. Again I thought of Sarah. How could people be so different and yet alike.
She said, as a matter of simple fact “You need more fruit,” and held it forward.
I answered. “I take a pill for that.”
She dismissed this with a brush of her hand in the air. “It’s not the same. Eat a couple of these every day. You can get more at the market. If I’m going to be your friend, you have to listen to me.”
I nodded and took the bag. She turned away.
“I’ve got to go to work now. I’ll see you later.”
So, I had a friend, then. I had accomplished that much.
What’s the good, after all, in a survey of the lowest common denominator? I was told to expect that most of the Earth’s population had been processed to a point of broad unanimity as the result of two hundred and fifty years of concerted education and social engineering with an aim toward some vague definition of equality. The anomalies of nature had been largely weeded out. The physically superior were directed into sports, achieving a two for one trade off. Any latent need in the common man to cheer on competitiveness or revel in the success of victory, could be absorbed in the meaninglessness of a win or loss on the playing field. The intellectual oddity who grasped the detail of some bit of knowledge faster, or was too easily enlightened to a larger understanding of some other significance, was moved into areas of management where such bad habits could be used while being ground down to acceptable levels at the same time.
Hellman Grigor’s work on the psychology of equality, especially The Planer’s Edge, was often cited when I was in at school to explain the social need on earth to eliminate excellence. Any individual who raised himself above the rest must be shaved down to the even surface of all, or else disturb the symmetry and ‘beauty’ of the whole. The extraordinary was as great a danger to the peace of society as were the deficient or feeble. Just as defective embryos are quickly aborted here, the extra ordinary are trimmed to size. It is the ultimate utopian endeavor. If the procrustean science of genetics were able to discover such superior oddities before birth, as well as they defined the defects, then some perpetual equanimity might be achieved. But oddly, a genetic predisposition to superiority had not been found-—in fact had eluded the best efforts of twenty-first century science. and the efforts had not been carried forward since.
And what then of the human tendency for average people to act in the extreme as a mob. MacKay’s ancient text ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,’ was still a useful and interesting explanation of the political need and motivation for reducing and managing the range of popular action and reaction. According to MacKay, history seemed to say that people naturally acted in groups, were drawn to the crowd for safety, and might even buy tulip bulbs with their last dollar if that was the current mania of the mob. This then was the job of proper education and politics—and the genius of government focused on an improvement of the species itself, not the individual. The inevitable pursuit of genetic solutions. All those failed hopes of ending misery and even death through education and biology had turned to improving the quality of everyday life with robotics during the great ‘robot rage’ of the 21st Century, and thence to the shorter leap of faith and the belief that flawed human beings could create a perfect android. Mother nature should be left undisturbed, of course, but the dirty human genome must be cleaned up a bit or else replaced by something better. What sad foolishness.
Perhaps such a philosophy of ‘middling’ had been so commonly accepted because this world had already been made delicate by extremes. As with the antarctic penguin, there was some safety at the center of the flock while the outermost were frozen or eaten. Yet how often had the entire species itself been on a thread in the 21st century? At least twice. And probably not so perilously as that since our first ancestors made there way out of Africa. All in the name of Utopia. But the premise of any utopian thesis is not convincing to me, if only because our idea of perfection must be, my the nature of our own flawed being, imperfect. The imposition of such ideas in a time of absolutes—when a single plague can take the lives of so many, or when artificial intelligence can propagate itself with its own agenda, is too dangerous.
I find symmetry by itself quickly boring. I have always been amused by oddity. Jefferson’s Monticello is pretty to look at but not so inviting as a home. A fellow name Parsons built a replica of Jefferson’s folly in Pelos and I went to see it with Dad. He was quit excited when we set out. But on the return trip he was quiet until I said something like: ‘It would be a good place for a game of hide and seek. I bet.’ Dad laughed. He answered, ‘Mostly for the hiding.’ The only other time I saw such disappointment on his face was when the replica of Thoreau’s cabin came to Bastiat with the one man show of Lawrence Dean. At least the performance was good.
And then there is the artificial utility of the ‘socialist square’ as professor Tripp calls it. Bauhaus is not even pretty, and inexcusable as a home, but it neatly fits the perfect architectural dictates of a government committee. Any real attempt at architecture on Earth today is blatantly evident only in the spires. The hives of fiberous concrete which grow like fungus around the city centers are too obviously designed by a bic, the templates almost unchanged now for a century or more, and more suited for robots than human beings.
I must persist with Mr. Downs until he relents. I want to see the inside of a spire before I go home.
I recall that it was Monticello which was the cause of my first real digression from the text offered in political theory class during my freshman year at college. Professor Lippman was waxing on the poetry inherent in the great thinkers of the American Revolution as their thinking had evolved from the Renaissance through Shakespeare and Spenser. He had evidently once visited the Earth and seen the recreation of Monticello at the original site, and was overcome by the beauty of it. Jefferson’s evident love for the symmetries of Palladian architecture were also a part of his sense of balance in government—or so we were to believe. I argued against it. Such symmetries were more often the mark of static societies like ancient Japan. Such order was dependent on slavery by its very soul. The metrics of order were a subjugation of the irregular, the vernacular, and the excentric. Order for its own sake was stultifying. It was too easy to do what balanced. Any machine could do the same. In society, all that was required was a ruler and a sword. Lobbing slugs of lead onto the scales to achieve equality was not art. The line of printers type might be justified by such procrustean measure, but it was the words which mattered, not the evenness of the text on the page. The challenge for mankind was in maintaining our footing while being prepared to carry the uneven load. The aim should be to recognize such poetry in the necessary cycles of work, while taking pleasure in doing something for its own sake. Perhaps.
I voiced this objection in class, finishing with a line like, ‘Can’t we recite our Donne aloud while shoveling the dung in the stall.’
This was the first time any answer of mine had ever gotten a laugh in class and I enjoyed some short lived fame from it.
And thinking of it now, I believe this was in fact the moment Elaine first took an interest in me. I didn’t know it at the time, of course. She only told me about that three years later after I admitted my desire to take my study all the way to the Earth. It was part of her final breaking off of our relationship.
“I had not noticed you before you gave that little speech,” she said. “We were just a bunch of kids, each trying to appear smarter than the other. Suddenly I had to find out who this boy was who brought John Donne to a class on political theory. You were different.”
Elaine’s hair is blonde by birth, so pale in color it demands your hand to touch it. I touched it again as she explained her first thoughts about me, already fearing it would be the last opportunity.
I think she saw her declaration to end our affair as some kind of gift. She implied that my liberty was for her an indenture. I argued. We would never be happy unless I took my chance. She said she was too easily bored and I suppose I might have been something new to her that first day in professor Lippman’s class. But that was only the catalyst. Did it matter now? Hadn’t we found a familiarity that pleased us both? Couldn’t we be happy with what we had without being satisfied? Was I arguing against rationality? No. I was arguing for the use of rationality to look for alternatives and avoid the expected. This met with her approval. But she was by far too smart for me. She was resolved.
The delusion of love is the epitome of madness. With Elaine I had reveled in that madness with the casualness of sport! Revolution is invigorating. Love is exhausting. How could she not be bored at last by a fellow who made baseball analogies out of the play of seduction.
There must be an architecture to human relationships as well. The pre-cast forms of fibrous concrete cannot comfort a heart or a soul anymore that the scaled proportions of Palladian balance. To be human is to be imperfect. A pursuit of happiness is not an imposition or proscription.
Looking out my window into the night, the misty air is filled by the glow of the Boston spire. I am reminded, in the school library I once found original photographs of a lost cathedral in France, the famous Notre Dame of Chartres. One might even believe in a religion that built such monuments to a negative spirit, just for the sheer magnificence—grim, gaping sinew, determined to soar beyond old mortality, like a frozen apocalypse, with the skinless muscle of stone cast into the sky as an arch and the tympanum tooled by chisel into saints and sinners, each upon the other. Even Griffons! with soaring of spires made elastic in limestone by the impossible delicacy of their design. It was a splendid chorus of fragile blue glass between arching lips of gray, but at its heart, a labyrinth without a center. How just!
Six centuries later, that abortion of ideals which was the French Revolution might have steeled the human metal that was all there was at the core of such a labyrinth, as it stole the spirit of those who spent whole lives in the building of such an ossuary, posing reason and utility as a replacement for faith and love. Yet, it’s all gone now, fallen into the dust of the druid ruins on which it was built a thousand years before. How long again will these spires stand.
# August 27, 2267; Polity and quidnunc
I realize that I have actually made two more friends since my arrival in Boston. So many brief meetings are usually both the beginning and end of a relationship, and this becomes routine and nothing more is expected.
In Buffalo, I stopped a fellow on the street to ask directions. He was very kind and sent me off in the opposite way from the place I was looking for. At the time I thought it funny—not odd, but humorous. It was an idiosyncrasy I encountered again and again, but not consistently. I could not dependably ignore or do the opposite of directions given. And I began to see that, just as with so many other things in life, one could divide the human beings of the Earth into two groups. One part would try to help a stranger as best they could and were faithful and true to the task. The other part would send you awry for their own reason, all the while lying with an appearance of complete sincerity.
I began a hobby of attempting to anticipate which part of the human race I was speaking to with each encounter. Again and again my guess was wrong. A glint of humor in the eye might mean only good will and sympathy. An earnest precision of detail could be a best effort at subterfuge.
In Kansas City, with the weather bad for most of the two days, I had little chance to see anything or speak to anyone beyond the hotel staff. Hotel workers are enured to travelers and questions and I have found them to be generally useless as a source of anything beyond essential directions. Still, a middle aged woman who served us breakfast in the café there had told Jordan where we might find a good barbeque. Her recommendation had been just what we were looking for. I wanted the chance to speak to her once more—what a good prospect she was for an interview—but she was not on duty again until after we left.
My very first day in Boston, I met a young fellow cleaning windows on Newbury Street. He seemed happy in his work. He looked healthy. He spoke well, perhaps better than most. It had been raining, and the spire light shining above as if floating, my sense of direction spoilt, so I asked him where Beacon Hill was. He pointed in the direction of Fenway Park. I already knew where Fenway Park was because I had been there just moments earlier. I admit, I visited that shrine before I even tried to find the original location of my ancient ancestor’s bookshop.
But with this fellow somewhat captured by his work, I thought he presented an opportunity, and I took it, despite still feeling anxious over finding the room where I was to stay for the next three months. I shifted the pack from my shoulders to the ground in a effort to make it clear I intended to pursue the matter.
I said, “I’m curious. Truly. Why did you give me those directions? It would have been as easy to help me as hurt me. One way you have made a friend, and the other you have lost it.”
He spoke in an even voice, displaying no added emotion, “You’re not my friend. You want good directions, go ask a friend.”
I said, “I’m a stranger here. I have no friends here. Not yet.”
He said, ”Then why’re you here? Go home.”
He was straight faced to the last.
His answer was not without merit. It was an insular attitude, surely. But consider the matter from his point of view. Boston was his home. I was an uninvited intruder. If I found the place to be unfriendly—as I had previously in Denver and San Francisco most especially, I might sooner leave and not come back. This was an ideal solution to his mind.
This point was made most clearly to me in Salt Lake City, but I hesitate to mention my short visit there at this point. Those incidents do not compare easily with any others and I should take my time in reconsidering them.
Since that day, I have thought again and again of the window washer and his attitude.
As posted on the door of this room, I am required daily to bring my garbage to a large receptacle at the back of the building in order to avoid attracting rodents and insect pests. Because I try to get a good start on each day, I have generally been up early—excepting the days when I was sick. On several mornings I met a truck there in the alley behind that was collecting the garbage and each time the same man stood at the side operating the device that lifted the refuse container and dumped it into the open maw at the rear of his vehicle. This was a youngish fellow about my own age and almost as tall, but a bit heavier. He wore a Red Sox baseball cap and a one piece gray work uniform well appointed by the anointments and misadventures of his work. I said hello to him the first day and cited the excellent quality of the weather, which was dismal. The humor did not alter his face. The second time I mentioned my undiluted pleasure at the quality of play on the field the previous evening at the ball game. Perez had taken a dangerous lead at first base, causing Robbins, the pitcher, to throw over three or four times and breaking the hurler’s concentration. Eddes hit the next pitch with every ounce of his two hundred and fifty pounds. The second baseman Caretti caught the line drive at least four feet over his head and before his feet touched the ground had shoveled the ball from his glove to Harman, the short stop covering second base, who then tagged out Perez, sliding in head long from first. I lost my breath at the sight of it and again just relating it out loud.
I said, “It was an incredible out. Harmon is the best short-stop I have ever seen play.”
The big fellow took his cap off and brushed sweat from his brow with his other hand as he nodded.
He said only, “He’s good.”
On my way home from the library yesterday I felt well enough to stop at a small convenience store at the foot of Beacon Hill for a snack to eat in my room. That same garbage collector was now behind the counter, dressed in a clean shirt.
I said hello and asked if this was his second job.
He stared at me a moment. I supposed he was trying to place my face before he answered.
The shop was empty. I took the opportunity.
“My name is Griffon Macdonald. I’m staying up on Pinckney Street there. Remember? I met you out back.” He did not respond so I kept talking. “I’m here doing some graduate studies. I don’t really know anyone. A familiar face is always good to see.”
He said, “Yeah.”
I reached for something else to say.
“This job must be a little more pleasant than working the garbage truck.”
He had not changed expression.
He said, “No. I like the truck. People don’t usually talk to me when I’m working the truck.”
This was definitive. My choices were reduced. I could shut up and leave. Or I could ignore the comment and get a little more aggressive with my questions.
I said, “I guess I was raised a little differently. I grew up on a farm. No new faces for weeks sometimes, and even then it would only be one of my cousins, or an uncle. A stranger was actually uncommon. I suppose I’ve always just liked talking to strangers.”
He took a larger box of candies from a shelf behind and broke it down, dividing small packets into a display directly in front of me. I waited.
With the box empty he held it in one hand and drummed the bottom with his fingers.
He said, “Where was that.”
I tried to take the strain from my voice.
“Bastiat. Below the Fold. On Mars.”
He squinted at me.
“You from Mars?”
“Yes. Born and raised.”
He drummed a little louder with his fingers before crushing the box in a single clap of his hands.
“My great grandfather died there in the New War.”
I took this to be an opening instead of simply an attempt to put me off.
I said, “I lost family in that war myself.”
He nodded. He had no expression, but his eyes were on me.
“Yeah. Well. That was then. Why are you here?”
I shrugged a bit.
“To study. I’m doing a little research.”
I could see that he was summing up what little he knew of me. There wasn’t much I could do to effect the outcome.
“Around here. Yes.”
“What are you researching?”
Was he was still looking for a way to get out of the conversation? The question was encouraging.
“How certain things started. How they changed. Why they changed.”
He shrugged back at me. Perhaps he was mimicking.
“Like the word Liberty. Or Freedom. They mean different things to different people.”
He shook his head.
“They’re just words.”
That was more of a comment than I expected.
“Maybe. Maybe that’s my problem.”
He tightened one fist on the crushed box and tossed it away to a place in the corner.
“It’s what people do that matters, isn’t it. Not the words.”
How was I going to present a thesis to my advisor if it was less than a paragraph long. Perhaps only a single sentence. But I agreed: It was what people did that mattered, not what they said.
This then was revolution on the smallest scale.
It has been said that a healthy society must reconceive itself every generation both physically and spiritually or succumb to the rippening fat of prosperity and then spoil. Jefferson was not the first or last to argue that. Success breeds assumptions of entitlement and anxiety over the possibility of loss—especially among those who have no idea how their prosperity was derived. The ripe quickly rots. Those who have not, will always want, and those who have, will always want to keep. If the social norm, or worse, the government, enforces some false status quo and preordained ‘equality,’ the stagnation of the natural human spirit is inevitable, on Mars as much as on Earth. Who would bother to give birth or nurture a child in such a world? What would be the point? Lacking the bouyancy of self worth in a sea of mediocrity offers little inspiration to either romance or procreation.
The falling population of the earth may be applauded by those imbued with the self hatred so common to the mediocre mind and pseudo intellectual, but it also produces a failure of infrastructure. Who will repair the road? Who will remove the garbage? Why attend to the rust?
What the Earth has been successful in achieving is a kind of status quo, not only by eliminating the high edge, but by turning it to proscribed work. I think of Sarah at Pocatello, or Mr. Downs here in Boston. Both clearly above average. Their keen sense and energy are necessary to maintain the rest.
I stopped in the same convenience shop again a few days ago to buy some kind of snack to eat while I worked on my notes. I had seen the big fellow with his garbage truck just that morning in the alley had greeted him and I said hello to him again as I passed the counter in the store, but I was still working on some kind of real opening. I was being stubborn about it. Some way, I was going to get him to talk to me.
When I returned from the aisles with my snacks, he placed them in a paper sack without a word.
I said, “Where in the war did your great grandfather die”
He tilted his head at me in an expression of mild dismay.
“You’re still at it, aren’t you?”
I smiled and said, “Yes.”
He shook his head at me like it was hopeless.
“I gotta close up. I can’t chat. It’s late.”
I said, “Sure.”
He walked around from behind the counter and opened the door for me to leave. I did, and then turned outside and looked back at him where he stood, still holding the door open as if suddenly unsure of his own action.
He paused half a second and then said, “You like beer, or do you only drink tonic?”
I said, “Good beer. I’d rather drink tonic than bad beer.”
He said, “Hold on. I’ll be out in a minute.”
It was a clear night. The streets had emptied a bit because of the hour, but I could have counted twenty people just on that short section of Charles Street.
When he had turned out the lights and locked the door he said only, “Come on.”
I followed but had to stay behind him on the narrow sidewalk as we passed other people. He walked quickly, limping on one leg which gave a slight bob to his gait. He lead me for only two blocks.
