The Greatest Vision
Wherein the Reader is Introduced to the World
It was Alfonso Parazzi who constructed the first biosphere meant for residential habitation. Reporters and politicians flocked to Baffin Island, Canada, to watch him cut the ribbon to one of the air-locks that separated the interior from the environment outside. It was the dawning of a new age of humanity. It signaled the beginning of a new debate, that weighed the fate of stars and galaxies upon the scales of human wisdom. It begot the question, what is the greatest vision for the future of mankind?
But Alfonso Parazzi could not have known that. To Parazzi, the bubble was his greatest vision. And today was the ultimate fulfillment of his life, because today the whole world marveled at, and thanked him for, all the years and tears he had given to that vision. Today was the first day he knew for certain that his efforts had been worth it. Perhaps even the first day he knew it was good that he had lived. Let’s not dwell on how the biosphere worked, if you asked Alfonso, he could surely tell you. We’re here simply to witness the beginning, the first cause, the giant leap for mankind that finally made the colonization of space not a possibility, but a plausibility.
We can say that the biosphere did work. The government of Canada had helped fund the research from the beginning, when he created and demonstrated a cheap but relatively impervious lattice. First it was used in cars, Tupperware, and thousands of other little things that required flexible but tough material. The toughness was only a nice side effect, though. The most impressive aspect of the material was its inertness. It did not expand or contract under heat or cold, or react to any common element in the air or on the ground. It did not decompose. It was a near-perfect insulator. It formed an absolute barrier of is-ness that could not be bullied into becoming-ness. The plastic, once made, could not be changed short of being melted down. But Alfonso didn’t stop at Tupperware, he dumped all the money back into his research and kept pushing for the material that wouldn’t just make life easier, but instead aid life itself. The product he had first imagined when the first glob of plastic was formed in his lab.
This plastic is what allowed for the creation of the biosphere, a completely self-maintained environment. Water evaporated, condensed, and precipitated inside the bubble. Air was changed from carbon dioxide to oxygen by plants, and from oxygen to carbon dioxide by people. Crops were grown inside the bubble, for the purposes of air recycling as well as self-reliance. A couple roads and an airport outside the bubble connected it to the rest of Earth’s inhabitants. The airlocks made it a chore entering and leaving, so people mainly stayed inside. That was the idea. A macrocosmic temperature regulator. A little bubble of comfort on the face of a desolate barren frozen wilderness. A blanket that kept in the heat Canada so greedily tore from her countrymen. Soon after, bubbles sprouted up in Russia, which had previously had the satisfaction of being the largest wasteland in the world. It spread into the Arctic, and the Antarctic, though only the most hardy of pioneers thought it worthwhile to stray so far from the rest of humanity. Methods were soon devised to keep it cool inside the bubble, rather than warm, and Australia became a new frontier. Bubbles were made to keep things drier, and specifically to completely purge the environment of unwanted diseases, insects, and unwanted parasites, to the transformation of Africa. Cities that had previously existed without bubbles argued over the cost of erecting one versus the benefits that could be expected thereby. There were no longer tropical, temperate, and arctic zones. The zone was now whatever the bubble wished it to be. The quality of life and cost of living skyrocketed and plummeted. And though there were still wars and rumours of wars, the multiplicity of little Edens that were sprouting up like a new species of vegetation, spoke of a new opportunity and beginning for mankind.
Mankind’s most mortal adversary, the mosquito, squished itself against the plastic barriers. Ants were told to dig elsewhere. Scorpions and cockroaches and flies were forced to remain outside. Weeds almost always managed to sneak in somehow, but weevils at least were stopped. Locusts could no longer plague Egypt even if they’d wanted to. Crop yields rose as fewer bugs spoiled them. Reducing pesticides lowered the cost of food, improved its taste, and helped maintain the environment, which could then support a far larger population. The energy versus environment debate quietly dissipated, as the primary need of fossil fuels for heating and cooling was banished. Most of Earth’s people still lived ‘outdoors’ as the new term became, but mini-bubbles even amidst the cities sheathed wooden houses from termites and Fido from the rain.
After Alfonso Parazzi died, the progressions of his model were made by fresh brilliant minds, hoping for their own epitaphs in the annals of mankind. The bubble defined the century. No other improvement even approached it. No other invention spawned so many blessings to people in so many ways in so many places. But like all things, the change was slow and quiet and more gradual than the predictions. Many people, if asked whether their lives had changed, or were much different from the lives of their parents, or grandparents, would have answered no. There were still barbarous countries and poor countries. America still struggled to find a balance between satisfying the basic needs of the people, and supporting the growth and freedom of the economy. There still wasn’t ever enough money to go around. Families still broke apart. Lovers still broke each other’s hearts. Children still cried over every little thing. Men still drank too much and smoked too much and cursed too much and gambled too much. Lawsuits were still used as milk cows and weapons of spite in countries with civil courts. Politicians still flouted the system, and changed their promises after the election. It was still scary for a woman to walk alone at night in Detroit. It still wasn’t even allowed for a woman to walk alone at night in Iran.
The bubble, you see, didn’t change all those little things about life. The bubble didn’t remake life, it was the gift of more life, and better life. Though there were even hopes of forming bubbles that could withstand the pressure of settlement under the ocean, humanity still had to live inside it. The bubble was just plastic. Ingeniously constructed plastic. Humanity still provided the stories.
Then something rather unexpected happened. Back in Canada, where bubbles had become the majority of cities, next to an icy cold shore, the community of Langless agreed to dispense with clothes. A nudist beach had spread to nudists returning from the beach to nudists going shopping after returning from the beach, until people wondered why a place with temperature control really needed clothing anymore. Perhaps it was a peculiar, strange community, or perhaps it included an abundance of beautiful men and women unafraid of scrutiny.
In any case, after clothing was declared optional, many other Canadians moved there to appreciate the view or to become part of it themselves. Others moved out, scandalized and with hands over their children’s eyes. Soon enough, the only people in the bubble either were naked themselves or were happily staring at the Emperors and Godivas among them. Reporters flocked to carry the story. Soon the whole world was laughing over the dilemma Canada had been placed in by this rogue bubble so at peace with itself. Whole TV channels were devoted to simply feeding the live images of the bubble’s citizenry going about its business.
After a swift debate, Parliament voted to reimpose clothing on its citizens. Protests flared, flashers across the world showed solidarity with their nudist brethren and the bubble carried on a campaign of civil disobedience, to the point that many wives of police sent to enforce the code were as disgruntled as the women who’d been manhandled back into shirts and pants. After a year of sporadic disrobing, though, the community came back into the Canadian fold. Many nudists left who no longer could be nude, and many others came who didn’t want to be nude. The whole incident became a national joke and historical footnote. Nobody thought the matter could be described as the first debate over the fate of humanity. But federalists and anti-federalists alike throw the name of that city around as though it were a mini-Megiddo. That’s the final battlefield of God and Satan, for those of you who haven’t studied the Good Book nearly enough. They only disagreed over who was on which side.
1. Wherein the Reader is Introduced to Mars
Now, this terraforming of Earth could have continued quite some time, with more land brought into cultivation and comfort, and perhaps even the sea. However, long before the physical territory of the world had been filled with the prophetic planet-sheathing bubbles, the political territory had quite devoured it. There was scarcely a square foot of land some army wouldn’t have rushed to protect their claim to. Mineral rights went right down to the mantle. Fishing rights and plankton farms were zealously guarded by watchdog satellites and navy patrols. Airspace, radio space, even Space-space, was cut into the finest pie slices between the gun-totters of the world. Why, there were claims by China and Japan over the next island the volcanoes were expected to raise above the water level. For many people living in the world, the countryside though still empty was far too occupied. And the opportunities though ample were claustrophobic to the rising generation which saw no place left for themselves. And worst of all, peoples and cultures saw the last places in the world where a new flag could have been flown, gobbled up forever. Earth’s frontiers were absolutely closed. If a new nation wanted to emerge, it had to carve itself from the old. Which the old countries for some reason only allowed after years of bankruptcy and bloodshed, if ever. So that many who could have wished for that new nation, never bothered to try.
It was at this time that a research team had been funded at enormous expense to stay a year on the face of Mars, underneath man’s best friend, a bubble. It was a temporary shelter, with a reflectivity designed specifically to shield the scientists from the radiation, as well as customize the temperature on an otherwise freezing planet. It gave them one bar of atmosphere, so they could breathe normally. The air and water had been imported. Trillions of dollars had gone to the project. Congress shook many a fist at pork barrel spending and waste while grandmothers still couldn’t afford treatments for cancer. But the project got off, somehow or other. There seemed to be a ground swelling of popular support that no politician wished to balk. Humanity had been to the moon so long ago, they refused to believe that with so much more technology and wealth they still could not go to Mars. It was a point of world-historical pride, they refused to be the generation that did nothing and got nowhere, lost between their parents and children.
The researchers did not quite get used to the gravity. They had to relearn how to walk rather than jump, and toss rather than hurl, but it was noted that the less strain on the body the better. The G could serve as a new relief for the elderly of frail frame, and the morbidly obese of far too unfrail a frame. Food still went down the researcher’s throats, blood still reached their toes, there was no reason why humanity could not adjust to a lighter load.
As one of their most important tasks, the scientists charted out the amount and locations of water on the planet. Though the bubble could recycle almost all the water that stayed inside it, it was far too expensive to lug Earth’s oceans some millions of miles and dump them on Mars. They also charted out the locations of useful minerals, such as iron, nickel, and zinc--trace resources necessary for the survival of humans. There were far fewer heavy metals on Mars than Earth, but in some places there were concentrations enough. The soil, obviously, was not suitable for plants, so air filters were used instead. But the researchers succeeded in manufacturing soil from organic soup and cultivating plants based upon it. Plants manage to grow virtually anywhere, much to the consternation of bubble farmers who hoped to never see a weed again. But this same tenacity was reported with worldwide rejoicing, when displayed in a small lot on a foreign planet. When the mission ended a year later, the plants having received enough light, and the humans not having received too much, the new bubble was declared a success. It was left behind as a monument of Kilroy’s having been even here. But also, possibly just maybe, as a staging ground for those who wished to follow.
The expense was enormous. Nobody hoping to make their fortune had any intention of going to Mars. Good old Earth still unearthed a seemingly endless supply of resources for all that crawled over her. But there were groups of people who pooled their resources, a million here funding the trip of a thousand there. Perhaps, they held out the hope, an improvement in space flight would allow them to follow. With a lifespan averaging one hundred years in the civilized world, it was not uncommon to live through at least a few scientific watersheds. If not, at least they had the consolation, that a thousand did go. How many millions of people will give their lives and fortunes to see just one of their family--a cousin, a daughter, a nephew, a niece, be happy? How many millions have always given everything for some few blessed thousand to make their way in the world? There is no overestimating the goodness of people’s hearts. Humanity has not changed from being human with the invention of the bubble. Sometimes love means giving up your own job so that your spouse can pursue theirs. Sometimes love means bicycling the first leg of the race, and letting the stronger cyclist draft you. Sometimes love means standing in the first rank of the trenches and waiting to be shelled, so that the second line of trenches doesn’t have to be. Love can demand terrible things from you. And yet people do it. All of these things. So how is it a wonder, that love enabled millions of people to give up their hopes for the hopes of a few thousand others, when it has given so much more so often before? The challenges of colonization were enormous, but so were the hearts of those first settlers.
Mars could not support nearly as many people as Earth’s billions, it was never meant to. Mars was seen as the haven for people, not in search of resources or space, but that oh so precious ineffable word, that so many have left home for before. Mars was colonized by bubbles, bubbles of communities, set forth with last tears and embraces by greater communities, who left in search of freedom. There were as many peoples as there were bubbles. And each people, finally on a land free of any claim by anyone with a gun, for the first time in their lives, took a deep breath and beheld for themselves that for this moment--for this one tiny space of time before a flag was flown--do as thou wilt was the whole of the law.
2. Wherein the Reader is Introduced to Characters
Hitherto our history has canvassed two planets and two centuries. In our rush, we’ve forgotten characters, plot, setting, or dialogue. But fear not! Our unorthodoxy shall not impose upon your tolerance any further. Just one more paragraph, and the traditional features of our tale will emerge. For reference, we hope to carry the bulk of this story with three personages: Roland is our hero, Isolde our heroine, and Lucinda our other heroine. Though you have our full permission to substitute villain or villainess where your judgment might see fit, hopefully their good features will reward them with the good will of everyone, whatever conflict might arise between them. Roland and Isolde are high school sweethearts, but a custom peculiar to Mars presents them with the gravest danger their love has yet faced. Lucinda finds herself in a different sort of danger which hopefully the reader will not be able to relate to so easily.
Roland once again thanked Mars for having a longer year than Earth. It was summer vacation, though ‘summer’, ‘winter’, ‘spring’, and ‘fall’, no longer meant much. The temperature was no longer subject to seasonal change, but it was found that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so summer vacation there would be. If people didn’t like room temperature, they could use traditional methods of cooling and heating within their own buildings. Restaurants and schools were still always freezing, and stadiums were still far too hot for the athletes within, but the extremes were gone. He had been on trips with his family and his classmates outside, to experience the beauty and terror of Nature first hand. He had, at least, known what cold was really like, if not heat. The mountains of Mars were obscenely high, the chasms ridiculously deep. Mars was too dead a planet to regulate its features, like the tough governess of Earth. Discipline was slack, rumbled threats were few, and so Mars’ independent nature seemed to rise right out of the spirit of the ground.
His family was not rich enough to afford a trip to Earth. Besides, his body was too delicate for it. A bright and shining champion of early adulthood, on Earth he would have been a convalescent young children could have snapped in two. Bodies were lazy, and upon finding themselves on Mars, they’d given up on sufficing for anywhere else. At least communication between the two planets was continuous, though slowed. The mainstream media would broadcast all the news and television shows of the day, and Mars would generally know about it the next day. That wasn’t the only reason Martians held a fiercely independent spirit. The expense of moving people and objects from Earth to Mars was such that Mars’ economy of necessity had to provide for itself, and though immigrants still streamed in, it was up to those already there to provide for Mars’ population in any major sense. Especially since the immigrants usually came in large bunches intent on setting up a bubble of their own, Martians generally never knew people from Earth personally, and it was hard to get them to care about what happened there. It was enough, all Mars agreed, if Earth just left them alone. Which carried a secret, slight fear, that they wouldn’t. The fledgling economy could not compete with Earth’s productivity, and only the natural tariff of shipping protected the jobs and incomes of the people. The population could not compete with Earth’s, which, by the way, was already past twenty five billion. And obviously, since Earth had bigger, stronger, more populous, and better supported armies than Mars could hope to fashion, they lived at the mercy of Earth’s civility. That was why the Space between the two planets was celebrated as the greatest feature Mars could sport. If Martians were Romans, they would have given Space its own altar, temple, and statue as public benefactor and protector.
Roland, you see, actually knew about the customs of the Romans, and the situation of Mars. He was eighteen years old, and for fourteen of them he had buried himself in books. So don’t be so quick to claim that the story has reneged on its promise of characters. Characters can reflect on the situation of their countries as well. In fact, the characters in this story, it may be said, reflected more on the state of their countries than almost any character in any story, factual or fictional. You’ll see the why and how of it by and by. Suffice to say, Roland, after thanking the geography of Mars for giving him a longer summer vacation, then thought for a moment about how the geography of Mars reflected the spirit of the inhabitants, and then on how that same geography tended to create that spirit. Knocking on the door, he recalled why he had thanked the length of summer in the first place.
“Hello, Isolde?” Roland asked her little sister upon opening the door. She gave him a blank look, then walked away. Roland wasn’t actually that good with people, he wasn’t sure why he even had her, so thought it fair enough that he didn’t have more. Then a high-pitched shout. “Isoooollllde! Your boyfriend’s here!” “Alright!” Isolde answered cheerfully. She appeared at the door a moment later.
“Hi.” She smiled. She had brown hair and hazel eyes and was beautiful. Martians were very thin, by earth standards. They might have been a little taller, but that was probably an illusion created by the proportion of height to width. So imagine a waif, with eyes that dominated a face with sharp cheekbones, arms and legs like white lines, collar bones and shoulder bones and hip bones sharply standing out against a more flexible, and thus far smaller, amount of fat and muscle. Readers from Earth will have to accustom themselves to a slightly different type of beauty, but Roland, at least, thought she was the paragon of it. She had short hair, but still brushed her bangs aside out of reflex. She was eighteen as well.
“Hi.” Roland smiled too, hands in his pockets. “I thought we could take a walk.”
“Sure.” Isolde stepped out beside him. Mars didn’t have much of an atmosphere, so Space was a lot closer to its inhabitants. Since there were fewer people, light pollution wasn’t as much of an issue, especially outside. Together, it meant that people on Mars had a sight grander in scope and beauty than Earthlings could ever know. But naturally they didn’t even bother to look at it, unless as a pretext to also be next to their loves. So as night drew on, and it became a little cooler, and galaxies started shining overhead, the two walked the quiet streets until it became the quiet rim. The Bubble had agreed to leave the rim to nature, so that people could enjoy the ability to live, and escape the cloister of noise and light and people, at the same time. And walking miles and miles on Mars was not a big deal, you might remember. It might be the same as ice skating on earth, the ground glided beneath them, more than they walked across it.
Roland still had his hands in his pockets, when he said the first word in a long time. “We’re going on Tour in less than a week.” She looked at him as they walked. “Outside half the time, alone together. And when we go inside. . .it’s going to be so strange.”
“I don’t mind being alone with you.” Isolde consoled him.
“I know. It’s not that. I’m not worried about that.” Saying it three times might have weakened Roland’s assertion more than if he had said it once. “But the whole time I’m with you, all I can think about is I might not be with you soon. The first time we’re so close for so long, and there it will be, the Tour, keeping us further apart than ever.”
“Don’t think of it like that.” Isolde said. “We all die eventually, does that keep us apart? Just because we might move away, that shouldn’t keep us apart now either. Now is now, and now we are together.”
“I’d just rather it would mean more. . .I mean, it would mean more, if I knew it was going somewhere. It feels so much more like a grand finale, blowing off all the rest of the fireworks because it’s about to end. And that’s just so sad. We’re sharing months together, in order to spend forever apart.”
“We can’t know that. A lot of people choose the same bubble as they grow up in. And if we’re really such a great couple,” Isolde smiled, “then we might choose the same other bubble too.”
“Are you dead set on any?” Roland asked. Isolde compressed her lips and shook her head. “I’m going on Tour to see for myself. With unclouded eyes. My future self would never forgive me if I didn’t even try.”
Roland nodded. His own thinking had followed the same course. But he was afraid, that if he didn’t decide now, before the Tour, before the months with Isolde, on theoretical grounds, in the heat of the moment he might decide the bubble she chose, and deceive himself into thinking it was because he preferred it, rather than preferred her. But he couldn’t say that, because it would demean him in her eyes, that he could even possibly do something so ridiculous. He didn’t like not telling her things.
Isolde was used to his timorousness, it was part of his charm. He wasn’t trying to impress her by being firm or confident about things he really wasn’t firm or confident about. He was afraid of her, and it made her smile. Afraid of looking stupid, by acting stupid, or saying something stupid, so he stepped carefully, and spoke carefully, when he was with her. It made him more thoughtful, and kinder, and more attentive to the exact meaning and truthfulness of his words, with her, than with anyone else. But it made for many quiet times, where she had to wait for him to formulate his decisions so indecisively. She had gotten used to interacting at his pace, and an intimacy of hands in pockets instead of holding hers. Not because he was ashamed to hold hers. But because he wasn’t sure he had the right to hold hers right now, since he might say or do something she might not approve of, and the gift of her hand might not be earned at the moment because of it.
“I haven’t decided either. A lot of places I just want to see, to understand what they’re like. I doubt I could live there. Tyrol and Stradham, though,” Roland’s voice became a little faster. “They look so beautiful. They really stress education, and I might get away with being paid to learn the rest of my life.”
“You know, there are more ways to learn than education.” Isolde judiciously remarked.
“Yes, but, it’s my way to learn.” Roland said, and this decisively.
“And what if it only teaches you a narrow range of things? What if you can’t learn what’s important, no matter how much education you get?”
Roland shrugged, afraid he’d offended her. “Then other people will learn the other things, and at least I’ll know this. This is what I want to know.”
“I want to know what people can’t teach.” Isolde took a deep breath, looking up at the stars. “Like how to play a beautiful song that hasn’t been played before. Or how to feel a love harmoniously with the rest of my wishes and the rest of my loves. Or how people suffering can stop suffering. I want to learn that, because obviously nobody knows, or they wouldn’t be suffering.”
Roland smiled, because she was beautiful and bright and pure. He could have called her on wanting to learn love, when supposedly they already knew it. But he didn’t. Because if she said she didn’t know it yet, saying she did would be false, and stupid, because she knew her feelings better than he could. And it would be stupid, to only care about that, when she cared about the others too. It would be showing he didn’t care about the rest of her, to respond only to that. So he didn’t respond at all.
“So you’re not worried?” He finally asked.
“Roland, I’m not worried. Because you’re a good person. And whatever decision we make, I know it will be the right one. Because between two good people, nothing bad can happen. Remember? You’ll love me either way, won’t you? And won’t I love you either way? Together or apart, we’ll choose that because that will make us happier, not because we don’t love each other. And since we’ll choose what makes us happier, whatever we choose, we’ll be happy. Because we’re happy right now, and whatever we choose will make us happier than now, because we’re free to choose whatever we want, even just staying with this. We can only go up, don’t you see? The Tour is wonderful. This chance is amazing. And being with you the whole time is amazing. This is going to be the best moment of my life, until tomorrow!” And her eyes sparkled alongside her words. “As long as we’re choosing our future, it has to be better than our past. Ach, how I love Mars.”
On Mars, each bubble was a law, culture, and belief-system unto itself. Each bubble was the absolute dictator of its destiny. And the very practice of the Tour, which kept a steady flow of immigrants and emigrants going to the places they preferred, ensured that the uniqueness once established was also maintained. After graduating from school and gaining adult status, Martians left on Tour to make their choice of life, or at least, their first choice of life, until they changed their minds. A choice of life not imposed by force, the common standard of earth. But by free implicit contract, as they could always leave, and there were enough bubbles that one or another had to be pretty near any individual’s own ideal. More were emerging every day, for those who didn’t find anywhere to fit. And for those who didn’t even fit after that, there was space enough for bubble hermits to strike it out as alone as their own wishes. This was the defining reason why Martians were individualistic. And it was so defining, prevalent, and obvious, that it entirely escaped the notice of the Martians themselves.
With Roland and Isolde’s danger at least partially allayed, our readers might be more worried about the unknown peril that grips our third character. Her name is Lucinda, if you recall. And time was conveniently frozen, until we could get around to narrating how she managed.
Lucinda cursed Mars for having a longer day. It meant there were more hours of darkness, during which time pretty sixteen year old girls walking alone were seen as free game. Her mother had placed her on the corner in the evening, and warned her that she would not be welcome until dawn at home, and could expect no food unless she returned with money. She had cried and begged for mother not to leave her, and been slapped and told to stop just thinking about herself. Lucinda was sixteen, and she was running away. Not without the worst turmoil in her soul. Her mother, she knew, was desperate, not cruel. Home included one mother and seven children, the last five being her half-siblings from a second marriage, and two fathers who had abandoned mother in turn. Mars generally had large families, as it was almost instinctual for people surrounded by so much empty wilderness, to attempt to fill it. Children were an asset, on Mars, because labor was always in demand. It was different on Earth: For every useful employment there were twenty highly-trained applicants for it, and in order to employ everyone, most employment could not even imagine to itself what use it had. But here, there was work needed everywhere to build up the infrastructure of one city after another, to mine, farm, delve for water, manufacture, serve, educate, police, or preach. Everything had to be built up anew on Mars, as everything except entertainment was cheaper to make than import. As for entertainment, Martians sniffed and explained they were too busy to make a business of leisure, but more likely they couldn’t compete with an import that could travel as cheaply and quickly as light, and had of all human enterprises been honed to perfection by the Blues. As more surplus wealth was generated by productivity, and less work was needed to produce it, entertainment was the spigot that gave rich people something to do with their money, and poor people something to do to earn a living. Imagine whole generations of children growing up and striving to outdo each other at finding some unique new entertainment, as other jobs that required skill rather than originality were saturated with the doggedly living older generations, and you can imagine at what a competitive peak of brilliance entertainment must have reached. But enough of this. Children were an asset on Mars, and large families a cultural norm, some mothers reaching thirteen or even nineteen children, which to Blues may sound absolutely impossible, but was not uncommon throughout most of their own history. Unfortunately Mother’s children weren’t an asset, at least not yet.
Lucinda was the second eldest, her older brother, trying to make it big to help mother, had disappeared a few years ago. That left her as the only one Mother hoped to make money with. The rest were just hungry. At least, it could be thanked, it was not so cold that clothing or shelter or fire added to the bills, any cast-out rags would do, and even with food, Mother could have thanked herself that less was required on this soil. If you were going to be poor, this was the better planet for it. So Lucinda had to ask herself, the first few minutes she stood on that corner, if it was her duty to continue doing so. And if some customer had approached her then, Lucinda’s life might have taken an entirely different turn. Happily, at least we judge, after a short debate, Lucinda decided it was not. Unhappily, such a decision presented a new host of difficulties, which she, at 16 and totally unprepared for this crisis, went through her brain over and over, in a circle of logic she could not escape, and had no solution. She had no money, and no real skill she could hope to earn money by. Even on Mars, technology had progressed to the point that knowledge was absolutely essential to the employed, and it was not uncommon to spend 25 years of a life, learning how to make a living of the next 75. There were jobs which did not involve computers or machinery, such as daycare, but they did not hire 16 year old girls like Lucinda. She could go into business herself, like her brother had, but that was the most desperate and shortest-lived solution. Competition was not appreciated in the drug trade, and she had no idea where to start. Her mother, it seemed, had rightly concluded what field of work alone Lucinda could hope to make money by. But she refused to do it. She vowed to herself, that if the choice were truly between prostitution and death, then death it would be. The problem with being outside at night, was that death was becoming more and more probable. The later into the night, the more dangerous it became, as people left the bars, night clubs, drug dens, bordellos and casinos, and started wandering through the streets like vampires and werewolves, ready to set upon the first comer-by their frazzled minds might impulsively wish to set upon. Lucinda walked faster and faster, in search of a place to hide. In short, so as not to confuse the reader, this bubble was a black hole of vice. It allowed every sort of voluntary self-destruction, and drew the line only at the absolutely necessary to survive forbidding of theft and murder. The economy relied fundamentally on sucking all the human refuse on the planet into its clutches, where they were allowed to throw away all their money drinking, whoring, inhaling, injecting, gambling, or otherwise verbing themselves. When they ran out of money, and were unfortunately still alive, they attempted to earn it back by providing the same goods to others, freshly arrived for destruction, which led to constant wars between the established providers and those seeking to become providers, so that they could again provide for themselves. Chained to the bubble that destroyed them by their addictions, they would endure anything for the freedom to suffer. The whole bubble would have sunk under if people didn’t keep coming, but somehow there were always more, many who went to the ‘nice’ district where they could dabble in whichever sin they pleased, before returning to their home bubbles. The other bubbles, whose only shared law, one might say, was the free immigration and emigration of all to all, more and more forbade all such activities, pointing out that any who wished could go to this one, and return satiated when they wished to be good again. And as the doers always found it simpler to travel, rather than risk incarceration, losing their jobs, and public disgrace and loss of reputation, the whole population of Mars ensured the greatest success for their somehow-universally-agreed-upon-chthonian-human-landfill called El Dorado.
Except for Lucinda. For Lucinda, and all the other children growing up alongside her, and all of her siblings she was leaving behind, all it ensured was ruin. Crying, and humming to herself to try and keep her mind from panicking, she at last found herself, without having even thought of it, at the airlock to the outside. The official who oversaw all the inflow and outflow-mainly concerned with providing for the safety of the outflowers too blown to provide for their own-had seen so much garbage and filth in his life, that seeing her gentle, shaking body, pierced him through.
“Are you alright, miss?” For even on this bubble, a pretty girl immediately earned a certain amount of deference. Lucinda looked up, wiping tears from her eyes, startled to find herself here. She looked at him like a frightened deer, questioning whether it should freeze or bolt.
“What’s wrong? Would you like to call someone?” Lucinda shook her head. “I’d like to go out, please.” This was the first time she knew she wanted to.
“But. . .alone? . .how old are you? Where are you going?” She shook her head. “Am I not allowed to go out whenever I want? Can’t I just want to go out?”
“Of course you can.” The man quickly retracted, embarrassed. In another age, the question might have been similar to, ‘Can I not pray to our Lord when I please?’ And he felt similarly sacrilegious to have interposed. “Will you take a suit, or rent a car?” She looked at him for a while, then burst back into tears, having just realized she could not afford either. The man looked at her for a while, and then did something strange and unaccountable, which was to make a decision for himself, rather than as an official. “A car, then.” And he placed the order for its rental. “Please travel safely. You may return it at the entrance of any other bubble.”
Lucinda nodded. Cars drove themselves, now, following satellite networks that directed traffic between the bubbles. The important ones, at least. All she had to do was insert a destination. She decided that the bubble furthest away from here would do. Then she decided that might be easier to trace. So decided the bubble eight furthest away from here would do. Not that she was being chased. She just felt like she was. “Thank you.” She stepped into the car that had been summoned, and the bubble closed over her and left the gate. And it was a credit to the human race, that even here, the man felt amply rewarded for his service by those two words.
3. Wherein a Plot may begin to be Construed by the Attentive Reader
You might be wondering why our characters only have one name. The answer is quite simple, while on Earth three names and two numbers was barely enough to separate one person out distinctively, on Mars a single name was entirely sufficient to create an individual. If their names seem somewhat out of the ordinary, it can be excused by the fact that everyone on Mars had to be extraordinary, to be on Mars. Mars, it may be recalled, was settled by the out of place, eccentric, disenfranchised, fringy folks of Earth, in search of freedom and independence. The settlers were also generally cut from a different fold of humanity, being the wealthiest, or being supported by a great number of people, so perhaps the most beloved, on Earth; as those were the only people who could afford to escape. Also, the people of Mars were most decidedly the most self-centered, mind-your-own-business, good-fences-make-good-neighbors, stamp and mold. People interested in the welfare, conquest, conversion, or exploitation of humanity stayed on Earth, as that was where humanity lived. Only the people who couldn’t care less about others, their own economic prospects, or the fate of mankind, at least in the short run, saw fit to abandon the land of plenty to live in a wasteland. Perhaps the poor would have done better in Mars, but they’d never be able to reach it. And those who could afford it, were already well off enough, to not be going to Mars for any economic purpose. This made for a population and spirit quite different from humanity’s at large. It is to be confessed, that those seeking freedom from Earth, did not share the general beliefs and values of Blues, such that adherents to the major religions were few and far between. Nor were there as many adherents to the common political systems. Common mores. Or common anything. If the reader may become doubtful of our history, on account of it not matching the reader’s own experiences, take heed to the peculiar circumstances Martians occupied. And if, God forbid, you might condemn the unnaturalness of the anarcho-relativist Martian society, and consign it to a moral oblivion better to simply wash your hands of, take pity on characters who by all accounts wish to be good, and hope to learn how to become so, within the society they have been placed by accident only of birth, through no fault of their own.
When Lucinda woke up, at first she thought she was still at home. Only gradually did her eyes convince her how far away she’d gone. Depositing her rental car, she found herself in Blacksburg. No person greeted her at the entrance. In fact, she was not sure if any people were actually in the bubble. Stretching all the way to the horizon, she saw a menagerie of birds and beasts, of beautiful plumage or coats. At least none were predators. They were actually bubbled off, along with jungle animals, and the most extraordinarily expensive of all sea bubble, full of the most exotic sea life the earth had come up with in the past four billion years. The people who lived here, few and far between, gardened, fished, hunted (only licensed citizens of Blacksburg were allowed to hunt, and only at the direction of the council, who decided when it was expedient to limit the population of this or that animal, which was disrupting the balance of the ecosystem), hiked, and most of all cultivated all the life they had brought with them, and sold life to their fellow bubbles, and kept Tour guides for all those who wished, if not forever, at least for a little while, to get back to nature. They were very rich and very happy. Their ancestors had left Earth, taking fertilized eggs and seeds of every life-form on earth, to Mars, where they devoted themselves to saving their fellow species that Earth in its gobbling tide of humanity was steadily wiping out. In a reverse, the people of Blacksburg saw themselves as the protectors and guiders of the life around them, rather than their rulers. There were never enough people of this sentiment to have their way on earth, too many hungry and poor people had decided, “it’s us or them” and chosen us. But here, where many bubbles had nothing but the spartan crops that provided the subsistence and air of the bubble, those left over pined for the songs of birds, the grace of deer, the fields of flowers. There was such a small supply of other species, and such a smaller need for their exploitation, that the place earth’s environment was most respected and regarded, was actually on Mars.
Lucinda wandered a few miles, her eyes as wide as she could dilate them, trying to soak all the images in. Her city had believed neon lights were the epitome of beauty. She had never seen true colors sculpted out of the earth itself. She found fruit growing in various clumps, filled herself up on berries, chased rabbits until she laughed and collapsed upon the grass, tall and pringly and wet. Perhaps this would be best. She could live without needing money, without seeing another person again. She had developed a strong prejudice against people, for a reason the reader may understand.
