Zai Lockheart felt slightly claustrophobic on her motherâ€™s porch despite the open, rolling wilderness of the Martian countryside that surrounded her. The house was a pre-fab jobâ€”â€œmy aluminum boxâ€ her mother called itâ€”and it felt cheap and flimsy compared to the monument of stone and wood Zai had grown up in back on Earth. Zai was sitting on the lacquered-metal porch because she couldnâ€™t sleep inside the house; the image of the house tumbling down the mountainside sprang to life every time Zai closed her eyes.
â€œThey have a legend up here, you know.â€ Zai was startled by her motherâ€™s voice behind her. â€œThey say, before you can live up here on the mountains, you have to go to the highest bluff you can find, and shout, loud as you can, â€˜I am a Martian!â€™ And if God believes you, youâ€™ll live in these mountains in happiness and peace, until the end of your days.â€
â€œAnd? If God doesnâ€™t believe you?â€
â€œSmiting. Lightning. Fire from heaven. That sort of thing.â€
â€œWell, it is a beautiful country-side. I can see why Godâ€™d be so picky about whoâ€™d get it.â€ Zai stood up and stretched. She had her fatherâ€™s height, and as such towered over her mother, despite them both being in bare feet. â€œI miss the old house, Mama.â€
â€œDidnâ€™t seem to miss it when you moved out,â€ Zaiâ€™s mother gave her a sly grin. â€œIt was too big. Too big for an old woman without a family. I could have kept it, and you still would have only visited on holidays.â€
â€œI just have trouble picturing you living anywhere but home.â€
â€œAnd I have trouble picturing you without a scabbed knee and pigtails. But look at you now.â€ Zaiâ€™s mother turned away from her, and placed her hands on her hips. â€œWatch that sun come up. Paints the whole world red. I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ll ever get tired of that.â€
â€œMom, why did you move here?â€
â€œBecause,â€ her mother said, not looking back. â€œI am a Martain.â€
â€œI donâ€™t believe you.â€
â€œThatâ€™s nice, dear,â€ Zaiâ€™s mother said patting Zaiâ€™s hand as she shuffled back in the house. â€œBut youâ€™re not the one I have to convince.â€
On Saturn’s ring plasma knives were illegal and as such, costly. Tangerine remembered Big Slab used to wear one around his neck, but she had never seen him use it. But this was Earth, and Earth was said to be civilized, unlike those settlements on Saturn’s rings. Which meant that when these girls from Tangerineâ€™s school brought out knives and threatened to cut her, they were plasma, not steel.
“Here’s how it lays out, Ringer,”said the tall girl, clearly the leader. Her holographic nails illuminated the delicate controls on her knife handle. “We don’t like you, and we don’t need your kind at this school. So we’re gonna do you a favor, and give you a reason to go on back to your smelly little rings.”
Tangerine’s mother had insisted on the move. She didn’t think Big Slab and the other members of The Titans were proper role-models for a young girl. Tangerine had tried to explain to her that you couldn’t be safer than the protÃ©gÃ© of the leader of the toughest gang in the ‘rings, but her mother wouldn’t hear of it.
“Saturn swallows its children whole,” she would say, shaking her head. And that would be the end of it. “Saturn swallows its children whole.”
So instead of the warm tutelage of Big Slab, Sally Gone, Dingo and all the rest, Tangerine was in the parking lot of a convenience store of civilized Earth with five girls discussing how many pieces they were going to slice her up.
“Don’t you worry too much about it, Ringer. Tell you what, if you don’t struggle, we may even leave you that pretty face of yours.” The tall girl kept adjusting the magnetic field of her knife, making the blade longer or shorter or wider or thinner. Playing with it.
Tangerine remembered Big Slab talking about those who treat weapons as toys. She remembered what he said about how to deal with those people. For the first time since leaving Saturn’s rings, Tangerine smiled.
“I really like your nails,” Tangerine said. “All that light. They must make finding your boyfriend’s tiny penis really easy.”
The tall girl came in quickly. Tangerine dodged the strike with ease, and caught the girls wrist. In one fluid motion, she turned off the knife, and depressed one of the control dials so hard it snapped. Tangerine pushed the girl away, closed her eyes and placed her arms in front of her face.
The tall girl charged again, raising her knife high above her head, her hologramed thumb switching it back on. But fell to her knees immediately when her knife exploded in her hand, the ignited plasma expanding outward without the magnetic field Tangerine had broken. The rest of the girl-gang temporarily blinded, Tangerine wasted no time hauling the tall girl up by her hair.
“I’m a daughter of Saturn,” Tangerine whispered in the tall girl’s ear. “I think you know what that means, now.” Tangerine let go of the tall girl’s hair, and watched as she crumpled on the asphalt.
