Traditions are hard to break but the ones that mean something never go away. Today is just any other day for Marci except that today she walks to the store to get her groceries. Marci America is sweating after the first few steps of her journey to the store. She feels hungry because the vitamin booster wonâ€™t be regularly injected into her spine, and she feels tired because the anti-atrophying agent isnâ€™t going to work for the next thirty days.
The streets of Union Crater, Mars are filled with people who hadnâ€™t seen the grey skies in exactly a yearâ€™s time. People just like Marci are trying to remember how to walk more than ten feet in an hour, they are trying to recall how it is to be alive.
Some like Harold Dixon have been training for these days for months. He walks with a steady pace and even daringly lifts his arm to take a sip of Hydro-Oxy from a bottle. Itâ€™s people like Marci that really bring out the spirit of the Days of Remembrance. The ones that almost donâ€™t make it are the ones who show everyone else watching what it means to truly understand these days.
Marci is fourteen meters down the street and she can feel her body wanting to give in. She tries to remember that itâ€™s not her body giving in but her mind that wants to break down. If she falls she knows it isnâ€™t the end. Those who fall on the way to do their daily activities are swept up by their neighbors and helped along every step of the way.
Mars dust is disturbed between buildings that have not been disturbed for an entire year. Some children who are naturally vibrant can spot marks they made the previous year and laugh at the lethargy of their progenitors. The red sand is marred with footprints on the way to work, school, and shopping. Upon entering the doors of these establishments there is a solemn silence at the deactivated teleportation consoles next to the entranceways.
By now middle-aged Marci is finding her strength again. She can walk with ease and ignores the stress of bones and muscle. Her eyes focus to the light outdoors, the sun they call Solaris that burns the eyes of everyone who dares to step beyond the threshold of their homes. Marciâ€™s mind is challenged and it prevails. In her lucidity she remembers why they do such things for these few weeks and why it is important to always remember.
Union Crater is a good city with good values. There may be crime and there may be troubles of the family but everyone stops to stare at the grey tower on their walks towards their duties. A sign before the tower is dim without the power inside, letters spelling out in the dust: â€œUnion Crater Power Matrixâ€. Marci is biting into an apple grown from dirt, not replication. She tastes the sweetness of a year of effort and she remembers to take nothing for granted.
Daikan hadnâ€™t told anyone about the birds. They were his secret, but each day, he had to prove to himself that his secret was still there.
The fields stretched out wide and sun-kissed, rows of wheat and corn and the colonial crop of beravados swaying gently in the wind. Daikan breathed the air as he walked, but he paid no attention to the beauty of the countryside. He had grown up on colony worlds, after all, and had never seen a true city. The contrast was lost on him. He was close to the valley now, the hollow where heâ€™d first discovered his secret. The fields held no interest for him.
Daikan paused to catch his breath at the base of the last hill, his heart leaping in his chest. Every day that he made this pilgrimage, he asked himself the same questions. Would they be there today? Would it all still be true? Or had his secret vanished overnight, disappeared into the ether of impossibility? Daikan didnâ€™t want to believe it was all a dream, so he hadnâ€™t told anyone. Not yet. He took a deep breath and bent down to his hands and knees, crawling up the hill to peer over the top.
The birds were there. Stretching out in all directions, they covered the grassy plain, so close together that Daikan couldnâ€™t see the ground. The valley was filled with birds of every shape and color, feathers rustling, all packed together more closely than Daikan had ever seen. He held his breath, eyes wide, terrified of disturbing them. Each day the birds seemed to multiply, with more kinds and colors filling the small hollow until Daikan couldnâ€™t believe it would hold anymore, but this was far beyond the number from the day before. The valley full of feathers and beaks was a living thing, but the only sound that issued from it was a low, pervasive rustle. The birdlike chatter that had drawn him there for the first time a week ago was gone, and Daikan swallowed. He would keep still forever if it meant never breaking the wonder of the scene before him.