The best part about this environmental haven, as well as all bubbles on earth, is the editing people could employ with the selection of what they wanted to take with them. All of the pests and bugs that annoyed humans were quietly not allowed to immigrate with the boarders, and all of the plants and people had been thoroughly sanitized so that nothing else lived in or on them. Hereditary diseases still got to Mars, but those who came, were not allowed to be infected with anything that could not be wiped out, and all the random diseases like chicken pox, measles, mumps, diphtheria, cholera, tetanus, typhus, influenza, small pox, anthrax, lime disease, and the black plague were here finally defeated by flight rather than fair combat. This was another reason Martians did not return to Earth. Once and for all, humanity had freed itself from the great majority of its suffering and death, and they saw no reason to return to it. Even diseases that destroyed pets, livestock, and crops, had been sealed off from the Red Planet. Far more comprehensively and effectively than Earth, which, for all its bubbling, did not have the advantage of being able to first sterilize and sanitize the planet, before repopulating it.
“There you are!” A relieved voice broke Lucinda’s grassy slumber. “It was registered to a man, so it took us a while to figure out you were the trespasser. What are you up to?” It was a kind question, assured of her innocence, though still accusatory in a teasing way. “You can’t just wander inside without checking in with the authorities. What if you were a fugitive? Or a poacher? You could be here to take our air, our water, our grass, and gone again. You have to check in and check out!”
When he put it that way, it did seem obvious. But where she lived, questions weren’t asked about comers and goers, they were expected to be criminals. Just so long as they forked over their money, they could come or go as they pleased. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I didn’t see anyone where I came in. I thought maybe nobody lived here.”
The man laughed. “A true wilderness on Mars! Maybe someday, child. But for now, the world has people, and so it needs laws, and so it needs people to enforce the laws, and you are breaking all of them, so up you go.” And he pulled her to her feet. There were no vehicles. He had walked to her, and now was going to walk her back, to wherever they were going. She bit the inside of her cheek. So naive. One day on her own and she was already going to jail. She couldn’t live one day on her own. It was just so pathetic.
“Please, sir, I didn’t mean to steal anything. If you’ll just let me leave, I won’t disturb your bubble again.” She gave him her best wide-eyed look.
“Oh? And how will you leave, hmm? On some other guy’s tab you tried that look on? I suppose I’m supposed to pay you off?” Chagrin. She hadn’t thought of that part again. “What are you thinking? All on your own without any money.” The gentle remonstrance was so different from her stepdad. She couldn’t remember her own father. But her stepfather would just shout at her to obey her mother, and leave it at that. He wouldn’t even bother to shout his own orders at her, it was all one to him whether she existed or not, but if there was ever any trifle or delay or argument with the mother, he’d be there in an instant, shouting at her to obey her mother. It was practically the only three words he’d ever said to her. Tears came back to her eyes, even though she didn’t want them. She couldn’t stop. She missed her family. Or missed the family she was supposed to have had. She couldn’t tell anymore. It just hurt.
“Don’t think crying will get you off, either.” The guy briskly kept her in tow, not noticing when her feelings had become undesigned. “Honestly. Give a girl one cross word or one hint that she might have done wrong, and they just break apart. Like you’re made of glass. So you’re crying, how does that change anything? A crying criminal is still a criminal. Should we let everyone go who doesn’t like being caught?”
She shook her head, trying to stop her tears. “I’m not trying to change anything. I just can’t stop.” And a new sob went up her throat. He looked back, worried. “Here, now, what’s this about? Nobody’s going to hurt you. We’re just going to run you through the process. Check you for warrants, give you a Tourist visa, and the rulebook for as long as you’re going to stay here. If you like it here after a month, you can become naturalized, and take up our way of life, and if you don’t, well, there’s the road to the next bubble! That’s just how it works. We can’t have people enjoying the effects without contributing to the cause of the way Blacksburg works, or else soon enough it won’t work anymore. We need willing hearts and hands, not a horde of people who wander the prairie and sleep on the grass. You see? We know you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s the aggregate-you we have to stop.”
She laughed. ‘Aggregate you’ sounded silly. A smile took over, and she wiped away the last straggling tears. “I’m Lucinda. What’s your name?”
“Richardetto. Lucinda’s a pretty name, Lucinda.” She laughed again.
“You talk funny.” He smiled, refusing to point out her own usage. “So Lucinda.” He brought her attention. “What brings you, alone and penniless, to our shores? I can’t help but think something’s not right. Either you’re up to something, or something has been up to you, and either way I’m here to protect you, see? But we can’t help you if we don’t know what’s wrong.”
Lucinda walked quietly for a while. “If I tell you, you might try to do something for my own good, which I might not think is my own good.”
“Well, aren’t you a regular thinker.” She blushed, annoyed. She was sixteen, after all. It’s not like she was five or something, and was to be commended for completing a sentence. But to a middle aged policeman, who so often dealt with such nasty people, her age and innocence together brought her age down to about five. “But what makes you think we would?”
“Because that’s what all adults do.” She said flatly.
“Alright then, what makes you think you shouldn’t follow our advice?” The accusation was admitted without contest.
“Because you’d never understand.” Just as terse.
“Especially since you aren’t even giving us a chance.” Richardetto admitted again, but at least this time conditionally, in defense of adults everywhere.
“Give you a chance, and if I’m wrong, lose my only chance? Or not give you a chance, and give myself a chance? Which would you prefer?” She bristled. It was nothing personal against him, but he was suggesting a dangerous course of action, and she felt threatened by it. If Lucinda said she was a runaway, they might make her go back. And she would never go back. All that was left for her there was dishonor and death.
“Well, when you put it that way.” Richardetto sighed. Sooner or later she’d have to trust someone, or the world would eat her from the inside out. But she’d have to learn that herself. And it would have to be someone she could trust, not an authority figure she had to fear. So he gave it up for a bad job. He had to give up hopes of helping almost everyone he associated with. It was the way of things.
Geneva was a bubble founded by Christians fed up with the tolerant and condescending attitude towards sin much of earth had adopted. Medical advances had cured STD’s in the civilized world, and birth control was easy, unobtrusive, and practically foolproof. So what, the world wondered, was wrong with sex anymore? As life expectancy reached one hundred, and sudden deaths such as car accidents and airplane crashes went to nearly zero with the introduction of automatic computer control of the traffic system, people smiled and prayed, “lord, give me temperance and chastity, but do not give it to me yet.” And that yet may last all the way to their 70’s, until there was no longer any need for it. As miracles never seemed to happen in the same place as video cameras, however-so-many as were set up, God became more and more distant from their daily lives. And God’s artillery, which had enforced His commands so forcefully in the past; his plagues, pests, lightning bolts, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, droughts, floods, and blights; had all been variously mastered or marginalized by human ingenuity. Not that anyone doubted God couldn’t blow up the world, but these objects used to serve as types of God’s power, and without them for sermons to point to, it was hard for laymen to form any concrete idea of His force or influence in their lives. In the past, Paul had been on a boat threatened by a storm to be overthrown, and praying to the Lord, the sea calmed, and the seamen came to believe. Now just imagine if Paul were being shipped to Rome on a nuclear submarine, and a storm was brewed up. Whether it was calmed or not, would the seamen have given any notice of it but a short chuckle and slap on the back in appreciation of their own superiority to the forces of nature-or supernature working through nature? Even theologians were perplexed as to how exactly God could get to the sinners, without overthrowing the laws of physics, or help the saints, whose main worry was getting a job and providing handsomely for themselves and maybe a child or two, pecuniary goals the Lord might not be able to promote, having preached directly against them. When everyone had this day their daily bread, and God was against people wanting more, what rewards were left to His distribution in life?
Obviously there was still good old Heaven and Hell. But that was so long in the future, that only the old-timers worried about it, at an age where sin was pretty difficult to achieve even if they wanted. Besides, a lot of people who in their daily lives did not see executions of entrails being torn out or horses ripping bodies apart running in opposite directions or heads mounted on spikes atop the city walls, who generally went through life not seeing suffering, like the fable of Buddha, were not really aware of the possibility of it, and could not possibly condone an eternity of it, for whatever little fault someone might have had. Even mass murderers, if given the death penalty, were killed quietly and without pain and in private. It was hard to imagine God, who was supposed to be far more merciful and forgiving than Man, would then bring out pincers and tongs and go to work with him from there. The idea of justice had changed, softened, and become tempered with the idea of humaneness, leaving Hell behind.
The prosperity, security, longevity, and technological strength of the civilized world all combined to jeopardize the emotional grip of Christianity on its adherents, even though most continued to agree with its intellectual stance. Yes, they would all nod on Sunday, but no longer could they be related to spiders hanging from a single thread over a great fiery pit, without a general smile, of people reflecting on how safe and well off they were, and how many years they still had ahead. The passions were no longer there to feed the beliefs, which made many people who believed, not care. It was a sort of side note, a, by-the-way, of their lives, with no practical application.
This might be very ill-taken and distressing to you, but we plead the fault of the times, not the people, that such a thing had happened. And at least you can take consolation, that the inhabitants of Geneva found it equally distressing, which was why they had left to found a community that still involved God intimately with their lives, and shunned sinners and sin. And who knows, many times Christians have had a sense of Christianity weakening, and many times before reformations and revivals and awakenings have brought it back. Whatever happens, God will surely not let his Word die out among His children, so you may comfort yourself with the prospect that this was only a momentary lull, and the wind of belief would blow again when He saw fit.
And as further proof of the fault of the times, neither Roland nor Isolde were Christian at all. Nor Jewish, nor Muslim, nor Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Taoist, Confucian, nor anything. Though perhaps they felt spiritual things, and thought spiritually about things, it was all too vague and doubtful for them to commit to a faith. This was not extraordinary, especially on Mars. Just as they were taught that only an actual witnessing of the different bubbles could equip them for a choice of life, they were taught to reserve judgment on all things religious, until actually witnessing the truth of them. At 18, barely the infancy of their lives, it would have been ridiculous, all agreed, to ignore the experience and wisdom of the next 82, which might have led to a better conclusion, and artificially cut themselves off from all progress or improvement in their thinking, when they’d barely started thinking at all. It might be said Roland and Isolde were the very people the Genevans had tried to separate from, but a month was given to all who wished to visit, before they could be compelled to adopt their way of life, or leave. That was the rule spontaneously agreed upon by all the bubbles. Anyone (except fugitives) could leave at any time, and anyone (except fugitives) could enter for a month.
“Here you are, sir.” The Genevan clerk handed Roland the groceries. Fresh fruit, vegetables, and bread, which Isolde planned on transforming into magical concoctions of goodness. And on the sly, a steak. Which Roland planned to put on a stove until it smoked and sizzled to half its size, leaving only charcoal behind, which had a magical goodness all on its own, and eat in his own room. The neat thing about these groceries, was that the fruit and vegetables really were fresh. The food was grown right inside the bubble, there were no pesticides, and there was no need for preservatives, as the intake of crops was proportioned to the needs of the population, and made right there. And there were no seasons, just greenhouses, so any crop could be grown at any time. As to the steak, just as neatly, it didn’t come from a cow grazing in some meadow nearby. First off, there was no meadow. It was pretty much red rock, with a layer of bubble on top. Inside the city there were trees and such, and the crops, but beyond that, nobody was going to go through the effort of growing ‘wild’ trees and grass. The landscape was wild, and beautiful in its lonely way, and it was alright if it stayed that way. The steak was grown from itself. They fed it nutrients, and its cells kept undergoing mitosis, until poof, steak. Not a t-bone steak, or a ribeye, as it didn’t need bones anymore. But a new york strip as fine as any a cow could be eviscerated for. Not only did this save resources, space, and time, it was one more part of the softening human nature, that they no longer daily slaughtered and cruelly treated other living, feeling, thinking beings out of hunger. Vegetarians had never convinced the meat-eating world to stop because of this, but technology did. And now, even meat eaters would have been appalled by such senseless suffering, in anything.
Roland would have shared a room with Isolde, normally. Even a bed, if they were feeling good about each other. But not himself. A love on such unsure fitting as theirs, the Tour to determine its fate actually underway, neither felt such a commitment could be made, or if made, kept, without perhaps such sacrifice as to tarnish the commitment forever. And for those of you who don’t feel it is a commitment, you’ll just have to accept that they thought otherwise. However, Geneva took that a couple steps further, and would not have a man and a woman kissing out of wedlock, under their bubble. They weren’t going to let things slide down a slippery slope, or give the Devil any more tools of temptation than he already had. They were saved, and intended to stay saved, and visitors were not going to jeopardize that. Whatever bubble a traveler was under, that was the law, and to not follow it was a crime. There were no excuses, because they could always leave, if they didn’t like it. The social contract was unarguably compacted by the full consent of the parties, under no duress, and it would be enforced. There was no drinking, not even coffee. The body is the temple of the soul, and it was held sacred and inviolate, just as though it were the altar itself. It was not a list of ‘don’ts’ that kept Genevans from smoking, sleeping around, or inhaling. It was this reverence for themselves, which honored their immortal souls, made in God’s image, too much to enslave it to worldly goods, merely combinations of dust and air. A love of God, which was reduced to a love for God’s work, and God’s will, gave these people the strength to align their own will to it, and away from the desires that so often make it stray. And, obviously, the effect of a community that attached praise and blame strictly to those who followed God’s path, did not leave much opportunity or much triumph for those who did stray. Only when all of these motivations failed did the law enter the equation, which mainly was the right to exile those who did stray, but for some reason refused to stray with their feet alongside their soul, and needed a helpful push out the door. It’s an obvious contrast, between this and Lucinda’s home, but the very fact that El Dorado existed, allowed Geneva to exist, and the very fact that Geneva existed, assured the existence of El Dorado. Desire exists, there’s no getting around it, but it can be put somewhere, and not put somewhere else, and so Martians did. Which is not to say that a Genevan could not exist without a Doradon, we will not do such a disservice to humanity, but that a Geneva couldn’t exist without a Dorado. The attentive reader will see the difference.
Mars shared a currency, by the way. The population was far too low, for each bubble to keep its own, and the commerce of Mars was absolutely essential, seeing as how it could not possibly have any with Earth, and the technological level of Mars was at such a height that only a large population could possibly sustain an economy based on generating enormous surplus wealth to sustain an enormous training period to give people the skills to create and operate the technology which then generated the surplus wealth. And this, correct, meant that the government of each bubble could not willy-nilly inflate the currency, or devalue it through excessive debt, or spend too lavishly-this led to sanctions, which would lead to the ruin of the bubble in the long run-but never reached the long run, because in the short run the people of the bubble ran straight to another bubble that still had a future and some common sense. So Roland actually did pay the grocer. Oh, in case of confusion, there was a grocer, because it was found that actual people needed to be in stores, or else customers felt they could steal, as nobody could call them for it, and there was no person they felt they were hurting, and could be restrained by a sense of sympathy thereby. There was another solution-but that’s in another bubble, which we’ve been saving for our heroes to travel through, so we’ll leave it at that for now.
Well, a page and a half to buy groceries does seem a little verbose, so we will contain ourselves and give Roland his main character role back.
Roland left the grocery store, and whistled quietly as he carried the basket of food back to the boarding house. Isolde had been shopping for other necessaries, and they were to meet back up in time for dinner. Isolde had cooked for him a few other times while they were dating, but this was the first time he hadn’t been a guest of her family, but the actual object of her endeavors. It made him feel so special, and so blessed, so that he easily could have said grace before his meals, as the Genevans did. Hunger wasn’t the best sauce. He’d been hungry before, and food had never tasted as good as this. Knowing he was loved was the best sauce he’d ever tasted, and it transformed eating from a chore he attended to between books, to a moment to be remembered, and smiled about at night, and looked forward to during the day. It was amazing, that mere hours were between those words, I love you, each day. So amazing, his heart was full of happiness, and refilled, before it ever had a chance to leave. She made everything in life a source of joy. Eating sleeping shopping washing cleaning driving breathing. All of it was somehow connected to her, and his feelings for her, and her feelings for him, and his feelings for their feelings, so closely that it could not be done without rejoicing over them. He was young and he loved Isolde. They loved each other. And if it doesn’t sound believable, that feeling in the pit of your stomach that makes it tighten up on its own, and makes the blood rush to your face and your eyes lower and your lips smile of their own will, then just have faith that it happens, until it does happen for you, and then you will believe, and smiling for Roland’s happiness, also smile for your own.
Not being christians, they never intended to stay here, nor would they have been allowed to. However, Roland saw in them much to be admired. The quiet pride they took in themselves, and the devotion in their families, which were reserved for their families throughout their lives. The cleanliness of the city and people, and the children who wandered the streets without fear. Buildings without broken windows or peeling paint, no run down areas full of run down people. No playgrounds full of loiterers or parks full of drunkards. Why, Isolde couldn’t even complain of lazy eyes since they’d gotten here, though there were pretty faces and hair enough, there wasn’t makeup and jewelry and enough skin to simply broadside him with. Their bodies were their temples, in the image of God, if it was not beautiful, what was? If it was not perfect, how could dirt improve it? If it was not a beauty so bright and special that only love could match the value of its gift, then why even worship its Creator? It was that pride again. It was everywhere in them. Even the insistence on calling each other sir and ma’am. They felt they deserved it. By being there, it pretty much meant they did. They had gone to Church that week, a beautiful building that soared above the rest. The sermon was about the divine mission humanity had been given, upon leaving the garden: to grow fruitful, and multiply.
“Five words He gave us, five words befitting a God. He wished for us to grow, and see how we have grown. To grow fruitful, and see the fruit of our souls! Look upon our fruit, and bless the Lord for it, these beautiful children. But a fruit is not just a seed, a fruit is many times larger than a seed, because every seed needs a fruit to grow. Fruit tastes wondrous, smells wondrous, looks wondrous, it even blooms into every color, so brightly, as though rejoicing in itself. God wished us to grow fruitful. And what is the fruit of our seeds? What feeds all our souls, what gives us such beauty and such joy and such energy for our seeds to grow? Will we be misers in our gratitude? Will we say of God, he gave us seeds, but not fruit? He gave us hard cores, but not soft edges? Is there not more creation than life to thank God for? God gave us life, and God gave us that which makes life worth living. And God gave us the command, grow fruitful! Seize what makes life worth living! Love what makes life worth living! Grow what makes life worth living! Grow love! Grow beauty! Grow truth! Create! Here is the universe! God has given it to us. Here are our souls! God has given them to us. Will we not glorify them both? Will we not worship these stars that shine down their light? These souls that weave the light into wheels and pulleys and wedges and planes and stories and storytellers and story-hearers? Grow fruitful, enrich your soul, the wealth is all there! A free gift from God to all his children, simply to be picked up, simply to be loved and admired, all we need is the will, all He asks of us is our will. And multiply! Yes, there are our children again, there are the points of light spreading, spreading, setting the world on fire, making dust shine with divinity. Blue dust. Now Red dust. What is Mars but the greatest fulfillment of our mission of all? Red dust-and why not someday stardust? Be fruitful, and multiply, and let this light keep reaching, reaching, sending light into the void, more and more light, until it shines and shines, so much that they shower upon each other, so many sparks that the fire never fades. Grow fruitful with all that makes life worth living, then live. Is there any command more wondrous, more divine, more sacred, more pure, more loving, more kind-any duty imaginable, that better suits a God? And is there any role greater, more honorable, more fulfilling, more noble, then obeying such a God? Then believe! Believe in God. Believe in the souls He’s crafted. Believe in the goodness of this universe his creation. And believe in his Will, that it is Good, and we are Good to follow it. And then we will sing as the angels, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord.” And it will be a song for Him, and for ourselves.” The preacher had seemed to shrink back down to half his size with the last word. He was breathing shortly, almost quivering with the force of his own thoughts. And he was flushed with that very belief, he glowed with it, in front of his flock. And in a moment they were all upon their feet, and applauding with all their hearts, eyes gleaming with tears, cheeks flushed with enthusiasm, parents and children so full of joy and love and appreciation for all that God had made, that Roland and Isolde had found themselves clapping just as much-and wanting so much to believe-and maybe even for a moment believing, somewhere inside themselves, for such a feeling could not be seen without it conducting like electricity from the preacher’s fervor to their own hearts, and felt for themselves. That was for a moment, and then they had filtered out with the crowd, and eventually the sheer charge of it was grounded by their shuffling feet against the ground. But the memory of the charge did not leave.
4. Wherein the Reader finds the Bubble Promised, and the Haven Found.
Isolde stared at herself in the mirror, carefully brushing her hair out and placing it in correct order. Then she put some red into her lips and cheeks, and covered up blemishes. She didn’t use eye shadow, poking her eye out wasn’t the best way to start a day, and besides it just looked ugly. To her, eyes were the focal point of beauty in a person, and disrupting that focus with a bunch of artificial black or blue was just a waste. Besides, eyeshadow carried with it a sort of message she didn’t want to send. Not like, “hey I’m a hooker.” But some vague gaseous form of that message, which no one would accuse her of, but everyone would maybe lean towards. Her face was fair game though. There was no reason to look worse than you could, especially when nobody could even tell it wasn’t natural. Especially when all the other girls got to look better, and not wearing makeup would just be competitive suicide. She knew Roland wasn’t going to ditch her for a girl who wore more makeup, but the competition was more than that. It wasn’t just his loyalty, it was his attention. And it wasn’t just his attention. It was the attention of the rest of the crowd, even the rest of the girls. She would feel awful, if nobody looked at her in a crowd. Like she’d been found guilty of some horrible crime. It would be the same sense of shame and humiliation. She didn’t value herself by the amount or popularity of girl friends who traveled in her pack. After all, she had chosen to take her Tour with Roland, not a Tour group, or a clique. She didn’t want people to come up and talk to her or find new friends. She just wanted to be appreciated, as quietly as just a look, or nod, or long blink. Roland, oblivious as he was about everything, didn’t even notice any change in her appearance at Geneva, but it still rankled her a little. It was almost a cleansing ritual, to go through this, and she felt out of sorts so long as she couldn’t go through it. She rinsed her mouth out with a peppermint tasting wash, and sucked in a long breath to appreciate the smell and feel. Dental care had become easier and more pleasant with one of those endless little refinements the centuries had given to increase our general comfort. People didn’t wear glasses or contacts anymore either, corrections were made on the fetus itself, by careful insertion or deletion of the culprit genes. Genetics hadn’t made everyone blonde haired and blue eyed. But it had cured baldness and blindness. Another one of those little gifts to mankind.
They’d left Geneva a few days ago, and taken a roundabout way to Tyrol. For them, the Tour wasn’t just a chance to see the cities, it was a chance to see the planet. They’d hiked down a canyon deeper than the deepest on Earth, and looked up and up and up, trying to find the sky again. Except the sky wasn’t blue. They didn’t make pictures out of clouds. Or sneeze from having too much sunlight at once, as the Sun had already set, and wasn’t all that bright out here anymore anyway. They lay on their backs, looking up at an ocean of stars. More stars and brighter than anyone on earth has seen. So many that she felt like she could have reached up and scooped out a handful of them, and watched them fall back into space like sand. Roland had said something about how it always made him sad, looking at the stars, knowing that they were all dying. That the whole universe was dying, slowly but surely, burning itself out into more and more darkness and cold. It made her sad too, when he said it. But she refused to see it that way. For the stars to be dying, they had to be living, didn’t they? Couldn’t they think about how much light and heat they had, how bright and warm space was near them, how many weird plants and fungi and animals must be living off of them, and maybe looking into space at the same time. . .maybe looking right back at them, imagining them living near the sun? She smiled. Roland was always so dreary just because he liked it when she cheered him up. She was sure of it. But then, she liked Roland voicing her doubts and fears, so that she could confront them and overcome them, and then they would leave, as the bravado she put on for his sake became convincing enough for her own sake too.
“Isolde? Are you about ready? The Spindle is opening in an hour.” For answer, Isolde opened the door. “Good morning.” She smiled, happy to display her new and improved version since Geneva. He replied in kind, sneaking into the bathroom himself. She bit her cheek in annoyance. Cursed if he had even looked at her twice. Well, she supposed some needs trumped others sometimes. She got a glass of orange juice, made straight from crushed oranges, and a plum, and interchanged the sour and sweet until they were both gone, waiting for him to be ready. There were no real ‘attractions’ one went to in a Tour. The Tour was a time to live as the natives lived, not to particularly see or do anything. It was more a series of mindsets you were expected to put on and take off, according to the ones presented to you. To see how you liked it, and how it managed to work in real life. You got as much out of the Tour as your own observation and experimentation put in. But Roland had wanted to see the Spindle from the beginning, the largest man-made structure on Mars. It was the broadcaster and receiver of radio transmission between Earth and Mars. There was so little atmosphere on Mars, that there was no need to get outside of it, to send clear signals from satellites. Though of course there were satellites, so that communication could get from one side of Mars to the other, but they didn’t handle nearly as much traffic as the Spindle. The city also sported the shuttle dock for earth traffic. Shuttles did not land on Mars, then they would have to escape the gravity well again. They docked at Demos, unloading their cargo, including people, who had the singular experience of riding down an elevator shaft that connected the moon to Mars. It was lined with plastic, shielding it from cold, vacuum, and contact with dust and the like. But all the air, water, and solid objects made their leisurely descent from the space docks after careful inspection into Tyrol, where they were packaged and transported to their appointed place. Also at Tyrol was the nexus of the computer network that coordinated all the automated traffic, solar panels that powered Martian life (energy from wherever the sun was at the moment was transported to wherever it was being used, so that productivity did not end at sunset, and energy was not wasted in storage), direct wave broadcasters (the short-range information network, as opposed to satellites for long range), and recyclers, so that if any malfunction in any bubble’s water or air occurred, technicians would be notified at the bubble, and could solve it before any lives were endangered. The power structure of Mars was horizontal, not vertical, so Tyrol did not assert any such status as ‘first among equals.’ However, they were the technological and import/export center of the entire Martian population, which depended upon Tyrol for the complex lifestyle they took for granted. This led to a corresponding vitality in Tyrol’s economy, as more goods and services were produced here than anywhere else. It was not uncommon for children going on Tour from the various other hamlets staying at this metropolis, finding better prospects for wealth and comfort than where they had grown up, so that Tyrol had a sort of sphere of influence as ‘the city’ upon which the rest of the country looked to for leadership-economically, that is, not politically. But being the economic center, it above all had the best chance of becoming the political in some distant future. A bubble would be in harsh straits, if it went without the services Tyrol provided, which meant Tyrol could potentially make demands of them, they would be hard-put to refuse. This was a nebulous threat, however, as the character of Tyroliennes did not support it. Like all Martians, they had come to get away from politics and the rule of force, and were content to live and let live, having escaped Earth in order to be free, not conquer Mars. Future generations might not have thought the same, but then, that’s always the case. Every community, every nation, could fall, if the next generation did not support it. So Tyrol was as little a threat as it could be to the rest of the free world, yet produced the most good, as centralization of information and communication was always the most efficient method of systems-management humanity had grown so used to relying upon. Centralization and specialization, you might have perceived, was the natural course of every bubble, interacting with the others, as the economics dictated. Too much was necessary for the standard of living of the people on Mars, for any bubble to self-subsistently provide to their citizenry. Though of course there were exceptions of bubbles that wished for less, or isolated themselves further. Mars was nothing but a place where you could find exceptions. However, for the average colonist of Mars, the demand for a high quality of living, coupled with the need for everything to be made domestically to be feasibly affordable, was another link in the diffuse network that upon first inspection looks to be an absolutely divided population.
By now Roland had emerged from his own morning rituals, and the two went to the car and inserted their destination, the bubble too large this time to simply walk around. As the car was zoomed at the speed that allowed for the speediest movement of all the traffic in the city, it would quietly accelerate or decelerate through the streets. The two took the time to stare at the skyscrapers and the strange looking giant tube that loomed over everything else, transparent as plastic was, constantly ferrying in various people and products. Air, metals and other elements not found on Mars were the main import. Also there were gadgets nothing on Mars could make yet, requiring such incredible capital to begin with, that only a few companies on earth had managed to make a profit with. Everything the tube brought in, had attached to it a price tag that would boggle the reader into a dazed disbelief, so we will prudently not mention its exact amount. And as Mars had little to nothing it could offer Earth but real estate, all it received was either as charity from people of fellow-sentiments to the colonists, or as payment for the right to set up their own community. So long as there was a frontier, Tyrol’s prosperity was assured. As the city was the conduit between Earth and Mars, in material as well as information, its inhabitants were caught halfway inbetween being a modern cosmopolitan Earth community, full of various people of various wishes, and the homogenous and isolationist bubbles of Mars, intent on fulfilling their own wishes. Which left its laws as moderate as could be managed, allowing any law-abider to become a citizen of Tyrol, rather than requiring that they adopt a certain belief or work. Businessmen were wanted here. And scientists. And engineers. And technicians. And programmers. Anyone who knew something that could be employed into the making of money was a Tyrolienne, as far as Tyrol was concerned.
Isolde didn’t know anything practical. She could play the flute. She knew gymnastics. As a child, flying through the air, managing dozens of flips before reaching the ground, had been the highest euphoria, the happiness which could not be matched or reached in any other way. She painted, well enough to adorn her house’s walls, if not a museum’s. And she’d learned well enough everything they taught in school. But none of that could have earned her a penny, and a penny had been inflated quite a lot. She hadn’t worried about money, trusting it would come to her magically in one way or another. Her family was well enough off, that money had never been an issue heretofore, so she assumed it wouldn’t be hereafter. Tyrol was neat, but entirely foreign to her. Nothing in it connected to her, or invigorated her. Roland, she smiled to herself, knew a lot, but about such useless stuff, as he couldn’t hope to make it a week in Tyrol. He would have to realize this now. Just because a place emphasized knowledge, didn’t mean it emphasized being knowledgeable. That was seen as excess blubber that would interfere with the sleekly flowing heart-pumping blood-flowing knowledge that powered the city. Here above all places, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, War and Peace, The Spirit of Laws, Leviathan, and Plato’s Dialogues would have been so many black marks against your name, rather than admirable attachments to it. They might have put up with The Wealth of Nations, and that she only conjectured.
“What’s that smirk for?” Roland asked suspiciously. She only turned it into outright laughter in response. Ach, Roland, you know everything and nothing at once.
Lucinda emerged from her taxi and entered New Haven. Considering its lineage, the city would have been more fairly dubbed New New New Haven. But the name sufficed on Mars, as nobody would confuse an address which ended with the name of a separate planet. She looked through the transparent entrance dubiously, as there were no structures inside it. Had she come to the wrong place? Was this some ghost town, like those she had heard about, that had been so screwed up that the people either left or died out, leaving the empty bubble a testament to their empty ideals? Or some ravaged victim of banditti, the bands of thugs that had no home and no vision, save to loot and rape and burn anything they could find weaker than themselves? If so, how would she survive, all alone? The car had already zoomed away, not belonging to her, and having other passengers to serve. Now she looked back mournfully, wondering if she could still stop it. It was her last contact with the rest of the world, she’d never live to see another! Working the fear up in herself in this manner, it was to her greatest relief to hear a human voice greeting her at the other side.
“Welcome, welcome. Welcome to New Haven, young lady. If you would kindly give us identification to run through our computer.”
She shook her head. “I don’t have it. I. . .forgot it when I left.”
“Then your name, and bubble of origin?”
“Lucinda. . .” Lucinda broke off her thought. She didn’t want to name her bubble. Who knew if there was some sort of missing persons list, and they would drag her back? Could they drag back a missing person? She’d never heard of any treaty, but then, she didn’t know much of anything about anything, there easily could be one. So she decided to ask. “Is there a law that would make people go back to where they left from, if, say, they were reported missing?”
The man smiled at her directness. “If there were any law that tied anyone to any bubble, you can be sure we wouldn’t follow it. We didn’t fly ten million miles away just to be imprisoned again.”
Her face brightened. “Not even children? Not even runaways?”
“Only fugitives, and then only if the crime is particularly heinous, and then only if we agree to extradite them. Are you a hardened criminal?”
She blushed. “No.”
“Then you’re free. Whatever reason, bad or good, that made you want to leave, you are free to make it. Nobody will force you back.” She supposed she should’ve known that, when the Blacksburg officials had cleared her, and given her a visa. They’d adopted her to clean house and bring meals to the wardens, which usually meant wandering through fields of flowers and butterflies to wherever they might be dozing, until she’d earned enough money to be okay when she left. She knew she had been ‘paid’ far more than she deserved, but all she could give them was gratitude. They had restored her from the deepest pit of despair to peace and security so easily, when it had looked so impossible for her to manage it herself. She still marveled over it. People giving her money and clothes and food because they liked her. How easy it was for them to give her things she could not have earned no matter how hard she had tried. She knew there was something disquieting about it, but she hadn’t figured out what. She just knew there was some mental disparity or dissonance in what had happened, and it had made her want to leave, even though she had had nowhere to go.
“Richardetto?” She had asked. “This sounds awful of me. But I can’t stay here. It’s beautiful here, but. . . I can’t imagine myself living here. I can’t imagine what I’d be good for. I’ve never even known these plants and animals existed, much less felt passionately about growing them.” He nodded. “So I’m asking you, as a friend, where can I go that I could earn my living, where can I get by, supposing I have absolutely no money to start with, and no skills?”
“Well. That’s a grim supposition. You should have some money and skills to start with.” He remarked. “But if you must start somewhere. . .I mean, if you just want some place to get by in until you can catch your balance. . .then I’d say New Haven is the place to go.”
“Why? What’s in New Haven?” She asked, attentive.
“Absolutely nothing.” He smiled. She frowned. Making jokes about her future might be fine for him, but she had to live it. Seeing her angry look, he quickly explained. “That’s the trick. New Haven is minimalist. They decided, they didn’t want to work, or make money, or have to pay anyone for anything. And to do that, they decided they would go without. Just that. Go without. They go without everything. So what’s there is absolutely nothing.”
“Absolutely nothing?” She turned the words around in her head, trying to fathom what it would look like.
He nodded. “Absolutely nothing.” Even repeated four times, it hadn’t prepared her for her first sight. Surely absolutely nothing didn’t disclude buildings. . .?
“Miss?” The clerk waited with infinite patience. No one was behind her, after all, and he didn’t seem to have anything else to do.