Tangerine adjusted her school uniform, and calmly walked out of the parking lot, back into civilized Earth
Everyone asks how I met Archer, if I picked him out from the agency’s catalogue or if he was recommended to me by someone else and other such questions, when in truth I must confess that I had never met him before he showed up upon my doorstep. I had merely requested a valet from the agency, and they said one would be sent, and gave no further description other than he would be up to their impeccable standards.
He rang the bell at exactly the second upon the hour he was to arrive, and I found myself unexpectedly worried. Had the agency sent a robot? That would not do, not in the least. So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I opened the door. Imagine my relief, if you can, to find not a chrome-plated Johnnie, but instead, Archer.
“I was sent by the agency, sir,” he said. “I was given to understand that you required a valet. My name is Archer”
I nodded, awed. He shook my hand firmly, and glided into the room , setting about tidying up. I have tendency to leave things strewn about while in the midst of working–a hazard of the occupation, really–and Archer went to setting it right immediately, seeming to know where everything went originally after nothing more than a brief scan of the room.
“You’ll have to excuse me,” I said. “But…how did you know?”
“I beg your pardon. sir?”
“That I was your employer, and not…you know. Did the agency tell you?” I hadn’t mentioned it to them, but they have ways of finding things.
“You are referring to your appearance, sir?” Archer asked. I nodded. “No, the agency said nothing. But if you were not my employer, and this phantom gentleman had such a robot as yourself open the door for him, what need would he have of me?”
“And this doesn’t bother you?”
“No, sir,” Archer said. But I remained unconvinced.
“I feel I should explain my position. I am, as you may have guessed from the supplies, an artist. I have been fortunate enough to be a very financially successful artist, thought I am not a fool and realize that a great deal of that success comes from the novelty of being a ‘robot artist.’ The fact remains, however, that I am possessing of a great deal of money and a great deal of social obligations. Hence, your employ.”
“Very good, sir.”
“I don’t think you understand. I need help, Archer! The clothes alone!” I rubbed my rubber fingertips against my metallic forehead, the squeaks emphasizing my frustration. “I don’t know how to behave around people. I don’t know! Perhaps that old crank Tortleberry was right. Perhaps robots are not meant for social life.”
“If I may be so bold, sir.” Archer said. He stood very still and looked at me directly. “The word ‘robot’ comes from ‘robota,’ which means ‘drudgery’ in Czech and ‘work’ in Slovak. And while I have no doubts you work very hard upon your art, I do not believe it was the kind of labor the people of Slovakia had in mind. You are a gentleman of leisure, sir. I do not believe the title of ‘robot’ fits.”
“So this situation won’t be a problem for you. You’re not… embarrassed, or anything.” At that, Archer smiled. And I confess, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone smile before that. Not at me. It was so guileless, so warm. Nowhere near the mechanical grins I was used to from my buyers and other industry types.
“To be perfectly honest, sir, I am rather looking forward to the next Guild meeting. There’s a few Johnnie models that are going to be unspeakably jealous.”
You remember when Billy first went into space, donâ€™t you? First time one of those crazy rockets of his went off with him in it. First time he sent up the big rocket, not those little ones with the sensors made of old cell-phones and other garbage. Chuck always said heâ€™d send up Chairman Meow, or Mr. Catkins, or Daisyâ€™s kitten Cindy next, but he didnâ€™t. Billy went up immediately, soon as he knew as he could.
You hear what Daisy said? She was just in here, you just missed her. Billy calls her now and then. Only one from round here, â€˜spect. She told me Billy says the Jupiter colony wasnâ€™t gonna work by the end of next year. Called it the biggest failure of his life.
Daisyâ€™s doinâ€™ well. Says her VDâ€™s cleared up clear as day, and she gonna get back to work. That boy of hers is gettinâ€™ tall. She made a joke about how someone needs to market a daycare for prostitutes. Thatâ€™s Daisy for you. Always got a sense of humor.
She made some joke about Billy; canâ€™t remember what it was.
Remember how Chuck broke Billyâ€™s arm soon as he came down? Billy told everyone it was from re-entry, but a bunch of us saw him crawl out of that craft using both arms after landing. You saw it was Chuck, didnâ€™t you? Slammed Billy up against the wall, kicked him in the stomach, spat in his face. We all did a bit of that, but Chuck broke Billyâ€™s arm, make no mistake.
You seen Chuck recently? He looks good. Heâ€™s serious about quitting this time. Ever since that last binge, heâ€™s been serious. You know, the one he pawned his prosthetic leg to finance. You said heâ€™d be clean after losing that leg in that car accident, but he proved you wrong, eh? But heâ€™s serious now, he said so.