All at once, the rustle stopped. Daikanâ€™s eyes were wide as saucers, fearful that the birds had discovered him, that he would be covered by angry wings and claws and pecked apart by sharp beaks, but the birds didnâ€™t move. For a long moment, there was utter silence in the valley, an unnerving stillness that a similar crowd of human beings could never produce. Then the birds turned as one and launched themselves into flight.
It was stunning. Every bird in the valley, every member of every species that had been painstakingly transported from the homeworld, took wing at once. They flew over Daikanâ€™s head with no regard whatsoever for the human boy, and without thinking he was on his feet, mouth open as he stared at the cloud of departing creatures. Feathers fell around him like rain, the combined effect of thousands of birds taking off at once, nearly blotting out the sky with their bodies.
â€œNo!â€ Daikan cried out in dismay, stretching a futile hand out after them. â€œNo, please! Come back!â€ His hand caught only a single black feather.
The birds didnâ€™t listen. In a cacophony of flapping wings, they were gone.
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.”
On the night Alpine Zanzibar died, that diva light, that genteel fantastic, the people that loved him bought him the moon. Together his friends pitched a fortune and purchased the lunar landscape for the entire night, inflicting their choices for the moonâ€™s color on the entire earth. At 6PM the moon was a crisp blond color but at the strike of midnight it turned a dark and mysterious blue. The gold of that light was to celebrate the long life of Alpine Zanzibar, and the blue was to mourn his passing.
The party was at the Silver Swan, the establishment where Alpine Zanzibar held his bohemian court. The Silver Swan was not just bar, nor a cabaret, but the night home of the residents of Second Paris, a place were hearts were mended and souls found, glory on a honest to damn wooden stage. Years before most of the patrons had even been born, the genteel fantastic Alpine Zanzibar had opened the Silver Swan and had commenced the nightly revelry as the city of Second Paris grew around him. The party was part roast, part jazz funeral, but most of all like a birthday and all of it like the life of the man it celebrated, all glory, all fabulous fantastic.
Alpine Zanzibar himself appeared an hour into the festivities, having just emerged from a day spent with his closest friends, his created family, those brothers and sisters holding back their tears and throwing back bubbly drinks. He wore robes of shining purple and glistening blue, the colors of the evening, past the set sun.
In accordance with Zanzibarâ€™s own request, they held the usual cabaret; girls dancing, the political puppet show outlining the faults of the United Parliament, the heckles and the teasing, the stripping and the finale, which Zanzibar sang himself. He sang his torch song, his familiar standard, the old love song, almost antiquated until Zanzibar put it past his lips.
Suddenly, as the last chord played, there was the sound of wild horses, and the laugher of women. From the cold autumn night, like a crisp wind blew in that proper villain, that rouge, the gypsy Prince; Vlad of the Jagged Spire. He entered with his cadre of gypsy girls in their striped corsets. Vlad wore his stylishly disheveled Victorian tails, and top hat. His dark hair curled around his shoulders, and the crisp click of his heels on the ceramic tile sent the crowd silent. Long had Zanzibar and Vlad been rivals, Zanzibar stealing Vlads gypsy ladies to his stage and Vlad temping Zanzibarâ€™s lovers into his caravan.
Vlad swept through the silent crowd, holding the edges of his stain lined cape and mounted the stage with an effortless little hop.
â€œLong have we been rivals, Alpine Zanzibar, but tonight, that ends.â€ Vlad wrapped his arm around Zanzibarâ€™s waist, pulling Zanzibars body towards his in a smooth, practiced motion. Vlad caught Zanzibar in a long and passionate kiss. When they finally parted, Vlad bowed to Zanzibar. â€œA decent rival happens once in a thousand lifetimes. My deepest thanks.â€
Zanzibar lifted the glass thrust into his hand, and proposed a toast to Vlad, and Vlad toasted Zanzibar, and into the night the patrons of the Silver Swan toasted each other and danced and laughed and sang away every hour.