The bar he took me to was one I had already visited by myself. The beer was awful. I began to dread the experience ahead. But at least the ball game was on a screen above the bar. The Red Sox were playing the White Sox in Chicago.
He tapped the counter first for attention without sitting down, and then scanned the tables for a couple of open seats.
He said, “Stanley. Give me a pot.”
The bar tender filled a glass pitcher almost to the brim, wiping the foam off the top with the side of his hand to fit in a bit more and set that before us with two glasses.
My new friend said, “Grab a bowl’a nuts.”
I took one from a stack of ready bowls at the end of the bar. The big fellow was already nestled into a tight space by the door with his back to the wall and with an open chair across the table. It wasn’t the best seat in the house because of the door and people coming and going, but it was a nice night, and the air in the bar was a little thick, so I was glad of it.
As I settled he said, “My name is Eddy. . . . MacNamara.”
He stuck his open hand out to me and I shook it. He had said his name in two parts. It occurred to me that he had been reluctant to tell me his last name.
I said, “Griffon Macdonald,” and extended my hand to him.
His hand was stiff, offered quickly, and dropped.
“Yeah. You said.”
He poured the beer to the glasses without missing a drop. Then lifted his glass to me.
I answered, “Sox.”
This was not the beer I had left unfinished at the bar the first time I had come to this place. This was fresh beer. The way Laird Macdonald would make it.
He said, “What kind of teams do you have on Mars?”
That was a sore subject. Half the Mars teams were immigrants from Lagniappe and Ceres. Because the ball was heavier and softer and the bats lighter to compensate for the difference in gravity, a game on mars took on a very different aspect. Fly balls were usually caught, so it was more of an active ground game. What was lacking in athleticism was made up for in strategy.
“Nothing as good as this. They pretend they’re professionals. It’s fun to watch. They try hard. But nothing like this.”
He nodded with some deep satisfaction.
“I can believe that. This is the best team the Sox have had in twenty years. You came to Boston at the right time, boy. This is the best they’ve ever been.”
He was obviously taken with the fact of it. This was the kind of simple pride I could relate to.
I said. “The beer’s good too. How did you get this? I got a pint here once that made me queazy.”
He laughed. He licked a bit of foam from his lip and sucked it in like a kiss.
He said, “They don’t know you. They don’t serve the good stuff to strangers. They don’t want a bunch of tourists hanging around.”
Now, this was in keeping with the spirit of the window washer on Newbury Street who had told me to go home. Now I had a definite pattern of behavior to watch out for.
Eddy wanted to know all about Mars. That was my tradeoff then. I told him everything I could over the next couple of hours. The beer alone was worth more than that. He had played football in college and badly injured his knee. The knee worked now but not well enough to make a team. And I found out that his grandfather had actually died in taking Phobos, and not on Mars itself. I told him I had seen the monument there with the names of all who had fallen in that battle. I would look for the MacNamara name if I ever got the chance again.
“Tell me again why you’re here.”
I told him. He listened without interruption. When I had covered the basics he tilted his head down and looked across at me through a squint.
“That’s not going to work. You won’t find out a damn thing that way.”
“Who the hell is going to tell a stranger anything worth knowing? They’ll make something up to fit.”
“That’s the way it works. Isn’t it the same where you come from? Do people really talk to strangers there?”
“Sure. I did. I do now. It’s a way to learn. It how you make friends.”
He shook his head, drank his glass empty, and poured it full again.
“What does the Authority say to that?”
“We don’t have one.”
“Who runs the place?”
“I do. My father. My brothers. My mother. My friends. Their friends and fathers and mothers and their brothers and sisters—“
“Enough. Okay. I don’t know how you make that work, but it doesn’t work that way here. You know that, right. The Authority runs everything.”
“Even your shop. This Bar.”
“Everything. I run the shop according to their rules. Mostly..”
“But what does that have to do with not talking to strangers?”
“You never know if they might be working for the Authority. Right?”
“Maybe you see. Maybe you don’t. But that’s the way it is. And even if you are from Mars—and I think you’re telling me the truth at least on that score—what I tell you could end up with the Authority anyway. I don’t know what you’ll record of what I say. I don’t know what bargain you have with them. How did you get here? Why did they let you stay? They’ll have a reason for letting you do your questions. What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Now, that’s true. I believe that. You’re like a little kid. You think that because your mommy and daddy never lied to you, no one else will either.”
“You are saying I’m naive. And that’s right. I am. But I know it. I’m doing what I can to compensate for that.”
“Tell me your questions. Tell me some of the questions you’ve been asking.”
I told him a dozen before he waved me off.
“Forget it. You’re going back to Mars with less information than you came with. You studied us first, right? Questions like that’ll just get you a bunch of lies.”
“What would you ask instead?”
“I’d drop the questions and just watch. Use your eyes. It’s what people do that matters. Not what they say.”
“I only have a few weeks. A couple of months at most, even if they let me stay over my original request.”
“Then give it up now and enjoy the vacation. You aren’t going to learn anything they don’t want you to know. When you get back, make up what suits you and be done with it. Tell them what they want to hear and get a good grade and move on.”
“What suits me is to know the truth. I want to know why people still believe in slavery.”
“Well, I can tell you that. That’s no mystery.”
“Because they like being slaves themselves. It suits them. It’s comfortable. They know what’s expected. It’s easy.”
Not that the thought was original, but that it was coming from this fellow who picked up garbage and ran a convenience store for a living and that this was being told to me in a bar, with the Red Sox playing on the screen above us, and that I knew he was right as soon as he said it that had my jaw open.
“What else? Tell me more about that.”
Eddy looked at me skeptically.
“What more? That’s the way it is. They want the authority to take care of them.”
“What about you?”
“I don’t have much choice, do I? Go along to get along.”
“But you have your own business. Why?”
“I don’t know. It’s a feeling. I stay inside the lines. But I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder. My partner does the early shift. He’s a good guy. That’s the way it works. . . . Now, I gotta go. I gotta get up early to collect your garbage.”
# August 28, 2267; beer dialogues
Last night I waited again until shortly before the library closed to make my journey. I found Eddy already locking the door and made a mime of drinking a beer and he nodded at me through the glass and met me a short time later at the tavern.
There were no tables so we sat at the bar.
“You’ve gotta talk to someone else than me or they won’t take you survey seriously. How about if I give you a couple of other names.”
“I’ve spoken with over a hundred people. But maybe you’re right. Maybe I could call you ‘Dan.’ “
“That’s my uncle’s name. He’s dead, so I think I can speak for him without hurting his feelings.”
“What did Dan do.”
“He was a jack. He worked up in New Hampshire and Maine cutting timber.”
“How did he die?”
“It’s that kind of job.”
“He might have cut the wood they used to make my desk at home.”
“The dome where I grew up is lined with wood.”
“I’ve heard it’s expensive out there. Dan told me that you guys will pay anything for it. Like its gold. Is your family rich?”
“Yes. In a way. Not a lot of money, but a good farm and Dad always worked a couple of jobs, like you do.”
“What else did he do?”
“He’s in the council. In the Senate.”
“You mean, he’s in the government? What’s he do there?”
“It’s an elected Council. He represents our area. Mostly other farmers.”
“When you get out of school, is that what you’re going to do?”
“No. I haven’t decided.”
“You’ve got to be rich then.
On another evening Eddy asked me about my religion. I told him, I have none.
He asked, “What do you value then?”
I was surprised. It was such a good question and not one often related to religion, which is usually a set of rules.
“Civilization.” I told him, knowing he would dismiss this as too grand.
“Like Ibrim Azra?”
And with that I finally grasped the simple truth that by friend was more than I knew.
“Are you a follower?”
His face twisted with disbelief.
“No! I have a friend—my partner, he is a believer. Moslems make good business partners..”
It is supposed that the Azrain Ideals of good citizenship—honesty, curiosity, patience, persistence, amity, kindness, generosity, melioration, and husbandry are the opposite of the more familiar nine sins we all commit. But Ibrim Azra did not offer a corresponding nine sins of bad citizenship as opposites, or even because they are exclusive or unique, but because they so closely parallel so many of the problems common to a society of human beings. And even among the sins, there is the obvious interrelationship of one to the other. As he reasoned, what differentiates them is that they can each be committed separately without the others–obeisance, fear, enmity, jealousy, laziness, apathy, negligence, arrogance, and dogmatism, while the ideals were necessarily and inexorably linked.
Every citizen will commit one or another in the course of time. None precludes another. Yet, what I find most fascinating is that the opposite of each sin is not a single quality of goodness, but numerous virtues which are more complex than the vices. It is this interweaving which makes the thread so strong. And on that thread, civilization hangs.
For instance, it may be argued that ignorance should be a sin, but clearly, our ignorance is the greater part of any of us. One cannot know all that we might in order to act correctly. But we must act. Indifference to knowledge is the sin in such a case.
We may never know all of the best that we are capable of, but we can more easily identify the worst. Unlike his own first teacher Husayn Ali Nuri, the Baha u llah, Ibrim Azra did not seek a divine ordinance for human action. As he often stated, he was not a believer, he was a seeker, an inquirer, a mere quidnunc. His key addition to those more often recognized sins of civilized society was obeisance. In that, Ibrim Azra was actually a disciple of Thoreau. He tried to live his life beyond the hand of government, not because government was necessarily evil, as some believe, but because in his own time, government was evil.
The twenty-first century still reeks at our noses, as that corpse is buried in a shallow grave. Reading the excuses of the citizen of that time, always justifying their own actions by some convenient comparison to the atrocities of the previous century, brings a gag to anyone aware of their perfidy. Yet out of those killing fields, some good did survive. It is yet a greater irony that the original military aims of space exploration were to become the escape hatch for renewed civilization.
I hope I managed to explain some of this to Eddy without seeming too pedantic. He listened attentively enough. His questions were few but to the point. He is not afraid to reveal his own ignorance—a sort of Azrian Ideal in itself. And I did not want to appear too eager in my own knowledge. He simply wanted to know what a quidnunc was after I had used that to describe myself. The answer led to another question, and the gate was opened and the bulls were loose on the street. The beer was most effective lubricant for that.
He always drank two beers to my one, and was always the more sober.
“Mr. Quidnunc. Why not leave us alone. Hasn’t there been enough misery in all the wars. Things are not perfect. But we have a little peace. Things are ok. They’re alright, aren’t they? Why stick you nose into our business.”
Hadn’t I just explained the need for curiosity?
“Because we are not all right. On Mars, we are not ok. And I am determined to know why? And besides, I must reject your assertion that things here on earth are ok. I don’t see a lot of happy people here. You are correct, that it’s not my business to interfere, but I cannot help but wonder if your own unhappiness grows from the same root as our troubles on Mars.”
He studies the residue on his emptied glass as if it were a manuscript.
“Mr. Quidnunc. You can’t change things. Things are what they are. You’ve got to live with that much, or you’ll go crazy.”
I pleaded my case further. “That’s not my nature. That leads to obeisance. That’s not the nature of any Martian I know. Quidnunc. What now? That’s my motto, if I have any.”
A baseball game droned a theme of inevitable loss from the screen above our heads.
Eddy poured from a fresh pitcher.
“Mr. Quidnunc. Have you ever been in a fight?”
I said, “A few.” My high school years had been difficult.
He asked, “You ever win?”
I admitted, “Sometimes.”
Eddy had his purpose set.
“You’ve lost then. And when you lost, how did you feel after.”
In fact, “Stupid.”
Eddy laughed, “Stupid? That’s not exactly the answer I was going for. I’ve lost more than a few fights in my day. I spent a week in rehab for breaking a guy’s jaw. I know about loosing. And I know about winning. And what I know is you don’t fight unless you think you can win.”
I tried to explain. “I guess I felt stupid for the same reason. I should have picked my fights more carefully. But usually, they picked me. I had no options. But I’m not here to fight anybody. This is your world, Eddy. It’s yours to fight for. I am only here now to find out how to fight for my own home, so that I don’t lose it.”
Eddy rested back with that. There is an old word—rumination—and I swear it looked to me as if he was chewing on what I had said. I waited, pretending to watch the game. I wondered what he would say.
In a moment, I heard a sigh. Some sort of resignation. “That’s very neat. And then you can take your knowledge home with you and leave us to stew in our own pot.”
And then it occurred to me that perhaps another virtue was needed by old Ibrim Azra. Bravery. And I wondered if I was brave enough.
“I can’t apologize for my ignorance. There is too much of it. I’m trying to solve just one puzzle. It has a lot of pieces. I don’t even know if I am smart enough for it yrt.”
And then Eddy spoke that word.
“You’re brave enough, I think. You seem smart enough to me. I hope you make it.”
And I was chastened by his compliment—-burned by the heat of it. Because I knew I was not that good.
But I must apologize. I was at least profligate, if not drunk. The beer was indeed that good. I simply drank more of it than I should. I awoke this morning in a stupor. I didn’t lose a day, so much as accomplish less than I hoped. And I fell asleep this morning at the table in the library. Mr. Downs was kind enough to wake me there. Thankfully, I do not snore. And then I thought I might have discovered a tenth sin to add to the nine—to balance out my addition of bravery. May old Ibrim forgive me my hubris. But I think profligacy might belong to that bad company of sins.
When did the philosopher first comprehend, that in the machine was our undoing? That, as certainly as it was the making of our kind, the machine would destroy us.
Not with the very plow, perhaps. The farmer might contemplate many things of essential importance, but did he know immediately what traitor there might be in that upturned plane as it parted the earth for seed. Yet, the ox might have soon foreseen the calamity of it, if the fly had let him be long enough to think. Or think not.
Certainly it is not fatuous to consider, with the enslavement of the ox, that the entire realm of bondage opened itself to the eye of those earliest thinkers. As they appreciated the glory of a summer afternoon spent clothed in their own sweat, they might have calculated the acres that could be turned if a stronger beast could be enslaved to the task. And if not a stronger beast, at least a larger number than one alone. And invention was thus born again, as was the plough hyperbolized from the simple ard.
So we might blame the farmer for the first slavery, and the plow, that most elemental machine.
Where does such thinking end?
We have reached this present through the enslavement of many billions of other beasts as well as that beast of burden we have too often made of humankind itself. How is this habit turned around? To start again and resign ourselves to the bounty that only nature allows us? To once more make of ourselves a mere helpless particle in the chemistry of nature. That is indeed fatuous. Even the crow would not abdicate its rule to the sparrow. The philosopher must argue from the shelter of the porch built by the carpenter, sitting in the chair made by the joiner, eating from the bowl fashioned by the potter, chewing on the bread made by the cook, clothed in fashion sewn by the seamstress, playing with words hewn from the noise of idiots to makes thoughts that might define the limits of what we might do as much as what has been done. That is the case.
Back again. What is to be done? Should we now turn ourselves all into slaves to the machine? Childred of the Noid? That has been tried. It is an ugly fate. The machine knows no mercy. The computer must reduce all to the matter of the simplest number or to the absence of that. Machines may reason but do not calculate compassion any better than they do passion; they will not know love or reckon hate, do not tally the value of delight, or weigh beauty. To teach a machine some philosophy is to fix it with the ignorance of a single moment. Those societies who have attempted to remedy the vagaries of human judgment by the use of the plow have suffered the consequences.
We are human. We have some choices to make. We have some choice in our fate. What those choices are is the subject of all philosophy.
And what choices we have had, good or bad, were made in our own interests, and not for the ox. If you think that is cruel, then strip yourself to the skin and live in the forest alone. Alone, lest you impose upon the interests of another naked fool who wants the berries you espy, or prefers the cave you found first, or might pee in the water you want to drink. And when the big cat comes, don’t complain at that animal’s choice of meat.
The question is, again, how do we fashion a human society without slavery. It is a harder nut to crack than first we supposed. As Mr. Jefferson knew.
I was speaking to Alexis on that evening, still dumb with four beers, and arguing one of the genetic problems inherent to Mr. Popper’s conception of an open society. Is there any doubt that freedom usually results in prosperity? Has there, in the history of mankind, been a long and prosperous dictatorship? Even oligarchies quickly fail. The prosperous kingdoms of the medieval period were only relatively so compared to others in their time, the product of benign rule, and always those most free of religious oversight. But the greater majority of the populations of those times lived is a state of seasonal suspense where a draught might result in starvation, an arbitrary royal quarrel might take the sons of the family to war, the lord might take a daughter at will, and the plague might take the rest.
My Frenchman has said, “In ages of faith, the final aim of life is placed beyond life.”
I wondered out loud to the walls of my room, “Is property then a curse because it diverts the spiritual eye?”
Alexis said, “If men ever came to be content with physical things only, it seems likely that they would gradually lose the art of producing them and would end up by enjoying them without discernment and without improvement, like other animals.”
I saw a thread of a more subtle color in that piece of cloth which was as tightly bound in that fabric as the premise itself. Isn’t that the essence of so many sage warnings against materialism.
I have set just such a thought into my mix with one of the forty-eight questions of my thesis survey and used it whenever appropriate. Question number 36 is now, ‘Are you ever concerned that your material comfort is achieved by sacrificing too much of your personal liberty?’
Alexis was not concerned in this direction, but I was. His was a spiritual conundrum. Most essentially he saw the need of faith in a life after death to justify action in this life. He was a religious man, after all, in a religious age. I was not about to question his faith. That would get me nothing. I had to address the historical nature of his proposition.
Alexis said, “That is why religious nations have often accomplished such lasting achievements.”
I countered, “More often it is an absolute faith in an Emperium that allows men to do the awful in the name of God.”
That was too close to blasphemy. He was quiet.