“Oh! Sorry!” She blushed again. “El Dorado. El Dorado is my bubble.” He nodded, typing it in. A quick run-through of her personal file-he looked at her and checked it against her most recent picture, decided it was really her-then that she had no criminal record. That, in fact, she hadn’t even been reported missing. Which, he decided, meant that no one back home missed her, or that no one back home wanted to admit they had lost her. As she certainly was missing, to be here, and wanting to stay away.
“Alright then miss. Welcome to New Haven. The laws are don’t steal our water or air or rocks. Don’t kill anyone. Try not to hit anyone. And, well, I can’t think of the rest. So just use some common sense. If you don’t follow the rules, somebody bigger than you will probably drag you here, and we’ll decide what to do with you. And if you don’t like it here, you can leave. But if you’re still here, you’re being a good New Havonian, so don’t worry about being kicked out. Staying here is pretty much all we settled folks do, either.”
She gave him an incredulous look. “That’s it?”
Richardetto was right. It was absolutely nothing. She looked pensively at the empty horizon, biting her lip. “Are you sure there are people in there?” He nodded patiently. “And what will I eat? Where will I sleep?”
“Oh, there’s food enough. Food grows itself, after all. And there are never enough people to out-consume it.”
“But how shall I cook it?”
“Oh, well, I guess if you wanted to cook it, you could start a fire. . .I suppose there’s a law against burning the whole place up, so try not to. . .but then, why do you need to cook anyway?” The question flabbergasted her. She couldn’t think of any reply.
“So I just gather nuts and berries and. . .?”
“We planted all sorts of fruits and vegetables. I’m sure you can find something you like, somewhere.” He obviously didn’t know where.
“And then,” she asked, eyes dilating in sheer awe, “I guess I just get some moss or reeds and go to sleep at night?”
“That will do. There are enough soft things of one type or another, I’m sure you can find one you like, somewhere.”
“And that’s it?”
He nodded. “That’s it.”
She thanked him, and started walking forward until he was out of sight. She thought about how going downhill usually led to water, and started walking accordingly. She would have to find water first of all. The bubble was kept warm, warmer than she was used to even, but she blessed them for it. It would rain, she realized, but the water would be warm when it fell, so it would be okay even if she got wet. Maybe she could find some trees to stay under. Her clothes would get dirty soon. And her hair! How would she wash her hair? She would have to find a river or pond for that too. But water couldn’t clean hair alone. What else was in shampoo? She thought hard. Hadn’t she ever read the ingredients on the back of a shampoo bottle before? Why hadn’t she ever wondered what made shampoo? Maybe she could crush some berries into her hair or something-wait, that would just make it stickier. Sodium Benzoate? Was that in shampoo? Did that exist. . .? Why had it popped into her head? Salt had sodium in it. How on earth would she get benzoate? What was benzoate? Her eyes could not widen any further with the sheer absurdity of the situation. But her feet prudently kept walking downhill.
5. Wherein the Reader Finds the Cure to Crime Aforementioned Near the End of Chapter 4
Bubbles were made to rain, to redistribute evaporated water that condensed at the top of the bubble. Without storms, it would just continuously drip, each drop choosing its own time to fall. And as that was a dreary and unwelcome weather, as London or Portland can attest, it was made to rain instead. Besides, as children can equally attest, rain was fun. Lucinda hurried her step, though, having passed from that threshold of running into the rain to running out of the rain. Not quite running though. Running just didn’t seem dignified. Even though she wasn’t in a city anymore, and nobody was looking at her anymore, she kept thinking about what people would say if she ran around like a child. Adults were never hurried. Adults never had to change their gait for some storm or person or deadline. Adults were always in control, and so they always walked, while the world waited for them. Besides, she was carrying too much to run. She’d found some fallen branches from last night’s wind. It had been so cool. The trees were shaking and waving like so many reeds, and sometimes she felt like the wind would pick her up and fly her around. And it had been so quiet. It was just the wind blowing, and the whole world holding its breath, hoping the wind wouldn’t notice it. It prowled through the forest and the plains, pushed her clothing against her skin and snapped her hair against her face. It was so cold and so refreshing and so exhilarating all at once. She had felt so free. But now the storm was coming on the wind’s heels, and she had to make it back to her little home with the loot. Home was a grove of pine trees overlooking a stream. It was the pine needles. She couldn’t take another step when she saw that many pine needles. It was the best night of sleep ever. Next she was going to make walls between the tree trunks, and a door. It was going to be so cool! With her pine needle bed, and her house, she would be set. She had camped under the evergreens, but the stream was within view, so she had her water and baths and laundry. Yesterday she had stuck her clothes in the water beside herself, then put them on a rock and sunbathed beside them. She couldn’t stop worrying if someone else might see her the whole time she lay there, but it was so nice that it was worth it. Clothing, she reminded herself, was good for protecting her, and warmth for times like now. And there were other people, somewhere. She wasn’t quite ready to go from skinny dipping to skinny living. Maybe she would work up to it bit by bit. She’d have to, eventually. Clothes weren’t immortal. But she supposed she could go out and buy some clothes and then come back. Or make a grass skirt or something. She’d seen lots of girls in grass skirts at El Dorado. In front of half the casinos. She laughed to think of herself as more scandalous than they were. It just felt so different here. Like nothing you did could be wrong.
The only problem was food. She realized that eating everything around her would make her have to range further from home each day. But she didn’t want to just roam around and never feel home, or feel safe. Plus, near her, she had only found pear trees, dewberries, and some squash-like plant. An eggplant? A zucchini? She didn’t know. She didn’t know nearly enough about anything. Probably half the stuff she looked at was edible, if she knew what part to eat. She didn’t think they’d actually plant poisonous plants just to spite the inhabitants. But then, what if the mushrooms were hallucinogenic? Would the people here have decided on a lot of those, or none? She didn’t trust them. Even if she could eat a few pears a day and that would suffice, it would become really boring fare. A pear for breakfast. A pear for lunch. A pear for dinner. Repeat. She hadn’t figured out that part yet. And her period had not been fun at all. She winced just thinking about it. No doubt men decided on how this bubble worked. Absolutely Nothing was just fine if you didn’t have headaches and cramps from it.
“Oh!” A boy spoke, startled. He looked either direction as if expecting something bad to happen. Her bones jumped out of her skin, or at least tried to. She hadn’t heard an actual word in a week.
“What are you doing here?” She turned on him, the storm finally caught up. “It was about to rain, and I saw these pine needles-“ He was flustered, realizing his mistake. Of course it looked so nice because she had put a lot of work into it for herself. He should have realized that.
She smiled. “Yeah. Aren’t they great?” She produced her home with a proud flourish of an arm. A branch fell out of her arms.
“Here, let me help you with that.” He grabbed some wood, then wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be doing with it.
“I thought I would connect the tree trunks, you know. . .” She hesitantly stuck a piece of wood into the ground for a stake. It fell over, and she laughed. “I just got here, I don’t really know how to make a house. . .I just thought having wood was a start.”
“Oh, that’s alright. Wow!” The rain had become torrential. “You’ll let me stay here, right?”
“Of course!” The rain was coming down hard everywhere but there. Already the stream was running faster with the extra water. “But are you here all alone?” The boy asked, and then she connected what he meant by all his furtive looks over her shoulder.
Her mouth opened, closed. She didn’t know what to say. She just realized that being alone with a boy and no law to protect her. . . He looked stronger than other men she’d seen, more in control of his surroundings. It wasn’t what she could wish for just now. “Why?” She asked. So stupid! That meant ‘yes I’m alone and scared of you too.’ Yeah, that was real smooth. Couldn’t she ever lie? How hard would it have been for her to say she had a dozen uncles or something?
“It’s just. . .you’re so young. . .I didn’t think I’d find a young girl all alone out here, where, well, you know, it’s all touch and go as far as people go. . .” She relaxed a little. Anyone busy stumbling over words was probably okay. She didn’t know enough okay people to know if someone was okay or just devious, but it’s all she had to go with. She wished she had more. “I know. And it’s probably stupid of me. But I didn’t exactly choose this.” She shrugged eloquently. Water was dripping through the trees and making a mess of her bed. “It just happened really fast, and I was just getting used to it. Are people really that scary?”
He shook his head. “Not that I know. But I’m sort of a piece of flotsam that washed up here. I don’t know what the ‘normal’ person is here.”
She perked up her attention. “What do you mean? Why are you here?” He didn’t really seem much older than herself.
“But then, maybe the norm really is just flotsam. Maybe this is just some big beach that random people wash up on. Don’t you think? Like you said, right? I bet we’re all just here without knowing why, just trying to get by.”
She cocked her head. “We are? Or you are? Or I am?”
“No, I mean,” He looked around him for what he meant. “like, nobody can be here for a reason. This place doesn’t have a reason. This is the place you go when you don’t have any reasons to be doing anything. When you don’t even have anything to do. Or be. It’s like the place you go when you don’t really care if you exist. Wait, that’s too depressing. . .it’s like nothingness, except you still get to live, see?”
She nodded. She was here to be free, and safe, and because she didn’t have anywhere else she could go. But it was true, she certainly wasn’t doing anything or being anything. All she’d needed to do was build this shelter and find more food, and she’d be set. I guess that is sort of nothingness. Except I still get to live. That was a big difference. Wasn’t it? It was only dripping now, the rain running out quickly in such a contained system. Weather on Mars just couldn’t keep up with Earth. There wasn’t enough atmosphere to create climate disturbances, nor a hot enough core to cause tectonic disturbances, nor bubbles large enough for even thunderstorms to form within them. Getting drenched and maybe cold was as bad as it got. Nature had been tamed by the bubble’s policy of divide and conquer. There just wasn’t enough air to support a storm. Floods and droughts couldn’t happen, as water couldn’t leave or come in from afar. And life, in another way, had become softer, easier, and safer.
“So no reason? You’re just here to live?” She eventually pressed.
“Something like that.” He blushed.
“What? Why can’t you tell me?” She felt safer the more nervous he got.
“This. . .is sort of ridiculous.” His face grew redder. “There was a girl. . .and we both loved her, see. Love her. He-this guy-saw us holding hands, and challenged me right in front of the whole class. I didn’t want to fight him, so I ran away. . .except I don’t really know how to live somewhere else. . .so I thought I’d run here.”
“You left your girlfriend and family and home and friends and ran all the way here just to avoid a fight?” She asked, amazed. It was like a fairy tale. Two guys fighting over a girl for holding her hand?
“I couldn’t kill him!” His voice rose in self defense. “How could I look her in the eyes afterwards? If it means that much to him. . .then better he should just have his way.”
“Kill him?” She was startled. “What for? Who said you should kill him?”
“Don’t you know what duels are?” He seemed to be reevaluating her mental aptitude.
“Yes I’ve heard of duels, but you said a fight! Duels are like, in the middle ages!” She heated in defense of herself.
“In the middle ages, or in Palermo. Take your pick.” He smiled wryly.
She looked at him again, the way he held himself, that seemed taller than other people. She was in a wild grove with a real live knight, sitting on a bed of pine needles! Beside a rushing stream! How’s that, mother? How’s that, street corner? And she’d been like some river nymph only yesterday. What if he had seen her then! She couldn’t stop blushing.
“Besides,” he went on, oblivious, “I said ‘I didn’t want to fight him’, the verb. I didn’t say it was a fight, the noun. Though,” he admitted, “you can use duel as a verb, it’s usually kept as a noun, and fight just came more naturally to the tongue.”
“Oh what does it matter if fight’s a verb or noun?” She flounced.
“Well, it’s part of the code. I can’t lie, so I just had to clear it up that I hadn’t, or else my honor would have been stained.” He said this with a totally straight face.
“So wait, even though they practically exiled you, you still live like you’re in Palermo? Don’t you leave the system of a bubble at the bubble’s door? Especially since you yourself rejected the system, or else you wouldn’t have left?”
“It’s perfectly honorable to avoid a duel for the right reasons.” He said a little stiltedly. “I’ve never gone against our code, and I never will, no matter where I am. It’s not a code for this time or that, or this place or that, it’s the code.”
“The code. So I suppose all other codes are wrong?” He nodded. “So I suppose my code is wrong?” He nodded again. “So I suppose you really want nothing to do with me, and now that the storm is gone, you can leave, now can’t you?” She couldn’t stand admiring him and being contemptible in his eyes at the same time.
“I could. Only I thought I could help you build your shelter, as I offered to earlier.”
“Oh, and so now you must, to avoid having said a lie?” She glared at him. “No thanks! I absolve you of your compliance! If someone is going to help me, it’s going to be because he wants to, because he likes me. I don’t need duty bound scraps thrown to me by people who don’t even respect me.”
“Calm down! Who said anything of the sort? What are you getting so angry for?”
“What, can’t I get angry whenever I want to? Is there a law against my getting angry here? Is that in your code?”
“I didn’t say that!”
“Look, I don’t care what you said! I just want you out of my pine needles!” She stormed. “Get out! Out!” She pointed the first direction she thought of. He got up to go, bewildered and practically scared she would start hitting him. He even went in the direction she pointed, just to be safe. She watched with satisfaction until he was out of sight. Except now she was all alone again, when for the first time since she’d run away she had found someone she could talk to again. That was her first friend, and the last thing she had wanted was for him to leave. Somehow that hadn’t occurred to her until just now. She had expected him not to go, she didn’t know what to do when he actually did. And now it was too late. And maybe the next man wouldn’t be a knight. . .and she wouldn’t have a knight to protect her. If she wasn’t still mad, she would have cried. She was already primed to cry out of frustration alone. Now she had to add on how incredibly stupid she was. Alright, she would cry.
“Here you are, sir, miss. Just keep these bracelets on and there won’t be any trouble. We don’t like trouble here, and you tourists are full of it, so just mind your step.”
“Gee, thanks.” Roland said, putting his bright orange bracelet on. It looked odd. He didn’t like jewelry. Only, it wasn’t jewelry. It was their yellow star, so that everyone would know they didn’t belong.
“Look, if you want to be a rebellious young punk and impress your girlfriend with how you can resist authority, do it on someone else’s time. Next!” And that was how Roland and Isolde entered Sao Paulo. Isolde looked at him with those laughing eyes. Roland smiled sheepishly. The gatekeeper had really stickled him, and Isolde had decided he deserved it, and now deserved to be laughed at just to make sure he realized. Well, he supposed he did. The guy didn’t have to be so rude, though. Weren’t they potential fellow citizens or something? Jeez.
“So do you like it so far?” Isolde asked sweetly, her eyes still laughing at him.
“Okay, okay, so I shouldn’t have said anything.” Roland said. “Would you stop looking at me like that? You’ve been laughing at me ever since Tyrol!”
“It’s just that you’re so funny!” She teased.
“Well I’m glad somebody thinks this is funny. Christ, look at this place. Nobody even looks at each other. And they only glare at us.”
“They have to let us roam around for a month. They don’t have to like it.” She remarked judiciously.
“But who would want to stay with a welcome like this?” He complained.
“Who says they want anyone to stay?”
“but. . .” Roland trailed off. He just thought everyone was happy to see people come and go. It was what Martians did, right? “Well, any ideas?”
“Sure. Let’s find a place, then go out to eat. And as long as you’re offering, we can go see a movie.” Movies had changed a little, in that they were now 3d, and involved all the senses, but going to the movies was still what couples did. Guided by her practicality, the more spiritual question concerning how they should deal with their new neighbors was perfectly eluded. He suspected that was her spiritual solution. To ignore it and go on enjoying life, wherever they were. But that negated the whole point of being here, or anywhere. If she believed that, did she even really care about any of this at all? Was this just a fun vacation to her? If so, she had the strongest will and the least prudence he’d ever seen. To take her own choice of life as a joke! He wasn’t sure if he was more impressed or afraid.
The crowds were large in Sao Paolo. The city was prosperous, and at the leading edge of technological improvements. There didn’t seem to be any ‘bad’ districts or slums. Because Earth had banned many fields of research on account of ethical questions, people had emigrated to the freedom of Sao Paolo to continue their research, or continue to enjoy the fruits thereof. With so fewer people and resources, Martian scientists were no match for their Blue counterparts, but when the Blues withdrew themselves from the niche, the Reds filled it, and prospered.
Smugglers would buy up the products of Sao Paolo researchers, then sell them to Earth, bring back the highly demanded goods of Earth, and sell them to the researchers for more contraband, in an upward spiral of wealth until they were caught. But there were always enough desperate or overconfident spirits to pick up where the last smuggler left off. Wherever there was demand for a product, suppliers would emerge, like maggots spontaneously generating from raw meat. No matter how hard Earth tried to stop it, the trade went on. The harder they made it to smuggle, the higher the prices skyrocketed due to the scarcity of the goods that made it through, the more willing the smugglers were to risk everything for the newly-created incredible returns by virtue of the very forces trying to stop it. Which, it might be noted, caused many Blues to resent the lawlessness of Mars, and wish to stop the problem at the source. A problem for a later chapter, perhaps. For now back to Sao Paolo.
The researchers, after buying the products of earth from the smugglers with their dubious productions, could then in turn sell the excess to the rest of the Bubbles, in return for more local goods, such as plants, minerals, and manufactures. At least some products from Earth, thus, trickled down into all the communities of Mars, who were producing anything to trade with. Here robotics and genetics and questionable methods of gaining information ran free. There wasn’t any government, so taxes and regulations were out of the question. The people of Sao Paolo had figured out how to govern themselves.
At the restaurant families or friends clustered around round tables, talking in subdued tones so that they wouldn’t be overheard by other customers. Nobody laughed. Nobody had laughed on their way to the restaurant. Not even children. For that matter, no children had been playing anything that they could have laughed about. They were just being towed around by the hand by parents going on various errands. Roland had to watch others input their orders and receive food from a hole in the center of the table, to understand what to do. It seems they preferred robotic interaction to human. Well, Roland admitted, at least he wouldn’t have to leave a tip. Especially since Isolde had taken his question as an invitation to pay for everything. He vowed to himself that from here on he’d only consult his own wishes, to make him feel better. Only with her, ‘his own wishes’ were to be accommodating and avoid any conflict or ill will, which meant consulting his own wishes would only lead to consulting her wishes. He simply forgot what food or lodging or music or anything he preferred. That didn’t matter anymore. What mattered was if she were pleased or displeased with him. The food could of course still taste bad and the movie still be horrible, but so long as she smiled, all was right with the world.
Which meant that in the great area of choices which were not regarded by him as obligated or forbidden, but equivocal, he consigned the whole of them to her preference. And for Isolde to wheedle a preference out of him, Roland only gave one to suit her preference of suiting his preference. Which, to the startlement of all Roland’s everywhere, did not please Isolde but annoyed her to no end.
The movie was about a war on earth fought recently. Bolivian separatists had tried to form a new nation on top of some magnesium and tin mines the rest of Bolivia wasn’t willing to part with. And apparently sometime during the war, a squad of soldiers had blown up half the enemy army and formed deeply romantic liaisons with half the women in the country, all of whom were absolutely gorgeous. Nobody laughed during the whole movie. Roland supposed it was a tragedy, but it was so ludicrous that he had been on the point of laughing half the time. Nobody else seemed to agree. After the movie ended, and history kept going, two million people had died, the separatists had given in, and been fined the cost of the war required to put them down, so were now worked virtually as slaves in the very mines they’d attempted to claim until the indemnity was payed off. The millions lost were made up virtually overnight by lucky parents given a dispensation to have another child. Overall the war was hardly noticed by Bolivia itself, much less the rest of the world. Millions were born and died every day as it was, what did it matter if another couple went a little earlier? It just meant another couple could come a little earlier. When populations reached their resources’ maximums, people were seen as interchangeable parts. When a human rights group complained about children dying from overwork and lack of care in the mines, a Bolivian minister explained that it “was just overdue birth control,” and didn’t see why other people couldn’t mind their own business.
Everyone else in the theatre cast pointed looks at the interlopers’ bracelets and inched further away from them. Once a child had pointed at them asking “Why are they wearing that?” And a mother explained in a reflexive whispered tone, “Because they aren’t safe.” The child cast a more frightened and curious glance at her mother’s face, then the two tourists, than ever, but was hushed before she asked another question. Roland looked at his bracelet again. “Not safe? They did check that we weren’t fugitives before we came in, didn’t they?”
Isolde seemed taken aback as well, but didn’t want to talk during the movie.
Filtering out, people gave them a wide berth on all sides, while giving little room at all for each other. Even now the people didn’t make fun of the movie, or some annoying person that sat near them. The crowd didn’t even talk because they were in a crowd, and just wanted to split apart again. It irritated Roland more than ever. The moment the two were walking alone towards the boardinghouse they’d rented, he exploded. “What did I do? What is this?”
“We didn’t do anything, dear.” Isolde soothed. She had done the research on this bubble, so she had the advantage of knowing the why and how and what of Sao Paolo.
“I know we didn’t do anything!” That’s why he was mad! “So why are we being treated like criminals? I feel like I have to remember what I did the past few days and check to see if I’m carrying heroin or something just to make sure!”
“It’s because we’re the closest thing to criminals they ever see or know.” She explained. “Suppose you’re in a theatre back at home and a couple known murderers are sitting next to you. Wouldn’t you want to change your seat?”
“Okay, now suppose there had never been a murder in the whole town, that nobody had even hit anyone else during your whole life, that you’d never even seen violence or violent people.”
“Then imagine a couple foreigners come in with dyed hair, tattoos, pierced all over, cursing up a storm, and looming over everybody that walks by. Wouldn’t they be as menacing to the people in that town as a murderer to a city used to the rest?”
“Well then, just think this bracelet is equivalent to all that other stuff, and there you go.”
“But that’s not the same!”
“This bracelet is as threatening, more threatening, to them, than all the indicators put together of a ‘bad’ guy we know of back home. Because this bracelet is a better indicator that we’re bad than all of that back home.”
“How so? Every tourist has to wear this!”
“Because tourists are the only people who can commit crime at all.” They arrived at the boarding house, where the proprietress treated them with a little more courtesy, since her job depended on pleasing tourists. Roland also had a sneaking suspicion that Isolde’s being with him made him infinitely more palatable and ‘safe’ to their eyes. Just imagine if a single eighteen year old boy with a bracelet were prowling the streets. They’d probably arrest him right then and there. Except, he hadn’t seen any police. Maybe they’d just gang tackle him.
“No crime? Even in Geneva there were criminals, and you can’t find more upstanding people than that.” They threw their luggage to the floor, stretching out onto a big bed with sighs of relief.
“As to that, I think you’re plenty more upstanding than anyone in Geneva.” She kissed him as proof of commendation. “They have a thousand devils and angels ready to enforce their upstandingness, and all we have is ourselves.”
“I meant as a whole.” Roland still glowed, though. His anger had vanished with her kiss, leaving only curiosity.
“Well, Sao Paolo gave up persuading people not to do crime. As far as they’re concerned, people will always be criminals whenever they can get away with it, or even possibly get away with it, and some people will do it even if they know they can’t get away with it.”
“That’s the thing. There’s always psychos, you can’t stop all crime.”
“Sure you can.” Isolde smiled triumphantly. “Everyone knows that there’s a time between when the subconscious makes a decision, and when the conscious is made aware of its decision. Insert a chip that receives the signals and rejects the ones it doesn’t see fit before sending it on to the conscious, and pow, nobody ever has a criminal thought to their names.”
“But that’s. . .impossible.” Roland protested. “No computer could decipher the import of thoughts and then judge if they’re accepted or forbidden. . .”
“Can’t they? Don’t machines have failsafes that forbid them from certain actions? Like bumping into things? Or falling off edges? Once they get near, the wheels are stopped. The command ‘go’ isn’t allowed anymore. How do you think cars work? They aren’t allowed to hit each other, the computer has a situational awareness of its position vis-à-vis all the other cars, a command to get between any two points as fast as possible, and a failsafe command not to hit any of the others. Obviously it’s more complex than that. But the point is, computers have failsafe commands. Ones that override other commands after being judged dangerous given the situation. If a computer were to be given a failsafe command, “don’t let your body hit another body over a speed of x,” all you would need is a collision detector-the brain already has it-and the override-which conveniently occurs at a level beneath our own awareness.”
“Well. . .but that’s just violence. What if we stole something?”
“Easy. Just an if-then statement. The computer only allows actions to go in a preset order. You can’t eat the food until you’ve ordered it, or see the movie until you’ve bought the ticket. If the computer doesn’t remember the last step having been made, the failsafe jumps in and deems it impossible for the next to be accomplished.”
“That’s not easy at all! How can it have every single circumstance worked out? What if I’m stealing by just not mentioning some information that if somebody knew they wouldn’t lose their money to me? What if I’m stealing by just altering a bank record after hacking into their database?”
“I don’t know the specifics, but the principle is very simple. If A, then B. If not A, then not B. Whenever the subconscious sends up a B without an A, the B is just thrown out, so the only times our conscious even thinks of doing B, it’s when they’ve done A.”
“Alright then, what if I’m just defaulting on a contract? That’s not doing anything, that’s just omitting something. Surely they don’t have a failsafe that generates its own commands?”
“Oh, that’s easy. Whenever you make a contract, they can update the chip to include a failsafe against any decision that breaches it. It would be the same as thinking “bump into that wall” or “fall off the cliff” as far as the chip is concerned. Make a contract that says, “I’ll insure this house in case of fire,” and a fire burns down the house, your subconscious can say “I guess I won’t insure it after all” all it wants, but the failsafe will just keep throwing it out, as an impossibility. If A happens, B happens. A happened, so only B can happen, and thoughts C, D, E, F, G, et cetera, will just keep being thrown out until B is sent up, and the function is finished.”
“But what if it’s necessary to do a crime? What if the failsafe doesn’t take into account that you’ll die or something unless you do? What if some alien is threatening to blow up the planet unless you steal an apple, and you can’t?”
She smiled. “Then the world explodes.”
“But that’s not a solution! That’s just. . .making people into robots, and perhaps wrong robots!”
“That’s a price they decided they would pay. If they don’t like it, they can always get it removed and leave.”
Roland grumbled. “Until they put a failsafe in that doesn’t let you think it’s wrong to have a failsafe.” Isolde laughed and told him to stop being so gloomy. She kissed him again to help him on his way, and then they got ready to sleep.
His arm wrapped around her, his hand holding hers, Roland emerged from the brink of sleep with a sudden realization. No wonder nobody laughed-how could a program surprise anyone? Good, maybe now he could stop thinking long enough to sleep. Isolde was already breathing evenly against him. She slept so easily because she never went to bed worrying about anything, it just wasn’t fair. God he loved her. He squeezed her hand just a little, and she squeezed back.
6.Wherein the Reader is Surprised to Find A Fantasy world Inside a Science Fiction Bubble
Lucinda woke up to the sound of steady knocking. She blinked a while, as she couldn’t understand how she was back in home with mother knocking to wake her up. But then her senses came to her in a rush and she stepped outside to find out the truth. There he was, slashing a tree branch into shape. A pile of finished wood lay beside a pile of work to be done. It looked like he’d been working since the very morning. The first thing that came into her head was really stupid.
“Where did you find that ax?”
He stopped. Sweat fell off his forehead. “I made it. They don’t let people carry property in. That’s not the idea.” In testimony, the ax was a simple combination of wood and a sharpened stone.
Made an ax? “Where would you learn something like that? Nobody knows stuff like that.”
“We’re trained with weapons the moment we can walk. We know how to make lots of stuff into weapons. We don’t learn much else, so I thought this was the only place I was really prepared for. Lucky for you, neh?”
She smiled. “I’m sorry about yesterday. You just came on so strong. I didn’t know what to do.”
“I thought I might be forgiven.” He smiled, taking his ax up and setting back to work.
“But-“ she stopped him, earning her an annoyed look. “But where did you learn how to make a house?”
“A house?” He looked at his poles. “I’m not making a house. These are going to lean in onto each other with the trees for support. It’s going to be a dome, then we tie them all together and to the trees, so the wind doesn’t blow it away.”
“But where would you learn how to make a hut then?”
“Is this how you have all your conversations?” He gave up trying to work. “The only time you haven’t been asking me a question is when you’ve been yelling at me.”
She blushed. “It’s just. . .I’m not sure if I really want this. . .at least not forever. And I wanted to learn about Palermo. If, you know, you don’t need any education to get by, like here. . .I thought maybe I could make it there. Except also feel safe and have friends and, you know. . .actual stuff.”
He stopped and looked mournfully at his work. “So you won’t even stay long enough for a hut?”
“I’d love to have a hut,” She quickly saved his sinking feelings, “But couldn’t you first tell me your name? I’d tell you about my life, only it’s not that exciting. But you! It’s like you’ve done ten times as much as me in the same amount of time.”
“My name? Sacripant.” He gave up his ax and walked away. She was frightened. But then she realized he was just going to the stream. He wasn’t just going to leave her, not if he already stayed through last night.
He took off his shirt and splashed into the stream, waited a couple minutes then took a long drink. “You chose this place really well, I could really get comfortable here.” He called from afar. “It’s a shame you got to it first.”
She wasn’t looking, but called over her shoulder. “A trade, then! I’ll give you my place in New Haven, if you give me a new place in Palermo. There! See? Even pine needles are worth something. Everything is money somehow, right? Isn’t this prime real estate?”
“Alright.” He stepped out of the stream cheerfully, putting his shirt back on. He dripped all the way back to the evergreens. He came back into view, decent once more. “You still haven’t told me your name.”
“Lucinda.” She smiled. He was so courteous. Or maybe, she thought he was so courteous, that everything he did was made courteous in her mind.
“That’s a pretty name.” It seemed to be the common consensus. Well, maybe mother had done something right. But there were too many emotions there. Just keep your mind on now and you won’t have to think about that. “When we were drawing up Palermo, a lot of people were tired of laws.”
She groaned. “Not another one. I haven’t been to a single bubble with laws!”
He laughed. “It’s not what you think. They weren’t tired of order. Just law and order. So they got together and looked for a different system. There was a time when there weren’t any courts or lawyers or judges or juries. In medieval Europe, the whole social fabric was kept together by honor and swords. It was honorable to rule, honorable to obey, and the number and quality of swords you owned determined where you fell in the pyramid. If two people had a dispute, they had a duel, and whoever won was obviously in the right. It’s called trial by combat. We decided it was fairer than cowards destroying each other’s lives with petty lawsuits, and lawyers using rhetoric to sway the juries. There’s no justice in the courts. The people with the most money hire the best men who work strange judicial magic to make black white and wrong right. And even if you win, you’re out the lawyer’s fees, who encourage all the lawsuits possible so they can feed off us like vultures. This way, if you challenge anyone, if you have any dispute, you have to be willing to stake your life on it. It discourages the ne’er-do-wells and the cowards. And this way, everyone has a chance, it’s a level playing field. Whoever wins wins, and it’s entirely in your control whether you win or lose. If you’re tired of following some guy’s orders? Challenge him to a duel. You can kill him and take his place. If a wife is straying with some other man? Challenge him to a duel, you can kill him, or he can kill you and take your place. When everything is a matter of life and death, people learn to be courteous to each other. We’re the most polite people in the world.”
“But couldn’t some really strong person just go around taking anything he wanted? That’s not fair either. And what about us? Do we even have a say?”
He shook his head. “Women aren’t allowed to duel. They wouldn’t have a chance, and we’d quickly run out of babies if we killed women. Men you can afford to lose, they’re a dime a dozen. Women are too precious.”
“Oh well thanks.” She rolled her eyes.
“As to some strong person killing everyone and taking everything. . .it doesn’t work out in the end. Oh, some people have tried. But no matter how good you are, if a whole town is riled up, they’ll challenge you one after the next until you collapse of exhaustion if nothing else. Nobody’s strong enough to win duel after duel after duel. And every enemy you kill, that creates ten more enemies who want to avenge his death, it becomes totally out of control. And if some guy is just that strong, then let him beware his old age. He won’t last long. Besides, there are women enough who have knives and poison in the dark for husbands and brothers and sons lost.”
She gaped. “By God! It must rain blood in there! Everybody’s a murderer!”
“They can always leave if they wish.” He pointed out. “Nobody has to kill. They can always decline a duel and leave. She could have left with me, if she had wanted.” The last line was much quieter. Lucinda didn’t know if she’d even heard it.
“But who could live there? Why wouldn’t everyone leave? You’re never sure if you’ll live to the next day. Your property could be taken by anyone who wants it. Why, even your own. . .even my own. . .could be won with a sword.”
“Only if you choose to stay. Nobody forces you.” He was very strident about it. “Why do people stay, though?” He seemed to be confused himself by the question. “It’s so different. I don’t know. Maybe you just can’t understand.”
“I’m giving you my home to tell me, you know.”
He smiled. “What, you’re still thinking about going? Okay then.” He tried to catch a line of thought and work it all out. “At first it sounds like people are being killed night and day. But they aren’t. I’ve never been in a duel. We all train very hard for it, but. . .only a few people are willing to challenge someone else. We’re all taught that we should defend our honor. But we’re also taught that defending your honor hardly ever means proffering a challenge. Almost always it’s accepting one. Only when someone else is so flagrantly unjust, if someone steals, or hurts a girl, or doesn’t pay back what he borrowed, or. . .or I don’t know, calls you a liar, or a cheater, or a thief. You see? How can you stand for that? Duels are there to bring back balance. A duel will offset whatever injustice there was, so it won’t be there anymore. One way or the other, there will be harmony again. It redeems you. Even if you die, it restores your honor. Everyone will remember that you wouldn’t allow someone else to steal your honor, that you died with it still in your breast. Plus, most of the time, it’s your own friends and family you offend, as those are the people we’re around, and our emotions are always more involved with them. They’re the conflicts you can’t avoid. They’re the ones you can’t ignore, or just walk away from. So if you provoke one to issue a challenge , how can you win? How can you say you’ve won if you’ve killed your friend?” This was less a rhetorical question then he might have wished, and Lucinda immediately connected the open plea with what he had said before.