Still hard to believe Billy went, ainâ€™t it? Even after we all saw him, saw that rocket made of junk and debris took off into the sky? No one thought it would, despite what Billy told us about super-dense material and reverse-gravity fields an all that other hoodoo heâ€™d spout. But there it went, rocketing into the sky, out of Filt Street, out of Sporboro, out of the goddamn state and country and world.
Anyways, hereâ€™s the usual; youâ€™re still one of the best customers here, even after what happened to your throat. It’s amazing you can get enemas to work like that for you. Bottoms up! Ha! See you next week! The wine’ll be restocked!
What was that joke about Billy…
Harun did not think she was being unreasonable. The passenger obviously felt she was, but what did she know? Nothing, Harun concluded. Nothing that was worth anything anywhere but planet-side.
â€œLook,â€ Harun said. â€œYou cannot take this much luggage. There is not much space on the ship, and that isnâ€™t going to change any on the station. You cannot bring all of this.â€ Harun gave the variety of suitcases and valises spread out on the shiny plastic customs table a disdainful wave. Harun had already emptied them all, and was slightly disgusted at the auspicious wealth of the contents. Metal eating utensils, glass picture frames, paper books.
The waste was rampant.
â€œIâ€™m not leaving my things behind,â€ the passenger said. She had a slight accent and a queer way of motioning with her chin to make a point. Neither of these things did anything to raise Harunâ€™s opinion of her.
â€œThen youâ€™re staying,â€ Harun said, folding her arms across her polyester uniform.
The passenger scanned the items on the table, fingering a few of them. She let out a diminutive sigh, and seemed to grow smaller in the hard plastic chair. â€œWhat can I take?â€ she asked.
Harun gathered up most of the passengerâ€™s clothes, a business-like scowl concealing her delight and wonder at the softness of the some of them. Not all of the clothes fit into the passengerâ€™s smallest bag, so Harun left out some of the more delicate articles.
â€œThis,â€ she said, holding up the bag. â€œThis is all you can take. The rest will have to be recycled. Things like this, though, I donâ€™t know what weâ€™re going to do with.â€ Harun picked up a doll from the table. Its painted face was done up in a coy pout, and its body was garbed in an elegant kimono. Harun was slightly repulsed by it, a feeling that intensified when it occurred to her that the doll wasnâ€™t clothed in polysatin, but real silk. â€œThe clothes we can recycle, possibly. But the bodyâ€¦.the body is made of clayâ€”â€
â€œPorcelain,â€ the passenger and her chin interjected. â€œSuki is made of porcelain.â€
â€œItâ€™s clay,â€ Harun said. â€œThis isnâ€™t even furnace kindling.â€ She was about to toss it back on the table in disgust, but the passenger yanked it out of her hands. Harun held back an unprofessional smirk as the passenger cradled the doll like a baby.
â€œThen let me take her,â€ the passenger said. â€œPlease, let me take her. You said yourself, sheâ€™s of no use here. Let me take her.â€
Harun hung her head. The people never understood. It was like talking to children. â€œItâ€™s not just a matter of use. Itâ€™s also a matter of space. That thing is clay and silk and paint. It will be of no use to you on the ship, no use to you on the station, and I can guarantee you will not make it to the colonies with it, because itâ€™s going to take up space you need for important things. And as you can see, thereâ€™s no room in your bag.â€
The passenger looked at the doll she was cradling, then at what Harun had designated as her only luggage. Setting the doll down and giving the lacquered head a reassuring pat, the passenger turned her attention to the small bag. She removed a wool jacket from the bag, rubbed the soft material up against her face, and then carefully placed the doll inside the bag. She raised her head to meet Harunâ€™s eyes.
â€œNow,â€ she said. â€œI am ready to go.â€
â€œYouâ€™re making a mistake,â€ Harun said. â€œThat jacketâ€™s made of fine woolâ€”â€
â€œAnd Suki is made of fine clay,â€ the passenger said.
Harun watched the passenger take her small bag toward the loading port. She started at the elements of the passengerâ€™s luggage. The overhead light glinted off the metal and glass in a way that was not entirely replicated by the plastic table underneath.
â€œWait,â€ Harun said. The passenger turned. â€œWear the jacket. Wear it as you board. Itâ€™ll be hot, but you can take it off as soon as they seal the doors.â€
The passengerâ€™s tight, pale face brightened. â€œThank you,â€ she said.
â€œSkin and bones thing like you, going into space,â€ Harun said. â€œYouâ€™re going to need all the help you can get, with what youâ€™re made of.â€