I tried again, “It was not a faith in God that encouraged the European to conquer America. It was simple greed. Proselytizing was an afterthought, only an excuse for their actions. They were in the pursuit of wealth in an age, wholly proscribed by religion and doctrine, when wealth was believed to be a sum zero game. It was not created. It was taken. In wealth there was power. And the only sure danger to a King was another King. In an age of conquest, when those nations who were not engaged in subjugation themselves were in real danger of being vanquished, Kings turned their might toward the weak rather than waste fortunes against their equals. Spain could not bear the loss of another Armada. Cortes had taken possession of the gold of the Aztecs with only a few hundred men and set a bad example for his contemporaries. Faith became an excuse for the morally inexcusable, a spiritual deferment for their existential desire, and the priests came along for the ride. It was the priest’s job to justify the theft in the eyes of a God of inconstant mercy. The conversion of the Aztec was through a very material revelation—-at the point of a blunderbuss. And all that was being done even while the Navaho conquered the Hopi and the Iroquois subjugated the Delaware, so there was little difference of opinion among the nations, only an argument of size and power.
“Isn’t it noteworthy that final success came not with Galleons and swords and cannon but to merchants. The Dutch bought cheaply what their former masters, the Hapsburgs, had purchased dearly in both blood and gold. While the Spanish were stealing souls, the Dutch were buying land. What had greater value in the long term. Manhattan was the center of the human universe for two hundred years after Spain had fallen to ruin.
“Now, all I am saying to you Alexis, is that the faith of the Aztec was as true as the faith of the Conquistador. Neither dogma mattered in the end. I have no idea whether Kit Carson was a true Catholic or not, only that he served a different master and a very different creed. The mighty Navaho fell to a little army fueled by business—-business mind you, that was already occupied with a much larger civil war—But you were already severely dead by then and didn’t have time to comment. I am sorry. So take instead the work of that rascally Englishman Johnson who subdued the Iroquois so that the Dutch patroons might be safe in their manor houses.”
Alexis quieted me with agreement, “I know nothing more opposed to revolutionary morality than the moral standards of traders. Trade is the natural enemy of all violent passions. Trade loves moderation, delights in compromise, and is most careful to avoid danger. It is patient, supple, and insinuating, only resorting to extreme measures in cases of absolute necessity. Trade makes men independent of one another and gives them a high idea of their personal importance; it leads them to want to manage their own affairs and teaches them how to succeed therein. Hence it makes them inclined to liberty but disinclined to revolution.”
So I protested this too! I would not take yes for an answer lest the conversation be over.
“But you once said ‘Can it be believed that the democracy which has overthrown the feudal system and vanquished kings will retreat before tradesmen and capitalists.’”
He shook his head at me with disapproval.
“You are finding your meaning in the translation and not my intent. What I said was ‘Does anyone imagine that democracy, which has destroyed the feudal system and vanquished kings, will fall back before the middle classes and the rich.’ Quite a difference. You must appreciate how a text can be ‘translated’ to another political purpose. I am not condemning the economic success and achievement of individuals. On the contrary, I am pointing out the opposite: that the success of the middle class and the rise of wealth achieved by intelligence and sweat is no threat to the greatest power in history.”
On this we agreed completely. My argument was done. It was only in the matter of faith that we were at odds, and I was not really prepared to question my hero’s religion.
Later I thought of better things to say in return, but he had left me. And then I had that thought again to ask, where does he go? I addressed this issue out loud as well. You never know when an answer might come unless you invest some effort.
I said, “If you are afraid to confront the matter, then I will speak to Thoreau. He’ll come to almost any issue.”
It was a false threat. I fell asleep to the quiet.
But my conversations have resulted in another friend.
I had met my downstairs neighbor several times on the stairs before actually speaking to him. His is a large and lanky figure in the poor light of the hall, As tall as I am, but bulkier with muscle and healthier, taking two steps at a time in his stride. He seemed a forbidding and sullen man to me at first, and not as young as he actually was. He appeared to be always distracted by something and not so much unfriendly as uninterested. A couple of weeks had passed before he actually answered my greetings. The sudden break of his baritone voice on the narrow stairs the first time shocked me. He introduced himself then, sticking his hand out in a way that could not be avoided.
He said, “I am sorry. I’ve been meaning to introduce myself. But with the way people come and go here, I wasn’t sure you were staying.”
I told him I was there for at least three months minus a couple of weeks. He asked me where I was from, and I told him. His response was enthusiastic.
“I’ve always wanted to go there. I’d love to know what it’s really like. I’ve heard the woman are all pretty.”
He laughed at his own words. My only defense was to confirm it.
I said, “Where did you hear that? I thought we were keeping it a secret.”
He admitted his source in a lower voice. Now, in a sudden reversal, I thought he looked too young for his answer.
“In the Service.”
I asked, “Where were you stationed?”
Of course, That could have meant any one of a thousand places, but there has been much in the news about one place Africa over the past two years. I had to ask.
His voice lowered further.
I stepped too far with my curiosity.
“Were you there because of the revolt?”
He looked at me a moment more. He was clearly uncomfortable with the subject.
“Yes. What did you hear about it? We were told that was our own big secret.”
I had not really followed the story as it was retold by the newscasters in Lagniappe, but I could not have avoided the many replays of the taking of the Kanem general, Hasem. Martians can to be fascinated by news from Earth, like Royal subjects titillated by the farcical antics of their King. I ignore it as a rule, but had taken more interest as my own expedition to Earth grew near.
“The ‘Kanem,’ . . . that was their name, right? They were in fairly constant contact with Lagniappe. The pictures were carried on most of the networks. They had some means of transmitting to Lagniappe, but I don’t know how. At the end, when they were reduced to radio broadcasts alone, we heard too much. I think everyone has heard those final moments. When General Hasem was shot, I think everyone was pretty much stunned. We all thought there was a truce and there was some curiosity about how the U. N. would negotiate the matter. Those last sounds are difficult to forget.”
All friendliness had left his face, his posture stiffened. The youth was gone again. His voice lowered to a whisper.
“I was there . . . I saw it.”
I said what first occurred to me.
He nodded a little too emphatically.
He turned upward on the stairs to his room, just below mine.
I said, “I’d love to have a beer sometime and just talk. I’m always in need of some good conversation.”
His smile returned.
“I bet. I hear you in your room. Sounds like you’re desperate enough for company to talk to yourself.”
I was embarrassed for what I might have said.
“Sorry if I’m loud. It’s a habit. In any case, I’ve found a good place for a beer just down the street. I’m serious. Anytime you feel like it. Just knock on my door.”
He knocked the next evening soon after I returned.
At the tavern, there was a game on the telly between Boston and New York and all the stools were taken so we grabbed the darts and went to the board in the back. It was quieter there in any case.
He asked me what I was studying. I explained as best I could. Then I explained the reason for my expedition. He did not seem interested.
He said, “It’s all the same, isn’t it. What’s the difference? No. Don’t answer that. I gave up on politics a long time ago.”
He placed all his darts in doubles. I went high and missed with all of mine. On the next round I hit a couple of singles. It went like that until he had won twelve games in a row on me and we had finished a couple of beers each.
I was not about to control my overcompensation with the darts, perhaps because I had become quite a bit stronger than I realized. So I asked him my survey question number one. I even told him that was what it was.
He said, “You expect people to give you an honest answer to that? Come on. Do you really expect an honest answer out of anyone for anything?”
His quick dismissal of my premise made me more defensive than my inability to compensate for the weight of the darts. It wasn’t so much the criticism inherent in his comment as the implied cynicism.
I said, “No. Not right off. Not without a reason. I try to give them a reason to be. Sometimes after a little bit they go back to the first answers they gave me and correct them. People want to tell the truth. They just need a good excuse.”
His attitude seemed a bit studied. I imagine that there was a habit to it formed while in the service.
He said. “Like what? What’s more important to most people than stuffing food in their faces and sleeping in a soft bed. No one is going to really risk their comfort to answer your questions. Not honestly.”
I shrugged. I was going to avoid argument if I could. I softened my objection.
“I think you’re wrong about that.”
He said, “Give me a reason?”
I had several.
“Perhaps, just because they’ve thought so often about it and never been able to tell anyone else before. Most people keep too much to themselves. Wanting to communicate it to another person—someone willing to listen—is just human nature. Isn’t it? Just part of defining yourself apart.”
He shook his head at me like he was stung.
“You mean that? You think people waste their time thinking about liberty? If you ask the average person what they think of their freedom, they’ll ask you ‘which one?’ They have no idea.”
He was right about that. It was a common response. I was surprised he knew it.
“I’m learning that too. But I work around it. I ask the same question several different ways sometimes. I ask them if there is something they always wanted to do, that they’ve never done. Then I ask them why they haven’t. I follow the thought along like that.”
He was clearly disturbed by the very idea of it. Like Eddy, he drank his beer in long drafts to my mere swallows. I let him speak.
“What? That’s not the way people are trained. They’re told just the opposite from the time they can listen. You don’t understand. As soon as you can talk they have you repeating the same stuff everyone else says. You say something different and you get ‘special time.’ You don’t do that again or else you’ll never get outside the door.”
I was expecting some objection of that sort.
I said, “Then why are you different? Why do you have thoughts like that?”
He threw a dart and missed the board.
I didn’t push the matter. If he took me into his confidence, it would have to be in his own good time. SoI asked him if he had ever played baseball. It was just a guess off of the way he tossed the darts overhand, but I was right.
“Yeah. That’s what I always wanted to do. I wanted to play ball. But I wasn’t good enough. How about yourself. What have you always wanted to do?”
Of course, I was doing it. But I couldn’t tell him that.
# August 29, 2267; the Aleph
What is a library then? Just a prison for a books, perhaps? A Museum of words? A shrine to typography? A tool. A depository. A fortress. A morgue. A sanctuary. A stage. A playground.
My father’s library is the long room at the center of our home. The perimeter of the house follows the curve at the northern edge of the dome for about thirty yards, and the library at its core must be at least half that in length but not more than twelve feet across, though I have never thought to measure it. The high ceiling of that trough of wisdom and imagination is the glass of the dome itself, illuminated from above by the day, or the glow of the mirrors at night. Sitting there at my desk, I often dreamed. Head back, I could watch a storm rage against the web of the meninx, and suppose a war in the churn of the clouds or a tempest on an earthly ocean as I clung to the wooden ship of my desk. In good weather, the marglass might shimmer like gossamer and I might see earthly delights beneath a martian sun.
When I was eight or nine I asked my father why he had not built a separate structure for the library so that we might have windows on every side. As he often did, he asked me to answer my own question.
I said, “Because it’s closer, here.”
He gave me the quick nod, his lips pressed as they do, in his usual sign of acceptance.
“Exactly. This place is the closest room to any other in our home. This is your home.”
That was the way we were raised to think. It was the first place I looked when seeking one of my brothers. It was where my mother would call us to dinner. The library was where my greatest and loudest arguments were staged. It was where I did my homework and wrote my first love letter. But still, I think of it as my father’s library.
It was in those precincts that I became the “jewboy.” This was the beginning of everything. The aleph to my inner lives.
Harvard University is said to have the largest library in the United Stated outside of the Federal District. I was not impressed. My guess on first sight was that it might at most be one quarter of the size of Drummond Library at the university in Bastiat. Ninety percent of Harvard’s holding are on the vid. Only one hundred thousand volumes are on carboline paper facsimile. But then I must remember, it must have been greatly reduced at that dire moment in the past when the school was destroyed and all of this was reconstituted in just the last one hundred years. There is no true archive, and I spent less than an hour there on my visit.
Boston University library is twice as large in physical size and only a bit smaller by the number of physical titles, but still equally useless. There the plan of large open spaces is meant to widen perspectives, I suppose, but instead this exaggerates the emptiness of the place. Again, what passes there for archive is little more than the material set aside due to underuse. But there is no sense here of the loss they have suffered.
The periodic book burnings during the 21st century are addressed in most history texts—even those authorized by the Authority, though the perspectives are reversed. Peterson’s comparison between the burning of books and the burning of witches in the seventeenth century is my favorite in this regard.
Those people might now be excused for the tragedy of their ignorance and the destruction of their heritage, but I will not forgive them the government they chose by popular election to carry out the deed rather than quell foolish fears. I can only wince at the loss of rare texts and the obliterated geist of unusual minds not copied into other means in time to be saved. As if two lives were lost in one murder.
I am reminded of the paper my brother John wrote on the eccentric William James Sidis, a collector of street car tickets and naïve genius who was apparently unable to comprehend the most simple joys of life. His work was rediscovered by accident in a lot of smoldering refuse following one of the early purges. Without the work of Sidis there would never have been a Margaret Chin. And without her, would Joe Trees have been otherwise inspired? How many others like the odd Sidis have been lost to our future?
It is less commonly understood that the burning might never have happened had not reading itself fallen on such bad times. The physical book had become an artifact as the use of the primitive vid had grown. And it is difficult to avoid the simple fact that eliminating most printed paper sources gave political powers free reign to change texts in any way they chose. But the predicate for the burning, fear of germs being carried by books, is only slightly less absurd than many other beliefs of that moment. The people of that time worshiped a cruel and capricious god and they were given to praying for personal favors. Religious fanatics went so far as to blow themselves up simply to cause harm to their enemies. Some even performed self-immolations on the steps of libraries that refused to reduce their holdings. I have seen photocopies of ‘newspapers,’ unbound printed sheets charged with the task of recording the facts of the time, which also carried ‘Horoscopes,’ the idea that personal destiny was determined by the movement of the stars, and encountered many articles there purporting a ‘belief’ in other odd theories of the moment as if they were scientific fact. There was even a general dogma that the slow changes of planetary climate—what they once called ‘global warming’ and then ‘global cooling’ with equal measures of fear, were caused by meager activity of civilization rather than the natural cycles of a nearly omnipotent sun.
Should not the citizen be held responsible for harboring such insanity—those who voted for politicians promising to control the wind and the rain and danced to the glimmer of burning books—a conjured image that I can now imagine reflected in their eyes in that crepuscular moment.
Upon consideration, I think that libraries here on earth are more funeral parlor than playground, with space for the mourners to sit in some token show of respect before leaving as soon as possible. The body has already been cremated and the ashes placed on center table in a bright urn surrounded by flowers. The ‘librarian’ is an undertaker who makes sure that each visitor signs the guest book.
On my third day in Boston, I paid my homage to that lost heritage, and visited the museum attached to the Boston Public Library.
This is a grand building, a surviving relic of an even larger structure; a granite mausoleum on a stone bier, once built by a people who obviously cared about the architecture of their intellectual legacy as well as the books. However the architecture seems odd to me, it must have fit that long ago moment. In any case, there was no hesitation apparent in its purpose or in that bygone age when books were revered.
From the too splendid light of a high blue sky I left a summer day through decorative brass doors and my eyes lost sight in the sudden darkening. The air cooled to a near dankness. I stopped there in the small and lowered entry beside a guard who tagged my vid as I asked if there was any sort of catalogue to what was inside. She directed me to the second floor. For a moment I hesitated against smells of bread and coffee. I had foolishly anticipated the smell of books. Instead, somewhere close by, there was a place to feed the stomach. The guard pointed again to the stairs.
That passage upward was alone worth my day. My eyes adjusted just as the ceiling gave way above the stairs. Here was an extravagance of multicolored marble piers and pilasters, broad steps turned in two directions around engraved pedestals beneath stone lions and engraved plaques honoring the names of ancient battle grounds. Alabaster bowls suspended from the heights sequestered lights to illuminating ceilings and walls decorated in gold leaf and illustrated with elaborate cartoons. My breath was taken—not stolen, but given willingly. But there was not a book in sight.
It was clear enough that there was no intention of shelves in this threshold. It was meant as gateway only, to wet the spirit for an emersion of the intellect into a world of words.
On the second floor the echo of my own steps made me look for another person. The hall there was empty except for the shadows of fabulous mural illustrations on the walls. Nearby, a women at a desk looked up from her nap, but did not speak. I stopped to ask directions.
I said my thought out loud. “I don’t see any books.”
She apologized as if automatically.
“This is the museum. If you are in need a book, you must go down stairs, turn to your left, and left again down the hall to the library. They can help you there. This is only the museum. All we have here are facsimiles on display in the old reading room.”
She pointed behind. I turned in the direction of her hand, through wide wooden doors large enough for a Cerean.
There, the open length and breadth of a grand all was suddenly before me—an indoor field raised to the surface of half a hundred broad oak reading tables—-the entire space perhaps a tenth of the size of the old Aerie Dome. Here was an even more contrary sense of internal architecture—-of dampered light and opened thought. It was easy to imagine the time when this great room had been the heart of the atheneum. Now, half a dozen people occupied the hundreds of chairs which once would have been jealously waited for. Towering windows at one side of the hall arose perhaps fifty feet to arches in support of the ceiling. As if embarrassed by their own size, the windows were made to appear smaller by the inclusion of thick black muntins. Above, the scale of the clear expanse of the ceiling was visually reduced by enormous plaster-cast rosettes, each set against the shadowed relief of a continuous pattern of squares, again altering the perspective as if afraid of its own height. This contradiction to the actual size of the room confused me. I wondered what the architects had feared? Was it a just a joke? Was their pleasure being taken in the visual reduction of what was inherently awesome? Wasn’t this a place for the mind to soar, and the eye to wonder and rest from the near focus of words on a page?
The lower walls were lined in shelves of darker oak and filled with the gray-brown spines of facsimiles. As these were uncatalogued and meant for show alone, I pulled one down at random to look. It was a novel of the late twenty-first century that I was unfamiliar with. The volume was so pristine I thought it might never have been opened, but as I turned a few pages, the smell of rotting carbolene reached my nose. As new as it was, the artificial paper was already disintegrating. I pushed it back into place like a corpse into a catacomb shelf.