“He was your friend?” She put her hand on his, because his was trembling.
“Of course he was my friend. He loved her for the same reason I loved her, because we both loved the same things, and she embodied them. How could we not be friends? To both love her, we’d have to love each other.”
“But he was willing to kill you?” That hardly seemed right.
“No, he was defending his honor. I provoked him. I shouldn’t have gone behind his back. We knew. . .Sal and I knew it would have to come to a duel eventually, that it had to be won fairly. But I tried to somehow avoid it, to win her heart, and use his love for her against him to defeat his gauntlet. Using his goodness against himself, that’s just so low. I was totally in the wrong. He had to challenge me after that.”
“But how could she have wanted either of you to die? How could you make her choose like that? If she makes a choice, then you kill each other? What kind of choice does that leave her?”
“She had a choice.” He clenched his hand. “She chose to stay. She’s probably with him right now.”
“But that’s not fair. You would make her leave everything for you?”
“No.” He caught himself. “No. If she had loved me enough, then it wouldn’t have mattered to her. She doesn’t love me enough, so I wouldn’t have wanted her to. No, it worked out the best way it could. I was just in the way and I was wrong and now she’s happy.”
“If two people ever loved me,” Lucinda touched him again to show she cared, “I’d thank them both. That would make me so happy. And maybe I would love one more than the other. But that doesn’t mean I’d want the other to die. I’m sure she loves you much more for not fighting.”
“That’s probably true in other places, but there it’s the opposite. In Palermo, she wouldn’t think of it that way. In Palermo, she would have loved both of us more for it, because we fought bravely and proved how much we valued our honor. If a girl sees a boy fight for his honor, put his life on the line for his good name, or his sense of justice, or maybe even her own impugned virtue, that’s when they lose their hearts to them. It’s the testing ground of a boy’s true character. Whoever lived through it, she would know how much he loved her, and how much he loved his own values. That he valued something more than his life, that he was above things. What more could you ask of someone? A boy like that should be loved.”
He made it sound so different than how she was hearing it. Could the same thing really look so different just by the words that were attached to it? Could she really turn her head over and see what he was seeing? She couldn’t stop thinking of just how much blood there must be.
“Besides, challenges can be withdrawn if the challenged offers restitution beforehand. If you actually feel bad about it, or even if you’re right but it just isn’t worth fighting over, then nobody has to die. If you’re really in the wrong, then the honorable thing to do is back down from a duel. Nobody thinks of it as a way to get stuff they don’t deserve, we don’t even care about having that. People could care less if you have a bigger house or prettier clothes or anything else but honor, so nobody would trade their honor for a big house or prettier clothes, even if it was a sure thing they could win them. We’re all wrapped up with honor. Everybody is always thinking ‘what is honorable?’ ‘What will make people admire me?’ We’re always worried about our reputation. You can’t just kill someone if the people think you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. You’ll be a pariah the very next day. You won’t have kith or kin left in the bubble. So most of the time, one way or another, it doesn’t actually come to a duel. The duel is what gives our lives meaning, but only once or twice in our lives will we actually have to duel.”
“Once or twice because then you’re dead.” She remarked.
“We all die sometime.” He shrugged. “But we don’t all die with honor. We don’t all live with honor. That’s something special.” He sighed for the absence of it.
Lucinda caught it immediately. He was just too easy to read. “Why don’t we both go back? It’s obvious you still love Palermo. And her. If I leave you here, it’ll just eat you up inside. You don’t want to be here. And, I don’t want to be alone. A stranger in a strange land. I’d feel so much safer with you. I do feel safer with you.”
“Impossible. The same situation would be there if I went back.”
“No it wouldn’t!” She retorted encouragingly. “Look, how long has it been?” She asked.
“Umm. . .four, five months. . .I can’t really tell time here. I haven’t really wanted to stop and think about it. But I know I can get by here. It’s okay if I stay here forever.”
“Five months then.” She overrode him. “Five months and she thinks you’ve left her. I bet she’ll be with your friend now. Even if she didn’t choose then. It would be the only choice left to her, right?”
“Most likely.” His tone warned her against hurting him with such reminders.
“Then you see? The problem’s been solved. It’s already decided. Unless you would challenge him for loving her when you’d already given her away?”
“I might. I don’t know what I’d do if I saw them together. I don’t know if I could stand that.”
“Sacripant, listen. You may not know, but you really do know. You knew the very day you left. That you loved them more, that you would be okay with them marrying instead of you. You decided to give her away, and you have stood it all this time. You’ve never rushed back and fought him. You’re abiding by her choice right now. Only, if you go back, they’ll both be so grateful to you. They’ll want to be your friends again. You can go back. They’ll bless you as the person who’s given them more than anyone else. You aren’t their enemy at all anymore. Not if you really have given her up. And if Palermo is the code, you’ll never be happy anywhere else. How can you be happy here? It’s like you said, there’s nothing here. I mean. . .sure, you can still have a sense of honor here, nothing takes away what you bring with you here. . .but isn’t it better to be with other people who feel the same way? I know I’d be lonely if I were here for five months without anyone. And if I felt passionately about something, I know I’d want to share that with someone. That it would just burn a hole in me if I didn’t. And-also-I know this is odd, but-we’re more alike than you think.” He listened attentively, as she paused to gather her courage. She hadn’t been able to tell anyone yet, because she had been too afraid. But she had to tell someone, she needed someone to understand, and more than that, to agree with what she had done. She couldn’t chase away that feeling that maybe she was wrong, until someone affirmed her, forgave her, told her it was the right thing to do. But a knot in her throat was making it hard to speak.
“I had to. . .choose between everything else, and honor. . .well, what I think is my honor. And I ran away too. I cared about honor more. I even. . .I even might have lost my life for it, if things had gone differently. Don’t you think I could live there, then? If people are really like that? You’ll be my friend, won’t you? I mean, I’ve already chosen to care about honor. Why not live in Palermo then? And that means we can understand each other. If it gets to be too much for you, you can talk to me, and I’ll understand. And if I’m overwhelmed by it, I can talk to you, and you’ll understand. We can hold each other up, whoever happens to be falling at the time! Just because things could be bad there, things could also be much better there than they ever will be here. And we’ll be friends, right? Together it has to work for both of us, I just know it will.”
“What, and give up all these pine needles I just worked so hard for?” Sacripant complained. “And all the poles I just made?” Then they laughed. It was obvious that they had nothing left to lose.
7. Wherein the Plot Thickens
The people gathered at the meeting were restless. Some fidgeted, others played with pens, others diverted themselves by watching others. They all wore impeccable business suits, which consisted of a nice black shirt and black pants, men or women. They were executives of corporations each of which stretched over the civilized world, and would shift their ‘base’ of operations to whatever country offered the less taxation or regulation at the time. The meeting was as secret as could be managed these days. That is, everybody knew about it, but at least they didn’t know what was being said immediately, and maybe wouldn’t know for months or a few years until they somehow found out. In the business world a year was an eternity. A year was all any business was hoping to survive through. If nobody but them knew about this meeting for a year, they would count it the deliverance of God.
Because the news was very bad.
“All right folks.” The president of the board began, bringing their restless eyes all on him. “Here’s a rundown of the situation. We’re all employed to feed the world, and God knows we’ve tried our best. Transco with artificial meat saved us all the expense in animal raising and all the land held up by grazing. We thought that would stave things off for a good fifty years. We’ve doubled rice yields, trebled them. Sheltered our crops from droughts and blights and bugs and freezes. We’ve fertilized the hell out of every inch of soil with the exact fertilizer it needs in a point-by-point basis. That’s Chambliss over there, if you don’t remember. The mathematical revolution of farming. It would keep our situation solvent for at least twenty years. That was five years ago. We’ve run the greatest public relations campaign in history to convince people to switch from maize and wheat to rice and potatoes and soybeans. We convinced them it was more fashionable, environment-friendly, cheaper and tasted better. The truth is they yield more food per acre, and maize and wheat simply couldn’t feed us anymore. If we didn’t convince them the first way, we would’ve had to open the books and just told them it was that or starve. Changing the diet has given us a breather. We’ve given up hoping it will give us a long breather. It may not give us more than a couple years before the population catches up to us again. This is the goddamn thinnest margin of error we’ve ever had to work with. The population is so close on our heels of production that in just two years we might see the first famine in two centuries.”
The crowd murmured. The last time they’d met, they’d been told there was at least a decade left. A few people cursed under their breath. “Fishing isn’t allowed except in giant controlled factories. The oceans have a lot of green stuff in them, but fish simply haven’t been modified anywhere near the level of our crops. And in the end, eating the second creature in the food chain isn’t half as efficient as eating the original. The amount of fish in the seas can’t be raised like the other crops. It’s reached its maximum. There’s no more resource to capitalize on. Short of another agricultural revolution, which God knows we’ve sunk as much money as we can afford into making-and yes, some people at Metzburg have done some very promising things--but that won’t be on the market for at least ten years. Folks, we don’t have ten years. I know, I know, we should have ten years. We thought we had ten years. But we don’t. In the rest of the world, we’ve seen populations reach a ceiling and stop. We’ve seen euthanasia and abortion and infanticide, clipping away the unsupportable margins. But so far that has always been the third world. The barbarians. It couldn’t happen among the civilized nations, where the economy and technology always grow faster than babies. Here we value life above everything else, and there’s always enough to go around to support it. That’s what’s written in our history books, and that’s what we want our children to write in their history books, too. So does anyone have anything to report? Any industrial secret they were holding in reserve? Any last line of defense they were hoping to provide when the prices soared? Is there anything any of us are doing? Any suggestions left on the table?”
“Christ Ben, you know a secret doesn’t last five minutes out of the media anymore.” George honestly and bluntly spoke from across the table.
“Maybe if we convinced people to eat less. . .made waifs the paragon of beauty.” Isabelle suggested.
“It doesn’t work, the more stress you put people under to be a certain way, and the harder it is to be that way, the stronger the backlash that they’ll just give up and wallow in their inability. The harder you push for them to lose weight, the more they’ll gain.” George countered.
“Maybe if we got rid of pets. Every other family owns one, and they do nothing but consume. How much would that save us?” Jenson threw out.
“Are we back to eating fellow thinking feeling creatures again?” Ayane expressed with horror.
“Ayane’s right, we just don’t have the power to ‘get rid of pets.’ Only famine could actually make people make that choice, and we’re trying to prevent that.” Ben brought the conversation back to the ground.
“Well what’s left Ben? I know it sounds awful now, but what’s left a year from now? Does anyone else have a solution?” Jenson challenged sorely. The room was silent. They’d burnt themselves out finding solutions ever since they came to power. Even the greatest people in the world rarely produced more than one great idea, one discovery, one invention; for them to be asked to create three, four, five, in as many years, was simply asking too much.
“People will just have to. . .cut back.” Isabelle ventured squeamishly. “Eat less, don’t have children. . .wait for technology to catch up again. There’s just nothing left.”
“That’s one solution, clip off the old, the feeble, the ill, the young, the friendless, until the population is sustainable again.” Ben agreed. “And we’ll call that plan B. But if there’s any other choice, any other way, surely we should give it the preference. Nobody could wish for a solution like that. But there is another solution. Plan A. This is what I drew up a couple weeks ago before I called you to this meeting. I drew it up because I met someone special. He was asking me about the best crops to stock a self-maintaining culture for an indefinite period of time. He doesn’t know we’re talking about him right now, but he’s got something special folks.”
“What, a researcher ahead of ours? Who could have the resources to exceed what we put into agricultural engineering?” George’s pride seemed a little wounded that he wasn’t working for Transco.
“That’s the thing. He hasn’t built a new strain of rice. He’s built a spaceship.” Ben seemed excited for the first time in the meeting. It animated the rest with a sort of blind hope. “A spaceship. Only this time, it isn’t $10,000 a pound to get up to Space. It’s a synthetic fiber, thin and light and strong as hell. First fill a balloon of it up with hot hydrogen, and watch it float the ship up gentle as a lamb, then just a little nuclear kick in the right direction, ditch the balloon, and release a sail made of the same fiber. It stretches out to some obscenely thin but wide size, picks up the solar wind, and off the bubble goes. There’s never a big stress on the ship, so with just plastic and this fiber it can hold together. No large heavy fuel component. No large heavy metal component. It just takes advantage of the wind and sails the star ocean. The most exquisite work of art you’ve ever seen. It’s beautiful.” People scoffed or whistled or shifted their weight.
“Folks, we’ve got an awful lot of capital ready to invest. We’ve got a lot of research and development which we could divert to this. And I’m telling you, if we don’t get some people off this planet, in two years we might lose everything we’ve made in the past two centuries. Surplus labor leads to lower wages which leads to less consumption which leads to further unemployment which leads to yet more surplus labor until we wake up someday and look out our window and see steam engines and power looms. Or maybe oxen and ploughs. Or maybe well chipped stones.” Ben did have a flair for the dramatic.
“We can’t just randomly liquidate our businesses for some charity Ben.” Jenson countered. “If we don’t keep up maximum output many more people will starve.”
“I’ve already sunk everything I have into it.” Ben ignored Jenson. There was a general gasp. Ben was the richest and the most savvy businessman in the world. Only the energy sector competed with the food industry, and Metzburg was the largest food industry of all. He hadn’t gotten there by going on quixotic crusades. “If you don’t see it yet, I’ll spell it out for you. This population is bad business. So long as we’re all producing the most efficient crop possible, the amount people are spending on their food is the absolute physical minimum. If we had half the population there is now, we’d still be able to earn as much from our food. We’d be selling caviar and mutton and chocolate covered cherries or something. What do we make from rice? What’s the profit margin? A penny a pound? Less? That’s an industry secret, I know. But we’re making penny a pound, so it can’t be much less with you. We could be making a dollar a pound in pure profit of strawberries. Ten dollars a pound with liquor. A hundred dollars if it gets a reputation. People nodded. Lowering production could increase profit, if the rich had something luxurious to waste their money on, and the poor had rice to eat. Profits came from having a range of products that each class of people could afford to buy, so that everybody spent as much money as they could for the same effect, in this case to be fed. If that order was distorted into a market of high prices for the rich, and low prices for the poor, and no choices inbetween, everyone other than the rich would buy low, even though they would have spent more, given the chance, and the rich would buy high prices regardless of all the inferior choices offered, as they could still afford it in either case.
“I just don’t see how flying bubbles could possibly cart off enough people to make a difference.” Jenson challenged.
“Because you’re still imagining it to be something like what we have now, but this is entirely different. These spaceships are cheap. This isn’t some small improvement, this is the combination of two technologies that didn’t even exist when spaceships were being made. These are two materials that are nothing like what we’ve had before. Plastic is already the cheapest and most abundant material made, but it can’t sustain itself under the violence of the launch. So our spaceships were stuck, we thought, with being metal. But now we can make them out of plastic, because they aren’t launched, they’re just floated up into space. And the fiber is cheap and light and strong, so it could be an enormous balloon, like nothing you’ve ever seen, however big you want it to be, it could be that big, which is enough to lift a spaceship however heavy into space, still for cheap, and as the spaceships are plastic, the heaviest part left is just the people inside. I don’t really know what this fabric can do, how much tensile strength it has, but it’s far better than steel or anything else on the market, and if arranged properly, like steel it could hold up skyscrapers. But it doesn’t really matter how much a balloon could lift, if it’s cheap enough, as many balloons as people want can be made. A million balloons if we wanted, once the factories are set up. There’s no shortage of wealth in the world, just the amount that can be employed in making food, if there was any room left for capital to increase food production, we’d already have gotten it, there’s plenty of room for capital to increase the production of flying bubbles.” Ben paused to take a breath and gather his thoughts, before going on.
“How many people are on Mars? Ten million? We’ve got twenty five billion. That’s what, 2,500 Blues for every Red. The Earth is twice as big as Mars and has a lot more resources, so to be simple we’ll say Mars could support four billion people. If we could just get four billion people off this planet, think how much that would free up for us. Think how much time we’d have to get back on our feet.”
“We’ll fill up that four billion gap like dancing jackrabbits, the moment it’s gone it’ll be back again.” George countered.
“And by then we’ll be launching flying bubbles to Europa and Ganymede and Titan and Triton.” Ben insisted energetically. “All we have to do is give this guy what he needs to get this off the ground, and it’ll never stop. This is the stepping stone we need to really stop crawling around earth and start walking around the solar system. Great things require a lot of money. And even though I’ve given him everything I can spare, it’s just not nearly enough, folks. Of course it’s risky. Of course it might not work. Of course it might not be enough. But our other solution was Plan B. Eat our pets and then ‘cut back’ and hope for a miracle. I’m asking you as a friend and as a businessman, invest in Henri Loretti. We could be doing something as great for humanity as the bubble. If you just do a cost benefit analysis, look at it! The loss is our businesses. Other businesses will fill the gap. Someone or other has to make money making food, the need for food isn’t going to leave if we go bankrupt. The gain is pretty damn close to the salvation of our species. Isn’t it worth taking that chance?” George, Ayane and Isabelle eventually agreed to ‘see what they could do.’ Jenson swore they were all crazy and they were throwing away the only chance to realistically help people and themselves for some damn fool hotshot 20 year old with some untested gizmo. And once they’d heard him out, and still held firm, Jenson sighed and promised Brizzeti would find a way to match Metzburg pound for pound.
Isolde stretched out her back, enjoying the warmth and softness of the bed as long as she possibly could. Roland stirred immediately, his hand having felt the movement transfer through her to him, waking without really being disturbed. He was so sweet. She started to slide away and he immediately gave her up, rolling onto his back and yawning. He could get another twenty minutes of sleep while she went through her morning ritual. They interacted like a well-greased machine, neither losing a step or wondering what they had to do next or where they should be. Not a word had to be said for a thousand signals to be understood and followed. It was only fair, they’d known each other since they were children.
Soap. Shampoo. Shower. Brushing out her hair. Mouthwash. Makeup. Done. She stepped out with a new set of morning clothes. Roland saw her and smiled, still dozing. She suspected he didn’t sleep as deeply as her, so every time she moved he had to wake up and go back to sleep again, but he never complained of it. He was so quiet about his nights that it was like he felt it was too holy to even share with her. They walked by each other as he went for the bathroom. The sun was up, Isolde went online to check when her favorite authors and musicians were releasing their next works, and entertained herself contemplating how happy they’d make her, and how happy they’d made her before. She probably could have just remembered when they were due to come out, but looking at the titles just filled her up. It made her feel like her life was just one continuous miracle and every tomorrow had some wonder to separate it off from all the other days. She found that feeling in books and movies and music, outside and inside, with Roland and when Roland wasn’t around. She found it doing gymnastics, she found it playing her flute. She always found something wonderful about her life somewhere. It was always there at her fingertips, ready for her to pick up, to play with, to admire, to love. If only she could feel them all at once, if only she could somehow boil it all down, synthesize it, and have just one moment where every feeling she’d ever felt from everything that touched her, could turn into just one perfect agreement between her soul and the universe’s. If she could just see that underlying presence that manifested in all these things, if she could just see that soul instead of its little pieces, she could die happy. She took out her flute and her sheet music, moseying from song to song she knew by heart. The sheet music just made the happy memories feel closer.
Roland probably thought she was choosing her bubbles out of delight in perversity, and maybe it was that. Obviously she couldn’t be a Genevan or a Sao Paolen. But they were bubbles she thought might have the answer, the way to connect everything together. They were Edens which had both tried to absolutely exclude evil, to be absolutely good, and that feeling of total affirmation, that passion for the perfectibility of humanity, just pulled her magnetically to them. But it still wasn’t right. It was almost the exact opposite. They both agreed humanity was absolutely evil, and then made something else perfectible. She didn’t care about something else. She cared about finding a truly perfect humanity, without hurters or hurt, a spirit that could actually look face to face with god, with the infinite, with perfection, with the absolute, whatever the word, she wanted to find that spirit and be a part of it. Not make up a spirit that wasn’t even there, then bend her own into a corkscrew to fit it, and declare that was perfection. It was no use to her how perfect something else was, if she could never be it, or how perfect some other time or existence or life would be, if she didn’t get to live it. If she couldn’t be perfect now, then she would never be perfect! Maybe some other thing with her name could. But what did that matter to her? What she wanted was her own perfection. Her own single moment face to face with god. These people hated themselves first, then loved some other ideal self. That wasn’t right at all. Well, maybe the next bubble could give her an answer. The one after next. She smiled, correcting herself. Roland was still looking for a job.
“Ready to go?” Roland asked, looking refreshed. She nodded. “Alright then. Next stop, Stradham.” She liked how he pronounced the name. It was full of so much hope. She really hoped he would find a place to be happy. As for her, if she enjoyed her own company, it hardly mattered where she was. And if she didn’t enjoy her own company, it hardly mattered what other company she kept. She wasn’t looking for her bubble. She was looking for the best self she could find.
“I’d tell you to leave your stuff here for safe keeping, but you don’t seem to have anything.” The gatekeeper said to the couple that had arrived. “You both check out, here are your visas. Remember, the rules here are social, not written. Just play it safe until you get a feel for things. Nobody will come to save you if you provoke a duel, so if you think you could offend someone by saying or doing something, just don’t do it. This isn’t the easiest place to assimilate into. Are you aware of the risks and still prepared to stay?”
Sacripant smiled. “I think we’ll manage well enough.” Lucinda laughed and agreed. They entered Palermo like fish into water.
8. Wherein the Sea recedes because the Tsunami Approaches
Over the gateway to Stradham read a plaque: “KNOW THY SELF.” After that came another: “2+2=4.” Followed by a third: “THE STRONG SURVIVE AND THE WEAK PERISH.” At first Isolde thought it was a joke. Roland smiled to see her eyes widen with each new sign. A fourth plaque loomed ahead: “DO NOT USE FORCE OR FRAUD EXCEPT IN SELF DEFENSE.” Then a fifth: “THE DUTY OF ALL RATIONAL BEINGS IS TO BE RATIONAL.” And a sixth: “DUTY IMPOSED IS SLAVERY. DUTY ASSUMED IS MORALITY.” And a seventh: “WELCOME TO STRADHAM.” The car parked itself at the reception center. Roland laughed. That was so great! Talk about first impressions!
“Well, now that we know that.” Isolde tried to recover her composure. “I’m surprised they don’t just send missionaries to the other bubbles and tell them these things. It’s obvious we need to know them.”
“They do.” Roland said. He laughed again to watch her. Which made her think it was a joke at her expense. “No seriously,” averting her glare, “they do. I’ve talked to some. They go everywhere. All of them, after graduating, are called on by the Dean to tell all the people they can get to listen, why they shouldn’t live where they live, and why they should live here.”
“But that’s so rude! Bubbles let people in, because they want to give their society a chance, and maybe become a part of it. How can they just have their minds made up, and use the hospitality, to take others away from it? That’s like the pied piper.”
“The what?” Roland was stopped in the midst of forming a rebuttal.
“First the rats, then the children.” Isolde said, as if that meant something. Roland just looked at her. “Okay, like, the gingerbread house then. You know, wicked witch makes a place all nice and enticing, but then she eats you.” Roland was blank. “Or the wicked wolf! He’s red riding hood’s grandmother, but then it turns out he’s a wolf, and he eats her.”
“What? Wolves don’t eat people. Wolves are afraid of people!” Roland seemed personally insulted that such base and false impunities were being made upon all wolf kind.
“Did you even have a mother?” Isolde shot back.
“Yes! And she taught me that wolves don’t eat people!” Roland shouted back. But both their eyes were laughing.
Isolde grinned openly. “Okay, okay. I just meant, without any metaphors or symbolism or allegories or synecdoche’s, that they’re wolves in sheep’s clothing.” She burst out laughing at his furious look. “That they come in, pretending to be tourists, when really they’re anti-tourists. They don’t tour the world, they make the world tour them. You have to see that’s not fair of them.”
“They don’t pretend to be tourists. They’re actual missionaries. They’re pretty brazen about it. I mean, you can’t go two minutes without them launching into some series of questions. “have you ever thought about--?” “did you ever wonder if--?” And besides, isn’t it the same thing? In one case, converts are made by a whole society eating up individuals, and in the other, by individuals nibbling on whole societies.”
Isolde bristled at the idea. “It’s the same cockiness that made them put those signs up. They think they’ve got all the answers, that everyone should become like them, that they’ve got nothing to learn from us, that we’ve got everything to learn from them. Honestly, other people can be smart too.”
“Do you actually disagree with anything those signs said?” Roland asked, intent upon her answer. She noticed his focused look, so thought about it seriously, before making a reply.
Well, there wasn’t much to disagree with. One was a suggestion. The next was a formula. The third was the principle of evolution. The fourth seemed like a pretty good and pretty simple and pretty agreed upon idea. The fifth was just a reflexive statement, it proved itself; obviously if something is already defined as rational, it has to be rational, that wasn’t actually asserting anything. And the sixth? Well, if somebody imposed a duty on you, wasn’t that slavery? If people can make you do things, that’s what it means to not be free. So the very last part. Was morality the result of people assuming, assigning to themselves, taking up the restrictions of, imposing upon themselves, certain bonds and shackles of duty, that they had to then follow and fulfill? . She couldn’t find a hole in it. If you didn’t assume a duty, then you must be acting at random, and that was hardly morality. And if someone else made you do your duty, then you didn’t choose to willingly, it was the same as them grabbing your arm and moving it around and then saying you were responsible for where it went. The only time morality even entered the picture, was when someone willed something freely, and with some idea of the results in mind. That’s why robots and bugs were amoral, and humans were moral. Humans could assume a duty. Perhaps more could be said about it, or it could be said in any number of different ways, but this way was still just as true. Well curses. They had her.
“Alright so maybe it’s all true. But I already knew that. They don’t have to act all superior. Everybody knows that, basically, one form of it or another.” She grumbled.
“Everybody knows it, but only Stradham writes it down, all in one piece. Only Stradham gathers together what everybody knows, and actually knows it.” Roland was already talking about it with pride, as though Stradham’s achievements were partly his own. She realized with an odd twisting feeling, that he might love something more than her. That a part of him belonged to this instead of her. That she hadn’t ever known all of him, that there was still another part not even she got to share in, that these other people did. She bit her lip. She could worry about it later when he wasn’t watching. Right now was not the time. Gods, she had just passed a test, a moment ago! He had her on trial, and was awaiting a self-condemnation. She had almost been. . .found wanting. That hurt even more.
“Welcome sir, ma’am.” The gatekeeper said pleasantly. “If we could have your ID’s?” They passed them along, the computer ran a check, and they still weren’t fugitives on the loose. “Well, you saw the only law we have at the entrance. Don’t use force or fraud except in self defense. You’d think that wouldn’t be that hard to follow, but it still takes police.” He shook his head in bemusement.
“Are there a lot of students coming this year?” Roland asked.
“Yep. Nothing but young folks streaming in, now that the University’s revving up to start.”
“There’s still a month, right?”
“Oh, well, you know, what’s a month, when there’s 24 a year?” Obviously older people judged time differently, Roland decided. A month was forever. In a month, he might lose Isolde or have her hand. In a month, he might be enrolled at the University, or wandering around with a chip in his head. In a month, a comet could hit and be done with it all. Who knew what could happen in a month?
“I’m still allowed to lie to my boyfriend, right? That’s not fraud, that’s self defense!” Isolde plead.
The gatekeeper laughed heartily in admiration. “Take my advice, lad, this one’s a keeper. Go on, go on, there’s a line forming!”
Roland decided to let it slide. After all, she might not have been joking, in which case, it was better not to ask. And he was a little proud of the older man’s approbation. He yawned. Not enough sleep last night. Oh well, there was no helping it. He looked around for a minute just to soak it in. Here was Stradham, the capital of Mars. At least, the intellectual capital. There was no political one. This was where all the people with potential went to turn it into something. Arts, sciences, philosophy, whatever you wanted to know. Tyrol might be where people found employment, but this was where you were apprenticed. There was education enough in most bubbles, to get by, and job skills that were taught on the job. But some things were just so complicated, that no employer was willing to waste his time teaching you what you needed to know, before you could even help him. In fact, anything worthwhile, as far as Roland was concerned, was too complex to learn on the fly or out of primary school. School was just a daycare/prison that kept children out of trouble and out of parents’ hair. And jobs that only needed that much knowledge to work at, or even just human muscles, were such drudgery or boring useless nonsense that he’d prefer just foraging for his food. The secret college within the University, the researchers, were the most useful people in the world. They didn’t waste time competing with Earth researchers, but there was plenty of stuff to study which Earth didn’t care about, that Mars did. For instance, where Mars’ minerals and water was to be found. How to convert the soil of Mars into useful materials for humans, or grow plants humans could use. What plants were best suited to Mars. What the currency of Mars was doing, and what needed to be done to keep it stable. What roads were worth building between bubbles. What products could be made to trade for all the superior produce of Earth. How well each political, religious, economic, or philosophic combination in each bubble supported its citizenry. There was plenty to be learned here that only Martians could care about, and only Stradham was structured to figure out. Other colonies’ best and brightest had specialized in far more specific, subjective expertises. Out of apathy or from an enlightened foresight for the sake of the division of labor, they had left the objective, general studies to Stradham.
Best of all, Roland thought, everyone here was here because they liked to think. Everyone here was most likely passionate about something, or talented at something, or knew something better than most people. Everyone here could either teach you something, or wanted to learn something from you. And that was the best business ever, because knowledge could only be produced, never consumed. All that could ever happen was progress. Stradham had an advantage even over Earth, when it came to the study of humanity. As Earth’s people were ruled by force, and Mars’ by choice, here and only here could you really decide which way of life was better than another, or who was right and who was wrong. Mars was the final testing ground of every ideal, because every ideal actually got what it wished for, the chance to live by it, the only problems it had were the ones it created. And since so many variations existed side by side, it was easier for Stradham to observe them all, and find commonalities and differences-basically, the dream of every social scientist, the chance to experiment on humanity itself, was fulfilled. That’s what Roland wanted to do. To find all the principles, all the hidden springs, of humanity, to bring them all together into one place, one insight, which could then turn around, after knowing what is, and demand what should be of the rest of the world. He didn’t believe people were so different, that they didn’t all share the same desires. He didn’t believe people were so different, that they couldn’t find a single way that would help fulfill all their desires best. But until that way was discovered--and how could it be, when none had had a choice until now?-and a method of persuasion found so convincing as to deliver it to the rest of humanity in a manner that would win their agreement to it-and how persuasive it would have to be, to overcome everyone’s petty egos and pleasures and flights of fancy!-there would never be an end to the errors and ignorance that made so many people so miserable and contemptible and low. If he could even have a little part in that discovery, a little contribution towards it, he would be the proudest, happiest person in the world. Finding the greatest vision for mankind was a solution so incredibly difficult, and so incredibly rewarding, that conquering a tiny portion of that difficulty, and receiving a tiny portion of the reward, would be worth more than all the wealth of Croesus and all the wisdom of Solomon combined. The only question was whether Stradham could really teach him the answer, better than he could teach himself. And the only way he knew how to answer that, was to see if Stradhamers knew more than he did, and if Stradhamers were better people, in general, than he was. Not a very precise measure, but he had to start somewhere.
“Hello?” Isolde waved in front of his eyes. “Are you really that mad at me? I already apologized! Come on, let’s not spoil the whole day over a little playful liberty!”
“What?” Roland gave her a confused look. “Oh, about what you said. No, I didn’t care. Actually it was pretty clever.”
“Then what--?” She gave him a perplexed look. He didn’t know how to answer. He’d just forgotten she was there.
“Palermo has the veneer of being old,” Sacripant explained, “But underneath it the economy is just as modern as Tyrol’s. Well, okay, not in degree, but in principle. People can lend at any interest they want. We don’t throw debtors in jail, we just dishonor them with the name of bankrupts. We have the same currency as everywhere, and we are careful not to inflate or deflate it. We don’t print out money and pay our debts with it, or declare a penny is worth a pound, and pay in pennies, or give such low rates of interest that anyone and everyone will borrow money, or allow people to borrow money with borrowed money as credit. We don’t have any taxes, which solves that problem, or any expenditures. Unless you count the gatekeepers and the minters and the like, but they run like private businesses, they get paid by the fees they collect, not by any central agency, their utility determines whether or not they exist.” As they walked he began almost preening at each corner and each marketplace they came by. Fresh fruit of all types, meat pies, butcher’s meat, were hawked by vendors. Shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths, carpenters, they all declared their worth to passer-byes, displaying old-fashioned tools for old-fashioned trades. Cows and chickens did not wander around the street, if you recall, because animals no longer were the sources of meat, and they would have had nothing to graze on, and it would cause disease, so the hamlet was not exactly as old-fashioned as could be imagined. However, people playing instruments, fiddles and harps and flutes, and performers doing acrobatics and juggling, did liven up the scene. There were many kids, almost littering the streets, running every which way in their own little worlds. Far more than she was used to seeing.
“Shouldn’t they be at school?” She finally asked, when one stepped on her toe running by. “They’re like an infestation!”
He laughed. “You’d best be careful what you wish for, or we’ll have to drag you to one.” She opened her mouth, closed it. . .well, technically, she had two more years. . .Sacripant went on unheedingly. “But seriously, who would enforce the attendance of the kids? There’s no law here you could appeal to. If the parents don’t want to, what are you going to do, duel each and every one of them in a row?”
“Well.” She bit her cheek. That’s why you have laws, dummy. “Shouldn’t the parents want their kids to go to school?”
“What for? We apprentice our kids to other master tradesmen. When the master decides the kid knows his business, he goes public, and stakes his honor on his student’s ability. After that he’ll get all the business he needs. And if the master is mean, why, the apprentice can just leave, and try to find another, or prove to the world he’s good enough on his own merit. Besides, what you really need to know in life, you have to learn yourself, so that you believe in it in your heart. Only the things you prove to yourself, with your own thinking, stick. Those are the ones that take you through life, the rest just hang around for awhile then fall off, the glue all dried up. They’d forget something every time they learned something else.”