Alpine Zanzibar took the key from around his neck, that brass key to the Silver Swan, and placed it around the neck of his lover, the doe eyed boy named Daniel, whose white shirt clung to his ribs like paint on a wall. Daniels eyes went liquid, he lost a crystal tear to Zanzibarâ€™s thumb on his cheek and a kiss that was tender and sweet, a taste, an echo. But Zanzibar wouldnâ€™t let his lover cry for long. He encouraged the band with a dramatic wave, let the drink pour from the fountains, and danced with the girls. Vlad whirled, skirts flew, and the organ played on.
After midnight, when everyone was drunk and singing, Zanzibar went to the back room and changed his clothes. He wiped the paint off his face and put on grey trousers and a flat, black cap. He picked up his satchel, the one with a change of clothes and his new identification cards, the ones that said Eugene Johnston, freshman university student in physics. He opened the back door into the alley and walked towards the public transport pod-station. Behind him, Alpine Zanzibarâ€™s friends were toasting the life of a man they loved, ahead, Eugene Johnston started his life.
Claude scuffed his feet against the burnished steel floor of his ship, a deep frown settled on his features. No matter how old he got, there were some women who always seemed to bring out the child in him, the contrite young boy who had just been given a firm scolding. Jelari could do it more easily than most.
â€œItâ€™s not that I think itâ€™s a bad thing,â€ she was explaining, her voice quiet and reasonable. â€œBut really, Claude, even you have got to see that this is a little unhealthy. It makes sense for a mechanic to be devoted to his ship, but with this thingâ€”Claude, I donâ€™t know how else to say this. You treat it like a person.â€
â€œI treat her like a ship,â€ Claude protested. â€œA good ship whoâ€™s gotten me through a lot of scrapes and deserves respect.â€
â€œSee?â€ Jehari said, giving him a look of profound disappointment. â€œYouâ€™re personifying again, Claude. You just called it a â€˜she.â€™ A spaceship isnâ€™t a person. Itâ€™s a piece of machinery.â€
â€œEven landside sailors give their ships a gender,â€ Claude replied, but the sinking feeling in his heart told him he was losing yet another battle. Jehari just didnâ€™t understand the special relationship Claude had with the Mermaidâ€™s Wing. Heâ€™d raised the ship from a baby, just a junkyard scrap with a tiny spark of potential, and she had carried him through thick and thin. Every ounce of money Claude got from his various odd jobs wound up sunk into the Mermaidâ€™s Wing, on engine parts or upgrades or new tools or even just a new coat of sealant. He could tell that his girlfriend was not amused.
â€œThat is not the point, Claude, and you know it.â€ Jehari straightened and frowned, and inwardly, Claude groaned. This always meant that she meant business. â€œThe point is that you are spending too much time working on the ship and not enough interacting with real human beings.â€
By that, Claude knew that Jehari meant heâ€™d been ignoring her, and he felt a pang of guilt. Jehari was a human, though, and humans could take care of themselves. The Wing couldnâ€™t. â€œShe needs me,â€ Claude protested weakly.
â€œClaude, this is not acceptable.â€ Jehariâ€™s mouth was set in a thin line and Claude knew it was only a pale representation of the line he had just crossed. â€œIâ€™m not going to live here with you and watch you waste all of your time on unnecessary engine diagnostics and triple-redundancy system installations. You need to make a choice. Itâ€™s either me or the ship.â€
Slumping in his chair, Claude nodded. Somehow he had always known it would come to this. He felt a certain sense of defeat, but in the end, Jehari was probably rightâ€”it was better this way. He needed to learn how to let go and make choices. It was with a very real pang of regret that he dropped Jehari off at the next spaceport.
As he piloted the Mermaidâ€™s Wing away from the station, Claude felt a lightness that he hadnâ€™t experienced in months. He patted the control panel affectionately, noting as he did so that the Wingâ€™s coolant system was running just a little below 90% efficiency. Heâ€™d have to take a look at that. â€œDonâ€™t worry,â€ he told the ship with a smile. â€œIâ€™ll take care of you.â€
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…