Still, after all the years, I thought the true smell of books which I knew so well from home must linger somewhere here—in some nook or cranny. My father’s library has thousands of volumes rescued from the Earth before the holocaust and that peculiar odor of a few old pages held open to my nose was a perfume I had often savored from my earliest memories. I had lain with books as a lover long before I had any knowledge of something else. I imagine, here, that the scent of paerhaps a million books had once flowed and ebbed on a tide of human inquiry—the aroma, mixed with the smell of oiled wood, cooled and condensed against the marble floors, arising again around the warmth and illuminating incandescent glow of milky glass orbs set in brass bowls, and drifting about the green shaded lights at the tables, and there stirred by the brush of woolen sleeves on the arms of readers lost in a greed for words.
Oh, what might it have been like to be a child here? I would have come every day, if only to clamber the ledges of stone where crouching marble lions guarded the great inner stairway, the vast spaces hushing the echoes of my own feet. I would have been made church-reverent by the dim illumination of the large and mysterious globes of light on their darkened brass pedestals. I would have traced with my fingers over every name of the Civil War battles won by the Massachusetts Volunteers and the Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry: Balls Bluff, Mary’s Heights, Bristoe Station, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, Gettysburg–all proudly honored there.
The murals on the walls were fabulous cartoons, larger than life recreations of stories I could only guess at. The signatures of Sargent and Abbey and Chavannes meant little to me. But I could have quickly found them in the books! I was reminded of my discovery as a boy of eight, when I first began to look for the name of the publisher ‘Scribner’ in my father’s library to be sure of finding wonderous illustrations by artists like Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth. I then read the books just to find explanations for those illustrations long before I could truly appreciate the art of the prose.
The artwork here had darkened and faded from three centuries of confinement—heroic figures imprisoned by these walls as surely than the Count of Monte Cristo. The greens and yellows and blues were subdued by time and neglect. But even more disturbing, when I entered the building, was that first smell of food. Somewhere near, a room which had once held nourishment for the mind and soul now offered sandwiches and coffee. A restaurant had taken the place of books. And worse still, that pernicious smell of food might have finally overwhelmed the last fragrance of glue and binding and paper and even the strongest potion of ink. I could smell the pastry and burnt soup even there in the great vessel of that great Hall.
Why was the world I sought, the one I might care for, so deliberately destroyed?
My eyes fell from the rosettes above to a familiar shape at a table nearby. There, Mr. Downs reclined at odds with the angle of the chair beneath him. He rested a book upright on the surface of wood with his face nosed closely to the pages as if hiding in some mock fashion. Was there some farce in that act? I thought to ignore him, and then reconsidered. There must be good humor in his act.
I asked, “Is this an accident?”
The question made him smile as he looked up.
“They say most accidents happen in the home.”
I sat down. I had not expected whimsey from this man.
“Why were you looking for me?”
“It’s my job.”
This answer just as suddenly brought a new thought, but I hesitated in an effort to give it a frame of its own importance.
“And do you like your work?”
He answered quickly, as if he already knew what I would ask.
He wasn’t going to offer me any easy material.
“What exactly do you like about it?”
He kept the book, which he had probably chosen at random, just as I had moments before, upright and open in front of him. The title of the book was ‘Impatience.’ This seemed like good warning to me.
He said, “I occasionally meet interesting people.”
Was this an implied compliment or a baiting to draw out an immodest sense of my own worth? Instead I leaned forward with some real enthusiasm at the opportunity.
“Tell me, who is the most interesting person you have ever met?”
Now he hesitated. I think he genuinely considered the thought for just that moment, but his dark eyes revealed nothing. His face remained mildly amused.
I could not have been more startled by the answer. I’m sure my mouth was open for more than a breath. I could not let this trail be lost.
“Is there one quality your wife has that you place above all others.”
Clearly, he had contemplated such a thought.
“Her curiosity. She is always in a state of wonderment and curiosity. Most people loose that by the time they are out of school.”
I thought that the stiffened features of his face had finally softened with his admission. Or was that my own imagination once again?
“Where did you meet her?”
He shifted in his chair enough to consider the question. I imagined his mind working over the possible reasons for my pursuit of such information.
“At college. In New Haven. Now let me ask you a question. Why did you want to know?”
I knew the answer to that very well.
“Because, until just this moment, I was not sure you had enough human qualities for me to truly respect. You are in charge of my freedoms here. The sum of my liberty is at your discretion. If I have some respect for you, it will be easier to work within the confines that you dictate.”
Had I been too brash with that answer? I was hoping to achieve some measure of respect in return.
He lowered the book without closing it.
“Why do you talk like that? Not just the words you use, but the implications. I’m not doing some arbitrary job. I am doing the job I was given to do.”
Was the blush of amusement still there in his eyes? I shook my head at him.
“Without discretion? No. We both know the manual is not so thick. They never are. You’ve been trained to your task. You know what needs to be accomplished. You must generally agree with the purpose. But the way you carry out your job is, to some large degree, of your own choosing. Am I wrong?”
He expressed his real answer with a flinch of an eyebrow.
“Is it a part of your study to interrogate your custodian?“
“Is that how you see your job? As a custodian?”
Now he smiled again.
“It’s the word used in the ‘manual’ as you call it. You know, we are not called ‘watchers’ officially. That’s just the popular word. Officially, we are custodians. What that means is that I am responsible for your actions while you are in my care. If you do something egregious, I suffer as well as you. You get to go back to your small world. I must face the consequences here. Do you understand?”
This was not delivered as a complaint. The voice was not only calm but considered.
I said, “Yes. I think I do.”
He actually nodded at that. He closed the book.
“Some years ago I was given the responsibility of a young fellow not much older than yourself. He got into a bit of trouble. In fact, he ran away. It was weeks before we found his body. Some faction or another had gotten hold of him. They actually tortured him. God knows why. He had nothing to reveal. For sport, perhaps. He was a biologist. From Lagniappe.”
Mr. Downs was studying my own response to this.
I asked, “What happened to you as a consequence?”
“Well. That’s a closed subject. Just accept the fact that I lost a great deal as a result of my foolishness. I had given the young fellow a bit to much leeway. He liked the girls. He liked the nightlife. And, I should say, my wife suffered the consequences as well, and I won’t have that happened again if I can help it.”
Whatever reason he had for telling me this, I knew his motive could not be any more important to me than the fact of what he was admitting to. I had another thought.
“Do you have any children?”
“Twelve. A boy.”
“Does he read?”
His eyes went to the book in his hands.
“Yes. I taught him myself.”
“Has he read the novel Kidnapped yet?”
I don’t know what I would have said had his child been a girl. My brothers and I each have our favorites, but I have no idea what girls like to read.
“No. I’ve never read that myself. Mostly my boy reads what I give him.”
I said, “Then you could still read it together.”
Mr. Downs sat up straight in his chair as if gathering himself together for some task. His face had stiffened again.
“Who wrote it?”
“Robert Louis Stevenson.”
“The children’s poet?”
“I have to get going. I have two others to check on today. The Department is short handed. But thanks for the recommendation.”
He nodded to me and left.
I should have been reading myself. This encounter somehow sparked my need to get on with my own objectives.
‘Where the past is preserved, history is made.’
That quote above the door to the Massachusetts Historical Society should have been sufficient warning. Put there to honor the many historians who have used those archives to complete their own studies, it unwittingly bespeaks the danger of facts taken out of context.
I ignored the warning at first, happy in the thought that I had at last found a source of the kind of original material I needed. I had saved the best till last only because the special permit to use their shelves had taken longer. But then, after all, it was not exactly what I had hoped, nor even very good. But it would have to do.
Understand, I had previously explored the alternatives. The Northeastern University ‘Library’ is little more than a multi-media center, its usefulness made somewhat better by a direct access to the Library of Congress in the Federal District, a link not permitted to all libraries for reasons unknown. Perhaps this is just another way for the authorities to effectively monitor the inquiries of its citizens. However I can do as much, simply sitting at home in Bastiat, using the link through Lagniappe, if I don’t mind the time lag.
The walls at Northeastern are of the usual fiberous concrete and washed in colors so pale it is difficult to determine a green from a blue. I was already planning one of my first side trips to Concord as I sat in a cubicle apart from anyone else and used my vid link to compare a few selected texts that seemed to be distinct. It quickly became apparent they were distinctive only in their missing parts.
I spoke to a pretty young woman at the central desk.
“The copy of Thoreau’s essay, ‘Walking.’ you have is supposed to be facsimile of the first edition. But it’s missing parts. Specifically one part.”
She frowned, brushing a curl of dark hair from her eyes, and looked at an index on her screen as she re-spoke my words.
“Thoreau. Essay. Walking . . . I see it here. I’m sure we have it.”
“Yes. You have most of the essay. Its just the part that’s missing that I’m interested in.”
She widened her eyes at me.
“How do you know?”
I smiled again. I was given to smiling too easily. My mother has always criticized me for frowning so often and I had overcompensated to please her. But there is much to be dissatisfied with.
I said, “Because I remember it.”
She reconfigured her face into an expression of incredulousness, eyes wider, brow wrinkled, one eyebrow raised. The tone of her voice changed.
“If you have it memorized, why are you looking for it?”
I tried harder to keep my smile as pleasant as possible.
“I wanted to compare the wording to a letter I have found by Bronson Alcott. I was looking for examples of cross influence.”
The gauze of an equally artificial smile now covered her own face.
“Are you sure it was by Thoreau?”
“Yes, I’m very sure. I just need that one part. Do you have another data base here?”
She blinked thrice, as if timing her own response.
“There is only one data base. If you don’t see something, it probably means you are mistaken.”
I still maintained my smile, but I’m not sure it appeared to be polite any longer. I had lost interest by then in being polite.
“I’m positive. Do you know of someone else who might have a separate data base for this material.”
She looked down at a sheet of numbers on the desk before her. I wondered if those were all access numbers for other libraries, and if they were, how I might get a copy.
She turned the sheet over. “Well, I’m sure there must be, but this is the largest. Where did you originally find this missing part?”
She looked up, her eyes half closed now to indicate her own boredom with my pursuit.
“In a book.”
“Yes. But if you tell me where, perhaps I can access that source for you.”
“No. I mean a book. An actual, physical, paper and cloth book.”
She stared at me, then turned to a screen at her right.
“Can you give me at least five distinctive words from the portion you’re looking for. I’ll find it for you.”
I recited the lines I knew.
“ ‘Perchance, when in the course of ages, American Liberty has become a fiction of the past—as it is to some extent a fiction of the present—the poets of the world will be inspired by American Mythology.’”
She shook her head at me.
“Too many words. I just need four or five.”
I counted out six in my head.
“ . . . American Liberty has become a fiction . . . ”
She repeated the words aloud, one finger repeatedly tapping a keyboard for additional responses, her eyes fixed at her screen.
“I have an essay by Mellon Dodd here with that line. ‘The code word in America, Liberty, has become a fiction of the right wing in their efforts to take power from the people.”
I started shaking my head from the first couple of words.
“No. Its not that.”
She smiled as pleasantly as a snake, elbows on her desk and hands raised with palms apart.
“It’s the only one we have.”
Her eye lids shut then as if to say the case was closed.
On the other hand, the Massachusetts Historical Society Library is, sad to say, the greatest of its kind anywhere. The building itself was erected almost two hundred years before the larger calamities of the 21st Century and though its collection was pillaged, much remains. They still have recorded some twenty million individual documents. They have perms of over a million books accessible to the vid. On their shelves they brag physical possession of over three million original texts, once buried by the collapse of the original structure above a storage facility and thus saved from the depredations of the Elide. Granted, most of these are little more than a page or two—letters and documents—but still impressive. The walls there are paneled in fine honey colored woods. The lighting is softer and spills from lamps that might have been used in the Twentieth Century. The chairs are more comfortable, many covered in a plastic which appears to be leather. . . . But! But little of their file is accessible, so in truth, what good is it?
A title request for a physical item must be submitted a day in advance. Only three titles may be requested at a time. My first nine requests were already in use or not available for some other reason. This included their own original facsimile of the text of ‘Walking,’ by Thoreau. Unfortunately, I could not help but notice that the edition they made available on their vid link was also missing the same parts as the Northeaster Library version.
The Widener Library at Harvard University makes good use of marglass. The structure was erected some years after the ‘Great Catastrophe.’ The walls between the windows vary in height like upright volumes, and are made of gray stone instead of concrete and these are then thickened by an inner lining of oak shelves. The ceilings are open in much the same way as my father’s library to the full light of day by successively tilted glass panes of the variety that darkens only at the touch of direct sunlight. The purposeful impression is of a Roman ruin, exposed from within. The floor is at multilevels descending toward a lush inner garden exposed to the patron by a flat glass wall as large as any I have ever seen. The entire area is thus bathed in a pleasant green filter of light. Within, this the spacious floor is broken by hundreds of small clusters of desks, each with its own enlarged vid screen. The oak shelves are lined with facsimile texts each bound neatly in a synthetic cloth. The faint smell of carbolene musks the air. A narrow stair turns downward in one corner to a room that could not have been half as broad as the one above. There, in a place reduced to little more than a mine shaft by its lowered ceiling, a counter stretches from side to side blocking access to a rows of original books on plain metal shelves. The very sight of these, so close, gave me a sudden chill. A young fellow, probably my own age but a foot shorter, with eyes half shut, was tapping a pencil on a blank pad of cheap yellow paper. He asked for my name and code as I entered. Reflexively after all my previous inquiries, I repeated it twice to make sure he heard. I guessed that my voice was recorded and that his copying as a formality. He wrote it on the pad and slipped it into a small device beside a vid screen. Then he turned back to me, his face blank, saying nothing.
I said, “Do you need something more?”
There was a slight and unhappy shake to his head.
“Just tell me what you want.”
I asked for “A History of New England” by John Winthrop, because the usual textbook copies of this are always heavily edited.
He wrote that down on another slip of paper and inserted it into the same small machine. While he did this I noted that he had bad skin and as well as an obvious case of sleep deprivation.
After only a second, his eyes scanned his screen and he said, “That’s available only on the vid.”
I nodded and smiled.
“Your catalogue says that you have two copies of the original.”
“Yes, but they can’t be accessed.”
“Why are they in the catalogue then.”
“Because we have them.”
Is there anyway to see them.”
“On the vid.”
“The copies on the vid are incomplete.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I have seen complete editions.”
“Then why don’t you go look at those.”
“Because the ones I saw were facsimiles. I want to see an original.”
“What difference does it make?”
I was not about to argue with this fellow, or anyone else about the importance of an original source, nor was I about to explain the proper or better purpose of a library. The original intention born in the Nineteenth Century with the first great public libraries was as a repository and a resource for the knowledge of mankind. Noble enough. But those worthies never contemplated a time when books would be made obsolete by a simple lack of interest.
I emerged from that basement at the Widener Library with enough anger to make me unaware at first of anything else. I was at the door before having the odd awareness of being watched. I stopped and looked back expecting to see Mr. Downs at one of the desks. But he was not there.
# August 30, 2267; Exegesis
Joseph Macdonald did not like the idea of being dependent on anything. His second wife had left him for that very thing, or so he says in his notes, and thus, in year 2103 he found himself alone again, and in bad company. He knew only that at ninety years old, he was not going to be a part of a machine. Especially a machine he could not truly control. But at ninety, he had also lost whatever ambition had driven him as a youth. So, like his brother before him had once done with the original recipe for Marglass, he gave the patent for his invention of the Visual Intelligence Device to the university at Bastiat (hardly more than a single schooldome then). With the addition of the vid, the bic had naturally become dependent on the human being who used it and thus, crucially, the universal widget of mankind. Joseph Macdonald might have refused such a personal enhancement himself, but this was a true reversal of fortune for his fellow Martians.
In the war that soon followed, every single soldier in the First Martian Battalion had a vid. And in the apology of the Secretary General, just before he resigned his post at the United Nations following that war, Belloq Qutan admitted his failure had been that he had not wanted their own soldiers to have such a ‘dangerous device.’ And yet he stood by his mistake.
It is ironic that the work of Henry David Thoreau was often used to excuse many of the excesses of government in the 21st century and that they are still current to this day. Much like the foolish and idyll comments of Thomas Jefferson made a few generations earlier, exhorting revolution every twenty years, which are so often repeated in the coffeehouses in Bastiat even now. Jefferson’s admission made no allowance for the possibility that the rebels might want to take away his slaves and his library and burn his precious Monticello to the ground, nor, alternatively, that they might want to make a slave of him as well. Just as Thoreau’s sweet liberty of conscience never made allowance for the mind of the sociopath, much less a nation bent on the subjugation of the weak.
It was important to me then to pursue an exegesis offering both revelation and excuse. A vindication if necessary. Thoreau himself would have been vehemently opposed to a use of government prerogative for such purposes. Professor Trip had identified old Henry’s essential means to knowledge with the seven principles of prose: appreciation, observation, examination, identification, meditation, demonstration, and persuasion. These were the methods he used and exemplified. If time allows, I would like to establish the source and context of his thought apart from the perverse regulation and attempted management of nature which came to be attached to his name—at least as an alternative, and possibly one key example of the turning—the historical moment when the first promises of human liberty made by the ‘Founding Fathers,” were twisted around to make do for the enhancement of government.
And I see that word, ‘turning,’ has come into my notes more than once. It seems to fit the circumstance of a whole society better than the word ‘change.’ What happened was gradual, eventual, with the actual change only visible over several generations.
After all, Thoreau was very much a part of it. He is a ‘Founding Father,’ even if born too late.
More than once I’ve thought that this quest of mine might have its very beginning during one afternoon in my father’s library when I discovered a copy of ‘Walden.’ A simple enough book for the sixteen year old mind to grasp without hesitation and still so subtly profound as to subvert a consciousness clogged by youthful pleasures. But my complete attention to that specific volume on that particular afternoon was actually captured by the discovery of my own name on a slip of paper protruding like a page marker, written in a hand I was not familiar with.