“But you had to go to New Haven, because you didn’t know enough to get a job. Isn’t that sort of forcing people here to stay here? Breaking the rules of free importing and exporting by spoiling all the goods before they’re exported?” Lucinda suddenly equated people to commodities, without knowing where the idea came to her.
“Ha! The whole world could use exports from Palermo. Spoiled goods indeed. Besides, even with all your education, you ended up in the same place. What’s that say?”
She stammered. “But I wasn’t done yet.”
“Not done! What kind of education is it, how long does it take, to teach someone to be worthwhile? Not done yet! And you a grown woman, ready to start your own home. When will anyone be done at this rate? When they’re 30? 40?”
She would have said 25, but she stopped herself, that would just be proving his point, not disproving it. Besides, in some jobs, 30 wasn’t uncommon. She decided to change the subject while she was still ahead. Or not totally drubbed. “So where are we going anyway? Or is this some guided tour?”
He laughed. He was in great spirits. She could tell from the playfulness in all his words. It was great to hear. “We’re going to my place, to retrieve my sword. It’s been far too long. Someone else probably owns the house now, but they’ll have left my sword alone. Maybe they’ll invite us in for some tea and cake.”
Her mouth watered. Real cooked food. Hot tea! Bread!!!! Oh God it was good to be back in civilization. “So where will we stay, if they’ve taken your house?”
“Oh I suppose I’ll just challenge whoever lives there, and take it back.” She gawked at him. He watched her and laughed. “You’re still waiting for someone to die, aren’t you? Ah, this is great. You make me laugh.”
“I’ve noticed.” She sulked poutily. She had the most amazingly cute sulky pouty look any cute sixteen year old girl could make.
“Aww, come on, we’re going to have a real meal for the first time in months! Even you must be happy. Look! Here we are. Ten steps to hospitality.” He knocked on the door.
“Wait!” She exclaimed. “That was a lie! That joke!” She flushed in triumph.
“Nope!” He waved it off with his hand. “I said, ‘I suppose I’ll. . .’, that’s just a guess, or a possibility, I didn’t say I would.”
“Grrr.” She pouted again. She could have sworn she had him. “Stupid loopholes.” The door opened to a host of children with curious looks, and a mother somewhere floating on top of the sea of them.
“Hello, strangers.” She said strangers as though that meant good friends. There was a secret to the wealth of Palermo. It couldn’t find egress in trade, its products were too simple. It couldn’t find egress in government boondoggles, there was no government. It couldn’t adorn cathedrals, there wasn’t much stake in a religion of ‘turn the other cheek’ here. No matter where wealth chased itself, there didn’t seem a way to spend it. No expensive machinery to build, or giant stock markets to gamble on. No entertainment products from the Blues. And yet they still made money, and had to do something with it. Which meant the wealth of Palermo was wasted entirely on hospitality. All the homes competed with how many strangers they could feed and entertain. As long as they had their honor, there was never a lack for wrapped meals and boxed parting lunches for the next day. And besides, the strangers would tell stories, provide fresh conversation, and liven up the day for everyone.
“Good afternoon, ma’am.” Sacripant made a precise bow. Lucinda watched him, tried to emulate it. The mother looked at her for a moment, then started dying in laughter. “You’ve brought in an Outsider, haven’t you, boy? Ah, and what a darling young one she is! Was there some elaborate kidnapping to get her away from her parents?”
“Naught of the sort!” He blushed. “She ran away all on her own. I just met her.”
She laughed. “Well, I’ll have to trust you on that. But surely it would make a better story if you met her on purpose after she ran away. Now young lady, when men bow, women curtsy. It’s like this.” The lady made a little duck with her legs crossed, holding out her apron.
She tried it, almost losing her balance. Her jeans couldn’t very well spread out either. “Why can’t we bow too?” She complained.
The wife laughed. “Because that might give them more of an eyeful then we’d intend, or they’re ready for.” Lucinda realized it and blushed furiously.
“Ach, what a doll you’ve brought us. Do come in, come in. We were just readying the most wonderful pies. Mincemeat, rhubarb, gooseberry, it’s all in their somewhere. Just push the children if they get in the way.” The mother turned and seemed to wade through them herself.
“Actually, ma’am, this call is as much business as pleasure, I’m sorry to say. I used to live here, maybe half a year ago, and I wondered if any of my stuff might still be stowed up somewhere?”
“Well, well.” She thought about it for a moment. “I’m not sure if much is left. We took the clothes and sewed them onto the kids, you know. And there wasn’t all that much else, well, not that I recall. I do hope nothing sentimental was left behind?”
“Nothing really,” He assured her, “but my sword. I would very much miss my sword, belt, sheathe, oilstone, and all.”
“Ah, well, I was wondering where yours might be.” She made an indicative look at his hips. “My husband is still working, so you’ll have to wait for him to get back, he takes care of all that business. I suppose only an Outsider doll would travel with you, without your sword, eh?”
He smiled. “Eh. She thinks it’s awfully barbaric.” The wife laughed at her quick protests that it was nothing of the sort, that she’d never condemn their habits. “It’s alright, miss, here we care more about what’s what and what’s not, then if anyone thinks we’re barbaric or not. We know what we’re worth, a lot or nothing, regardless of whether you think us a lot or nothing. That’s the type of folk we are.”
“Well, maybe just a little strange, seeing so many weapons everywhere. . .” She fidgeted. “At home we didn’t allow any weapons, it would have just made a bad situation worse. Enough people died without them. . .”
“Ah, well, we all die, sooner or later.” She gave her a compassionate look, pulling out pies from the oven. Solar powered. So even here it was solar power. Of course, though, it’s not like they could grow enough lumber or dig up coal. She reproved herself. This isn’t a history book, these are settlers who flew on spaceships to another planet, to form a new colony. “We just try to worry about the how of it. That’s the part we control, so it might as well be the part we care about, eh?”
“Eh.” Lucinda agreed wholeheartedly, her eyes feasting on the pies as they were put on the kitchen counter to cool. Many of the children were staring at them eagerly as well, but none as ravenously as Lucinda. Her mouth was actually watering. Real food!!!!!!! On the counter!!!!
She gave the pair a sharp look at their hungry faces. “They have to cool, but I tell you what, how about some cheese and bread until they’re ready?” The children piped up in broad approval, and the pair were not far behind. Soon the closet was opened, and the household’s entire stock of food seemed in peril of disappearing into mouths chirping like baby birds for seconds.
“Ah, company!” The husband spoke, with a beaming grin of welcome. “And what a pretty young one you’ve found!” The wife waved a menacing spoon at him. “Hands off, mister! She’s an Outsider just learning the ropes. And this young one might have a complaint or two to lodge if you try, as soon as you give him back his sword.” She gave him the news good-naturedly. The man, as old and well-fed as he seemed, still wore his own at his hip, it poked straight backwards, the hilt at his hand, ready to be drawn. He wore it so naturally it seemed another fixed piece of clothing. Lucinda stared at it as though it were a coiled snake which could strike of its own accord at anyone who came near. Well, not that she’d seen a snake, or baby birds chirping, but the reader has, so she stared at it like, oh, a vial of acid, on the brink of spilling over and burning anyone who was nearby, and the reader would see her look, and think, she was staring at it like a coiled snake. Be assured any liberty we take is for the benefit of your understanding, not to your detriment.
“Your sword back, eh? So you lived here last?” Sacripant nodded. “Well, just come upstairs and we’ll dig it up. Couldn’t have the children testing their own skills out with it, you know.”
“Of course.” Sacripant excused him graciously. They both rose to walk up the stairs. Lucinda watched the two walk, both with that electric dangerousness, and yet both presenting such innocent good cheer. It was so eerie. A girl tugged at her jeans, a small fist making its best effort to pull it away from Lucinda’s leg. Another fist was in her mouth, which she was sucking on laboriously, her eyes focused on the task at hand.
“Here, silly, these are jeans.” She pointed, smiling down at her. “They don’t stretch like dresses, they stay tight so you can run around without tripping.” The girl looked up at her with wide wondering eyes, amazed at such a concept. A boy on the other side pulled her hair.
“Hey!” She snatched her hair back. “Surely you’ve seen hair before!” The boy snickered slyly and ducked behind a table. Two other children seemed to be closing in.
“Just push them when they get in the way!” The mother advised cordially, preparing a kettle of tea. Lucinda would, but she didn’t seem to have that expert touch, where the kids moved before they could be touched, her mother had shown. And she couldn’t hurt any of them by actually pushing them! She felt like a fort being attacked from all four sides alternately and sometimes at once. Sacripant! Where are you when I need you!
“Hey hey hey!” Sacripant remonstrated, trotting down the stairs ebulliently. Seriously, that was the way he trotted down them. Not a better word in the English language. Because he was a whole man again. Because on his hip he wore a sword. “Hands off, unless you want to go through me!” He gave them such a scary look that all the children scattered with shrieks from him, knowing when they were outmatched. What was it with children that made them obey men in an instant, and plague women for half the day? It wasn’t fair at all.
The father came down next, and then they all settled down to a table, with pies and tea for dessert. Dinner for the father, but then, he didn’t seem to mind. “It’s a shame,” the father said, after the first good pie was down. “That you two came today. There might have been more company, but the funeral’s kept people a little down.”
Lucinda’s ears perked up. Sacripant seemed appropriately saddened for a moment. “Did you know him?”
“Only a little bit, from when he did business with me. Silk, you know.” Sacripant nodded as though that were only natural. Wool and leather came from sheep and cows, and there weren’t any to be found here, so silk seemed to be the answer. She guessed if they didn’t have factories for that sort of thing, they had to grow something to wear somehow.
“How did he die?” Sacripant asked just as courteously. Lucinda gave him a questioning look. Surely such things weren’t talked about in front of the children, in the middle of a nice dinner. . .
“Well, well. He was a good swordsman, the spectators said. The man he challenged must have been an expert, or just lucky. He has to be, with the big mouth he’s got.”
Sacripant sighed. “Those are the worst sort.”
The man nodded. “That’s just the thing. The whole town is a little sad about it, but nobody else really has a claim on the winner, a proof of injustice we can lay at his feet. He’s too smart for that, he was careful enough to insult someone he thought nobody else was connected to--a runaway, it seems. The winner called this runaway a coward for dodging a duel, or something, and the loser overheard and called him out right there, absolutely furious about it. You would’ve thought he was the runaway, the way he took it so personally. We don’t even know who the guy they were fighting over was, or if he was a coward or not, so we can’t with any right defend him.” The husband shook his head, taking a sip of tea. “And with this lad dead, it looks like that’s the end of it. There’s no way to ask the challenger what he knew, and find out why he thought it a slander for the winner to call the runaway a coward.”
Sacripant’s glass of tea was shaking with the violence of his grip. “Would you know his name? The man who died?” The guy gave him an appraising look.
“Well, I’m not sure. I only knew him through business. . .Sanzer, Sapper?”
“Salazar?” Sacripant provided urgently.
“Yeah! That sounds right. You knew the man?” The dinner table became incredibly silent at the looming consequences.
“He was defending me.” Sacripant whispered in shock. “He died defending me. It’s my fault.”
“Oh, goodness!” The wife spoke, in an overflowing of compassion. “Oh you poor boy. That you should learn this way, on your first day. Oh we’re so sorry.”
“I suppose you didn’t run away for fear, then?” The silk dealer seemed to be summing Sacripant up.
“No. For love.” He muttered. “Oh, God, Theresa! Oh God. I killed him after all. Oh God. Oh God.”
The children all stared in awe. Nobody tried to shoo them off, or hide this from them. Lucinda started crying, as quietly as she could, just watching Sacripant’s pain. It had been so nice. This home. These people. And now it was all falling apart. It was as she had feared. People dying, loved ones being lost, blood raining from the sky. It was everything hateful and all of it was hurting her only friend, hurting him so much she was afraid he’d just die too from it. She wondered why nobody had told the children to go to their rooms, to stop listening, something. This was just too horrible.
“I suppose you’ll want to know where this other guy lives. You can stay here the night, and then we’ll help you find out whatever you need to know.” The man offered, putting his hand out to touch Sacripant’s in a gentle manner.
“Theresa will know.” Sacripant’s eyes seemed to be looking far away, at some other time and place, but his words were still on the present. “Thank you for all your help, though, I think we’ll have to stay here for the night.”
“That’s right. No use going in that condition.” The man made that more of a declaration than a suggestion.
Sacripant stared through the wall blankly. He hadn’t practiced with his sword in six months. He had with some rough equivalents, in New Haven, but not with his actual sword, not with the same intensity. He would be rough. If Salazar was killed, the other man was in top form. He would be killed too. He didn’t know how long sitting on the insult would become cowardice, though. Maybe he should just challenge him immediately and die. At least then his name would be cleared. At least then Theresa wouldn’t hate him anymore. He could escape her hate if he died soon. That was the most painful thing of all. But something else tugged him back. Something was making him value his life against his own wishes. He couldn’t think what. It was all over, everything, Theresa could never forgive him now, and Salazar was dead. What was holding him now? Then he realized what his own eyes were seeing. Lucinda was looking at him, and crying. She was crying with his own pain. For that, he would have to give himself at least a chance to win. He promised her that. She deserved at least that much from him, after all she’d given. He would have to see Theresa tomorrow. His heart quivered with pain and grief and longing and fear. He would even have to face her hate, if it meant his honor. Even the pain of that was better than not knowing the killer’s name. He felt like he was throwing chunks of his own body into a fire, burning himself up. The price he must pay.
9. Wherein Lucinda Grows Up Some More, and Various Disputes are Settled
Lucinda walked behind Sacripant with her head lowered. She didn’t want to look at anyone else in the eye. The whole place had taken on a nightmarish overtone, and she was afraid of everyone but the man in front of her. If he died, she felt like her whole world would collapse around her. Why would God give her something only to take it away? Why would God let this happen at all? Everywhere she went, there was just suffering and more suffering. Everyone hurting everyone else. El Dorado destroying everyone with their own weakness and squeezing the blood money out of them without compunction, Blacksburg locking up people or throwing them out in preference of all the other species, New Haven just giving up entirely, and now Palermo, the place where good people were killed over whether their friends were cowards. Why? Why didn’t anybody stop and think, people were hurting, that they were hurting people? Why didn’t everybody stop in their tracks and tell themselves that horrible things were happening, and that they were causing it, or encouraging it, or not stopping it? For every advantage people had gained over Nature, for every triumph over disease, dearth, weather, they just added on some new method of hurting each other instead. It was like they just couldn’t stand a place where nobody had to suffer, that they just had to make someone’s life miserable, to be happy themselves! Why, in all these bubbles, out of all these ideas, out of all these different solutions, why were they all so wrong? Couldn’t anyone, anywhere, find a way out? Was it really that hard for people to live together, without devouring each other like monsters? Weren’t they any better than scorpions in a jar? Did all their souls and free wills and autonomies and divine sparks and categorical imperatives and virtues and moral resources and Gods and heavens and hells amount to so few good people? What was wrong with humanity, that they just couldn’t get it right? All of a sudden she hated everything. Everyone. Herself. Everyone else. She despised it. It was so pathetic that it should just be wiped away, blotted out, erased, that would be the most merciful act left. There was just so much wretched, miserable, awful, stupid, mean, lying, crap that the best thing that could happen to humanity would be for it to disappear. At least if they were a giant 0, she wouldn’t feel so ashamed for them all. So despairing and nauseous. So infuriated. So sad she felt like the tiniest touch would shatter her into a million pieces, that she would just break apart into a million broken fragments.
“You don’t have to follow me.” Sacripant said.
Lucinda shook her head, then realized he couldn’t see her. “No, I want to stay with you.”
“You might see stuff you don’t want to see.” He warned.
“I want to stay with you.” She repeated. Apparently it satisfied him, as he grew silent again.
Well, so much for that, Sacripant thought. She was his responsibility, and he would have to take care of her as best he could. Up until he died and left her totally alone. Maybe he could arrange for someone else to take care of her afterwards. He wished she had left. All he could offer her now was more grief and loss. Another funeral. But it was her choice. Enough of her, though. It was time to steel himself for what had to happen next. And then he would issue his challenge, and give himself a week to train. That was a good length of time, for the challenged to put his things in order, in case of death, and for the challenged to consider whether or not he would give some other form of redress, and satisfy the challenger. Nobody would think it was because he was afraid to fight. He wasn’t afraid. Just aware that he was going to lose. In fact, he didn’t really feel anything anymore. His mind was in absolute control, his body was numb, he couldn’t even feel the beating of his own heart. All that was left was a series of calculations to be made and then followed through. It’s as if some part of him had already died, and was just waiting impatiently for the rest of him to follow. Ah, here was the door. Time to knock. He knocked.
“Coming.” A tired voice called. Then she opened the door, her hair dirty and her face smeared with tears and her eyes swollen red. She looked at him. He looked at her. Neither could find a word. Lucinda looked at one, then the other, afraid something was about to explode. “Umm. . .would it be okay to come inside?” She finally dared. Maybe if she restored things to the routine, they could. . .put themselves in a frame of mind where they could at least talk.
“Of course.” Theresa said, giving Lucinda a curious glance. “There might be something to eat or drink somewhere. Here are chairs.” She gestured, in case they hadn’t seen them. Sacripant dutifully sat down. Theresa looked at them distractedly, as if confused how they had appeared inside her house. Lucinda intervened again. “If you tell me where the tea is kept, I can make some for you while you talk.”
“Oh, yes. That’s the cabinet. . .second door down on the right side.” Lucinda had watched the mother carefully yesterday, she thought she could do this. She felt better already, having helped at least this much. She walked away to the cabinet, but her ears stayed at the table to listen to every word.
“You’re too late. The funeral was yesterday.” Theresa finally said, sitting down, shoulders slumped under the weight of the air.
“I know. I only got back yesterday. That’s the first time I even knew there was a funeral.”
“Where were you?” She looked at him fiercely. “Why weren’t you here? Why weren’t you here to defend yourself? Why did you leave Sal to defend you, you rotten, you coward, you-!” She started to stand up, to go over and hit him, but she couldn’t. It took too much energy. Instead she just sat down again and started to cry. Lucinda carefully poured water into a kettle and started the stove. There was nothing she could do, she just had to hope it would turn out well, and that her tea would taste good.
“I. . .what can I say? I didn’t think that would happen. I had no way of knowing once I’d left. I thought I left you two happy. How could I have known I had any claims to defend? I don’t even know the guy who killed Sal. How could I have known he would insult me? I thought the only person who had any reason to fight me was him. What, should I have stayed, and killed him, so that I could later defend myself, so he wouldn’t have died?”
“No! You should have stayed, and apologized! And not run away! And not left me! Did you ever think of that? You can’t just leave people! You can’t!” She was trying to yell, but she wasn’t. It ended up more of a choked pleading.
“I couldn’t apologize, not when I would’ve done it again! Not when I loved you just as much!”
“Don’t say that!” She yelled. “You can’t say that to me!” Lucinda didn’t know anything but the words that reached her. She poured the water out, and put the tea bags in. They had to soak through first. It would be minutes and minutes.
“Fine, I won’t tell you that again. It’s as true as sunlight, but if that’s how you feel, I don’t care. I can leave this very minute, if you just tell me his name and where he lives.”
“Sal wouldn’t have lost,” she muttered, crying. “He slipped. He shouldn’t have lost. Sal was the better man.” Lucinda blinked. Then maybe. . .maybe Sacripant would win? She dared herself to take a long breath.
“Thank you. I’ll remember that. I don’t want to impose any longer, though, so if you could just tell me his name.” You dolt Sacripant! She doesn’t want you to leave! And I haven’t even finished the tea! She stirred the cup with a teaspoon viciously.
“Gregario. He left his address here, for anyone who wanted to know it.” There was a silence. Lucinda guessed they were looking for it. “There. I couldn’t remember. There, that’s everything.”
“Thank you.” He said again, politely. “Lucinda?” He called. “We’re done here.” Lucinda cursed inside her head. She jerked up the cups of tea and went to the table. “No we are not done. Not until we drink this tea. We’re going to sit down and drink our tea that I made, and we are going to drink it leisurely! And you will like it!” She glared death at Sacripant should he refuse.
Theresa might have smiled when they sat down again. “Who is this Outsider, Pan?” It was the first time she’d referred to Sacripant by name. They both seemed to notice it only after it was said. Lucinda noticed it was a name she had not been privy to, which saddened her a little.
“She wouldn’t tell me anything specific. She ran away from home, and ended up in New Haven. I met her when it was raining, and she’s just tagged along since.” Sacripant said, a little smile of his own shared at Lucinda’s expense.
“She brought you back, didn’t she.” Theresa stated, looking at them.
Sacripant grinned sheepishly. “I wasn’t going to leave her here on her own. She would’ve offended thirty people in the first few minutes.”
Theresa smiled, wiping at her eyes. “Is she that clumsy?”
Sacripant shook his head. “No, she’s just. . .bossy. . .and a little impulsive.”
Lucinda couldn’t sip her tea any longer. Her face was burning up. “I am not bossy.”
Sacripant laughed. “And she keeps calling me a liar. Somebody would have split her head open by now.”
“You just keep twisting the words!”
Theresa laughed. All three came to a startled silence. “I’m sorry, Lucinda, but you’re just so cute. . .he isn’t really making fun of you. . .you have to know what it’s like with us. . .we try to have a good sense of humor about things. . .so we don’t have to fight as much. . .so people aren’t as likely to be offended. . .” She rubbed her eyes again. “He thinks the world of you, so just don’t listen to what he says.” Lucinda blushed furiously. For the first time she thought she saw the Theresa Sacripant had fought over. She already felt outclassed.
“I need to ask you a favor.” Sacripant began, seizing on the opportunity. “If I die, I hope you two can look after each other. I’d feel bad leaving either of you behind. Could you do that?”
“Don’t.” Lucinda said. “Of course.” Theresa said. Lucinda looked at Theresa confusedly. They’d only just met. And why was everyone so willing to talk about death? It’s like nobody even cared. Children, widows, was anyone safe from it?
“Then everything is settled. I will retrieve my own honor, now. I’m sorry it happened this way, but it ends here. Either way it ends.” Theresa nodded.
“I want you to win, Pan. I want you to know that.” Sacripant nodded. They seemed to be saying more than what was said. He finished the rest of his tea pointedly. “Let’s go Lucinda.” She finished her tea, happy inside. Sacripant was letting her have her way about everything. And he did it all so quietly, as though it wasn’t even happening. It was so compliant and yet commanding at the same time. Nobody she’d ever known had led her to even imagine such a person.
She wanted him to win. He passed it through his head a few more times. She didn’t want him to die, to pay her back. She wasn’t blaming him. She wasn’t making him pay her back. She was making Gregario. She had forgiven him. She had. She wanted him to live, even though Sal had died. She wasn’t blaming it on him. This wasn’t just a way for him to commit suicide as a gesture of repentance. He was supposed to fight and win. He was supposed to kill Gregario and come back to her alive.
“My thanks, Lucinda.” Sacripant said. She was following behind him again. Perhaps a custom of her home Bubble? It was certainly odd.
“What?” She asked.
Thank you for saving my life. Again. “Thanks, I said.”
“Oh, that’s all right. I knew you two could get along if you just gave it a chance.”
He supposed that was good enough. Elbert Street. 224. Sacripant knocked again. Maybe he could go back to Theresa’s when this was done. Or maybe he should find some neutral person’s hospitality. Would she miss them, or want to be alone? He didn’t know.
“Yes, what is it?” A burly man said, opening the door.
“Is Gregario here?” Sacripant asked.
“Gregario! Some stripling wants to see you.” The guy turned his back on them, leaving the door open if they wanted to follow. Sacripant did, and Lucinda followed him. They were playing some card game, smoking cigars, unwinding for the night with their friends. Gregario stood up and looked the boy over. “What holes do these rats come out of, eh?” The group laughed encouragingly. “Squash one and a dozen more come running to die.”
“I gather you know what I’m here for, then.” Sacripant said. Gregario was tall and strong and grizzled. He would be a little slower. But he’d be better, and stronger, and would have the longer reach. Sacripant revised his odds to one in four. He had hoped Theresa was telling the truth. But it looked like she had just been remembering it the way she wanted. Maybe Sal did slip, but probably because Gregario made him.
“That’s right. You’re here to ruin a perfectly good card game.” The rest laughed. They had looked at Sacripant and none of them were worried.
“My name is Sacripant. I was the man you labeled a coward, for running away from a duel. You killed my friend, who tried to shut your lying mouth. Now I’m back to shut it myself.”
“You’re a coward, and everyone knows it. You’ll run away again before you fight me. You’re not even worth your pathetic friend. He’s cursing in his grave right now that he fought me over such a yellow-bellied runaway.”
“Then you have no objection to meeting me in a week, at the elm’s ring?”
“Yes I have an objection! You’ll have run away again! You’ve never fought a duel in your life, and you’re going to start with me?” Gregario sneered at Sacripant’s body and posture. The worst part was they both knew he was right.
“I’m starting with you.” Sacripant answered. “At six o’clock.”
“Fine, have it your way. Now take your Outsider whore and go.” Sacripant stared at him for five seconds, keeping his hand carefully away from his hilt. If he drew the whole crowd would cut him down on the spot. And they might take her as spoils. He’d never faced such incredible treatment before. He was seeing red. He would die and she would be raped. He would die and she would be raped. The world came back into focus. “Let’s go, Lucinda.” They escaped.
That makes three times she’d saved his life. Well, to be fair, she was only saving it from the same fate. And if he had died the first time, he couldn’t have died the next two. That’s three times she stopped him from throwing his life away in the same fight against the same man in three different ways. So maybe it all added up to just once. Well, less than once. He was going to die anyway. Three times she had saved him from dying in a worse way than he was going to die now. There. That sounded right.
“I’m not a whore.” She was crying. “I’m not. It’s not true.” Sacripant stopped. She bumped into his back. He turned around furiously.
“Don’t ever let someone like that matter to you ever again.” He shouted. “He doesn’t deserve one god damned tear from your eyes! He’s not worth one damned word from your lips!” He was so angry his whole body was shaking. She looked at him in terror. “Hell would freeze over before you ever had anything to be ashamed of in your life! You’re the purest girl in the whole damned world!” Lucinda tried to shrink into nothing.
“You’re scaring me.” She quailed.
Sacripant caught himself. If he had stayed just one minute longer in there, he would’ve broke. He had been on the absolute brink. Gods, if he had stayed. She shouldn’t be anywhere near him. He was endangering her. She was his responsibility. She said she was staying. He had to take care of her. He had to control himself so he could take care of her. Okay. “Sorry. I’ve never been so mad. I just don’t know what to. . .how to. . .it’s hard even breathing. I’m sorry. I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at him. I’m just so incredibly mad.” She nodded. He’d never said one good thing about her until then. She only started realizing what he’d said, over how he’d said it. He’d just given her the greatest praise she’d ever heard anyone give anyone. And at last she felt El Dorado had been scrubbed completely off of her. That she hadn’t brought any taint of it with her. That she really was different from what her parents thought of her. It made her cry again. But this time with relief. She had her honor, and nobody could take it from her, ever again. She had it around her like a second skin. It would be with her from here on.
Wherein Someone Dies.
“There’s a difference between knowing something and believing something--between understanding something and agreeing with it. If I tell you, for instance, that everything in the universe is connected, or that, ‘things’ are simply manifestations of connectivity, and that math and physics has proven this, you might be willing to believe me and agree with that statement, but the statement itself, leaving no correlating concept in your brain, remains as empty and meaningless as though it hadn’t been said. This is the problem with most forms of knowledge. After explaining something to you, even if it makes sense and you are willing to believe it, you don’t know exactly what you are believing, or what it Is that makes sense. This is why information shortcuts are made, such as morality and religion. People need to know what to do, but they can’t be made to understand how and why they should do what they should do, and so they are given a simpler reason that they can understand. Observe Newton and gravity. Newton observed that a simple mathematical formula could describe the motion of all objects from apples to planets, and, not knowing why this was true, invented a force, gravity, which caused this. When asked how gravity managed to exert this universal control, through unmediated space, instantaneously (of course now we know space isn’t unmediated and that gravitons travel at the speed of light, but bear with our classical thinkers), Newton was the first admit that he could come up with no explanation, and attributed it to the handiwork of God. But that begs the question, “How does God do it?””
The class laughed. A hundred students or so had come to attend Professor Mitchell’s lecture on Information Systems. At Stradham, students directly paid their teachers to attend each lecture they pleased. They could go to any class, or no class at all, there was no curriculum, no registration for classes. The students were everyone who wished to be students that day, about anything they wished to learn about. The teachers were teachers only of the things a large number of students were interested in some, or a small number of students were interested in a lot, or else they would have to seek other employment. There were many teachers who were specialists, and lectured on very dense topics only as a sort of bonus to their regular work, and there were many teachers who simply had something they wanted to teach, came in one day as the teacher, and left, satisfied that they had said what they had wanted to say, never to be seen again. If students were interested in a very particular field of knowledge that only a few teachers were equipped to teach, it was likely that they would attend many of that teacher’s lectures. In any event, students got from the University whatever they decided to put into it, and teachers got from the University only what students felt they were worth. Nobody had authority or power. No system dangled the fates or destinies of the teachers or the students. There were no grades, no salaries. The University was simply the place where all of these spot-contracts were made, not the regulator thereof. It meant ‘pet’ theories were not rammed down student’s throats, and ‘pet’ methods were not rammed down teacher’s throats. It meant professors were no longer in a position of authority over their students, but simply providing a service to them for pay, just like a carpet cleaner. There was no power, only free people coming together for the sake of free inquiry, which meant everyone there liked what they were doing, and correspondingly liked the people they were doing it with. All the old divisions were swept away. Teachers didn’t have to worry about people cheating, as students had nothing to cheat on. Students didn’t have to worry about arbitrary grading methods, as teachers graded nothing. And neither had to worry about the agenda of the administrators, who could simply mandate everyone waste their time and money on whatever nonsense they came up with. No longer were jobs and degrees and tenures used as tools to bludgeon everyone into classes nobody wanted to teach or learn, fields of study with no application or use, or funding of other people’s hobbies or whims from other people’s pockets. The facilities and grounds were upkept by a landowner whose sole business was to upkeep them, and was paid rent by the teachers (who were paid by the students, so really the students were paying the rent) who reserved rooms or labs for their use. The landowners were simply providing a service to the teachers and being paid for it, they had no business with what was being taught or who was teaching or anything of the sort. On Earth, colleges were seen as the last chance for the State to indoctrinate its citizens with whatever qualities or aptitudes or beliefs it desired. However, with the constant ebb and flow of immigration, Mars did not have any sense of a permanent citizenry, or that the kids growing up in their bubble would be adults living in their bubble. Which meant teaching kids to be good adults of their bubble was no longer important. Everyone who lived in every bubble could be expected to be model citizens of their bubble, because they had chosen to live there expressly because of the bubble’s model. If they weren’t model citizens, they would just leave to someplace where they would be. Education was no longer a citizen factory that produced assembly line believers. Immigration and freedom had made such a necessity obsolete. Which meant education could actually concentrate on instilling knowledge and promoting thinking, a fresh breeze of change from what had become of it in the hands of the Blues. Roland and Isolde were in this lecture because Roland wanted to see what it was like and Isolde preferred experiencing Stradham to ignoring what made it special, as long as she was here. So now that we know what’s going on, let’s return to the lecture.
“God and gravity are simply different shortcuts used to explain phenomena people cannot explain, or cannot comprehend. Everyone understands that things moved according to this simple mathematical formula, nobody knew how or why. Later on Einstein theorized that the topology of space-time regulated the motions of objects rather than a gravitational ‘force.’ An object’s mass distorted the area around it, making it harder to move away from it and easier to move toward it. Why mass distorts space-time still isn’t answered. Or rather, what is space-time, and what is mass, such that they interact in this manner? Mass is a quantum of resting energy. Very well, what is energy, and how does it interact with space-time, to create this phenomena? At any time you please, you can answer this question with ‘God’ or ‘a force’ or ‘a particle’ or ‘a field’ or ‘a membrane’ or ‘a string’ or if you’re vain enough, ‘by force of consciousness’, ‘will’, or ‘imagination.’ But even after providing yourself with an answer, the question is no closer to being answered! By a sleight of hand, you’ve replaced one question for another, and only by a careful direction of the mind, will you not ask the next obvious question. The proverbial 2 year old with his almighty ‘why’ can destroy every answer we give, and end us up in the same place as when we began, just as ignorant as our 2 year old. If physics, the most precise, testable, reality-regulated branch of thought of all, cannot provide the real answer, but only shortcuts, or should we say short-circuits, of thought, then we must admit that everything we know is not true or real, but a mental shortcut. That in fact, nobody knows anything, we all just believe things, and agree with them, tricking our own minds into complacency. Which, by the way, is absolutely necessary, if we wish to be anything but meditators who clear their mind, sit down, and for all purposes cease to exist.
The only wisdom adults have over their 2 year old compatriots is the willingness to accept mental shortcuts as true, and act as though they were. However, the moment we detach ourselves from the standard of absolute truth, is the moment all of us become prey to error. Cicero once said, ‘there is nothing so foolish that some philosopher has not said it.’ If nothing we know is certainly true, then anything we say is possibly true, and someone somewhere is willing to believe it. Thus, we must descend from our a priori perches, in our disputes with all of our disagreeing compatriots, as that perch is simply beyond us, that none yet have reached, and quite possibly is so far beyond us, that it is physically impossible to reach. However, it is premature to deny to all of our descendants, with more powerful brains and more powerful tools of observation, the right to try.” The professor paused to recollect his thoughts from this tangent.