“To Griffon Macdonald, from Michael McGeraughty.”
Was this an actual copy owned and read by the Boston bookseller, Michael McGeraughty, my great great grandfather’s great great grandfather? What year would that have been. Certainly long after Thoreau himself. I later counted the generations out on another scrap of paper at my desk, wondering if this volume been kept at home here on Mars among the accumulation of other books during all that time? The gilt lettering on the spine of the small brown cloth volume had all but lost its color and the title had become nearly invisible on the shelf along with the others. There was no proof of the provenance marked on the actual book of course. It seems Michael McGeraughty was not given to writing his own name on his favorite books.
I studied the publisher and the date: Ticknor and Fields, 1854. I had no particular knowledge of books as sacred objects then but I knew somehow that this must be an original edition. The simple brown cloth seemed aesthetically appropriate. The binding was slightly loosened by many readings. The paper was a pale tan from oxidation. The yellowed endpapers had a touch of foxing to the margins. Later, I came to suspect other volumes in our family library were once my ancestor’s as well, simply by the unusual absence of any signs of ownership and the dates they were published. In contrast, a Marsman usually marks his property. But then I found additional proof for the origins of that particular copy of ‘Walden’ almost immediately afterward in a discovery moments later of a letter folded at the back. It was written by my ancestor to one of his own grandchildren—my great grandmother’s, great grandmother, Charlotte Dunn. It was tucked inside like an autumn leaf—an artifact I had often discovered in books brought from earth—a common picked up at random and saved. The note was tattered by the handling of generations. Unconsciously, I read it aloud.
“Charlotte, read once for the history. Read again for the fact. Once more for revelation. And again, at least, with respect.”
This statement was signed, ‘Griffon.’
My father stopped whatever he was doing at his desk and looked at me, slightly stricken with surprise on hearing the words spoken out loud.
He said, “I’d forgotten.”
He came over to me then and lifted the book from my hands.
“I’m sorry, Griffon. Grandpa Frank handed this book to me the day you were born. I guess that would make it your very first birthday present. He gave each of you boys a book when you were born. John has already taken his.”
He read the note again to himself.
I asked, “Why did he leave this one to me? What is it?”
I’m sure that Dad was looking at me then with the thought that I might still be too young.
“He’d have had a reason. You know that. But he never said. He did tell me that Charlotte Dunn had given the book to his grandmother. That would have been Nadia Simonenko. It was she who married Aaron Macdonald. And you know that they were part of the settlement in the Joseph Land at the Elysium Planitia. She passed it on to Frank because he was her only surviving grandson after the New War. He willed it to you, but he couldn’t wait to die before handing it on again in person. Always an impatient man. His blessing and his curse, they say. He would likely be alive today if he had been more patient. But he liked giving his books away more than money.”
I started reading it the very first time at that very moment of discovery. I read it the fourth time during vacation just after completing my college requirements. Even then, I had no intention of ever going to the Earth. The cost was too high. The chance of finding anything that was not otherwise recorded was too small, I thought. Why go?
However, that prejudice was altered one night, little more than a year ago, in almost the same spot where I had first found that book, and during an argument with my father.
His case was made with the fervor he often displays for things that matter. His face reddens high in the cheeks. I’ve even heard my mother say that he is irresistible when his ears are pink.
Without the vehemence, his case was this: that people acted with free will when they came to Mars to work for wages. They knew when they did so that there was little or no chance of staying longer than the agreed upon term of employment. Indeed, they gained valuable schooling and expertise in the skill of their labor during the contract time, as well as their wages, but the value of that skill would eventually and inevitably be overcome by the threshold of any actual profit to be made from their otherwise unskilled labor set against the greater cost of making room for them on Mars, much less what any employer could pay and still remain competitive. The price was determined by the market, not whim. After a time it was simply cheaper to hire someone new to do a given job, and to bear the additional cost of training someone unskilled, rather than keep someone employed who naturally expected advancement where there were such obvious limits. A pound of carrots could only be sold for so much. This process was not hidden from prospective workers, and it was loudly included in all advertisements. When my father hired any new worker, he himself specifically went over the reality of a fixed term. For that worker then to plead for the right to stay on Mars when the term was up was not just illegal, it was unfair to everyone else who must pick up the burden of their welfare. But there were at least two million such workers on Mars at present, accounting for almost a third of the total emigrant work force.
This population of illegals, using false permits and other documents, was taking the place in fields and factories of at least the same number of potential legal workers who might themselves benefit by the training, and the income. Unscrupulous employers were using these illicit workers to pay lower wages, and in that way gaining an unfair cost advantage in the marketplace. Enforcement of the laws would require the ongoing effort of a police force much larger than the nine hundred officers currently employed full time by the Areopagus (and much over worked as it was). That council, controlled by Reeves who themselves often profited by this illegal labor, would not approve penalties onerous enough to convince some clans to control their short-term greed. In the end it was necessary, for national security, that the regular Military Services be employed in the effort of apprehending the illegals so that they could be sent home, or at least returned from whence they came. This onerous duty then, in turn, devalued military service, degraded it, disheartened it, and resulted in fewer enlistments—yet another negative consequence with even greater potential for harm. I know my own interest in the military was cut short by my brother’s experience. As it was, too few were joining the Service and there were shortages which had closed several outposts. Higher pay and benefits are not enough to induce most younger citizens to enlist. Military Service was necessarily tough—harsh and lonely—and sadly, given the ambivalence of those who were not disinterested, it appeared that the children of the great families of Mars were no longer up to the rigor of it, much less enthused by the historical argument that a strong military was necessary to prevent war and maintain the peace. Grandpa Mac would have something to say about that too, if he were still among us. My brother John is the only one of his graduating class at college to enlist. Dad never did. I know that his personal rebellion against his own father is still one of his greatest regrets. Before leaving on my expedition, I myself had yet to find a good reason to enlist and I admit the thought had seldom entered my mind.
The result of all of this has been a higher and higher population of ‘illegals’ and an ever larger population of citizens who depend upon them to make their own lives easier. And now, with the Areopagitic Council’s blessing, the Service has naturally turned to the immigrants themselves for help. If an illegal agrees to serve honorably in the military for eight years, they may earn permanent residence status. If they serve for twelve, they can become citizens immediately. Already, almost half the service is immigrant in origin. Domes, joined in one continuous blister, and built with the financing of the Areopagus for the settlement of the new military families, extend along Jason’s Rill now half way to Mons. And these are now the legal ones!
It is an age-old conundrum. Didn’t the Roman Empire fall to this? Wasn’t such pollution one leg of the political failure of government in United States during the Twenty-first Century? In a political structure dependent on the nation state, can the issue of citizenship be ignored or the sanctity of national borders be violated without regard? Obviously not. The matter must be in the way a civilized society deals with this, and the wants of others to escape from their own political prisons.
Alternatively, the individual, the family, the clan, the city, the state, the nation—each of these has been reduced to minimal authority here on earth. And the result is obvious.
My father faced this question anew with my leaving. His farm was mechanized down to the need for only eight pairs of hands. My brothers and I always helped in season. Robert more than Hugh or I. John was off to the academy by the time he was seventeen. And my mother did her part as well, of course. But we had always employed at least one more, and these individuals had come and gone through the years.
One in particular, Demetrius, still lives in Bastiat, where he has opened a small specialty market which appeals to other immigrants in one of the transit domes leased by the Council to private syndicates. His term with my father had been for six years, but since then Demetrius has lived in Bastiat on his own for longer than that, starting his own business, marrying another illegal and beginning a family of his own. Demetrius now had six children and often waved openly to me as I passed on my way to school. The legal proceeding against him which was initiated by my father was deep in the courts and might never come to trial given the backlog of such cases.
In the case of Mars, the problem has physical restraints that are impossible to deny. There is simply no property available for illegal settlement. All domed land is owned. The air supply for all domes is paid for by the owner. The water used by any dome is bought or made by the owner. There is no free food. The expense of building a new dome is great, and few immigrants can bear the cost. But it was to bear just such expense that the first Syndicates were formed almost immediately after the Abandonment and they are now well entrenched in our common law. The example has been made and the immigrant, leal or not, as take up the cause and formed their own syndicates.
But here another argument begins. If my father had not paid so well, Demetrius would have been forced to return to his family on Ceres long ago. This is the argument used so often by the unscrupulous. If workers are paid less, they cannot afford to stay because they would then be unable to afford the cost of a share in a syndicate. Capital and financing would be scarce. Instead, workers like Demetrius have started their own cooperative banks and funded other immigrants in their own business. And then too, it must be remember that the dome in Bastiat where Demetrius has his market is ultimately owned by Torq, my own grandfather and paragon to me, who had long since cornered a majority of shares in that particular syndicate and stands even yet as an advocate of open emigration.
This was, in fact, how the Duffy’s came to Mars. Torq Duffy had made his fortune out of mining in the Belt and come to Mars to stake his own claim. Family legend is, in fact, that the wrangle over his claim—-and the contest for a part of the Joseph Land below the fold, was the cause of my father’s first meeting with Opal Duffy and the when of how he had lost that fight forever.
I had gotten to know Torq Duffy early in my life. Considered an unpleasant man by many, he never socialized, even with other immigrants. But with few alternatives for playmates, he was my best friend throughout my childhood. Perhaps still, and despite the great difference in our ages. He is one of those who sees through human pretense and too whom confidences might be admitted without fear that they will be revealed.
Happily for me, that was during the time when he was teaching himself to farm and taking the greatest advantage of his daughter’s generosity. A man who spent thirty years behind a bull, hauling raw ore in the Belt, had somehow then found himself a wife and ‘made’ four children— finally deciding one day that he wanted land and a planet home. And my first memory of that man is of him belly down on the ground, his face close enough to the dirt to soil his chin. I was four years old, and we had come to visit his homestead. Not our first visit, of course, but the first I clearly remember.
A grown man was laying in the dirt, just as I was wont to do.
I said, “What are you doing?”
He looked across at me where I had taken up a position mimicking his own.
He said, “Feasting.”
It is a word I have always used since, whenever I was fortunate enough to be able—part of a vocabulary not yet common to Mars. There was no glossary to Torq’s unique language in my father’s library. He was unschooled except by example. Yet, I found I could talk to Torq Duffy as I could not to my own father, or my mother for that matter. She who had been more raised by her mother understood him less well than me. How did that happen?
My dad wears the same loose wheat colored shirts most farmers prefer, as well as the darker pants made of Mars-grown flax. Torq wears jeans more popular among workers in the Belt—-clean ones to formal occasions—and the flaxen shirts commonly seen among the temps. My dad likes a broad brim on his hat to block the ag-lights or the glare of sun when it fractures an edge of glass in the meninx. Torq wears his baseball cap everywhere but to bed. My father has always worn his hair long in the style of his youth. Torq’s head is nearly shaved, in the style that has become popular with my own generation. All of this is studied, of course. The deliberate reverence of my father’s generation for Jefferson and the Virginians is undenied. And their scholarship is not so different either. Torq would not want to be mistaken for one of ‘them.’
I could never argue for long with my father, without him getting the better. So different than old Torq in that way especially. Torq does not argue. He does what he thinks. Unschooled, actual reading is difficult for him still. What need is there for reading when work can be done even while talking to a bic. He was working from the time he was twelve. He owned his first bull by the time he was my age and already on his way to his first fortune. He lost all that in the collapse of the Omnium following the Third New War. His second fortune was made in anger. He admits that, and regrets it. Now, as a shareholder on Mars and a deacon in the Areopagus, he has remade his fortune again simply by giving others the chance to do what he did. Torque has spent the last twenty years investing in people, one at a time. He lives by his word and a shake of his hand.
Torq’s understanding of logic is practical and not tactical. He knows a false statement before the last word of it is spoken. He has said to me more than once that he knew my father as well the day he met him as he does today. They have nothing in common but honesty, good will, and love for the best jewel of both their lives.
What actually separated the two was more than style or manner, however. What divides them most is their understanding of the facts.
My grandmother, Martha Duffy was born Martha Benedict. Her father, Michael Benedict, had been the ‘Doge’ at Ceres for long enough to still be the one face most often found in the text books on the history of that merchant state. She was raised among the sophisticated families, and schooled at Parmeter. She had known great privilege before she had experienced the hardship of the frontier with her uncouth husband. It was perhaps Torque’s one true regret in life that she lives there again in the facets of Bode. Martha had come with her husband to Mars at first, had lived there a dozen years, but had finally rejected it. If he wanted to start anew, that was fine. She was happy where she was.
Of their six children, Opal was the only one to stay with her father.
I have often wondered if this is the inevitable course of true passion. Can that fire burn so bright, no matter the passage of time?
My mother told me once that she knew her mother still loved her father. That love was not the matter. The matter was that her father’s greatest happiness was in his work—the simple recreation of things into a shape that pleased him. Martha Duffy enjoyed her art and her music. What pleased her more was the enjoyment of the finished product of such refined genius. She had been made to live without it during their years of struggle together, and having regained it and then lost it once before, she was not going to let go of it again.
I wonder, in the context of that history, if my mother’s one regret in life is the order and safety of our dome. What a contradiction! As the product of upheaval, she was too much attached to her home. What might she have done had she too gone out on her own. She loved her husband and the grace of his ideals, yet she admired her father’s courage. But in the end, she could not, or would not, abandon the simple life of a farmer’s wife to support her father’s zeal.
All of this is in me then. It is the fabric of my own nature. I imagine a quilt made of the scraps of cloth worn by them all, within a border of Marzy pink.
I would like to be a scholar. That center piece is from my father—-from the blue dress suit he did not have the occasion to wear often enough. I would like to find a good portion of the love for a woman that I know my father has for my mother. I’ll take a swath of his favorite brown cotton corduroy house shirt for it. And the rest of the pieces will have to pattern themselves around those at the center. A little bit from any and all of them would be fine with me.
My father might have been the scholar. He was at the top of his college class. And he has never explained what made him turn away from that. It was not my mother, certainly. He had not yet met her match then. I know he was already an instructor at Prescott when he made his own pilgrimage to Earth. And it was after that when he turned. So I might assume it was his experience of Earth which changed him. But he will not say.
How had my father found the time to read all of those books that I had only just discovered: Roberts, Madison, Bastiat, Von Mises, Popper, Jones, Morris, Chin, and Winoski, and the rest.
When I came home from my vacation after college with my new idea for an expedition of my own, I think I successfully surprised him for perhaps the first time.
“It’s a foolish venture. Too much risk for too little benefit, and pointless from the start. There is nothing left there now. I know. I’ve made that mistake myself. You know that I have gone. I’ve told you something of my little adventure. Haven’t I? You know enough. And you know what I sought then was not so different than what you seek now. I needed to know, just like you need to know. And then I was smitten by the broad skies, just as you’ll be . . . I was beguiled. But I returned empty handed afterall, and my mind full of confusion. Like a virus. The blue skies will infect you too. You’ll wonder, is it so different? Is it wrong to simply accept a small part of a larger whole. Is all the theory worth the fact. And you know about Jessup. You know how he came back after twelve years. They do not take kindly to free thought. His ten years in prison was a loss of the best of his youth as they tried to reshape his mind. He was my best friend when I was your age. Look at him now. He lives by the gift. He has no pride. And he has no children. The situation here needs the help of young men like you. Here! Now! Not in theory, but fact. You are correct in thinking things will go badly here if they are not controlled. I’m very afraid we’re about to lose everything we’ve spent generations building. And you’re needed here to help prevent that. If you make the effort, you’ll sit at the Areopagus one day.”
When my dad’s argument was made. I turned the facts on him as best I could.
“Your case is arbitrary. You’ve made a rule which is not a natural law. Only landowners may vote in the Council. Thus you’ve limited civil access only to those who can afford the cost of settlement—like Torq—as if they were buying their indulgences from a medieval church—or to the retired soldiers who have already invested the best years of their lives. But in fact a healthy society should not be limited by the ownership of land. A healthy society needs doctors as much as farmers, pilots as much as dancers.”
“We have all of those.”
“But not as citizens.”
“Why must they be citizens? We’ve argued this before! They have all the benefits, but without the worry!”
“Because it gives then a stake in the society! So that they want to learn how the machine works! So that they might drive it themselves!—So that they don’t spit in the food they serve.”
He was disgusted at my argument, and turned away.
Once, out loud to us all at a family gathering, Torq had warned, “There is a larger bill that’s due. Maybe not in my time. I have sat at the table. I’ve had a part in the feast. But a bill is due. It will be paid. My only wish is that it can be paid in dollars and not blood. We have the dollars to spare.”
To my father I said, “One day the domes will matter even less. Mars continues to change. The will of Joe Trees is finding its way. Our seas will fill. Someday all the land will be open to settlement beyond the glass. What will happen then?”
My father shook his head. I believe he does not know. Perhaps that is a world he does not want to imagine.
He said, “I won’t be here then. Nor will you. When that time comes, others will decide. For now, this is the way it must be.”
He walked away. It was his way of ending discussion to avoid argument. I walked after him.
My father is not a true philosopher any more than myself. He is a farmer, and I am a farmer’s son. What I want to be, I am not sure, perhaps a teacher, or even a historian. There is no paid profession for historians beyond the schools, but I could write. I could certainly write down what I might learn from a visit to Earth. But for now I am a student. It is my first job to learn what I can to understand the history that I wish to know. Simply, I believe you can’t know what you don’t understand.
I said to my father, “Is your responsibility only to yourself? You have children. Have you written some kind of a law that your child shall have no children? You made this place. Do you have a responsibility to what happens here when you’re gone?”
He barely turned as he walked.
He said, “I don’t deal in fantasy. I can’t know the future.”
So much like his good friend, professor Trip. But I persisted. My stride is not as long as his. But I knew the path by heart and could pursue him without looking away from his face. I wanted to see the doubt in his eyes.