“But that’s neither here nor there, the new difficulty facing us, is the proneness to error everyone shares, and the lack of some common judge or truth, that can decide who is right and who is wrong. Without some testing ground, judge, or standard of measurement, no matter how stupid your friends or foes may be, you won’t be able to change their minds, or even have the right to think they’re stupid—which we all know is a privilege far too important to give away. This is why we’ve created mental shortcuts. The shortcuts are not answers per se, they are common standards of measurement, which regulate the answers people come up with. Before any dispute can be settled, it must be referred to these judges, these shortcuts, which both people have agreed to believe. Only there can a decision for or against be made. Let us take a simple dispute, whether Jack should trick Jill into having sex by saying anything he can think of to her, as discussed by Jack and his friend Mack.”
Nervous laughter and murmurs filled the room. Because the result mattered and wasn’t theoretical, it seemed wrong to even theorize about it. Philosophy only concerned itself with matters that would never happen, right? “At first Jack and Mack can’t even argue, because there is nothing they can appeal to as a commonly held judger of the rightness or wrongness of a statement. However, being friends, luckily they have formed many common grounds, which they appeal to variously, as the occasion suits. Jack starts with an appeal to one judge, “Tricking Jill is right because it will yield me pleasure,” the shortcut is that Pleasure is now an arbitrator of right and wrong. Mack counters with “Lying to Jill is wrong because it violates her rights,” the shortcut is that people have Rights which arbitrate our choices. Still this doesn’t work, because Jack and Mack do not share the same mental shortcut. That is, two different judges in two different courts have passed two different verdicts, neither of which have any authority over each other. Mack, seeing this, tries a new approach, more in line with Jack’s system of thought, as Jack is more likely to yield his agreement to the verdict created by his own courtroom than another’s. “Supposing pleasure the arbitrator, the amount you gain will be less than the amount she loses.” However, Jack quickly amends his courtroom, to stay on top. “Only my pleasure matters.” So Mack must try again from this point of agreement. “Even with only your own pleasure to consider, you will cause more harm to yourself, be more miserable, in the long run, if you trick Jill. Jill will eventually find out, and hate you, everyone else will know you’re a liar not to be trusted, and nobody will take your love seriously afterwards, even if you do feel it seriously for someone. And those are just the consequences that are immediately within view. Who knows if an angry brother won’t come for you in the night? Or if sex is forever cheapened in your mind, and you lose the ability to truly enjoy it the way it was meant to be?” Jack quickly amends his courtroom again, “Only my pleasure right now matters.” Mack tries one last time, “You will feel better about yourself, which constantly yields you more pleasure than any bodily function, right now and always, because of the approbation of others and the sense of self-worth and self-control, that you gain by avoiding low and dishonorable conduct.” Jack disagrees, “I know what gives me pleasure better than anyone else, being the person who is feeling it, and I proclaim that the pleasure of having Jill supersedes everything else at the moment.” With that, Jack gets up to walk over to Jill’s house to give her the runaround, and Mack (who likes Jill and can’t be a party to this sort of treatment of her) resorts to the most useful mental shortcut, arbitrator, and point of common ground of all—he gets back in front with fists leveled and says, “Not if I can help it.”
A few cheers and claps from the class were given for Mack’s choice.
“This is the common ground Earth has found for its citizenry. Everyone does the same thing in any given state, because if they don’t someone with a gun has something to say about it. Without this common ground of force, of might, of, ‘well I’m stronger, how’s that for who’s right?’, the people of Earth would have to fear all the Jack’s of the world, and would be defenseless against them, all of their words powerless to affect his line of reasoning. It is ultimately the solution of Mars as well, but in a more limited sense, because there are more Macks and less Jacks on Mars. What is the difference between a Mack and a Jack? A Mack is willing to appeal to an arbitrator that controls him, a Mack is willing, as our plaque so concisely points out, to assume a duty. Any duty, so long as Mack is willing to consistently assume it, is enough for him and like minded Macks to form a cohesive community which functions well enough, we can hope, to at least manage to survive, have children, and give children the ability to survive and have children. And so long as everyone shares the same mental shortcut, in all cases careful reasoning and arguments can reveal to everyone involved, what should be done, even if it should go against some of the Macks’ momentary interests.
“Some shortcuts are shorter cuts than others: for instance, ‘is this in accordance with the 10 Commandments?’ A community founded upon that as an arbitrator, knows almost instantly, how to follow them. However, they may find themselves lacking in many areas of thought and decision-making, and live a sort of mentally starved and shriveled life. Other shortcuts are so dangerously drawn out they can’t come to a conclusion of what should be done, such as Utility. Since utility itself is impossible to measure accurately, and no one can possibly predict every single consequence of one’s actions for the rest of time on everyone else, the moment someone appeals to such a Court is the moment it gets buried in paperwork and disappears from the Judge’s sight.
“This creates a branch of study, that can only be described as Super-Arbitrators. Now we are inquiring ‘what higher end should help us determine which court regulates our lives?’ It is the difference between moral ends and moral methodologies. Many people can agree on what is good, even why the good is good, but how to effect the good is an entirely separate question. Suppose we all agree that Utility should arbitrate our lives. The moment we do, we must agree that something else should arbitrate our lives methodologically, for the sake of Utility the summum bonum. Perhaps Rights would then be invented to decide right and wrong, and those Rights of methodology would be decided by Utility the teleology. Utility could in turn be arbitrated by biological feasibility. That is, ‘the usefulness or good of the activity of life is that which promotes more powerful, more complex, more numerous amounts of life. Certain methods of living have been shown to best promote this evolution, such as respecting above all personal freedom, or Rights. Thus, these Rights can be considered as absolute and inviolate, and make a solid regulator for everyone under this paradigm’s umbrella.’ This is getting a little complex, so let’s go back to Mack.
“In case Mack A proposes to trick Jill into bed to Mack B, Mack B need only cite Jill’s Rights, absolute and inviolate, to stop Mack A in his tracks. Even though neither Mack believes these Rights exist anywhere but in their own minds, created only for their own convenience, they still ascribe absolute, universal, even sacred authority to their judgments. This is because they all know that without giving authority to Rights, they would have to give it to something worse, or nothing at all. Because they are civilized Macks they’d rather give Rights authority than Might, the final authority wherever others are lacking. Mack still keeps his gun in his pocket, however, as the appellate court for any Jacks in Macks’ clothing. This is all a mental construct, from top to bottom, even the summum bonum-methodology organization is a mental construct of mental constructs, however, the willingness of people to agree with it and act as if it were absolute and inviolate, sacred and universal, is the only way we escape the 2 year olds, the Jacks, and the guys who are sitting somewhere with cleared minds. And this is why we are here together, hoping to form them. Not for the sake of truth, but for the sake of something, we know not what, which we can hold as true.”
The class got up all of a piece and clapped for Mitchell’s lesson. Mitchell seemed to take a long breath and toss away his role as teacher, returning to another person simply standing in the classroom, shrinking back into himself from out of all the air in the room that had been permeated with his voice.
“You know,” Isolde said to Roland as they watched people filter away. “I couldn’t tell this apart from the sermon in Geneva.” Isolde grinned. “Except that here, everyone gives different sermons, and nobody believes any of them, not even the people giving them.”
“But that’s the beauty of it!” Roland exclaimed, “This is the only place honest enough with itself, to teach us that knowledge isn’t real.”
“That sounds an awful lot like nihilism. And besides, if we don’t know anything, how come we understand things well enough to make Bubbles and cars? Obviously there is truth and we must at least be really close to understanding how it works.”
“Come on, Mitchell didn’t say truth didn’t exist. He even said that maybe someday, when we’re smarter and can gather more information, we’ll find it. He’s just being practical about what choices we can make, with what we know now.”
“Oh, great, now you know him by name. I suppose he’s coming back for dinner tonight to tell us more?” Isolde jabbed. Roland’s danger sense prickled and he tried to avert her anger before it had time to build.
“I’m sorry. I know we’ve spent a week here, which was a lot longer than Sao Paolo, and that’s not fair to you. And I know you don’t like it here, you’ve been mad the whole time. I thought maybe you’d grow to like it, but I guess I was wrong. So here, let’s just leave tomorrow, and go to wherever you want to take us. I think this place is amazing, but there’s plenty of time for me to come back to it later.”
“I’m not mad at Stradham. This is a nice bubble, I can see a lot of hope and exhilaration here. A lot of people are being the people they want to be, and that makes me happy. Even seeing you full of yourself here makes me happy.”
“Then what’s the problem? I’ve felt really bad keeping you here. You’ve been so antagonistic.”
“Because from the moment you got here you’ve virtually ignored me!” She finally spelled out, trying to drill through his thick skull. “The only time you even notice me is when I disturb your blissful rapport with everyone here!”
“That’s not true!” Roland cringed inwardly. This could be really bad, if she believed this. “I’ve taken you everywhere I go! I haven’t ignored you at all!”
“Everywhere you go, all you do is show me again and again how unimportant I am and how important everything else is. It’s like a continuous insult!”
“That’s ridiculous! Of course you’re more important!” Why would she say such a thing? Hadn’t he always loved her as much as anyone can love anyone?
“Oh? Then what about when we got here? When you were ready to pity me like some unbaptized heathen and leave me with a promise to pray for my soul if I said the wrong thing?” She was really mad. This must be the crux of it, and yet Roland couldn’t even remember if or when that happened. He didn’t even know what she was referring to.
“I’ve never even thought of leaving you. By God, Isolde, you’re all I have. Do you have any idea how small I’d be without you?”
“That’s just a lie! I saw it in your eyes. You were ready to. You were about to. You love a stupid plaque more than me!”
A memory clicked in his mind and he suddenly knew what she was talking about. When he had asked her if she really disagreed with the entrance signs. . .and she had been bottling it up this whole time, getting madder and madder, interpreting everything else as more and more of the same—it’s a wonder she hadn’t exploded before.
“Isolde. . .yes, I thought you were wrong about it, that you weren’t giving Stradham a chance. . .and I’ve always thought this place was really special, so I really hoped you would like it, so I was really disappointed when you didn’t. . .but then you did agree, and now you say you do like it, so why is there any conflict?”
“Because! Because what if I didn’t? What if I hated this place? How could you be so willing to throw me away just if I disagreed about one little thing with you?”
“I’m not! I wasn’t! And besides, you wouldn’t be you, if you didn’t agree and hated this place, so what does it even matter? Am I supposed to love versions of you that are your complete opposites, or you?”
“If you weren’t ready to leave me then why are you still trying to justify it if you were?” Isolde pursued, somewhere between shouting and crying.
“Because I don’t know what to do, so I’m saying everything and anything to get you back, because I’m terrified! That’s why! Gods, Isolde, if you’re angry because a plaque got between us, think how I feel, to find out your anger over a plaque is now enough to get between us just the same! When have you ever thought I was a liar? And now you’ve called me one three times!”
“Don’t turn this around on me! That does it! I can’t have this conversation any longer.” Isolde turned and walked away. Roland swallowed. Was he supposed to follow? Was he supposed to let her cool off? Was he supposed to assume she never would, and that it was over, just like that? He trembled at the thought. She couldn’t do that. Not like this. So fast. And never even giving him a chance. She wouldn’t abandon him, and all these years they’d shared, just like that. She couldn’t. All the while she was walking further away. She hadn’t stopped or turned around. Maybe she didn’t want to talk anymore, but she would cool down, and be okay later. In that case, he would anger her more by following her, but she had already decided to forgive him, and would forgive him eventually. But if she wanted him to follow her, and was seeing if he would, then if he didn’t, she really might think he didn’t care about her anymore. It was stupid, but he had to follow, because the risk was just too high. So he ran her down and grabbed her wrist, stopping her short, holding her even when she tried to wrench away.
“Let go of me!” She eventually turned furiously, glaring death at him.
“Not until you tell me we aren’t over.” Roland held her tight.
“You can’t make me do things! You can’t use force on me! Roland!” She tried to call him back to his senses. He was hurting her.
“I won’t let you leave me!” He shouted. “Not like this! You have no right to leave me like this! No right! I love you, and I have loved you, with the most absolute and unquestionable love possible. I haven’t looked at another girl. I haven’t called you one bad name! I haven’t lied to you once! I’ve treated you with the most incredible respect and courtesy and even reverence. I’ve held you close and never wanted to let go! I haven’t demanded anything more from you than to hold you close! And you dare to say I don’t love you? You walk away and expect me to just watch? You have no right! Not when I love you more than anything and everything in the whole universe!” His grip was trembling with the strain.
Isolde lost all her fury somewhere halfway through his answer. Now she was just looking quiet and small. “oh.”
The week had passed as quickly as it came. Lucinda had lived through it in a daze. She learned how to keep house with Theresa. How to invite guests. How to be polite and not offend anyone. How to cook. How to sew. Anything to keep her mind off Sacripant. She suspected Theresa was training her for the same reason. He had left at the very beginning of the week to “get back in shape.” He hadn’t wanted either of them around to distract him. They hadn’t heard from him at all. She was going crazy with worry. Theresa had asked carefully about the nature of her relationship with ‘Pan.’ Lucinda still didn’t feel she had the right to call him by that name, not even in her thoughts. She knew it and it saddened her every time Theresa said it. The truth was, Lucinda’s relationship was with Sacripant, and Theresa’s was with Pan, and it came clear to both of them who was the premier of the two. Only Lucinda didn’t know if that’s what Theresa wanted. Perhaps Theresa didn’t even know. She was only a widow of two weeks. She didn’t dare search her heart for anything, for fear she would find something so soon.
But then, Lucinda thought, it wouldn’t be so soon. It would just be the same as always. Theresa wasn’t changing her heart, she’d loved Sacripant all along. That made it okay, right? Well, she shouldn’t exactly hope that it was alright for Theresa to love Sacripant. But in another way she did hope just that. Because she had seen the way he’d looked at her, and the way he’d talked about her, and she couldn’t help but love Theresa a little too, just from that. She did love Sacripant. She realized that now that he was gone and how much she missed him. But it was a such a tentative and shy love, that she still hoped for nothing more than maybe to hold his hand or a hug or just to see him alright again. She didn’t know how to love. She was just sixteen, after all. And nobody she knew back home had made her feel anything but fear and loathing. She was willing to bet that whatever she was feeling wasn’t really love, because she just couldn’t believe she could love anyone. If someone told her that what she felt was just an infatuation, she would’ve agreed with a sigh of relief, and given it up.
“It’s time.” Theresa said, paler than when they first met.
“I know.” Lucinda said. Gathering up her stuff. He hadn’t even met them before the duel. He hadn’t even had some goodbye party or something. Did that mean he expected to win? Or that he felt dying was the best goodbye he could give? Why didn’t boys ever explain themselves? For the first time in her life she was going to watch someone be killed. Not just find some pale wasted carcass in a gutter with pupils forever dilated in worship of his destroyer. Not just see a bunch of dead people crushed in some riot. Two people really trying to kill each other. And one of them the man she loved. She could barely walk just thinking about that. Somehow when she had escaped El Dorado she hadn’t been this afraid.
Sacripant had decided that another day with his sword was better spent than a day with the girls. First, he wanted them to get used to the idea of only having each other. Letting them pull each other through now would help them pull each other through later. Mutual suffering and hardship was the firmest bond between people. Next, he could really improve his chances in the fight with another day of practice, and that would give him the chance to live eighty more years with his loved ones, instead of just one more day. Last, there wasn’t anything really left to say, to either of them. He felt they were in good hands, and that he had not left anything important unsaid between them. The advantage of always being forthright beforehand was that you didn’t have to run around being forthright afterwards, to set any records straight.
He felt perfectly calm. Everything from here on was living on borrowed time, he’d reconciled himself to being dead a week ago. He was just a ghost with some unfinished business left. He’d carefully crossed out all other wishes and feelings until he was steadily focused and comfortable with this alone. When he had sized Gregario up, he had decided on a suicidal tactic. He could not beat him and expect to live. So he would beat him and expect to die. Maybe not even that, but this was his best chance. The longer the fight, the less chance was involved, and the more skill and strength had its chance to come into effect. Which meant Sacripant’s best chance at winning the duel was beginning and ending it with one stroke. The maximum amount of randomness was involved in that kind of a fight. So that’s where he was laying out his bet. Which meant he was going to die in the first stroke of the duel. Nobody would even have time to worry or fear for him. It would just be start-plop-done. He guessed some people might think his death somewhat ignoble, but it was likely he’d at least cut Gregario, if not kill him, in return. With that alone he would have died more successfully than Sal. Though Sal had slipped. It wasn’t fair to wish he had at least impaired Gregario a little for him before dying. Well, maybe his victory would look better this way, if he won. Winning without the help of anyone, or because of any other factor than himself. Whatever. Stop thinking about what will happen after you die. After you die you’ll be dead, and you won’t care what happens. It won’t matter at all to you. You could die in the most stupid pathetic way you wanted and you wouldn’t be around to be ashamed about it, so it doesn’t matter in the least. The people who matter to you will understand, the rest can think whatever they want. You know the content of your heart, you don’t have to justify it to anyone. Just think about getting in the ring and trying your best. That’s what’s left to care about, just that. Just doing what you’ve trained to do in as professional a manner as possible.
Well, here was the elm ring. People were already clustered in waiting. Somehow people always knew when a duel was going to happen. And they always watched, quietly and solemnly. It was much like the feeling inside a church. The ritual or ceremony that carried with it the meaning and value of their lives was being acted out before them, and it always made them pause and lower their eyes. Religion is always somewhere in everybody, there is always something sacred that people revere. Life would be pointless without it. It would have been odd to think of these people, watching a sport that used to be the cheap sadistic thrills of the Romans, here watched it in a state of grace. The difference was not the fighting, it was the meaning people attached to it. Reality must bend and twist to the whim of the interpreters, even turn inside out or upside down. It all depended on how one looked at it, whether dueling was sacred or profane.
And there was Theresa. She had carefully combed out her hair. She was wearing black for everyone to see. She seemed calm as well. Awaiting vindication. Well, he was going to try. And there was Lucinda. Poor Lucinda, who still wanted him to live. She wasn’t calm at all. She was looking at him with so much fear and curiosity and frustration, deciding whether to yell at him for abandoning her or yelling for him to do his best. She still thought what she would do would somehow matter to him. That it would somehow result in some different outcome. She’d never seen him fight, so he supposed it was only fair she thought he had a chance. Well, Theresa would explain it to her afterwards, what he had tried to do, or maybe would do. There was no telling.
Good. At least he had come. It would’ve been an intolerable insult if he hadn’t. Gregario wasn’t surprised Sacripant had come. So he had just been posturing for his friends. He wasn’t totally stupid at sizing up others. Which lowered Sacripant’s chances another notch. Gregario was expecting to meet a brave and determined enemy. He would not have his guard down, or underestimate his opponent. Oh well. It was only fair. Winning through the other’s sheer stupidity wasn’t what duelists should rely upon. Three steps up the stairs. They were standing on opposite sides. Gregario’s eyes were black.
“Anyone who leaves this ring forfeits their lives. Nobody shall intervene in the duel once it has begun.” A mediator explained. “The duel will not end until someone is dead.” There was no turning back now. There had been plenty of opportunities before now, but there were none given after.
“Duelers, are you ready?” Gregario nodded. A nervous light grew in the bottom of Sacripant’s stomach. His body thrummed with expectant energy. Fear was everywhere. He was breathing it and humming with it. It made him strong. Sacripant nodded as well.
“Begin!” Gregario lifted his sword into an upward stance. His height and strength were advantages he was going to employ to their full extent. Sacripant had guessed this. It was the only logical choice. Time dilated. He was running forward, his sword not yet fully drawn. Gregario’s eyes narrowed. Surprised, but not yet concerned. He lunged forward, the sword in a smashing arc for Sacripant’s head. Sacripant drew his sword out with all his strength, wrists slanted above the blade’s path. The two swords met, Sacripant’s momentum did not stop, his blade slid up and off Gregario’s. Gregario had a moment to readjust his blade’s arc on Sacripant’s now unguarded body. Sacripant flipped his wrists to below the arc of his blade, it was now freely and with all of its strength still intact flying for Gregario’s neck. Both swords plunged uninhibited into flesh. Blood flew. It could not have taken more than five seconds from the start to the finish.
Gregario’s head hopped off his shoulders and rolled a bit. His eyes were frozen with a look of shock. Sacripant fell over, Gregario’s sword still inside him. It had gone through his shoulder and was lodged somewhere in his ribcage. The blow had gone through many bones, which had slowed it down. Gregario’s aim had been diverted just enough.
Lucinda blinked. She was too surprised to faint. People were already rushing onto the elevated ring to help Sacripant. Physicians rushed Sacripant away under their care. Friends collected Gregario’s body with an unperturbed resignation. After a few minutes, it was like the duel had never been. Except for all the blood that hadn’t been cleaned yet. And the elms which had watched, and under the suzerainty of their long lives tallied up another sacrifice to their altars. Theresa took Lucinda’s arm and guided her home.
Wherein Everyone Leaves Home
“Christ, the thing’s huge!” Jenson stepped out of his car to observe the spaceship being inflated. “How does it even hold itself up? How will it ever get off the ground? Ten million Spruce Gooses could fit in there!”
Ben laughed. “I don’t know about that. But it is impressive. I hear the bubble is just a casing of a synthetic fiber lattice. Honestly, I let Loretti and his engineers worry about stuff like that. Whenever things are looking really bad, I come and watch these. I’m glad you finally decided to join me. These ships are just beautiful.”
“I’ve been busy.” Jenson excused himself. “We’ve been looking into using all the underground space all the miners leave behind. Can you believe it? After they go through all that work digging the real estate out, once they’re done they just let water and mud and rocks fill it up again.”
“Underground farming? What do you use without the sun?” Ben asked, surprised.
“Oh it’s still solar power, we just buy the electricity and send it down by cable. Not the most efficient method, but. . .”Jenson shrugged. “The higher the price of food rises, the more marginal and inefficient methods of growing crops become available for exploitation. The only problem is all the competition that’s trying to use it for other things. Can you believe it? They want to make the mines into jails. They figure prisoners will be less likely to escape and less likely to want to go back once they’ve been stuck in a dark hole for twenty years. And besides, they say, jails on the surface depress the property value of all the area around it. It’s a social eyesore or something.”
Ben nodded. “Why not let the jails take up the mines, and then use the jails left behind on the surface for farmland?”
Jenson smiled wryly. “Somehow it doesn’t work that way. The more jails the State has, the more criminals suddenly need to go there. I’m sure the State would love to see us all in jail if they could just afford to build enough of them. No, they wouldn’t suffer to let a single jail cell go empty, above ground or below.”
“You’re such a cynic, Jenson.” Ben shook his head. It was peculiar though. In the history books crime was so uncommon they used to not even have an official police force. Now they took up around one percent of the population. And around five percent were in jail. Add another couple percent for security guards, wardens, courts, judges, lawyers, private investigators, clerks. . .maybe one in ten people was either living off crime or living off stopping crime. . .economically the distinction hardly mattered, both were just expenses without any corresponding productivity. Both were just weights the other ninety percent had to shoulder in addition to their own. Then add in the military, a sort of international police force whose sole job was to stop international crimes, plus all the manufacturers that supported the military, the clerks, the bureaucracy, the spy agencies, how much of the economy was sunk into that? Another five percent? A lot more in some places. Ben could only dream of what Metzburg could have done with that kind of money. He could have fed the world twice over with fifteen percent more of the GDP in his hands.
“Besides, this is the first time a Balloon’s actually launching. I only listen to the four or five note climaxes of the great classics, the rest is just filler. But what do they hope to gain by going to the Moon?”
“Rocks and sunlight. Some lebensraum.” Ben recalled himself. “That’s worth something.”
Jenson disagreed by not commenting.
“Plus they get away from us. The more I think about how screwed up the Earth has become the more enticing that is.”
“Every generation says that.” Jenson said. “ ‘Oh, things used to be so much better. This world’s going straight to hell.’ All the while we’re getting richer and living longer, healthier, more interesting lives.”
“It’s different this time.” Ben smiled. Jenson seemed so contrary that he would even affirm how great life was if that meant disagreeing with someone. “Life is different now. I’m not sure how, but I know this isn’t just one more endless cycle. Everything has changed so rapidly that. . .the past can’t really help us predict the future anymore. I wouldn’t dare tell you what things are going to be like in fifty years, and I’m likely to even live to see it. Do you realize how scary that is? People living to see a future they couldn’t even imagine as children?
“Oh, I agree it keeps changing. But except for that whole 500 AD-1500 AD slump, it’s always been for the better.”
Ben laughed. “Except for that little slump? Do you realize that even in 1900 the Czars of Russia felt the need to borrow the light of the Roman Empire to distinguish their country’s glory? In 1800 there was a Holy Roman Emperor over the Germans that Rome had never even conquered and were even conquered by? Progress isn’t inevitable. It isn’t natural or necessary. At any time, humanity could blow it all, lose everything, fall back into barbarism or go extinct. At any time, if we take a wrong turn, the future can go backwards. Just look at what the Mayans did to themselves. Over some petty civil war, over which city-state got to strut around on top of the chain, they destroyed each other’s irrigation networks, which took out the whole basis of their economy, and the entire population was reduced to a mere shell of its past overnight. Or when the Chinese Emperor was influenced by the court scribes to destroy the wealth and prestige of the court eunuchs, because they were jealous, so, sorry guys, the Great Fleet which had traveled all the way to Africa and back and all the technology and knowledge imbedded in it one hundred years before Columbus went up in flames. The scariest thing is all it takes is one stupid decision, one bad king, one war, to destroy what it took hundreds of years to make. It’s a miracle we even made it this far, there’s no reason to believe we’ll just magically keep getting further.”
“The past was different. Back then civilization was fragile because there was no redundancy to the system.” Jenson fought back. “If Meng-Ho’s fleet were burned today, there’d still be a million libraries and a billion websites that could tell us how to make another. Millions of people with the skills to do it. There’s just too many people and too much information in too many places, for anything to stamp us out again. Not unless this whole planet went up in flames.”
Ben allowed himself to smile. “Maybe you’re right. I’ve been cooped up in my office looking at figures too long. So what if unemployment keeps going up because machinery keeps surpassing us at every job we can think of? So what if the Earth’s filling up and the environment is racing towards total annihilation? So what if younger people have to keep getting older and more educated before they can even be made use of, before they even gain a purpose in life or start their own families? So what if all our medical cures have made us stare at grandfathers and great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers with ever more disturbing wishes that they would get out of the way, stop wasting space, leave some for us? So what if the amount of people on Earth has made any particular individual’s life cheap and beneath notice. If we can just get off this planet, and preserve all our discoveries and inventions and works of art and words of wisdom, then humanity has won. We’ll be immortal and invincible, no matter what particular or local problems each of us have. We’ll all have that seed, all that worked up wealth, that huge accumulated capital, of knowledge, and we’ll never be close enough together, or under any single factor such as a tyrant or a plague or a supernovae, to end it all. If we all can succeed, and nothing short of God’s own hand can stop all of us. . then someone will get it right. Someone will make our species work.”
The Balloon was inflated. Miles and miles of fabric stretched out to their full extent, lifting millions of tons of air, water, people and property. Slowly and minutely, impossibly, the behemoth left the ground—floating away, lighter than air.
“The Martians will hate us for this.” Jenson noted, watching the future take flight.
“Their grandchildren will love us, though.” Ben replied.
There was a knock at Theresa’s door. Theresa looked up from her chair, positioned across from her bed. Sacripant was in a drugged sleep. Lucinda looked at Theresa, then back to the door, and with a small sigh gave up her watch to answer it. Theresa wouldn’t have moved if they had bashed the door down.
“Greetings, stranger.” She curtsied to the man in her doorway. She smiled inside her head. Sacripant wouldn’t laugh at her anymore. She hadn’t been called an ‘outsider doll’ for days.
“My lady,” The man bowed as politely. “We thought you might want this.” He handed her an official-looking document with a large number written on it.
“Oh, but. . .I don’t know how we can pay any more bills. . .it’s enough just taking care of Sacripant. The doctor’s been kind enough to treat him without charge, but we still try to do everything we can for him. . .”
The man smiled and shook his head. “Ach, you’re a cute one, you know that?” She blushed. “It’s not a bill. If you win a duel, you win everything. It makes things simpler for how to dispose of the dead man’s goods. We didn’t think you’d want his furniture or knickknacks, so we’ve been busy liquidating it all so we could give it to you. This is what he’s worth.”
Lucinda dropped the check and rubbed her hand as if scrubbing away grease. “Blood money? By God, just when I thought this place was bad enough. How could you? How could anyone justify. . .liquidating people who lose? What if he had children? A widow? How would they live?”
“Then you could give what money back that you wished, like a hospitable and generous and kind person, and we would thank you for it.” The man said coldly. “But in this case, Gregario had no such relations, and besides, most of this is just what he took from your Salazar, and since you are the widow, then surely you’ll have no objection to getting his money.”
“Oh, I’m not. . .I’m just a guest here.” She flustered. She kept forgetting that custom handled things here rather than law. . She could curtsy now, but she was still an outsider, looking in and making imperious criticisms without understanding anything.
Good existed long before somebody thought to write it down. Whether a law wrote something about it on a piece of paper was not necessary or vital to people who’d already written it in their hearts. Many people obeyed laws not out of fear but because they felt the laws were right, and wouldn’t ‘break’ them even if they weren’t written. Many people gave to charities of their own will, without any compulsion, simply because they believed it the right thing to do. Many people would jump into a river to save a drowning man without any thought of themselves, or run into a burning house to save another person’s children. Compulsion was not the root and heart of all moral resources and moral people, good people always had been and always would be good regardless of what the law was, goodness was as inherent to humanity as heat to fire or brightness to light, one could not separate the adjective from the noun. The people here just found other ways to exercise these moral resources.
The guest interrupted her chain of thought. “Then I’ll just leave this here, and my compliments to your household. Do with it as you please. Burn it if it makes you feel so tainted. It’s no longer my business.”
“Wait! I’m sorry. Would you like some tea? I’m just new here and sometimes I just say stupid things, I’m truly sorry.”
“It’s fine, it’s hard to get angry with children for any length of time, clumsiness is half their charm. But I’m not here to fraternize with my friend’s killer’s Outsider stray, so if you’ll excuse my ingratitude. . .”
“If you’re Gregario’s friend, why don’t you challenge Sacripant?” She blurted out. “Why hasn’t anyone? He’s so helpless right now, and now we have all this money you could take. . .”
He shook his head. “Miss, you have a lot to learn about people.” He turned and walked away. Lucinda felt horribly stupid. How could they all be so noble and so horrible to each other at the same time? How could a friend of Gregario be so nice to her when on that night they had been so absolutely horrible? Well, maybe he hadn’t been there. . .but then, how could he have liked anyone who had been that horrible? Maybe he didn’t know that side of his friend. Or maybe they really had thought she was a whore and he was a coward, and only now were they nice, because Sacripant had proven himself to them? It made no sense. . .deciding she wasn’t a whore, because she was no longer associated with a coward? Was that how it worked in their minds? A whore—yes, this must be it—a whore was a girl who slept with men without honor. A flash of understanding of Palermo thought, and then gone again. Because what right did they have to judge her method of selection just because it was against theirs. . .the code. I’ll show them the code. . .this bubble just breathed with arrogance. . .
“Who was it, Lucinda?” Theresa called.
“Oh.” Lucinda recalled herself. She picked up the check and walked back. After all, this money was all they had to live with for the foreseeable future. “A man came, and brought me this.” She handed the check over.
“Ahhh.” Theresa took it, breathing a heavy sigh of relief. “I was wondering if they were actually going to renege. It’s been days.”
“They said they had trouble selling all of his stuff. Maybe it was a lot?”
“Yes, it’s a lot. Look at this, he must have accumulated five, six people’s life savings in his duels. Including mine. The butcher.”
“I don’t understand. His friend who came was so nice. Why doesn’t he just challenge Sacripant and kill him now and take it all back?”
Theresa looked at her oddly. “What’s the honor in that? Killing a cripple and robbing a widow twice-over of money you had absolutely nothing to do with in making? What do you think we are, monsters?”
“No. . .” Lucinda whispered. “I’m the monster. . .it’s me. . .I keep imagining what El Doradons would do given the same chance.”
Theresa softened. “Come here, child.” She stroked Lucinda’s hair and looked in her eyes. “You left El Dorado, remember? You left it because it has nothing to do with you. You’re a beautiful, wonderful girl who’s never hurt anyone.”
Lucinda tried to stop her tears. “I know, I know. Somehow I just keep needing to be reminded of that, though, or I forget.” She smiled a broken smile of contrition.
“I want to ask you something, Lucinda.” Theresa gathered herself up with determination to finish what she’d begun. “I want to ask you. . .if you intend to have Pan’s hand.”
Lucinda blushed furiously. “I would never—“
“No, stop. Start over. And this time seriously, I’m earnestly asking you, do you want Pan for yourself. Remember that lying here is seen as the worst insult possible. Lying to me to make me feel better is not what I want. Just get that vile concept out of your head—I mean. . .not vile. . .just please don’t think like that with us.” Theresa was just as confident of the code as the others. It made Lucinda a little nervous inside. She had thought she could live here, but she really wasn’t like the others. The others were so sure of themselves, of how they were living. And Lucinda was never sure of herself, or anything. She was afraid of saying anything because she knew she’d be wrong and look stupid. But wait, Theresa had asked her about Sacripant. Wow. She really hadn’t thought about her answer the first time. It had just been automatic. Okay, this time for real.
“I think that depends on you.” Lucinda finally answered. “He loves you, I think. . .the way any girl could wish to be loved. I think I’m still a child in his eyes. Someone he’s trying to protect and help. So. . .regardless of what I think, I think he would have you, no matter what I tried.”
“But. . .you gave him up. You really hurt him, when he left and you stayed. He thinks you didn’t love him enough. When he came here, he didn’t intend to stay. He was trying to just get Gregario’s name and leave, because he thought he had no right to see you anymore—see? Because you thought so little of him. I don’t want to leave him if all it means is you hurting him more and more. I think I could make him happy, someday. At least more happy than if he tries for you and you just reject him again.”