“Do you have dreams? Have you lost your dreams?”
He hesitated. That was it. I had broken the skin on his anger. He stopped and turned.
“My dreams are mine. I don’t impose them on others.”
I knew my place in this argument by heart.
“Yes you do. I’m here to testify to that much.”
He pressed his lips tight. I had heard from my uncles that there was another time when he might have left the realm of reasoning and resorted to the simpler solution of a fist. He had never hit me in my life, and I did not know the facts of that, but I had heard the stories. I judged that this was the prelude to such a moment. The argument had gone too far. He had lost. At least, I thought he had.
But when his voice finally came it was calm.
“Don’t confuse the good with the rules. The good does not change. The good remains. The rules might always change, if the context is altered. All rules are arbitrary when out of place. You set them where you need them. You chose them as best you can for the good. Like a tool for a particular job. They’re right or wrong only if they work. Without them you have chaos. You know that. Mankind has been there before. The only future is in order. Not my order. Not your order. Not the order of some bureaucrat or politician. But order. Rational order. The order of nature. Order that works for the good.”
Could I prefer disorder? Wasn’t it all a much simpler matter?
Torq had spoken of this. The scars on the face of my mother’s father wrinkle like wadded paper when he smiles. One cannot help but smile with him.
Once, playing a hand slowly across his fields before us, Torq had said, “This is my dream. It was my father’s dream as well. My father died on Jimbo-10. He could not be buried. There was no soil there. He died when I was still a boy. I used to make my way to his coffin on the rack there with all the others and tell him that he would have his wish one day. And now he is buried. Here. And here I will be buried. Not ashes. Soil. He is a part of this dust now, and someday I will be as well.”
Now, I had come millions of miles to understand an Earth despised by my father and his father and so many of their fathers before them. But here indeed was the soil of my forefathers. And as my father predicted, I was now unsure that the order I found here was wrong. The rightness of the order of things was in their value to the each individual, not the group. Do the rules here work? Could order itself be more important here, for the good? Does Roberts’ Rule apply?
I recall now the graffiti at the air terminal in Chicago. Workmen were already scrubbing the letters of the doggerel from the wall as I read them into my bic, and the red dripped like bloody tears on stone cheeks to the ground below.
‘You’ve built a great tall fence
For to keep them out I see
But it’s a devil’s bargain hence
Out of fear for your own safety.
A fence too high for them to climb
Is higher yet to climb it out
And now you must bear the cost
So grate and dear to pay
For I fear it’s your way that’s lost
For you’ve lost your liberty
# August 31, 2267; Defenestration
An awful thing has happened for which I am very much responsible. I have made a mistake for which there is no repair.
Abby is dead.
She did nothing to deserve such a punishment. A whore in flesh only, she was an innocent in every true sense. In mind she had an intelligence above any average. In spirit she was a child. Her mortal mistake was to associate with another human being for the simple and greater pleasure of friendship.
There is no doubt that her death was meant to impress me, however. Imagine, taking one human being’s life just to impress another. It reminds me of the Old Testament of the Jews. To impress Job with his awful power, that wicked Hebrew God would kill Job’s wife and children as if their lives were of no importance and good only for a demonstration of almighty governance. Such immature Gods are common enough in primitive religions where an eye for and eye is an improved policy over a life for an eye. But why did Abby deserve to die for a mere friendship?
They-—those who did this thing—-are well aware of my habits. They likely knew which way I took to the Library each day. They could as easily have killed me directly and finished their complaint. Clearly their act of murder was meant to impress. But to what purpose? To intimidate? What could they fear from my research? And why hurt another human being in the effort? They must be the most morally debased of cowards. The least of human kind. They must in fact be the spiritual children of a lesser god.
I stopped at the market on my way home to chat with Eddy. Had I continued, I might have seen the thing happening and stopped it. Perhaps. As it was, the police had already come and a crowd gathered and as I approached they were just pulling a sheet over the naked body where she lay, her limbs akimbo on the brick of the sidewalk, her neck turned—bent against the curb—and her face cupped by the gutter of the street.
As brief as that glimpse was, it is too vivid in my mind now. I cannot think but see there was a single red welt across her shoulders, as if she were struck by a stick. The turn of her neck made me think it was broken, and later I imagined it had probably been broken before she was thrown from her window or she might have better fought her fate. Unable to see her face, I looked upward immediately to her window in some wild hope that she would be there looking down and that my assumption was a mistake. The window gaped darkly. But I already knew it was her body that lay there. I had seen that before, strutting in the half light of her apartment. And in that last transient glimpse I managed to judge the bright color of her flesh against the dark of the brick and think that the brick had the hue of dried blood.
Someone in that small crowd pointed at me. I tried to see the face beyond the extended arm, but he was too short and it was quickly turned away. The policeman, already facing me, approached directly. He asked my name, and if I knew the victim, and what her name was, and in another moment I was in a small van and carried off to a station at the base of one leg of the spire.
The spire was illuminated by the late sun with a platinum finish so bright that all the seams of the glass were obscured. Looking up from below it was remindful of some fanciful design for a space ship in the age before mankind had first leap the boundaries of earth. I let my mind play on that in my effort to push away the grotesque I had just witnessed.
The police asked me every question several times. The repetition caused me to shorten my replies, inciting them to ask each question again to confirm what I had left out. In less than an hour I was exhausted.
They immediately took my vid, and when they realized they could not open it, asked for the code. I gave them a code that would not open my other notes. There was nothing on it beyond my research that day at the library, and I suppose they determined that quickly enough. Even so, shortly afterwards, they came back and demanded that I open it completely. Thankfully, Mr. Downs arrived at that point and the interview was halted while he spoke to them.
I sat there for some time in a room by myself, suddenly exhausted, wanting to sleep to escape the moment, but instead forced to sit upright in an uncomfortable chair and note the peeping of a face at a small window in the door.
Windows are wonderful things. Glass is a very simple magic. A common crime on Mars, even to this day, is defenestration. ‘Defening’ as it is called, as a means of murder, probably caught on soon after the first generation of domes had spread along the rills of Elysium. Settlement was a lonely job in those times and there were few comforts. ‘Stiffs’ were relatively common simply because of the high rate of suicide, and proving a murder was unlikely. Suicides are unusual now, and leaving aside accidents, it can be assumed that any stiff found beyond the glass is a defening. Proving the murder is another matter.
I saw this myself. When I was still a kid of twelve or thirteen. I knew a farmer named Jack Symes who grew beans in a series of smaller domes just a few miles from our own. I knew him pretty well because he used the same fertilizer as my dad and they bought jointly to get a quantity discount. One season, after his wife had died, I hired out to help him work his crop. Beans are easy work because the whole process is mechanized, but the rented harvester needs two operators. My mother was wary of my taking the job, but she wouldn’t say why. Twelve was certainly old enough to be taking odd jobs.
The farmer’s wife had been found earlier that season sitting outside an emergency exit by the search party that came when Jack reported her missing. No signs of violence. She was just sitting outside on a ledge, a little bent forward as if looking at something in the sand. The initial report had been suicide. But shortly after the second harvest, Jack managed to get himself drunk enough to say a few things he shouldn’t have. I wasn’t there to hear it, but others were, and it was reported and Sheriff Del Parton came by to talk to me.
Del takes his job seriously and has the same lack of humor I’ve often seen in other government officials.
He asked me, “Does Symes pay promptly?”
I was still too young to have any confirmed ideas about that. Now, I must assume Del had thoughts about Jack’s financial situation.
Nevertheless, I considered the question with all the seriousness a twelve year old mind can muster for matters totally obscure and said, “Not exactly. He still owes me for a few hours.”
Del leaned forward to get at eye level with me.
“Have you ever heard Jack and Maggie argue?”
That was a silly question, I thought.
“Well, that’s just the way they are. Isn’t it. The way they were, anyway. They were always going at it over something or another.”
I had long since come to understand that my own parents were the exception. My dad was more likely to yell at himself before he’d raise his voice to anyone else, especially my mother.
Dell was full of other questions I had no idea about, but he asked me one thing that I did know something of. Sheriff Del wanted to know how the fail-safe worked on the Nile harvester we had used. It’s a great machine and it can separate the fruit unbruised from a plant and put a neat plastic film around twenty pounds of beans in little more than a minute. A Nile normally requires two people to operate. It’s not a complicated affair, but there is a lot of waste in starting and stopping. With the motor turned off, the system cools down quickly, below the temperature where it needs to be to run smoothly and to melt the plastic strips used to make the film.
But it appeared Maggie Symes had been murdered while working in the field. Jack had somehow managed to override the failsafe on one of the two work stations on the Nile, and coming up behind his wife, unaware in all the noise, had pushed her into the unit. I could testify that the Nile I had worked with was cranky and often jammed. I had indeed seen Jack somehow leave the system running so that it would not cool down, while he made his way to the dock where I was stationed to help me reset an irregular load. Thankfully, I was never called to testify. I suppose there were others who had seen the same thing, and besides, the sad farmer finally pleaded guilty anyway. A year later poor Jack himself committed suicide while on a work gang near Ticker’s Stop in Xanthe. He simply walked outside one morning without a suit and faced the purple sky.
Still, the proximity of death, each day, only a few panes of glass away, makes defenestration the most common form of unnatural demise not only on Mars, but throughout the Belt. Relatively painless, quick in the extreme cold, and certainly bloodless, it is difficult to prove murder unless the act is observed.
It seems that on Earth, the most common unnatural death is murder, plain and simple. There is no pretense of another cause. Usually it is a knifing. But with the physical height of most urban housing, defening is one of the more common murders here as well.
When I first heard reports of this, my mind leaped to a mental picture of bodies dropping from the spires, tumbling in the air, twisting to fly against death without wings. A nightmare thought. But in fact, the most common defenestration here is from a sixth or seventh story apartment window. Rooftop murders are less common because of the monitors. A quick window exit from a well chosen angle is unlikely to be observed.
Mr. Downs rescued me with a confirmation to the authorities concerning the simple facts of my whereabouts that afternoon, and then drove me home. He had little to say. I think his mind was disturbed by the thought that he might have lost his charge.
What had seemed a pleasant street to me before, quaint, now seemed grim. From my room, I could not help but look across at Abby’s darkened windows. Below, marked by some official in an outline of white, was the place where her body had lain.
An albedo moon, in the last segment of its arc, glared at me, and for its angle, was brighter still than the spire, but neither reached into the lower shadows of the street below. The nearest street lamp was not working, and with my own light off, I could see only darker edges there, around the glow of white tape. Tears came unbidden. I felt suddenly blind as well. I was certainly in the midst of things I did not understand.
Someone coughed. Startling when your mind is elswhere.
Sounds often spilled from windows onto the street, and this cough I recognized. I leaned out but there was no interior light reflected on the sill of Ojay’s window below me. Instead, I caught part of his darker shape sitting on the entry steps.
I went down to speak to him.
He spoke reluctantly and did not choose his words easily, as if struggling with a foreign tongue. He was smoking. Something I have often read about and seldom seen outside of old films at the theatre in Bastiat. It was illegal even here, to my knowledge, though still done. But I needed someone to talk to and he was there at the moment.
I asked him if he had ever met Abby.
Yes. He had. He had been to her room several times.
I should have guessed that. He had shared at least part of the same view across to her windows that I enjoyed.
I asked him what he thought of her.
“She was a good woman.” He said, hesitating on the word ‘good,’ I think, because it might value her less that he actually thought it.
But he said nothing more about her. I asked him if it was alright for me to sit with him. He grunted and nodded but without speaking. I felt the intrusion I was making, but I needed some simple company. I wanted to talk, but I had no idea of his own interest. He made few sounds in his room and after several weeks I was still unaware of any schedule he might have, so I asked him about his smoking.
“Picked it up in the army,” was the extent of his explanation.
There was no traffic at that hour. Few other windows revealed the light of other lives. The quiet begged for a voice.
So I told him about the Bijou theatre in Bastiat which was a replica of something that once existed in New York City, where Manhattan had been. On Wednesday nights our Bijou used to give the stage performers a day off by showing old films from the era of the original theatre in Twentieth Century. Ojay seemed to be listening, so I told him about one particular old film I liked—Only Angels Have Wings—where all the characters are smoking almost all the time. In fact, they were always smoking in those films, and when I was a kid it had made me wonder what it was like, but I avoided retelling him the less important detail that I had tried smoking in secret soon afterward and been caught at it by my mother. Perhaps I was hoping Ojay would take one of those small packs out of his pocket that I’d seen in those films and give me a cigarette to try as a diversion. Instead he pulled out a small pocket pouch and a delicate piece of paper and produced another cigarette with his fingers and tongue within a few seconds. He handed it to me and struck a match while I was still holding it in my fingers with astonishment.
Still, he said no more. The messy smoke of my cigarette fumed in the moonlight above us as I tried not to cough. The tobacco was bitter and sweet at once. Ojay laughed.
I answered that, in self defense, still totally flummoxed with this odd fascination.
“It’s a little easier than breathing water.”
He laughed again and shook his head at me.
“They don’t smoke on Mars?”
“No. Not much. With the limits on air, it doesn’t make much sense. I’ve seen some of the farmers do it. I’ve always thought of it like swimming. There are some parks where people swim but mostly, that seems like a waste of good water.”
I asked him if he could swim. He did.
So, having never even tried to swim before I proceeded to tell him about my thoughts on that subject as well, confident this time that he would not be able to produce a swimming pool as easily as a cigarette. Afterward it occurred to me that it must have sounded like a virginal adolescent’s dream about sex.
When he seemed entertained, I asked, “Do you know where she was from?”
He did not hesitate with my change of direction. “Right here. Boston”
Making small talk should be a specialty with me now, after having asked a hundred people so many hundreds of questions. Instead, my compulsion was suddenly to be direct.
“Were you here when she was murdered?”
“No. I came up just after you.”
“You saw them take me away then. I suppose they did that because I’m the stranger. I should expect that. But did you get to hear about anything from anyone else?”
He was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and did not move his body but turned his head to look across at me. The smoke of his own cigarette caught the moon in a rising thread.
“She was murdered, I think, because someone wanted her to poison you. They’d seen her give you some of her tea. . . . But she refused.”
I was stunned. What was there that I could say?
“I am sorry.”
“We have reason to be sorry. She was a good woman.”
“How did you find it out?”
“I was told by the cop on duty. Some people heard her scream.”
“Did anyone see the murderer?”
“Not that they could find.”
“How about the lamp at the corner? There’s a camera there. It was still daylight!”
“The camera was blocked. Someone put a repair hood on the lamp.”
“Didn’t anyone look out their windows at the scream?”
“He went out the back of her building. Someone saw that but he covered his face.”
“Then they won’t find him.”
“I will. I know who it was. The same fella that poisoned you. I’ll find him.”
“Can’t the police do that?”
“The cops aren’t interested it the death of a whore.”
“Why are you, then?”
“She was a good woman. I knew her. That’s all there is. You take care of those you know.”
Oddly, in retrospect, perhaps just realizing I could not do the same and that he was right, I said, “Thank you.”
He looked out at the street again as he flicked the butt of his cigarette in a clean arc.
“And now I know you. But I’m assigned to take care of you anyway.”
He stood then and went inside.
That was all there could be of our wake for Abbey.
# September 1, 2267 : That my parrhesia be understood
Mr. Downs found me at the library this morning.
He asked, “Are you ok?” after his usual greeting, which was no greeting at all.
I thought his concern was genuine, but I’d lost my own balance on that subject.
I said, “No. That kind thing can really ruin a day.”
He shook his head. He obviously did not appreciate the black humor, so I finished it.
“It’s hard to focus on anything now.”
He nodded at that.
“Why don’t you take the day off?”
I said, “I didn’t like the prospect of thinking about it in my room, with her window just across the way. And I’m too far behind as it is. I have to do what I can . . . Do they know what happened yet—or who did it?”
His shrug was more in the rise of his cheeks and the wrinkle of his brow. His eyes purposefully met mine.
“No. She was just a whore. It’s a risky job . . . ”
I thought of Abby and tried to hold back my compulsion to argue, but I needed to speak my mind.
“It was no coincidence. I realize that this was done because of me. I’m responsible in some way. I’d like to understand that much. I would like to know who cares about my work here? Besides you?”
Downs hesitated, reconsidering a thought before speaking.
“There are many people who remember the war—”
I had no patience with this and interrupted.
“Then they would have killed me. Why kill Abby? She was a good woman. I liked her.”
He nodded. I was not about to mention Ojay’s idea that they had wanted her to poison me.
He answered, “To intimidate you. To intimidate others from speaking with you.”
“To control me?”
“But you do that already.”
He took a long breath.
“Not nearly as much as I wish . . . But make no mistake. We had nothing to do with this. It must be the act of some stupid faction or another. There are several. You have undoubtedly heard. And if I were to guess freely, I would say that they wanted her to do something for them. They likely wanted her to do something to you. Perhaps to steal something they want, or give you something. And if she refused—-as I think you believe she would have, they decided to use her in a more primitive manner.”
He knew something more than this.
“She worked for the police. Didn’t she?”
Once more, I was surprised at his forthrightness.
“Then murdering her was also a demonstration of their power to the authorities-—and to you.”
This Mr. Downs was not the same man I met at the airport that day. He had surprised me many times since. I had written him off too quickly. This was a fault of mine I had to be wary of. A man was not the uniform he wore.
How many times had I found him more knowledgeable about basic matters of literature. Making an unstudied comment had often produced an enlightening correction.
I even asked him once why he had once chosen Literature to study given the obvious lack of jobs in that field.
He had said, “Just for that reason alone. It had no other purpose. I did it for myself.”
No answer he could have given me would have surprised me more.
“Not for the greater good?”
“Not for the greater good.”
And he left me with that in mind.
I talk to myself at times for hours. It’s a habit I learned early on from my father. His mentors are not my own, of course, and that probably speaks to the distance between us. How can he converse with Jefferson? That man is impersonal to the point of being rude! Or Franklin, a man who has an answer for everything. You cannot discuss an issue with someone who will not suffer an idiot long enough to work the matter out for himself.
Dad has the stronger command of both language and logic. He was in the Jesuit school for four years and it makes him almost impossible to get the better of. Yet Dad’s favorite novelist is Parker Evans. Captain Parker Evans as he is more often known. He has said on numerous occasions that his great regret was never meeting the Old Captain, long dead by the time my father was a teenager and first discovering the Evans’ works. Yet Evans is as passionate as Jefferson is cold.
Parker Evans lived in Burke for the latter part of his life, nearly seventy years, but most of his work was completed while he was Captain of the Saracen. He wrote all of his novels on those voyages and did not turn to poetry and drama until his retirement. I recall laughing out loud the first time I read his song ‘Marzy Pink.’
‘What color’s this? / A breast? A breath? / The stone will speak, / the sculptor says, /given time to think. / The will of the stone’s / in the want of an edge / within the line within. / But the swell of life’s / cut to the curve / of the sculptor’s love /who can kiss the lie / on stony lips unshy, / and warm a colder eye, / to seek the flesh beneath / that color’s Marzy Pink.’
Dad speaks to Evans regularly. For the fun. I’ve caught him at it as he suffers the indignity of sliding beneath the caxon to remove debris amidst the dripping slime during a harvest. Evans is a stalwart source of the sort of wisdom necessary to deal with any inanimate object that wants a life of its own. Dad will even quote the Captain poet when the storms have not ceased months beyond any meteorological predictions and the cost of borrowed electricity is making the market price of his carrots suicidal.
‘Whither weather’ is the one he likes best.
On Earth such habits are considered strange. I was first told this by Sarah, one afternoon in Pocatello when she found me in the midst of an argument with Alexis over Guizot’s misunderstanding of the Medieval Ages.
I fumbled to explained the habit as best I could. But she understood me immediately. She admitted right there and then that her best friends were Jane Austin and George Elliot—-the latter she even calls Mary, her birth name. I asked Sarah what she had to say to her Mary? She said it was more Mary who did the talking. Jane was the better listener.
How could I not fall in love then with a woman who knew the difference!
Nevertheless Sarah cautioned me to seriously control my impulse for chatting with my private friends in public places.
Which reminds me that I never finished that discussion. Guizot is still on trial. It is impossible for a whole civilization to be miserable for long. Guizot wants the cake that Marie Antoinette has already eaten. Those Dark Ages were not at once the glory of France and yet still the source of the discontent which brought the Revolution so many centuries afterward. Feudalism did not spring forth from a rock! And the fact that it worked well is testified to by the prolonged centuries of its existence. Had the Moslem invader never threatened that stability, we might have been made to wait another thousand years for those Greek ideas of Democracy to find their way. Certainly the history of Russia gives support to this thought. Serfdom there survived the age of enlightenment. But I’ll finish that argument when Alexis has a moment free.
The point here is the fact that this benumbed and wizened society, grown cankerous from the cataclysms of the Twenty-first Century, has not yet proven itself worthy of even an honorable mention in the book of history. Like so many forgotten centuries before, it lacks the self-awareness that might produce something worth preserving. The Earth will endure this mistake as it has many others. My guess is that the United Nations will have joined Ozymandias beneath the sands of time when men still read Shelley aloud to their mistresses.
But Ojay did not speak his thought on the matter aloud in the same way.
# September 4, 2267; Tethys
I have dreamt of oceans. Great swallowing seas. Steel flat oceans as grey as the sky. Dark waters with briny lips and the tongues of water nymphs. I have sailed on vast territories of gently rolling seas, smalt brilliant beneath the sun. I have wallowed in the balneal warmth of ablution. I have plunged to cold depths like an embodied bathyscaphe to observe the fishes. Overcome by the muscle of waves, I have been bitten by their teeth.
All of that from books alone.
All my life, short as it is, I have dreamt of oceans. It is most probably what they once called a ‘Freudian’ matter, branded after a sad and wrong headed genius of the Twentieth Century who is justly forgotten now, though we still use some of the language he invented. I don’t doubt for a moment that there is a sexual gist to the fascination. I love Joseph Conrad like an Uncle. I was weaned on Treasure Island, and snacked on Hornblower novels from beneath my bed when I was supposed to be studying math. My math suffers, but my love of the oceans endures.
In Seattle, I almost missed my flight to San Francisco because I attempted to walk to the water there. It was not much more than a broad lake in any case and had no ‘sound’ to it. In San Francisco, I made my way as near as a cliff above the Pacific and smelled the salten musk at the heart of a wet fog and heard the droning of a buoy somewhere on the skin of it. I might have seen the great Pacific ocean then, had nature been kind and I not been blind. My second day in Boston I walked to a pier on the harbor and climbed down a ladder to feel the cold flesh of the water. This small gesture lacked all drama excepting for the protest of some fellow who thought I might be doing something ‘fishy.’
I calculated the cost of joining a group expedition—-a tour—-to Cape Cod. This seemed very expensive. The tour left in the morning and returned at night, and offered a lunch after noon for 50 credits. Then I made the mistake of asking Mr. Downs what he might recommend. He told me I could not travel more than twenty miles from the city. He had no other suggestions.
I had read Thoreau’s Cape Cod with great expectations and was thus disappointed.
But it was Ojay who simply solved the matter for me. So, because it was already on my mind, I told him about my dream of the ocean anyway.
Two days after Abby was killed, Ojay knocked again just after dawn. I was already awake, and I think he knew that from my moving about. He told me he had reserved a car and asked me if I wanted to go with him out to the Cape.
I told him about Mr. Down’s objection. I had to. I had no idea what the consequence might be to him if he helped me break the rules. More than that, I told him that I thought Abby’s death was because of me. That associating with me was dangerous.
His face broke a smile larger than I had yet seen.
He said, “Cool. Lets do it then!”
I objected again with some weak complaint about not being prepared. He told me to grab a pair of shorts. He had taken care of everything else. I had inspired him with my jabber to get out of his rut, and now I had to take responsibility for what I had done.
My enthusiasm took control, but Ojay kept his head. He asked to see my vid and I gave it to him. He asked for my code.
Seeing the worry that must have suddenly altered my own face for the third time in mere moments, he raised an eyebrow on his conspiracy.
“It’s ok. Just change it to something else after I’m done.”
He used three fingers to tap at the screen instead of speaking to the motherboard. It could not have taken more than thirty seconds. My vid spoke back at him with its neat phrasing.
“Changing priorities. Confirm.”
The vehicle was small, and reminded me of a gargantuan version of the helmets skiers wear at Mons. Most cars I’ve seen are not as sleek, and I was curious if it cost substantially more to rent.
He shook his head at me without a definitive answer.
I had carried a pack with me with a change of clothes, a toothbrush and a towel, my vid and nothing else. Ojay’s toothbrush protruded from his shirt pocket. Behind our seats he had stuffed some blankets, towels, and a cooler misshapen with pre-packaged food and drinks, a roll of soft paper for necessities, and a thermal mat. Fires were not permitted in the National Park, there were few latrines, and no food service. This reduced the tourist traffic to those willing to provide for themselves in the designated campsites. He engaged the guide to the traffic on the highway and then sat back and talked.
Our car was shifted into the left most lane almost immediately and much of the view to my right was blocked by trucks progressing at nearly the same speed as ourselves—-which could not have been more that 40 miles an hour. On the opposite side to my left, the traffic coming at us offered a stuttered glimpse of the same three-story apartment dwellings which I could have seen in Denver or Chicago. Ojay already seemed more relaxed and this put me off my own guard again.
He said, “I think I can imagine what Mars is like. I’ve read a little about it. In Chad, we were stationed at a base near the Tibesti. It’s a mountain range. Not terribly high, but enough to allow for good observation. There’s no water there except in the wells. They don’t have the kind of oasis there you find elsewhere in the region. All the water is in the ground. Isn’t it like that on Mars?”
I didn’t want to interrupt his train of thought.
I just said “yes.”
“The scrub always looks as if its dead, yet somehow it grows. It rains in the mountains just enough to make mud in the spring. The flats between are always white with salt. Looks like snow sometimes. Most of the terrain above the grasslands is just broken rock and a pain in the ass to cross. They have snakes there—adders that live in every crevice and if you get bitten you’re food for the rats in about an hour.”
“At least we don’t have adders on Mars.”
He kept his eyes on the road, as if the guide might suddenly lose its mind and throw us beneath the wheels of a truck.
“No. I guess not. But the locals won’t even cross that crap. They stay to their old paths. Same ones they’ve used since Mohammed. Even when they’re being chased. Better to die on a road where you can be found by a friend and buried properly. And the women are all ugly. That’s official, you understand. I wouldn’t actually know. That’s the reason for the veil. I was there for three years and never got to see anything but the whores in N’Djamena.”
He laughed to himself at some joke which I could only imagine.
“A camel driver we employed to translate—-they are all liars but they had to pretend we wanted to understand them-—told us that on the wedding night, if the groom discovered that his bride was ugly, he threw her out of bed, finished the job on the floor, and sent her packing to N’Djamena to work for herself. That was why all the whores were ugly. We took this to be a lie, and proof of the fact that all the women suffered the same fate.”
I waited for him to add to the picture and when he did not, I tried to open it again.
“What do you think they’re fighting for?”
He looked over at me with an unhappy stare.
“You don’t want to talk politics do you?”
I grinned back at him as innocently as I could.
“Usually. It’s what I do best.”
He sighed. I had second thoughts about the rudeness of my answer before he finally spoke again.
“What do you do for fun on mars?”
I told him. I intended to save the best for last.
“You mean other than the pretty girls?”
I told him about Mons. I was not a good skier but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I told him about the Pells, which was by far my favorite place to visit even still. I told him a little about frontier camp. But in the end I had to admit I spent more time reading for fun than I did anything else.
He shook his head as if I were hopeless.
“What does everyone else do?”
I told him, “Well, the big thing is in the summer when we have the ‘Fair—and the races. It’s pretty much a circus than anyone can join. It goes for about a month. Everyone is in at the start but only the best make it through even the first rounds. I suppose it’s a bit like your Olympics, with most of the rules adjusted for the gravity. But because it’s so difficult to get a crowd in one place like that, they add a lot more on the program. For instance, there’s a derby. Not with horses—with cars. And then there’s the crafts, and the food. People come in over an entire month to see the events that they like the most. They come from Ceres and even Lagniappe. All over. The average person can’t afford to stay more than a week or two, I guess. Everything but the derbies are held at the university stadiums in Bastiat so I go every year.”
“You live in Bastiat?”
“Just outside. About twenty miles. We have a farm.”
He took his eyes from the road to look at me. I wondered why this surprised him.
“What do you grow?”
“Almost anything. Mostly carrots to sell. But my dad’s idea about things is that we should all be self sufficient.”
He considered this for a moment and I was about to ask him where he had grown up but he spoke first.
“How big is your dome?”
“It’s three domes, actually. They’re connected. About 40 acres each.”
“How much is an acre? I forgot.”
I would have been surprised that he ever knew.
“Each dome is about a hundred hectares.”
His jaw actually dropped. I couldn’t tell if he was acting.
“Holy crap! That’s as big as a farm here. All that, just for carrots?”
Ours was not more than an average farm, but I avoided that fact.
“No. We have our bosk. About thirty acres in total in two of the domes. Some cedar. Ten acres of fruit. Mostly apple. And about ten acres are my father’s attempt to make syrup from various hardwoods. Mostly sugar maple. We have some walnut and pecan too. The carrots are all in the second dome. They need more moisture control. We grow potatoes, tomatoes—-my father is fond of rhubarb. I don’t like it. Grapes. Strawberries. My mother likes okra. I don’t like that either. And bees of course. Eight hives. And we have our animals. About twenty chickens. At least six turkeys. Six or eight ducks depending on the season. I like ducks-—I mean to eat. They’re nasty pets. Four cats. Two dogs. And more than a few very fast mice.”
“Holy crap! All that?”
He looked at me as if he was reconsidering something. I wondered if it sounded too much like a brag. I knew most farms here were not owned by a single family.
So I said, “I was lucky.”
He accepted that on face value.
“Sounds nice. I suppose it’s a lot of work. I don’t know. I never lived on a farm myself. I joined the service right out of school. I never really even had a home to speak of. My dad works in the Utilities. My mom’s a nurse. I grew up in Worcester, in an apartment on the second floor of a row of buildings that looked a lot like those—” He pointed out at the flashing images of pastel colored boxes with their grey windows. “Four rooms. A little over a hundred square meters. I couldn’t wait to escape. . . . And you had your paradise. Why would you leave all that?”
It was an interesting question. He had taken my little sketch of our domes as a paradise. I had only just seen paradise myself a few weeks before.
“I guess mostly because it’s not mine. It’s my dad’s—-and my mom’s. But it’s mostly his dream. Mom loves it too, but she came along for the ride, you might say. And I’m out to find my own dream now.”
I asked him about his family. I asked him about his ambitions. He had too little to say about his parents, and nothing at all to say about his dreams.
I suppose it might have been a matter of corrosion from the salt, but the guide was lost on our car somewhere near the end of our journey. I had no idea where we were headed exactly. I could not use my bic for a sat connection but I did have a map of the Cape from my Thoreau research and Ojay used his finger to mark the spot for me on that.
“Just beyond the elbow there,” he said, pointing to the odd geography of the peninsula.
We had crossed a bridge which offered the fine aspect of a broad canal that was fairly busy with small ships before the road had narrowed by half and the traffic lessened even more. After that there were a few brief glimpses of the ocean at a distance between the crest of the trees. We stopped when the guide was lost and Ojay took over the steering which he was obviously experienced at.
This was hardly Mr. Thoreau’s “Strange Shore.” There was no boundless plateau without tree or fence. The pine and oak were thick beside the road. Small gatherings of recent housing disappeared after we crossed into the National park. The houses ‘few and far between’ the philosopher had observed were long gone now from the plains of Nauset.
Soon enough we came upon the relic tower of an ancient lighthouse which was no longer functioning and served now as a forlorn landmark in its sentry duty over a broad parking area paved with broken seashells and tufted grass. A few dozen cars there were scattered over a space large enough for hundreds.
Expectation grew in me as we walked up a planked pathway in becalmed air thickened by the smell of roses in a hot burn of sun toward a crest and an open sky. Clusters of rose bushes hedged our way with their pink bloom. The pounding of my heart and the hollow thump of our feet on the boards was soon overwhelmed by the enlarged sound of the surf, as if there was the stirring of a great crowd ahead of us. My attention was only disturbed a bit by a group of women, mostly young, who passed us on the narrow way from the opposite direction wearing little more that scarves. I will readily admit that this dance of flesh is clear enough in memory to conjure it quickly now.
The crescendo of the larger sound exaggerated as we approached. The rose sweetened air began to buffet and turn and then became a steady breeze off the nearing bluff. Scrub pine no higher than my own head and more worthy of a dome on Mars took over from the roses at either side. I wanted to run, but Ojay loafed, more interested I think in his appraisal of the women we had passed. Then abruptly it was there! An unbroken horizon, silvered at a distant gutter above a wind hammered sea, trapped beneath a sky shredded by white rips of cloud. The wind pressed my face and my eyes teared. The air had suddenly transformed from rose sweetened musk to a salty effervescence of water and light.
This was not a wine dark sea, nor blue at all. Any color but blue! I saw greens of more variety that a field of sorghum. I saw all the variety that white can be. I saw the grays of any metal I could name. And silver. And the platinum of the sun tossed wildly away. Suddenly then there was in fact a scar of blue itself within the inner curl of a wave—and then it vanished.
I looked back for Ojay, but he had passed me and gone down the wooden stairs to the beach, his pack and shirt dropped in the gashes of his own bare feet. Before I had reached the sand he had thrown himself like a suicide into the mouth of a wave.
I followed his path until the cold reach of one spent wave collided against my shins and took my breath. Over the top of the next approaching crest I could see his dark head and the mimed gesture of his arms. He was standing there it appeared. His words were lost to me in the next collision at my thighs. I took a breath against the cold and pressed forward into a brief calm, the water drawing out at my ankles like a pulled rug, and then stopped again in the face of an unexpected rising of another crest. It was not that large a wave in retrospect, but it tossed me over like a toy. I was doubled then, turned and beaten, and scoured. I could hold my breath for two minutes at a time on Mars. Something you learn as a precaution. But not under the circumstance of being abused. I needed air and flailed about me for the surface. In the churn of sand and foam and water there was no top or bottom. I was dizzied. Water burned in my nose and I clenched my teeth on the grit. Something took my elbow and lifted me. Ojay ginned at me, dragging my weight all the way to the flat of the near shore.
His question was in his frown.
“Do you know how to swim?”
I had to admit the sad fact.
He laughed out loud. It was a reassuring sound. I was alive.
Chastened, like a child battered in the school yard, I played most of the remainder of the day above the water line. The beach was crowded at this point, close to the stair. Further on a vacant shore disappeared into a mist. There was a casual camaraderie with the gathering closest to us. Everyone was out to have the best of their time. People laughed freely. Nudity was common enough, but the older visitors more often wore some kind of suit. Oddly, my eyes were often drawn to them. We played with a disk, a ‘frisbee’ that Ojay had brought, and then ‘volley ball’ with some girls who needed our running space to set up their net.
I covered myself in a cream Ojay had carried with him and still burned enough from the sun to later be uncomfortable with the touch of my shirt. That evening it was a choice between the scratch of the blanket or the damp cool of the air. Fires were not permitted, of course, but he had rented a chemical thermat. This made me recall what Jordan Abbott had told me on our air journey.