Theresa nodded. “I want to tell you this, we—Pan and I both thought he would die in the duel. We both thought that he would die, and you and I would take care of each other, and there would be no conflict. I really was going to take you in. As a link to him, if nothing else. And because I had promised him. But now it’s different. Somehow, some angel has spared him. And has spared me. All the pain and loneliness I had ahead of me. Do you realize? How absolutely alone and miserable I was, and then, incredibly, out of nowhere, the man who had left for good, comes back the very first day of the rest of my grief, and promises, I will take all your pain away.”
Lucinda didn’t realize that had happened. How many different silent dialogues had been going on that day? What did Sacripant think she had said to him silently then? What Theresa had said to him?
“I know it sounds incredibly selfish of me, Lucinda, but I feel like you brought him back here for me. That some Angel guided him back to me, because I needed him so much. To retrieve Sal’s honor. To take care of me. To replace the hole in my heart. I could think you were the angel, you’ve been so sweet, if only I were that lucky. And I know you’re right. I have no right to him anymore. I pushed him away, I chose someone else. Even though I still loved him, I didn’t love him enough. And you haven’t done that, you still have your whole heart to give him, not even touched by any other man, as pure as the day it came into the world. I know it’s unfair of me, to think my love should have some higher claim than yours. . .”
Lucinda shook her head. “I don’t even know what love is. It couldn’t compete with yours at all. I’m just a little kid, and you’ve been through so much together. All I did was find some pine needles before him, that’s not much of a claim.”
“You’re wrong. Listen, I hope Pan loves me, but not if I can’t win him fairly. I don’t want anyone’s heart that I haven’t earned, that I didn’t deserve, and I wouldn’t deserve it if I let you think you’re somehow inferior to me. I’m not going to trick you out of your happiness, or use your modesty against you. We have just as much honor as men, and we fight just as fairly, so really, truly think about it this time. I think you love him just as much as me. . .even if you won’t realize that until you’re older. . .but don’t let anyone tell you that just because you’re not as old or haven’t been around him as much or haven’t proved it by staying the course—whatever stupid reasons they make can’t argue with what you already know. Love is the one thing you can be sure of in the whole world, even if everyone else is lying and all your senses are deceiving you, you still know how you feel, beyond all illusion and doubt. All it takes is the next beat of your heart to confirm that every second of your life. If you love someone, nobody can tell you that you don’t. Not me, not him, not anyone. Do you hear me? You can tell the whole world to go to hell if it steps between you and your heart. Now do you still feel the same?”
Lucinda nodded. “Thank you for thinking that much of me, even if I don’t deserve it. But you aren’t getting between me. I want you to have him. I really do. Now that I know you do want him, and I know he wants you. I’m really happy for you.”
“Okay. . .then the next problem. What do you intend to do once we marry? I’m sure you would never. . .but in the same house, and you so pretty. . .it’s awful but the rumors would just go flying, and the shame for both of us. . .I’m not sure if you realize how much it hurts us when someone, anyone, anywhere, thinks we’re without honor.”
Lucinda nodded again. She swallowed. It had come to this. She realized it had to eventually. She just hadn’t wanted to think about it yet. She croaked out through stiff lips. “Then I’ll just have to leave.”
“You can stay as long as you want.” Theresa quickly gave her mercy, now that Lucinda had given her everything. “There’s plenty of time to work things out, for you to find a new home, a new way of life. . .”
Lucinda shook her head. “I might not be able to once I see him awake again. I have to do the right thing while I still can. I can’t vouch for myself tomorrow. It’s best if I go now. Even right now. It’s best if I leave and never come back.”
“You can’t be serious! I didn’t mean that! Lucinda, look at me, I didn’t mean you had to leave the city, our life! I was just talking about our home.”
“I know, I know, I don’t think anything bad about you at all.” Lucinda reassured her. “This is something I feel I must do. You have nothing to do with it. I know you would never hurt me or do me wrong. But I need to go while I still can, before all of this grows into me and over me and. . .I don’t know what I’m saying. . .I just need to go.”
Theresa watched her for a while. Then nodded to herself. “If that’s how you feel, I’m giving you this.” She hastily stood up and rummaged through a drawer. She took out a check, scrawled out her name. “Here, this is blank. Take as much of it as you think you need. Don’t tell me no. You brought the man back who fought for this money which was my husband’s as well as other innocent people who have now been vindicated. This is all because of you, and all of them are thanking you. It’s the least we can do. This is as much your money as ours.”
Lucinda looked at the check. Just a minute ago the money had looked so dirty she couldn’t even touch it. And again the Pelarmans had reinterpreted it into something entirely else, something pure and clean. How did they do it? Their tongues were made of silver. “I will then. Thank you. I will be okay. I’ve learned so much from all of you. I won’t be stupid anymore, even on my own, I won’t. I promise I’ll find some place and someone to be happy with too. And maybe I’ll visit, once I have. Then we can both talk about how happy we are that we did this today, right?” Lucinda couldn’t help but cry through her reassurances.
“Oh, child, you’re the bravest of us all.” Theresa took her in her arms and they hugged for a long, long time.
“There’s only three weeks before the first session begins. Are you sure you want to keep touring?” Isolde asked as they packed up their things. They didn’t have many of them, but staying a full week had made the place feel more like a residence than a base camp, like those that had gone before. Their stuff had found its way all over the place in the week they had stayed like some case study in the law of entropy.
“Of course. I’m not giving up any time with you that I can help.” ‘That I can help’ was the clincher, though. Time was running out on their vacation, and there was still no assurance that they would end it together.
“That’s not good enough,” Isolde gave him a pouty look. “You don’t even try to like my bubbles. At least don’t pick a fight with the gatekeeper this time, okay?”
Roland laughed. “You’re never going to let that go, will you? Besides, I liked Geneva.”
“Uh-huh.” Isolde allowed it suspiciously. “You certainly invoke their God enough when it comes in handy.” She allowed her smile to show through, just thinking about his speech the night before.
“He is helpful, at that.” Roland smiled too. “I can’t very well say, “I’m very serious and emotional right now,” and I can’t just start cursing your ears off, so God just keeps coming in to save me. I don’t know what I’d do without Him.”
“Heh. I think it’s more than that. I think whenever the situation is really serious, we suddenly do believe, because we want His help just for that moment, and then once He has, we forget again.”
“What, so now you’re a Genevan?” Roland asked, surprised.
“Nope.” She smiled. “I’ve forgotten too. But maybe I’ll be one every now and then, like a skipping stone across a lake, I’ll touch Him again and again. Maybe that’s enough for purgatory. I’m just shooting for that safe ground, just in case, I can always climb on up to heaven from there.”
“I think that’s even more cynical than me.” He teased. “So what’s this bubble I have to like? I’m not volunteering before I know the task.”
“What, you don’t trust me?” She gave him wide-eyed innocence.
“No! I don’t!” He laughed. “Not when you take us into places like cyborg-land.”
“Awww, come on. They didn’t actually do anything to you. You’re just a cyborgophobe.”
“That’s not a word.”
“It is now. You’re the first one. Besides, you have to like this one. This bubble is like, one giant amusement park. That’s all it’s for.”
“Impossible. Everyone would get bored to death after the third day or so. Having fun is pretty much the dullest activity in life.”
“Only because you don’t know how to have fun.” She teased.
“Oh? Would you like to show me?” He challenged.
“I just might.” She accepted.
And so they had to stop packing for a while.
Wherein Martians Discover That All is Not Well
Roland watched the athletes fly around the court in quiet awe. The bottom was a giant trampoline, but if the athletes were good, once they really got going, they no longer had to touch the floor. Platforms and rings dangling from the ceiling and springs on the walls gave these people the ability to wander around the entire area, swinging, glancing, bouncing, but never losing their original speed. They negotiated all the obstacles with the ease that Roland could walk across the ground. Everything was a tool for them to change directions or speeds, up and down alongside north, south, east, and west. Mars was such a tentative and small mother, nothing she did could convince them to come back down, they were for all purposes free and independent of all the limits their bodies had hoped to impose upon them. The game was simple, like all incredibly complex games, a sort of 3-d lacrosse. The players tried to get the ball into the net, passing it to each other and catching it with nets attached to poles. There was no hitting each other, but flying into each other was okay. Body tackles sent both people flying with a new vector neither predicted until they found some new surface to bounce off, which usually disrupted the play enough to seize back the ball. The other form of defense was intercepting passes, which made for a huge mental game of calculating and predicting how everyone else would push off what and where they needed to be to stop them. All of this occurred in real time and flowed continuously, everyone had to keep track of all twelve players and their own movements and all the obstacles in the court, which usually changed places and shapes from match to match. This was Mars’ native sport, a small advantage they’d coaxed out of the small G to play with. But Roland saw it for the first time here in Mirmansk. They were the only ones with enough spare time and money to build the arenas and nurture the skills, at least currently. Roland thought a lot of people would make time and money for the chance to fly, if they ever saw this. It was a shame he’d never bothered to treat his body as anything more than an annoyance, and left it as uncoordinated and weak as the day he’d come out of the womb, or he would do it too. But still. . .it was just a game. Living for this would reduce people to things less important than this game, and this game wasn’t important at all. Oh, the game certainly required much more from people than they usually employed in life. A well-toned body with reflexes so fast and sure they never even asked the brain what to do, and a brain so fast and calculating it resembled a sort of psychic computer. Oh, and probably determination, perseverance, hard work, and all that. But if all those qualities, nice as they were, were employed to feed an ant, they would be just as wasted as throwing a ball into a net. If the world was about throwing balls into nets, then people would be no better than the lacrosse sticks they threw the balls with. Roland thought about the Bolivian movie and smiled. Now if these same people were using all these skills to kill each other, that would be admirable. Funny how that worked. Humans were still hunter-gatherers wandering the Steppe, as far as evolution was concerned. Sometimes that really got on his nerves.
“Break!” The coach called, and it really was beautiful how the players found new walls and springs that would slow them down and deliver them at the door. After a few more bounces, leisurely and relaxed and laughing, the group finally landed slowly enough to absorb the shock with their knees, and walk across the trampoline floor.
Roland turned and left, as alone as he began. There was something clean about watching the world instead of touching it. Vicariousness. Voyeurism. Virtual Reality. But Roland didn’t see the problem with it. Everyone lived in a virtual reality, interpreting their sensations to fit their wishes or memories or beliefs. Gods and demons, ghosts and magic, witches and saints, miracles and Incarnations and reincarnations, all of it crafted out of hopes and dreams, and yet more real to the people who lived in that dream, than the world itself. It was all virtual. Stories going across the screen. The story of the apple that fell. The story of the bathtub whose water rose. The story of the insect wing that created vortices to stay airborne. The story of a star’s life and death over billions of years, told with a single glimpse of its constituent element’s absorption lines. Stories of empires and men that grew and shrunk, one after another, redrawing lines on a virtual map, telling stories to themselves of their own greatness. Stories people wrote in their hearts about who they were and why they were better than everyone else. Stories of delirious teenagers, of how perfect the pretty girl next door was. If anyone could with a straight face tell Roland that reality was not virtual, that person would have to live such a restricted existence as to resemble a mathematical point. Just repeating its one sure thing, ‘I think therefore I am’. Which would justify any virtual entity in a computer game or character in a book just as much. Didn’t they think? Don’t they exist, as far as they’re concerned, as much as we do as far as we’re concerned? All reality took was a mind, whatever the mind played with was immaterial, it was as real as the mind’s capacity to envision it. If the mind could imagine a world as distinctly as it sensed, they’d be equally virtual and equally real. And in general, Roland’s imagined worlds and virtual existences, in the past, or the future, or in some other place in the present, or as some other person, were far better than this one. They were lands without pain and without limits. The only thing reality had that his imagination didn’t was Isolde. He was tied to her, and through her the rest of reality. Otherwise his mind would just spin and spin and spin, some unconnected flywheel, thinking furiously in some pocket universe, so happily and so quickly, without ever moving a belt or turning a gear nearby. If in some other reality he had Isolde and not this one, he would have left for it long ago. Wait. . .Roland just realized something inextricably huge. Too vast to even think out in words. He’d just found the answer to the most important question in his life. Maybe he should have tried taking time to be alone more often. He was suddenly the happiest person in at least a four square kilometer area. That was a saying a lot—after all, this bubble was an amusement park.
Isolde was about ready to scream. There were no stores! None! Nobody wanted to sell her anything! There were certain necessities she was running out of and couldn’t do without. This was ridiculous. She would have to go to some other bubble, pick up enough stuff for the week or so, then come back. Roland would laugh at her the whole time, telling her this bubble had been her choice. Roland ever having the upper hand was unthinkable, so she stopped the first person who had the misfortune of crossing her path for interrogation.
“What’s wrong with this place!” She asked nicely. “How do you people live without any stores! Where did you get those clothes? Where is that sandwich from? Where are you hiding all your stuff!”
The man decided to take it as a joke, seeing as how Isolde was a young pretty woman. “Stores! We don’t produce here, we consume!” He laughed and walked off, as though that somehow explained it.
So she waited for the next person to walk by. She had all the patience of a leopard in its tree. This time a little girl was attempting to fly a kite. Isolde pounced.
“Here, let me help you with that. I’ll hold it up, and you can lead it with the string.” The girl smiled and ran off. After a few tosses, though, the kite still hadn’t made it for more than a few seconds.
The girl sulked. “Daddy promised to make it windy today!” Isolde blinked. The whole bubble? She knew this was the bubble of the super-rich, but. . .
“Here now, a day is a long time. I’m sure it’ll get windy before long. Meanwhile, would you like to hear a story?”
The girl gave her a suspicious look concerning Isolde’s optimism, but stayed to listen before she made a final judgment.
“Once upon a time a tourist came into this bubble and wanted to buy a new dress, because. . .she was expecting a prince to dance with at the ball that night.” Isolde’s fairy tale lore was the only thing she could think of extemporaneously. “But to her distraughtetude, there were no stores with dresses! She stamped her foot and asked to the air, “How oh how shall I be dressed for the ball tonight, if there are no stores?”
The girl giggled. “That’s silly! She just needs to order one.”
“Well, thank goodness, the air responded just that.” Isolde was on the scent now. “And Cinderella was still confused, and asked the air, “But where oh where can I order my dress from? And where will it come once I’ve ordered it? The ball is in only 9 hours!”
“Why, from a computer, and it comes to your doorstep automatically.”
“And even after the air had told Cinderella this, she was confused, “but where shall I find a computer then? And what if I have no doorstep?”
“Then she would have to ask for someone else to help her until her home and all her stuff was made.” The girl frowned. “Cinderella must be really poor to be here without a home.”
“Yes, well, Cinderella is very poor. The poorest neglected daughter of an evil stepmother. She has to scrub the floor every day and only gets cheese to eat.”
“That’s awful!” The girl listened with wide eyes. “She has to scrub the floor for food?”
“Yes, but, one night a fairy came down and turned her into a princess, and she won the prince’s heart, but it all turned back to pumpkins at midnight. . .well, except a glass slipper. And so the prince found her and gave her the glass slipper and she became a princess again.”
“But that makes no sense! Why couldn’t she have just asked for. . pumpkins and slippers or. . .” The girl was really confused now. “Why does she have to scrub a floor?!”
“Because somebody has to clean the floor to keep it clean, right? And Cinderella was the poorest, so she had to work the hardest.”
“No she doesn’t! Floors keep themselves clean! Or Cinderella could have just asked for a new floor! This story is stupid! Let’s try to fly the kite again.” Isolde growled inside. Was she the only person left in the world who knew her fairy tales? It was so sad, that such great universal stories were just. . .not told or understood anymore. . .she didn’t want progress to be so rapid it left the past behind. There were good things in the past, too! Well, it was clear enough that if they were going to find a roof over their heads, it would have to be by making friends with someone here. Nobody was selling hotel space. No, that would be beneath these people. That would be producing. So helping fly this kite was their only hope, if Roland ever got back from wherever he went anyway.
Roland walked through the streets with a long whistle of amazement. Swimming pools, tennis courts, gaming centers, drug dens, concert halls, ballets, plays, sports of all sorts, amphitheatres, huge parks full of the lushest greenery he’d ever seen. Rock gardens, botanical gardens, tea gardens, sunken gardens, hanging gardens. And everywhere the silent hum and buzz and click of tiny machines building or remodeling or upkeeping the structures. Everything anyone could think of wanting to have or do, it was provided, without anyone having to lift a finger in exchange. How did this work? This was beyond anything Isolde had prepared him for. She had called it the place designed for people to enjoy their lives. . .not the place people could live in a perpetual holiday with infinite leisure and infinite resources to fill up that leisure. . .this was just unimaginable. Somehow they really had found a paradise of sorts. A paradise for one type of person, at least. He still wasn’t sure if any of it appealed to him personally. Or if it just smacked of colossal waste. He wanted nothing more than to find Isolde and ask her what the secret of this Bubble was. What Mirmansk had that nobody else did. Not anywhere on Mars or Earth, he was certain, was there so much luxury.
“There you are! I hope you had a good time!” Roland turned to see Isolde stalking up on him, angry like always, but not actually angry. He smiled to see her.
“Meanwhile I’ve secured us a house and home. Can you believe it? Tourists are expected to just arrange for their own to be built before they come.”
“Well, it’s not like bubbles get very cold at night, wouldn’t it be romantic to spend it out under the stars?”
“No it would not be! Not unless the stars have bathrooms with showers, and mattresses with pillows!” Isolde declared, and Roland laughed. He knew she could rough it whenever she felt the need, but apparently this wasn’t the right time of the month for that. Poor girls. They really should find a cure for that, now that all the other diseases had been escaped or cured. Fiddling with people’s natural functions was still a little squeamishly avoided, except for places like Sao Paolo. Well! Already he was remembering that place fondly. Maybe Isolde wasn’t that crazy to bring them there. . .
“Honestly, I knew this place was made for the super rich, and that after the month was out we’d either become instant billionaires or leave. . .but they could’ve given the people just passing through some accommodations.”
“Why?” Roland asked. “That would just encourage the wrong sort of people to come, and then imagine if enough came that they refused to leave one day? That would be the end of Mirmansk. I just saw on my walk so much wealth laying around for anyone to enjoy or seize that this place would be gutted in a week. Where did you find this place? This isn’t on any of the thoroughfares.”
“My parents had friends who lived here for a while, before coming to Delphi.”
“Your parents are rich, but surely not enough that you could live here.” Roland asked.
“No, not unless I worked really hard for the next twenty years with some brilliant idea to work with. . .but I just wanted to see this place. . .what the people here became. My parents used to talk to them about this place all the time. It made me dream up so many things I would do if I ever lived here. Hey! When did I let you off the hook?”
“I’m sure nobody will mind if you do just this once.” Roland kissed her. “Does this house and home have a host and hostess? I have so many questions I want to ask!”
“Yes, yes. They told me to fetch you before dinner. It’s crazy, they have so much to give, that just for helping their daughter fly her kite this afternoon they’re willing to give me anything I can think of.”
“Well that was nice of you. And rather foresightful.”
“Actually I was just getting her to stay around long enough. . .well, yes, yes it was nice of me. And very foresightful.” She dared him to say otherwise. He forgot to keep up the flirtation, thinking a kiss was victory enough. Now he was busy thinking up the first questions he would ask when he got to this house and home. This place was incredible.
Lucinda hadn’t cared which bubble she ended up at. She could now afford to go where she pleased without worry or hassle, at least for a good while. If she didn’t like this one, she figured she could always go on to another. The important thing was getting out. She seized the one time she was strong enough to escape and pulled away with all her might. It had been a desperate fight with her future self, which she knew would have wanted to stay and destroy everything, the moment she had looked at him smiling or looking at her again. This wasn’t about wherever she was. This was about burning all her bridges, blocking all the passes, poisoning all the wells and salting the land, scorching the earth as she retreated, so that she could never make it back. She was razing her past so that her future couldn’t pursue. But, for some reason or another, she’d ended up at Vincennes.
“Your identification, please?” The woman at the gate asked pleasantly.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have any.” Lucinda paused. “I haven’t had any papers for a long time, where can I go to get new ones? This is really a hassle, not having an official identity or existence.”
“Well, there are official buildings that register people for that sort of thing. You do have an identity, correct? So all it would take is a re-issuing?” The woman asked.
“Yes, I’m Lucinda from El Dorado. You’ll note how pretty my picture is.”
The operator laughed and checked it out. “Alright then. I hope the rest of your trip works out for you. If you ask around I’m sure you’ll get to the statehouse eventually.”
“Thank you, I will. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before. Do I get a brochure or something to read about this city? Wait, what is this city?”
“This is Vincennes, the isle of women. The only real restriction is that you have to be a woman after the first month if you want to stay. After that we just sort of take care of each other. If you steal from everyone, spread bad rumors about them, or make fun of people behind their backs, it’s likely you’ll run out of friends pretty quick. If you are honest and kind in your dealings with others you’ll probably make friends. And the more friends you have, well, that pretty much decides the quality of your life in this bubble. It’s how we’re going to judge you, it’s how you’ll get by and how your kids will be raised and looked after whenever you’re busy or working, it’s how you’ll get through hard times and how you’ll enjoy the good times. So my suggestion, I guess the law of the land, is make friends. You’re going to need them.”
“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.” Lucinda smiled. She could just imagine men coming for a few weeks and loving this place so much they got a sex change so they could stay. The immigration laws were being stretched sometimes, the freedom of passage sometimes conflicted with the entire point of the bubbles, and compromises had to be made. Well, so long as people could always leave, the most important and precious freedom was still solid.
An entire bubble without men. Lucinda chewed on her lip. Well, it’s not like she was interested in anyone else or anything even hinting of a relationship right now. They wouldn’t be exactly welcome in her life right now anyway. Besides, this sounded neat. Could women really do it themselves? This was the final testing grounds of feminism, if women could handle things better without men, if the women here were responsible, creative, risk-taking yet rational, if they could compete in math and science related jobs and ‘cut-throat’ business and could run ‘a strong handed’ government, if in short every reason why men dominated every field in both worlds could be dismantled here as a bunch of myths kept in place only by larger muscles, then a revolution would have to come from the inside out. If it were all a bunch of lies, well here they weren’t supported by any men with muscles, so here they would be proven lies. The feminists had never had the power or the opportunity until now to show the world an entire working society of women, any reference they made to a singular Queen Elizabeth or Marie Curie the chemist or Joan of Arc the warrior could be discounted as exceptions from the norm, they’d never given a norm of women that measured up.
Like the fervent Christians, the environmentalists, the neo-communists, the eugenicists, and other groups that had come to Mars, the feminists were here as self-conscious historical actors. That is, the people who were always on the fringe and marginal on Earth, who could never convince the majority by words to abide by their rules, were attempting by example on Mars to convince everyone of the truth and effectiveness of their beliefs. This was a different group from the emigrants who’d left Earth simply to be left alone, but for both groups only Mars had offered them a chance. And interestingly enough, these two camps, of social actors and those who wished to leave society behind entirely, were not rivals but symbiotes. The social actors who became disillusioned became libertines, the libertines who became illusioned became social actors, the constant ebb and flow of people trying and failing and trying something else gave the same person the chance to act out many different lifetimes, to experiment with many separate paths that their life could take. Lucinda had already seen moments in her life where single choices would have created entirely different her’s. She had stood at the brink of precipices and peeked over the edges and seen the dizzying path she would have taken with one more step in alternate lives, it was an opportunity most of humanity had never had. Born into a single village they never left, with no political power, with no belief system other than the religion of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents ever taught, their marriages arranged, their jobs determined by the jobs of their parents, or where their parents apprenticed them, or what class or caste or rank they were born into—this had been the normal fate of mankind. Lucinda had already lived ten times as many lives as that, and she was only sixteen. She thought this was as good an opportunity to see what might have been as the others. What might she be like without any men?
Maybe proving she could get by without men would help her get by without him, at least it would prove she could take care of herself, for once. It was odd, she had thought education was the only way to even survive outside the home, but everywhere she’d been, it hadn’t mattered in the least. All that had mattered was if people had liked her and wanted to help her. Maybe she was cheating, because she was so pretty, maybe everyone else needed an education, but she just needed her face. Well, it wasn’t all milk and honey, a pretty face. The men smoking and playing cards in that house didn’t make her want to be pretty. Mother putting her on a corner didn’t make her want to be pretty. So she’d take what advantages she could from it, as due repayment for all the crap it heaped on her simultaneously. She’d made friends with her looks and vulnerability so far, but that had generally been with men. She wondered how far they’d get her here. But okay, time to finally get back her Self from the government databanks.
“Excuse me, could you tell me where the statehouse is?” She asked a loiterer. The woman thought about it for a second. “The center of the city. Just keep walking to where the buildings get taller and the number of people denser. Can’t miss it. A pretty dome.”
Well, that worked. She started walking. Almost everyone walked inside the bubbles on Mars. Perhaps there wasn’t that same sense of urgency in their lives, of deadlines and schedules and minute hands and second hands. Perhaps it was the cheapest method. Perhaps the low G of Mars made it simply too easy to walk for anyone to think they shouldn’t. Lucinda had certainly gotten used to walking in all her travels, and in turn that had gotten her used to not needing anything she couldn’t carry on her back. The freedom to come and go throughout the world whenever one pleased didn’t help if people were still bound by deadlines and schedules and belongings to some home ‘base.’ Her freedom had started with a state of mind. Lucinda kept thinking to keep herself entertained while she walked. Trying to connect in her brain why, for instance, there were so many older people. The children would be in school. . .hmm. . .they wouldn’t make her go to school would they? They couldn’t, her month of just passing through wasn’t up, and she could just leave if they tried. But even with children in school, there should be the 20-somethings wandering around on the loose. They seemed few and far between. The children couldn’t really be anywhere else, but the middle aged and the elderly had to be here for a reason. It couldn’t just be that they were all man-hating lesbians, or else there would be as many 20-somethings of those as there were 40-somethings. That could only be a part of the puzzle. After all, girls were born wanting boys, and if all these people were having children, as evidenced by the toddlers she passed by, then they must not be that intent on creating a majority lesbian society, that would only work through immigration. The toddlers were all girls, though, well, she certainly hoped they were, as they were dressed like girls and treated like girls. How had that worked? She delved into her high school biology education such as it was.
They must have selected the sex of their embryos and artificially inseminate them. Child’s play these days. Wouldn’t mothers get tired of daughter after daughter though? Well, then they would’ve just left. So no, there were no technical barriers to amazons left. Didn’t they miss men though? What did they even talk about to each other? Well, Lucinda didn’t miss men right now, so why should they? Maybe everyone here had some personal complex reason. Maybe they were escaping abusive spouses. Or giving up on deadbeats, or philanderers. Maybe they were trying to raise their kids after a messy divorce and didn’t want the father finding them. Maybe they’d been raped, or molested as children. Maybe they were just sick and tired of all the drinking and whoring and swearing and gambling and fighting and killing that men carried with them like some extra suit of clothes wherever they went. It wasn’t that hard to imagine a lot of women deciding, all factors added up, men just weren’t worth it; that their kids and themselves would be better off without them. So maybe a tripartite population, lesbians, feminists, and survivors who washed up on the sheltering shore after a wreckage of their lives out at sea. All of which were not entirely separate or entirely the same. Lucinda came out of her reverie to focus on the domed building with all its classical pillars. Success.
She walked into the Statehouse, but things were not as they should have been. Everyone was frozen, looking at the television screens with their one-day delay from the Blues News. Nobody spoke. Nobody shuffled any papers. Nobody typed. Nobody even coughed.
“. . .the first of its type, this new model designed by Loretti & Associates can carry more tonnage at a lower cost than anything previously dreamed of. The age of space exploration has truly dawned with this launch. The mass production has gone on at a furious rate, employing over ten million people in the production of over one million units. One of the largest enterprises any corporation has ever undertaken, and yet the profits seem virtually assured and tremendous. With no competing model even near the efficiency of this flight, it is set to take the entire Space business world by storm. Applications for the spaces for each family have already been filled to the limits of all the spaceships not even completed as of yet, most heading to the already cosmopolitan colony of Mars, others striking out for more virgin soil, hoping to get rich by speculating ahead of the pack they believe are sure to follow, it seems the real estate of the whole Solar System has now been opened up for sale. Mr. Aber Sinclair Johannes, what do you think this will mean for not only the economy of Italy, but even Europe and the world at large?”
“Well Max, you’re right to include the entire world. This invention is the largest thing since Plastic, also invented by an Italian, I might add. Not only is this synthetic fiber the most durable, powerful, cheap and renewable building resource the world has ever seen, these spaceships are specifically set to make interplanetary trade no longer a pipe dream but a reality. Mines from the asteroids and the other planets can replenish all the worked-out and stripped-bare resources left here. It’s possible that even energy can be collected and beamed back for a profit, or that these bubbles could be sent as solar greenhouses that could potentially feed us for the next century.”
“Do you really think that spaceflight has become so cheap that money could be made off sending vegetables into orbit?”
“There is no telling how many uses Man can make of this fiber, Max. This is positively astonishing in its implications. We won’t know for fifty years just how big this really is, I tell you, the name of Henri Loretti may be the biggest one of the century, it might have a chapter as large as Alfonso Parazzi. And yet again, I might remind you that it has been Europe, and Italy in particular, that has been at the forefront of this millennium and the true driving force of history. I’ve never felt so proud of the green white and red as we all have the right to feel today.”
“Thank you, minister, I’m sure Loretti is just as proud to hear those words coming from you. Well there you hear it folks, the prime minister of Italy’s thoughts—“ The TV’s were turned off. Everyone there looked at each other with ashen faces as though the news had reported that instead of colony ships, atomic bombs were in transit. They would start arriving in a month.
An Ominous Number for an Ominous Time
“Welcome, and thank you so much for earlier, young lady. Oh, and is this the man who strayed and dallied a little too far and too long away from you?” The man smiled and winked at Roland with understanding. “And this is my wife, Trisha, and our child, Annette.” Everyone shook hands. It was odd, Roland thought, they only had one child. On Mars they usually came in six or twelve packs. There was so much opportunity for the people here, so much metal to dig up or factories to construct, that with any qualifications at all, anyone could make a good life. Why would these people, so much richer and safer than the rest, only have one frail link to the future then? After Annette had said hi, she left to go play, not interested in adult conversations.
“Hopefully Isolde wasn’t that negative about me.” Roland said watching the girl go. “Because I wanted you to tell me about Mirmansk. I’m so full of questions about this bubble that I’m just bursting with them.” Roland said.
“Of course!” Francisco said. “Don’t worry about my daughter, she has her own ways. We’re happy to answer anything you’d like to know. Isolde has already told us about the friends from here she had known, so you’re practically a part of the family. Let’s at least settle down for dinner while we’re at it. We’ve ordered French onion soup, some turkey, a Caesar salad, oh, I don’t remember the rest. I’m sure you will find something you like.”
They were expertly guided to their seats, the banquet already laid out. There were no servants, so at least the hosts would have had to do the work of setting the table. Once they’d all passed dishes around and served themselves whatever they wished, Roland got to work. Not on the food, he was too busy to eat it. He had just put the food on his plate while thinking out his questions. “Well for starters, why just one child? Couldn’t you make a lot more and support them all lavishly?”
The host and the hostess looked at each other amusedly. Trisha decided to take up this one. “Despite what young couples think who are eager to undergo the process of making babies, they’re a lot of work, care, and fuss. And yes, we could support them lavishly, but we have to have enough capital left over for each child to inherit, that they can support themselves here just as we can. We’re rich, but you can see how having a bunch of children would be asking a lot out of us.”
“But that’s another question. You’re rich, but where is all your money coming from? All I see is people enjoying themselves, nobody’s making money at all! How are you saving enough even for yourselves, much less enough left over for your children and their children and so on?”
“Interest.” Francisco settled back complacently. “If you accumulate enough money, stick it in a bank (a multitude of banks and other investments to be safe), just by sitting there the money will grow, and it’s that interest that’s funding everything you see. Everything you see here is just the tip of the iceberg of the amount of money we have. This interest is just a tiny percentage of what’s sitting in the bank, and as long as we never touch what’s underwater, it can produce freely and without any trouble everything you see above the water, in perpetuum. If you get enough money just once, you can live in perfect liberty and leisure forever after. This is what life was always meant to be about. Not all that toil and strife, but everyone with all the time and energy to devote to anything they please. Here people develop whatever skills they enjoy, play any games they can think of, learn whatever they wish to know, live however they please, they can always pay for it. And because all of us here are secure in our wealth, there’s no envy or fear, none of us have to watch our backs, or protect our property, or lobby against taxes or regulations or whatever methods the poor find to steal all our money without having to endanger themselves. Here nobody presents the sick and the maimed and demand us to heal them. Here nobody calls upon our social duties or how our privileges demand corresponding responsibilities. Nobody calls us and asks for donations. Only here, on our own, under our own law, do we actually own our money. Not as a ‘trust’ by the government, or a ‘privilege’ by the people if we use it well, or a ‘gift’ from God who we then have to pay for access to heaven. Here it’s ours.”
“Where do you get all your stuff though? An upper class can’t exist in isolation, your money is being invested somewhere, and you buy your products from somewhere, just because you’re physically alone, you’re really still living in a large community, you still need them and they you. Is there some subsidiary bubble of middle class people that work under you or something?”