I asked Ojay, “Have you ever gone fishing. Have you ever camped with a real fire?”
“No and Yes. Never went fishing. Don’t know that I ever wanted to. Seems like a lot of work for something you can get in a package. We built fires sometimes when we were on duty and supplies were short. Not often. The Kanem have to use fires to cook because they lack anything else. We can track them at night by the signature of the heat. We take’em out that way. But they just build another one. They don’t learn.”
I had to say it.
“Or perhaps they don’t want to.”
I could tell he was looking across at me in the dark.
“Why did you say that?”
I wanted to answer in a way that would avoid a disagreement. I was happy with our adventure and did not want to break the mood.
It was not so completely dark there after sunset, though the moon had not risen, and the stars are not as thick as they are at home. The stars have more of that look you read of in the old poetry. These were tiny faceted jewels. The air was thickened with the smell of salt and roses. Crickets sang apart there without a chorus.
I said, “There are things of greater importance to some people—.”
But the discussion was interrupted. The two girls we had met earlier on the beach came up the path beside our campsite. We had played volley ball with them until I was exhausted and forced to sit and watch. But watching was not such a bad job and Ojay battled the two of them successfully enough by himself.
They giggled to let us know they were there in the dark and then asked innocently whether we wanted company. This was the custom, of course. On Earth, men are not supposed to make the offer. But I had not expected them. It was an awkward moment. I had to make some explanation.
I said, “I’m burned. I’m sorry. I’m too sore.”
I heard a sympathetic groan from the taller of the two girls.
She said she had cream she could put on me if I liked. She had been the one who seemed most interested in hearing about Mars as we played and I wished I had the time to explain our customs of courtship to her. I apologized instead and said that I was also very tired.
Ojay stood up then against the starry ceiling.
He said, “I have room enough over here.”
The girls giggled again and settled in with him. I took a walk. Thankfully, I thought to take my blanket with me.
On a rise of sand clear of debris I wrapped myself against the cool press of a steady breeze and lay down alone beneath those oddly scattered stars. Suddenly I was happy for the incident. This isolation on the beach felt more like the experience I craved.
In my dreams I had never actually considered the ocean what the ocean might be at night. This then was the living flesh of the earth, spread above the bone of rock. It rests fitfully, lungs swelling, then coughs against the shore. An unceasing breath fills the night. This was the goddess Tethys.
The atomy eyes of some ship looked back from that distant point of joining between the sea and the universe above. Was the goddess looking for me? The deep darkness of space had merged with the earth. Nyx had joined Erebus with Tethys between them. A ‘menage a trois’ was ther term I had forgotten!
It was strange just then to think for the first time how the sky is lost at night—that the sky is just an artifice of the eye. This must be a thought that occurs to children, but I had only just made the discovery. The universe is always there, behind the eyelid of day. I laughed. Not loud, but enough to make a statement in the night of my being alone and looked up and down the empty shore to see if anyone was there to hear.
I wished that Sarah were with me. I wished she could be with me again for just a moment. I had things to tell her.
I thought of the old philosopher again. Henry was quite a prude himself, as I imagined Ojay must believe me to be as well. Thoreau disliked hard liquor and cigars and certainly sex never entered into any discourse of his that I had ever found. He had a special fear of women, whom he identified with ‘hysterics’—-perhaps all but one: ‘The Nauset woman.’ He had taken the time and space to make a special note of her, “One singularly masculine woman in a house on this very plain, who did not look as if she was ever troubled with hysterics, or sympathized with those who were; or perchance, life itself was to her a hysteric fit—a woman of hardness and coarseness such as no man ever possesses or suggests. It was enough to see the vertebrae and sinews of her neck, and her set jaws of iron which would have bitten a board nail in two in their normal action—braced against the world, talking like a man-of-war’s man in petticoats, or, as if shouting to you through a breaker, who looked as if it made her head ache to live; hard enough for any enormity. I looked upon her as one who had committed infanticide; who never had a brother, unless it were some wee thing that died in infancy,—or what need of him?-–and whose father must have died before she was born.”
I would like to have met this women myself. She was an earthy goddess for sure. Old Thoreau had a way with strangers. He could talk to almost anyone. I envied that.
This reminded me again that this entire course I was on was a little like the one Thoreau had often taken, not just Cape Cod. He walked and talked to whomever he met. But unlike his contemporary, Tocqueville, he did not cross the ocean to find his domain.
Once, here on Cape Cod, he had come upon an eight year old boy walking in the rain in a place which was called Eastham then and I figured to be close by even though the name no longer appears on my vid map. He and the boy had talked at length as they walked, and I credit him with the intelligence to look for the wisdom in a child’s accounts even if he was so wary of women.
I must have thought of other things as well. I’ve lost them in that surf. But the last thing I had been considering I know. I was dreaming of Nyx I know this was my last thought because, in the next instant I awoke to a cold kiss from the lip of the ocean. She had found me in the dark. An unseen mist had been pulled away to uncover a sky directly above not so very different now than what I have always known at home. The soup of stars was thick and close in the predawn moment. I even thought I could see mars, but perhaps I was mistaken. I wished I had my vid to check. How stupid that I had not yet thought to look for my own home in all that mess.
I stood up with that first rude advance but not far enough and the next wave washed around my ankles. Further up the slope of the beach the sand seemed dry and perhaps still even a little warm from the sun of the previous day. There I turned the wet edge of the blanket downward and huddled against the chill, my chin on my knees, while staring out to the dark of an ocean that might pursue me. A hundred times, or maybe a thousand, I have crouched on the cold ledge outside our dome and looked at the odd blue star that was earth. Now, on this edge of earth, I could easily see in the southern sky my own little planet wink at me.
Here was the earth of the god Erebus—the deepest dark bottom of the earth—or was it all just the land of the goddess Nyx. I had been confused since I first read that children’s story with the wonderful pendulum clock that went Nyx, Nox, in the night. Nox was the Roman, wasn’t she. I could see her face in the dark just as I first saw it as a child. She was the more serious of the twin sisters. Nyx was the freer spirit to me. Erebus was their father, but I could not remember the mother’s name. Perhaps Mnemosyne . . . No! That would have come afterward. Nyx was a primordial. Perhaps Hecate was the mother. Witchcraft could be involved, certainly. But Erebus was enough to know just then—and Nyx, if for no other reason than that erotic image by the French painter Bouguereau. The naked curves of flesh were clear in mind from my interrupted dream. She had been the succubus of my teenage imagination in a picture I had found in a book in my father’s library.
There were no ships to look back in the night at this hour, but there was suddenly a flash in the east, and then another, and again. I stared intently to sea, and listened over the breakers to hear the report of guns. After being pulled away from that lusty image of Nyx, was I now the witness of a sea battle by Forester or O’Brien? I was motionless in an effort to hear, straining above the noisy last effort of another wave now exhausted from a journey that must have begun somewhere off the shores of Morocco. That was romance enough to me, wasn’t it? And then, in an instant, from that point where my imagined cannons had fired, the two bodies of the ocean and the sky parted. Their love making was finished. Hemera was coming. The daily rebirth had begun.
This turning of the night into day was quick. That brief period when all the heaven was revealed had passed and the stars fled with an apparent impatient to leave. The wind buffeted and the fingers of a chill crept up from the sand like a spider. I shivered.
Far away to the west, Sarah would be asleep at this hour. I tried to envision that. I wondered what her room looked like. I had never seen her home or her bed. Did she dream of me, or had she pushed those thoughts beneath the needs of the moment.
A seagull suddenly appeared closer to the edge of foam left by the spent waves. The bird stood motionless, one foot to the sand and the other folded beneath, and stared to sea as intently as me—-a mimic. What little fish crossed his mind? What oyster memory did he recall? One loose feather flagged the wind from the crown of his head.
I sat cross legged with the blanket around me all the way to my head until the sun was fully in my eyes and then, stiff, I walked along the beach to the south to loosen my legs and swung my arms for warmth. The air was already loosing its edge. Crabs scuttled away toward the water. I grabbed at colors and shapes as they presented themselves to the new sun in the wallows between shoulders of sand. When my hands were quickly full of shells and small stones, I twisted a pocket into my blanket so that I could hold more.
The stones were too many in places, and I became selective, choosing only those encircled with a ring of white—the smoothly round fragments of some geologic saturn, crushed beneath an ancient glacier and left as a gift of terminal moraine at my very feet. Well, perhaps not. Perhaps churned awhile in the waves first before being offered as gifts from Tethys to Mars.
A net of small birds turned in the air as if thrown by a fisherman and landed in a single piece of feathered fabric not fifty feet ahead of me. I stopped, not wanting to disturb them. At that point the slope of the beach had lessened and I could see where the water had reached all the way to the foot of the dune and puddled behind a smaller rise. There a hundred or more seagulls conversed in an unpleasant shrieking. Just beyond them a field of sea grass as thick as any wheat I had ever known waited in the shadow of the dune for the sun to rise further.
Certainly Thoreau had walked this strand. Wasn’t it here that he met his battered and ragged beach comber below these ramparts of sand?
Further south, just above the mist which clung to the dune ahead, I could see the slowed rising of white blades, one behind the other. Windmills. Not the small wooded contraptions that Thoreau had observed. Given the distance, I calculated these must be at least a hundred feet high.
I recalled my bloody nightmare at first glimpse but this was quickly cleansed by the silver of the mist amidst the blades.
I heard a voice caught in the sound of the waves and mistook it at first for part of the shrieking flock. Behind me, against the light of the sun, a blackened figure ran at me. I was startled, and crouched low, as I had been taught. The figure stopped only a few feet away, now looking even larger than he was.
It was Ojay, of course.
“Jesus Christ! I thought you’d drowned. I thought you were dead. I woke up and you were still gone and I followed your path right down to the water line. I thought you had tried to swim again!”
I stood up a little dumfounded. Almost speechless.
“I was just walking.”
He started to breath then as if he had not taken a breath for many minutes.
“I don’t know how I saw you. It must be two kilometers. I just kept thinking that stupid little speck had to be you are else I was in deep shit.”
I shrugged. There wasn’t much to say.
“It wouldn’t have been your fault. Just another stupid fellow from Mars. You would have had a story to tell out of that.”
And then something else occurred to me.
He was upset over something more.
He said, “We should get back.”
I said, “Why. What’s matter? What else is going on here?”
He shook his head and stared out at the busy dance of the water, and then shook his head again.
“I’m no good at this. See. This isn’t the kind of thing I usually do. I’ve done it before, I admit that. But only a few times. It’s the only way to catch a break.”
I asked again, “What’s going on?”
He seemed genuinely unhappy to tell me. It was not necessary. He could have made up any story he wanted to and I would have believed him.
He said, “I am on duty. I was so fucking tired. It’s all search and destroy lately. It never seems to end. I complained. So they gave me a choice. They said I could come home if I’d be a watcher. They said it’d be easy duty. Three months. Just another skinny student from Mars. And I needed the rest.”
I had known since our small wake for Abby that he was my second watcher. I was glad of it, in my own selfishness. I had felt some fear for my situation.
He didn’t talk on the way back. I walked at the edge of the water to get a last feel of it. He stayed higher above me where the ocean had thrown a line of debris and he picked up piece after piece and threw it against the rise of the dune. His anger seemed formidable.
I stopped him as we climbed the stairs.
“What will they do if they know I know?”
He shrugged, “I’m guessing they’ll think it’s pointless to have me watching you at all. Worse if they knew I’d lost track of you.”
I tried to read his face. That face had been washed by the light of things I could only imagine. That face would not tell me what it didn’t want me to know.
“So don’t tell them. Just let things continue the way they were before. Take your break. They would just put someone else on my case if you left. Right? It won’t matter to anyone, . . . except you.”
That made him turn away from me and continue up the stair without another word.
At the top, I stopped him again.
“Why did you tell me then. What made you do that?”
Again he didn’t answer but turned away instead. He was as unused to confessional conversation as I was to military silence.
In the car I had an odd thought.
“Is the ocean as rough on the other side of the arm? If it’s calmer there, maybe you could teach me to swim!”
He slowed the car, letting it roll to a stop beside the scrub that bordered the road. He looked at me only with a brief twist of his head, as if his neck were caught in an uncomfortable collar. Then he pressed his code into the panel.
Still, he said nothing until the turn in the road and we headed further west instead of south.
Give credit where it is due. The stated value of a credit on Earth does not change. But the color does, and what a credit can be used for is determined by the color, not its numerical value. The discrimination is by the color. Some credits could not buy some things at any price. This kind of thing is against the law on Mars. Considered a fraud, it is one of the few restrictions on the use of money anywhere in the League.
On Earth, most credits are ‘green.’ The amount flashes in emerald figures and the sum is boxed in a clashing red. But my own credits were ‘blue.’ This made it clear to anyone interested that they had been issued in exchange for a foreign currency. The sums were boxed in yellow. Ojay’s credits were mostly green, but he had received some number of ‘yellow’ credits for his time in the service. The sums of his transactions were boxed in blue. Mr. Down’s credits when he was on the job were ‘red,’ but green when off duty. He told me this one day after he had bought me a coffee and I asked him about the new color. The letters G, B, Y, R, followed the credit balance when it flashed on the vid and the numbers themselves appeared against a highlighting of the specific color. When my turn came in line at a market, other eyes often fixed on the register screen as the blue appeared in the yellow box.
I first saw the yellow when Ojay paid the meter at the parking lot in Nauset on our first day at the Cape. As great a day as that was, all three days were fine. I learned to swim in the bay on the second day. This alone is worth all the credits in my account. And on that day and part of the next I sat at the back of a dune and watched the shift and flight of birds until I fell asleep. I napped in the heated shade of a blanket held up by a stick. I spread my toes on the sandy mud and followed the retreat of the ocean pulled by a moon with true godly powers quite unlike our feeble Phobos and Deimos.
The earth laid open to the eye like this is a natural art that makes the mind work in ways not usual in smaller spaces. The waters of the bay fall back for miles and expose a rough canvass of weed and shell and sand in subtle hues which would have never been captured on a gallery wall. The lowering tide can rest the wandering eye at the horizon line, despite a blinding sky. Certainly the gilt of the sun off the wrinkle of even a retreating sea can nearly blind. But when the tide is out and the very floor of the ocean is exposed, the mind is laid open as well, and the thoughts flow freely. Here the great moon goddess Selene quiets the tongue of worried Tethys long enough to allow the ear to listen, and hear again.
The pearled hues of clouds rich in silver and gold mounted in airy islands above on the second evening.
I told Ojay, “We have nothing like this on Mars. The clouds are too often a thin pink soup that captures nothing, much less the eye.”
“I’ve seen that in the desert. More yellow than pink, though. Dry pee, we call it.”
“I have been here more than a month—-almost two, and I seldom hear anyone comment on the magnificence of the clouds. They are a feast. Never the same.”
“They’re clouds. But they’re unreal. Nothing but a trick of light.”
“They’re real. The castles of dreams. The bodies of beasts. The walls of Jericho. The islands of Paradise–”
He waved his hand at me dismissively. There was an edge of anger in his speech.
“You are so full of crap! Where does all that come from? All those words you use. Just words. All that’s real is what you eat, and what you can fuck, and a liter of beer. More than that, you’ll just piss away. If you can’t grab it or shoot it, walk the other way cause it’ll kill you.”
He was only admitting his fears. I smiled into the gleam of the ocean.
“I have never seen through your eyes. I can’t know what you know. But you are human and not stupid and I have heard you whoop with joy and play in the waves like the child of innocence and I think you know the beauty in a cloud even if you’re afraid to speak of it and it pains you to hear it said. I am sorry it hurts you to hear it from me. I cannot help myself. I was raised this way. It is the way of my people. My culture. My nation. Perhaps because we were torn from the breast of the earth and long for it in our dreams. But it is a common religion among as, no matter what we call ourselves otherwise—to appreciate the beauty in life, before its moment is lost. Because no beauty is exactly like another, and if it is not appreciated, it is surely lost. I think this is only human. And a rejection of beauty is anti-human. And a refusal to see beauty is a refusal to be human. And that in itself is a waste. There are not so many of us, you know. A few billions. Tossed amidst the trillion stars. And if too many of those few are imprisoned beyond the reach of beauty, think of all the treasure clouds that go unseen. What a waste!”
“And you, my Martian, are a master of great shit! A true god of the latrine! A month in the army would take care of that.”
“Why be in the army then. Why not leave the army if it’s such hell.”
“It’s not. It’s not hell. It’s not heaven.It’s a living. Better than most, I think. No living coffin in some office for me! I do my job and I see places. My dad never left Worcester. His whole fucking life was spent in Worcester, Massachusetts. I’ve been to the crest of Kilimanjaro!”
“And it was beautiful, I’ll bet.”
“God damn, it was.”
We did not leave for home until it started to rain on the third day and showed no sign of letting up. I still did not mind the rain. It was something of a pleasure to me. But Ojay couldn’t stand it.
He had told me, “Before Chad, I was stationed in Laos. It rained all the damn time. I wasn’t dry for nine months. I had moss between my toes. I went crazy, so they put me in the desert. And I’ll tell you this. I was happier in the desert. So dry you never saw your own sweat. I don’t care if I ever see rain again.”
I could not help but ask, “Can you stand the cold?”
“I don’t know. The desert freezes at night, but a blanket is enough for that. I’ve never been where it was really cold accept for Kilimanjaro.”
“Well, if you can ever go, then you might like Mars. It’s very dry and very cold.”
As we returned I asked him every one of my 48 survey questions in order and Ojay answered them all, taking some pleasure in details which made a simple yes or no very difficult to divide.
[The story told as of May 26, 2018. New chapters will be posted here weekly]