“Well, not exactly. A lot of our work is involved with that. Finding out where our capital needs to go, and looking around for who we can trust to deliver us products or build our structures. We’ve payed a lot for the nanites which keep this place clean and in repair, so that all the normal scut-work can be avoided. We can’t be having day-laborers wander in, clip the gardens, and then wander out. We’d become too reliant on each other. So we’re usually looking for the best people and deals we can find anywhere on Mars, you’d be amazed the variety of people and things there are here. It’s fun, trying to make more money, seeing how well we do on this market or that. If we lose, oh well, we were only risking our interest, and if we win, hey, our number gets bigger and we feel good. By spreading around our investments and purchases, hopefully nobody knows this place even exists. They think we’re just random rich people distributed around the world. If anyone connected all of our wealth together and realized a hundred thousand people in one place owned half the world. . .Well, I guess it doesn’t matter anymore. As of a few hours ago the broadcast has kindly informed us of our new masters.”
Roland looked at Isolde who returned a blank look. “A broadcast from Earth? How can they hope to conquer us?”
“Well, I suppose you’ve been on the road this whole time. Not a conquest, a migration. The Blues have invented a colony ship that’s so cheap and so big it can just transplant whole populations. And because we’ve made such a nice infrastructure and start of it, almost all of them are coming here. So many that they’ll soon be the majority, cover the planet, and own it and everyone on it. There is no way four billion people who lived in nation states will immigrate over, see the lifestyle of our ten million, and convert to an absolutely different way of life. We’ll be swept away without the slightest thought. With such an economic and military force backing it, back on Earth, that there’s nothing we can possibly do to stop it from happening. We can’t even keep them from docking on the moons, they have some balloon-cushion which they intend to just crash land onto the surface, and it will bounce a few times and come to a rest. They don’t need us at all anymore. There’s nothing we have which can check their coming, their landing, or their seizing total power. Nothing in the news reports that part, but that’s because they’re so blithely arrogant that it’s just assumed. We’re a colony of rogues and ne’er-do-wells, as far as the Earth is concerned. A bunch of spoiled children who have been too long away from home and need a good spanking to be put back in line. The colonists have come to set up their way of life, not respect ours. And their way of life isn’t to find some empty place and make a bubble of autonomy and leave the rest of us alone. Their way of life is making a big gun tell everyone what to do about everything, and with the same big gun extort everyone’s money to keep the big gun big. They’re coming in such numbers that they will just laugh if we talk about sovereignty or autonomy. God bless democracy, and the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s come to wipe us all out and devour us whole.”
“Now Francisco, let’s not get carried away. I’m sure our rights and our property will be secure regardless of how the government changes.” Trisha put a smile on the conversation which was quickly becoming gloomy.
“It can’t be!” Isolde protested, shocked, her spoon of soup half raised. “They can’t just take away everything we’ve built up over a century! We are a free people, operating under our own laws, and we’ve done them no wrong! What right do they have to take our land or dictate our lives?”
“The right of nature.” Francisco answered caustically. “Because they can, that’s their right. And because they want to.”
“Then we should stop them! Appeal to their governments, tell them this isn’t colonization, this is invasion! That we will fight back. . .we can’t survive. . .this system can’t survive with so many people who don’t understand our ways and will just impose their stupid rule of the gun that they know from Earth. They’ll kill everything that makes Mars special, destroy everything we’ve worked so hard to build, steal all the freedoms we’ve so carefully balanced between us—“
“There’s no use fighting. We would lose, and the end result would be a lot of people dead, and the rest of us being treated as conquered enemies, instead of fellow subjects. At least if we suffer quietly and just give over, they’ll spare something for us.” Trisha opined more cautiously and less youthfully.
“Maybe at first, but only because they would still fear us a little! Once they have us under their heel, they’ll be sure to grind us into whatever powdered people they wish. If we don’t fight for our beliefs, then who will? Are we just going to watch this happen? It’s not like bubbles are safe from attack—they can’t stop us from making nukes, gasses, hunter-killer nanites yet, they don’t have any watchdogs or overseers here to stop us, we can destroy everything they try to plant. . .”
“Now stop this!” The wife rebuked. “Nothing is worth that kind of bloodshed. Do you think Earth wouldn’t retaliate in kind? They’ll wipe Mars clean if they have to, to get their own people on the soil. They aren’t going to suffer billions of people to be restricted from coming for the pleasures and whims of some ten million that live here now! Come to your senses, yes, it was nice while it lasted, but it could never have lasted forever. The wealth of an entire planet can never be monopolized by so few people as us. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if we aren’t maximizing the use of Mars’ resources, then what right do we have like some dog in the manger to not let others? Maybe if we act in a civilized fashion then they will too, and if we still have our property and our lives at the end of this, then that is enough to be thankful for.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Isolde was really angry, “you have so much! But for the rest of us, the only property we have is our freedom, that’s the only inheritance we get from our parents, and if that’s taken from us, we don’t have anything else.”
“Isolde, stop! These people have been kind enough to give us food and lodging and you are insulting them.” Roland rebuked. “They aren’t hurting us, they’re just as much victims as we are. We’re on the same side! Take that anger and put it where it belongs, on the Blues. They’ll make their Colossus to watch over everything and control everyone, because that’s the only power large enough to make billions of people suffer each other to live in some semblance of peace and order. Not because they hate us or hate freedom, most of those people are just trying to make the best of their lives and give the best future they can for their children. It’s not their fault only a federal government, an empire, can control various people of huge numbers, it’s just the way it works. If you want to be angry with someone, blame God, for not giving us enough resources to satisfy everyone, don’t blame people for seeking sufficient resources to maintain themselves just because it hurts us. You can’t expect the Blues to just give up and die because there isn’t room for them on Earth, and their existence isn’t convenient to us here.”
“All of you!” Isolde looked back and forth around the table. “Even you!” She looked at Roland with real hurt in her eyes. “Am I the only one who truly loves. . .are all of you so willing to see this world end, this beautiful world?” She couldn’t say more because she was crying. She pushed herself away from the table and stumbled for the door out of the house. Roland looked at her leaving and the hosts with their bewildered consternation. God, Isolde, putting me in this position! He gave some apology for her and ran out the door to follow.
“Isolde!” Roland ran to catch her, she turned on him with true fury.
“No Roland! Not this time! This time you’re wrong! You’re so wrong I don’t even know what to make of you! We didn’t ask them to have more children then they could feed! We didn’t ask them to lay waste to their environment and consume all their resources! We didn’t ask them to make their own world hell! They have no right to come make ours one too! They have no right!”
“Look, Isolde, that may be true.” Roland soothed. “But we aren’t your enemy. Come back and apologize, these people are just trying to be nice. There was no call for-“
“No Roland! You don’t get it! This isn’t about offending them! This is about my planet. If you don’t understand that—if you aren’t willing to defend it, if you aren’t willing to stand for this, then you aren’t a part of me anymore. This is about me leaving you, because you’re leaving everything I loved about you and about us with your God damned practicality, your ‘sufficient resources.’ If that’s how you felt all along, then I’ve been a fool all this time! I wish I’d never met you, and I won’t stay with you any longer. I thought you were a part of the Mars I loved, but now I see you could care less if it were all destroyed, all you care about is everyone getting sufficient resources. I’m sorry if I don’t think we’re gerbil factories, Roland! I’m sorry if I value something more than resources! But if you can’t understand that, then we’re no longer the unity I believed in, in fact, we never were, and everything until now has just been a lie.”
“What will you do then? What can we do?” Roland was hurt, which made him shout too. “What’s your wonderful solution? After you strike out at everyone who loves you and hurt everyone you can, what the hell difference will you make? Are we supposed to know that you aren’t happy about this? Okay! You’ve made your point, you aren’t happy! In the end no matter how unhappy we are we’ll either surrender or be destroyed, and you hate me for preferring surrender to outright annihilation? Is that how much you love Mars, that you’re willing to see it utterly destroyed for nothing, because you’re unhappy?”
“Don’t twist things! You know Mars dies the moment they make us into a nation! After that we’re just people and things, there’s no Mars left to save! If we all die then, what difference will it make? Like you said, there are always plenty of people who can come replace us! So who cares if we die if Mars is already dead? We’re interchangeable parts, Roland! There’s always more where we come from! But Mars has only existed once in the history of everything, if Mars dies it’s lost forever, Mars is something far more important than all of us! It is the sacred idea we can’t replace, it’s what makes all of us worth something, it’s the sanctifier and the value-giver of our lives. Without the ideals of Mars we’re just talking clay!”
“No Isolde,” Roland practically begged. “Mars lives wherever there are Martians, and Mars dies whenever we die. Mars is in people, not paper. Mars will always exist so long as we believe in it. Mars is our will, our desire, not its fulfillment. It can always be fulfilled later, somewhere else, as long as someone still desires it, but if we die, it really will end, none will be left to pass the torch to the next hand. Sometimes the only victories we can have are when we turn catastrophes into defeats. Sometimes that’s the best we can do, and we have to be willing to do that. There were times when people worked eighteen hours a day and ate a piece of bread for their dinner, slept thirteen to a room and died on average by the age of twenty. We lived through that. So long as there are people willing to endure, there is hope! Don’t throw that chance away! Don’t say you’re too proud to endure anything for the sake of that hope, that you’d sooner die than bend your neck! Even if they make us into slaves, even if they whip us day and night, and feed us gruel, even if they take our children and feed them to dogs for their sport, we have no right to give up and die! What we have is too valuable to let go, no matter how much it hurts, we have to keep going because it’s sacred, not in spite of it.”
“All your pretty words are just another way of saying you’re a coward.” Isolde sneered. “If you won’t help me, I’ll find people who will. If I have to create the resistance, if I have to found a society of anti-federalists, then God help me I will. Go on with your endurance and your hope, see where it gets you! It gets you ground down so deep into the mud you never get out. And your children, and your children’s children, and all their children forever will never get out. You will never see the light of day again. They will never hear about Mars, about freedom. They will never know about anything we had, or maybe they’ll be taught a thousand lies about it and they’ll hate it forever after. If you ever lose, things won’t get better, they’ll just keep getting worse. Every day that passes longer under their rule will be one more day of a tighter grip. Even if the chances of winning are one in a million now, the chances of winning later will be absolutely nothing. There will no Reds left to fight for. They’ll all have been taught from day one to be Blues. And we’ll never have weapons or money or a voice again, they’ll take them all away, and the longer the more thoroughly, they’ll cut out our tongues and put slave-circuits in our heads for all we know. If we don’t fight now it’s gone, Roland! It will be gone forever, because they’ll never let it back!” She turned around again.
And because Roland couldn’t follow her, and yet couldn’t think of the words to bring her back, he was left simply watching as the light and warmth and joy of his life walked away.
“I know this might sound silly now. . .” Lucinda stood at the front of the counter, speaking quietly because everyone else was speaking quietly too. “But I need to replace my identification papers. . .if that’s okay.”
The clerk gave her a distracted look, but after all this was still her job, as futile as it was. Soon enough the Blues would impose new ID’s and the clerks would probably be fired anyway, but right now what else was there to do but go on living? She began typing up a search, asking Lucinda’s personal information, and briskly and professionally verifying and officiating Lucinda’s identity back into existence. After an hour or so and a fee for all of it (which Lucinda could now afford), Lucinda’s reason for being here was gone. But she had no idea where else to go. Where would she go? It would be like running back and forth on the deck of a sinking boat finding the nicest view of her immanent drowning. Everyone in the building knew, right to their cores, without question, that this was the end of their world. Everywhere she had been offended Blues somehow. In fact, under Blues, she wouldn’t have even been allowed to leave her home, or go anywhere. She would have been caught and put back in school. Except she probably wouldn’t have lived in El Dorado. It wouldn’t have existed, and her parents for doing what they did would have gotten government inspectors knocking on the door at night and dragged her away to foster parents and them away to jail. And there would have been no place where animals and plants were counted more important than people, there would have been no place where people could do anything they wanted and live off the land, no place where people armed themselves and fought for themselves as they saw fit, no place where groups of women could raise their own children without those same ‘protective services’ rushing in to save them from such abuse. . .in fact, everything Lucinda could think of that she’d ever seen or done in her life was against the law on Earth. They probably wouldn’t let anyone come or go without some pass. And the taxes. Every bubble she’d been in, the taxes were either minimal or not at all. Once the Blues came they would take it all. Everything they could fleece without gutting the sheep itself. And that was just as a kindness, by rights the government would own everything, and whatever they didn’t tax would be a ‘cost’ or a ‘waste’ or a ‘sacrifice’ or an enlightened ‘abstinence’ which they would seek to reduce to as little as possible. Wherever Lucinda had been she’d found things she didn’t like, but all of a sudden she resented anyone changing any of them. She felt like they were all her favorite governments she’d ever known, that she’d do anything to keep them. She was burning with loyalty for every wrong-headed and self-destructive utopia that Mars had ever made. She was willing to lay down her life for any of them, she loved them all so much. She felt like a mother protecting her babies, only she hardly knew any of them, all she knew was that they were her babies. Or maybe they were her mother, and she was the baby holding on to their skirts and crying for mother to not let them take her away. All she knew was that the Blues were going to steal her life from her and she would never get to live it ever again.
From here on her entire life would be planned out for her by some politicians wielding their all-powerful majority, and if she didn’t like any part of it, well, there was the gun muzzle that would ask her to think again. Why bother? She’d just become one more machine in their factory, their people factory, every person a cog or belt or gear that went through its pre-ordained steps in order to produce the single product, the single goal of the single power, the ‘model citizen.’ Which model would she be? #34928? Or maybe #481-9384083. How many numbers did each Blue have to go by? Which serial number would they stamp on her neck, to work as their virtuous machine in the production of their virtuous mecha-world? She wouldn’t do it. She’d rather die while she still knew what life was. Well, not that she really knew what life was, she hadn’t even been kissed yet. She’d never had a job or a mission or a task that had justified her existence, that had paid back anyone for all they had invested in her. She had never known what it was like to be two people instead of one. Or seen the faces of the children that shined with both those people as one. The Blues wouldn’t even let her choose who she married, there were all sorts of restrictions there. Age, number, sex. And her kids weren’t her choice either. The number was decided by the government. Their genes weren’t allowed to be tampered with, except the genes that were always edited out, that the government felt should be. And she could only teach them the way of life and truth and morals that the government agreed with. Or else she’d be interfering with their ‘mental health and their ability to function in society.’ She could just see the lawsuits that would fly under their own power through her windows and doors for every wrong thing she did to herself or with herself or to her lover or with her lover or to her children or with her children. They left nothing unregulated, nothing unmandated. They always knew better and it was always too important to keep the factory going to allow her to get her own life wrong. After all, she didn’t belong to herself, she belonged to the community. The community couldn’t afford her messing herself up, that would hurt them all. In self defense the community would have to make her work hard and be good and think right, because the welfare of the whole depended on its parts. She stared at her own picture on her plastic identity card and tried not to cry.
“There now,” A girl put her hand on Lucinda’s back. Lucinda had been curling into a ball in her chair and only now realized others had noticed. Every time she tried to be strong or brave or good she would end up crying and helpless and needy. It only made her cry harder.
“It’s not all bad, you know. Even once they get here, it will take them some time to set things up, to out-populate us by enough that they’re willing to risk taking over. Why, we could still have a year left, two years. It isn’t the end of the world. It’ll be like it hasn’t even happened.” Other women clustered around and agreed, getting their own courage up by comforting the least courageous.
“That’s right, and they can’t stop us from living alone.” Another woman came in. Lucinda still hadn’t looked up to see them, but her back had relaxed against the hand that touched it. “Even if we live in the same place as men, they can’t make us live with them. All our bubbles will still exist in the space where it counts, in the spaces we make with our own minds and our own bonds. They can’t make laws against that.”
“But they will take away our children!” Another cried, the support group spontaneously emerging.
“They will take away our jobs! The men will rule in everything again!”
“Not everything. Only what they can see and touch. There’s so much more to us they can never know or have or take. Every shell they take from the outside, we can just grow another shell deeper inside. Like Russian dolls, they can take off the bigger versions, but then there’s a smaller version, one just as exquisite and just as detailed, every part they seize, that will just make another part of us they can’t seize, as special and beautiful as the last.”
Lucinda smiled. Something sacred again. Everyone cherishing something sacred, whatever it was. It made her love life every time she saw it. Love Man. Then she laughed, because it was funny. Her loving mankind because of what an Amazon said. If she had thought out loud they would have been furious. It made her laugh again.
“Ahh! There’s our cherub. Come on, won’t you at least let us see your face?”
Lucinda brushed at the dirty streaks on her face. “I’m okay now. Thank you.” She didn’t know how anything was okay, or how anything was better than before. But somehow now she felt better about it, because it was being shared.
Wherein Mars Splits Apart
Roland stared at the wall listlessly. Meaningless memories wouldn’t leave him alone. “What’s in a month?” The gatekeeper had asked. And Roland had thought, a month was forever. Who knew what could happen in a month? Now he knew. Mars could be invaded and conquered by Blues in a month, their entire civilization could be swept away, and Isolde could leave him in order to try to kill millions of people and get herself killed in the meantime. In a month his entire life could go from everything to nothing. He’d never even gotten to tell her, what he’d figured out on his walk. She didn’t even know. Just when he was sure there was nothing left that could divide them ever again, a couple hours later, it turned out it was all so fragile, that one argument, one disagreement, one intellectual stance, was enough to destroy it all. What fools these mortals be. The course of true love never did run smooth. Et tu, Brute? To be or not to be, that is the question. . .Roland wasn’t even sure what he was thinking. He had just packed his brain with so many applicable quotes that leaving his mind empty, words just streamed in and through on their own. He was sure a part of his brain connected them somehow to each other. He knew everything. He just didn’t know what use any of it was. He hadn’t known how to keep Isolde. Two stages of survival, natural selection and sexual selection. Without Isolde he was still a failure, no matter how long he lived. A defect. Geometric rate of reproduction, overpopulation, struggle of life, competition, destruction and extinction, efficiency and evolution. At least he knew that his useless life and death would be for the greater good. But I shall lose my arm, what of it? But I shall lose my head? What of it? Is your head so precious? If someone took his Isolde, obviously he needed her more anyway, so it is no matter to him, now he could learn how to live without her. Stoa, Stoa, you ask too much. All of virtue can be reduced to this, it is better to suffer evil than to cause it. Yes, Plato, if I were Stoa. But even I have limits, how much must I suffer? Why can’t I share the load? Is it my duty alone to suffer? Nothing in excess. As if I could choose what I receive, Aristotle. I am Boetheus in his prison, and the only consolation of philosophy is that my pain is meaningless and should be overcome. How easy to demand, and yet am I not human? Prick me, do I not bleed? Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. Naked I was born, naked I shall be put into the grave, I have neither gained nor lost. Ye, though I shall be in the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me. . .He knew everything, every reason why his pain was meaningless and to be overcome. But all he could do was stare blankly at the blank wall of Xiangi. It was the next bubble in the tour. He thought maybe she would be waiting here and changed her mind or something. It was all he had to go with. But he knew from the start she wouldn’t be here. Just going through the motions of living. Cartesian automatons. Pascal’s bargain, if he was wrong, and Isolde wasn’t here, what loss? But if she was here, everything to gain. Thus uncertainty does not stop action. . .multiply cost and benefit by probability of each side. . .calculable choices, everything could be settled with simple arithmetic. . .Isolde, you have taken too much, leave me something, I must have something left to hold onto. . .
The flute made sounds when she blew into it. Lonely sounds. They played for as long as she breathed, trailed away. Another note would come a little later, alone, drawn out, passing away. Isolde watched herself in the mirror and gave up. She wiped the flute carefully and returned it to its box. It was like all her synapses and sinews had been disconnected, she couldn’t put the pieces back together again. Everything was out of place and on its own. She couldn’t think of more than one note at a time. She couldn’t move more than one piece of her body at a time. The rest was just too much effort. She felt incredibly weak. Like she couldn’t hold up the slightest of weights. That standing was a monumental effort. All her muscles had left her. What else could she have done? Well? What else? He said it himself. So you’re unhappy, who cares? What difference does it make? Her emotions were just getting in the way. They didn’t understand. They didn’t understand that love was just a trifle, a nothing, a bauble, loves were created and destroyed at random, they were just chemicals and electricity, pheromones that wandered through the air. Her love didn’t understand that none of that mattered once two people disagreed. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Who knows? Time to fight a war over it. Who really won that soccer match? Who knows? Let’s fight a war over it. Love and hate were puny things. Pathetic little objects for little people. Agreement and disagreement shook the pillars of heaven. Agreement and disagreement could rend apart hearts and souls and peoples and nations like so much cheap cloth. Should we go to this movie or that? Agreement, there is unity and happiness. Disagreement, separation and suffering. What’s love got to do with it? Roland had disagreed with her, what else did it matter? That was the end. No bond could survive a disagreement. Theories and opinions and likes and beliefs and faiths, they were the true powers of the world. They were the lightnings and the earthquakes and the floods that could overturn anything and destroy anyone. Before them all things fell, all emotions fled in panic and despair. There was no escaping the sovereignty of these kings. There could be no diplomacy with them. They controlled everything, and if anything got in the way, then. . .God help them, for no other power could possibly hope to win. Not that God would, since most beliefs were centered on which God was right, or what God thought, or if there was one, and not even God was stronger than Himself. . . Isolde sighed. So strange. For five years they had managed to agree about everything important, more or less. Then one disagreement was enough to trump all the rest. Why was there no balance? If we disagreed about everything, but then agreed about one thing, would that bring us together? Surely not. Disagreement owned the world. Surely she didn’t hope to find someone who agreed with her about everything? Yes. What else could she hope for? Insofar as someone disagreed with her, that person was her enemy, and they were seeking each other’s destruction, in all that they did. There was a silent war between everyone who disagreed with everyone, all of them trying to choke each other out. Sometimes not even silent. But always a war. If one person disagreed with her about one thing, both of them would still be out to destroy each other, over just that one thing. So that they could create an entire world of agreers. The one goal everyone shared was the will to power, the power to impose their values on others. Until then, choke the rest out, kill where you have the strength, persuade where you don’t, ostracize who you can’t persuade. At the altar of disagreement, the need for domination could only be satisfied by a corresponding human submission. The blood must keep flowing day and night, without end, the god was too hungry for it to ever stop. Nothing and no one can be spared, until one person has absolute power and can make a universe of agreers, until then, the blood shall not stop, the god will feast upon all the living, not one shall escape. And her heart, her love, was supposed to oppose that? Ridiculous. Love couldn’t change the rules of the game, it couldn’t overthrow the nature of life. Love was as much a sacrifice as peace or prosperity or freedom or beauty. All of it must be burnt on the bonfire to heaven, the more wondrous and special the feeling the greater the demand it be sacrificed. Disagreement would not be bound. It would devour everyone until there was nothing left, and then demand more. Any love she created would only be taken for the greater glory of disagreement. Nothing was to be kept for herself. A soul tax of one hundred percent.
The TV made a little tune and flashed red. Isolde watched it blankly. It was that or the mirror, at least this screen moved around and changed colors. “This is an important announcement coming from the Ruler of Minsk. It has been forwarded to all major news operators and sent by Spindle directly to all the nations of Earth. It reads as follows, “After serious deliberation, the people of Minsk have decided to break all ties with Martians who are not willing to defend themselves from this unprovoked invasion of our sovereign territory. We encourage all loyal and patriotic lovers of freedom on Mars to join their banners to ours. We shall fly a red flag over our bubble, and our stance and party and creed is one word: Anti-federalists. All those who live in bubbles who will not rise to the defense of their fatherland, we call upon you to emigrate to the bubbles that shall, and if none but ours, we call upon you then to come to our bubble. This is a matter beyond all of our distinctions and divisions, this is a monster who will spare none and devour us all, all of Mars is at risk and all Martians must come to its defense. There are no longer any divisions between us, we are all fellow Reds. And Earth should know, that if it does not call back its invasion fleet, that we shall do anything and everything within our means to repulse them, and deter any further assaults on our shores, if the destruction of Earth itself is necessary. War shall continue between us until their unprovoked assault is withdrawn, or one or the other of our planets is destroyed. We ask all freedom loving Blues and clear thinkers, if such a war should be sought with a people who have never done any wrong to anyone from the very beginning of its existence until now. We ask all governments if such a war shall truly prove beneficial to the people they represent, or if it comes at too high a cost to us all. We ask all humans what is the more humane course of action, this despoiling of our land and people accompanied with tremendous slaughter on all sides, or the peace and harmony that have existed between our worlds for over a hundred years. Do not think that because we are small we have no sting. If Earth is so brimming over with people, there will be no need for colonization, we can relieve you of them easily and decisively. Consider it a gesture of friendly cooperation in these hard times. All the blood that shall spill on all sides remains on your hands, remember that.”
Isolde watched from the bubble of Smyrna in a sort of fearful rejoicing. She quickly found out where Minsk was. Too far away to reach in a day. She would have to find a couple spots inbetween. That was alright. She could try to bring them over as well. Red flags should be flying over every dome. She would do her part. She didn’t let herself think of the sick joke they had made. It emboldened her. It made her feel like she was above everything, that they could do anything, that all bonds had been loosed that even mass obliteration could be laughed over. If these people counted life and death a giant joke, then how strong they must be! How hard her heart would be alongside them! She had not asked for this war, but she would win it, and any strength that came from any source, dark or light, was her right to use. Outside a rising storm of voices shouted out various words: “Red sweaters! Red shirts! Red dresses! Red pants! Let us fly our flag! The flag of Mars! Let us fly the flag of War! The red flag! The red flag! The flag of war! The flag of Mars!” Isolde heard it and smiled, a light in her eyes. The Blues had stolen everything important from her, scattered her dreams and plowed under her hopes. Now let them taste some part of that pain.
Lucinda had been taken in by an elderly woman, by name of Sofia, who seemed to have some power in the politics of the city. She and a circle of advisers or confederates had been sitting in a circle and talking, while Lucinda just watched. There wasn’t much shrift given to people who said pointless or stupid things. Everyone was contributing their voice in a business-like and professional manner. Airheads, be they ever so flashy or vocal or pretty, did not in the least affect the direction of the conversation. It was left to the grave dowagers and the plain-speaking realists to truly form a consensus of what might work. These women were trying to find out how to maintain their colony within a new overarching government. How to obey while remaining free. It wasn’t a time for girls to upstage each other or show off. Then the newscast had come on. Some people outright cheered at the end of the speech. Some laughed at the ending joke. Most of them looked at it with quiet, dying expressions. They were helpless to stop it now. Face after face shuttered itself inwardly, curled into a small ball, and gave up now that fate had run its course. Lucinda extorted a small wavering smile on her lips so as not to be called out by the excited ones or made an outsider by those willing to follow the excited ones, for lack of the will to resist whoever wished to lead anymore. But her stomach felt like it had collapsed inside her. It was just too horrible. There had to be a better way than this. Maybe if they threatened enough, the Blues would back down. Maybe that’s why they had said such terrible things. Pretend to be insane enough to destroy humanity to preserve yourself, and nobody would dare touch you again. That had to be it. No one could actually say a war would last until a planet was destroyed. . .no war could really be willing to lose that much rather than just surrender. . .and yet, Minsk was on the right. Minsk was simply brave enough to do something about it while the rest had been sitting around like frozen deer in headlights. Maybe they knew what they were doing, maybe they did have a solution, but they needed our help. They were saying these things to rally us to the cause, it took bellicose speech to really get people’s attention. That was all. A psychological insight. They wouldn’t really try to kill everyone on Earth.
“Lucinda, you’ve been so quiet. Have you heard a word we’ve spoken to you?” One of the women who had laughed in delight prodded.
“Oh.” She blushed. “No, I’m sorry. What were you saying?”
“The red flag! Do you want to hoist the red flag!” Lucinda’s stomach churned. Yes, Minsk was right, this was about their freedom. . .but not this. . .always blood and killing. How many of them had seen someone die? Had watched their loved one run himself onto a sword just to cut off his enemy’s head? How many of them had seen a lover’s blood or a widow’s tears? And that was just one person. Just one death. It was too horrible then. But this was even more horrible. She couldn’t even imagine the number of people who would die for this. Was there ever a justification for so much blood?
“I don’t know.” She finally whispered. “I don’t know. I wish there was some other way.”
“Oh, sweetheart. We all wish there was another way.” The rest of the crowd agreed sympathetically. But Lucinda saw from their faces that she was the only one who hoped any longer that there was one.
“But one way or another they’ll drive us out of our land and to the very margins of existence. We have to make our stand somewhere! Let’s not be the only people in history who aren’t willing to defend ourselves. Let’s not fall behind the men in courage enough to stand up for ourselves! Let no one on Earth or Mars tell us that we women were too weak and soft to live our lives alone and as we pleased! We were strong enough to create this vision, we were strong enough to maintain it, but what is any of that, if we aren’t strong enough to defend it? In the end the only language Blues have ever known is the sword, and so it’s the only language we have left to speak with. I for one will not be silenced while I’ve still a heart and lungs to speak with. Men will never silence us again short of the very grave.” The rest of the women cheered. Lucinda tried to curl up into a ball and keep a smile on her face. The women were already too caught up with themselves to argue longer, they ran out the door and into the streets, joining the fray of women seeking all things red to hoist into the air. God help us. Lucinda prayed. God help us, if you’ve never felt the need to help us before. Save us all from this. We can’t afford a war like this. Please, God, don’t let this be our Armageddon. We’re so close to getting it right. We were so close to living the best of lives. We’ve been improving so much. Spare us just a little longer, and we’ll show you such great things. . .Don’t let this war be fought. . .you can’t let this happen and be our God. . .please. . .if you’re there. . .I need you. Help me find a way. Help us find a way to save both Blues and Reds.
The newscast flashed back on. “An important announcement from the city of Xiangi, in response to the rebellion of Minsk: “The people of Xiangi reject this ill thought out and despicable declaration of war by the people of Minsk. They ask for all clear thinking Martians to consider the incredible risk Minsk has put us in with this message, and call upon all people of Earth to know that we are not like them. The people of Earth must know that most Martians are lovers of peace and good will, wishing no harm to anyone. This band of rogues does not speak for Mars. We plead with all Blues to not judge us all by their example, and condemn us all to the same fate. The people of Xiangi are prepared to work with all the Blues who arrive for a peaceful settlement and cooperation between all of us searching for a better future. As proof of our solidarity with the people of Earth, we have flown a blue flag over our bubble. We ask all sane and clear thinking Martians to do the same, and reject this appeal to brutality and war which can gain nothing for either of our peoples! We will not stand by and allow Martians to usurp our names and our lives and say with our voice such terrible and destructive wishes. If the people of Minsk and any who follow in their wake truly intend to bring a full destruction on the heads of either Earth or Mars, then we must all know which planet shall fall. And knowing this, all Martians must reject Minsk’s view, the view that will end with the death of us all. The people of Xiangi are willing for the defense of our own lives to march on Minsk itself to avert this doomed war with Earth. We shall fight a war ourselves for our preservation, we shall not be dragged into this conflict by bloodthirsty people who do not reflect any values of any other bubble on this world. If they are anti-federalists, then we are anti-anti-federalists. As frightful as that may seem, the alternative they’ve given us is so terrible that we can do nothing but stand opposite them. We must come together and gather in sufficient strength to bring these rebels to hand, it is for the safety of us all that we must win this war before Earth fights it in their own way.”
Lucinda was probably the only person watching in the bubble. A war to prevent a war. . .everyone has gone insane. . .
Clash of the Characters
When Roland woke up, refreshed and revived from what seemed some sort of illness, Xiangi was brimming over with people. He couldn’t truly remember how long he had been here, whether a day or two or three, or whether he had eaten in any of those possible days. He felt better to have an immediate and easily attainable goal to achieve, and got dressed and primped to go out for breakfast. The moment he stepped outside the outside energy and air gave new vitality to his actions. So he was alone again, well, he had started off alone, and he hadn’t been miserable then. It was just back to neutral, to the ground state, to a blank slate. Nothing bad had happened at all. Only zero, that was hardly such a disaster. So he was back to zero, well, time to move on up to one then. And then he could reach two maybe. It was just a matter of starting over. He had given up everything to fight this war, he couldn’t let the loss of everything stop him from fighting it. No, it was time to live again. There was no shortage of things he could still do, that still needed doing. He hadn’t always needed her, and yet he had always been himself, so he could be himself now too. As he walked he tried to recall what had happened the past few days and why he had wished to visit Xiangi in the first place. He wanted to have a purpose outside of Isolde, having nothing to do with her or where she was or what she was doing. It was good thinking about something else for the first time in days of pure fevered self-destruction.
Martians who were so used to thinking with their feet and moving to the Bubble they agreed with had come from everywhere, as though springing from the very ground or raining out of the sky. Impromptu blue rallies went through the streets unceasingly, all the day and night. Blue flags sprouted ex nihilo onto all the terraces and over all the plazas in the city. Police armaments were drained dry long before the people’s wish for arms was met. The call for weapons went throughout all their allied states, the few militantly disposed bubbles becoming the most powerful in the world overnight. The guns all Martians had derided and mocked with their mother’s milk were now looked to as saints and saviors of the world. The time between when Roland went to sleep and when he woke up had transformed this small community into the nexus of half the world. The people of Xiangi had been neo-communists. They had rejected all the force, all the state control, that had made slaves out of the Communists of the past in the most horrifying spectacle of the 20th century. All they had wanted was an inviolate limit to the division of the means of subsistence. Every single person, they maintained, had the right to enough capital, in land, or farm animals, or technical skills, or whatever was most efficient, that they could sustain themselves and their families freely and on their own. This innate wealth was provided by the State, the wealth that allowed people to create wealth, without which they were helpless to the predations of any employer under any contract whatsoever. In the barbaric centuries of the past John Doe’s right to employ himself was his first and only defense against the abuses of the employments of others, because once his life and the life of his family depended on the caprice of another, he could do nothing but accept any terms the employer set. Any wage the employer wished. Any working conditions. Any length of hours a day. Any shelter. Any food. The pay didn’t even have to be enough to keep John alive, it only had to be enough to keep him alive long enough to hire someone else equally helpless and equally impotent to stop his own destruction. So long as this innate right to enough capital to sustain oneself by their own employment was denied, Xiangi argued, a permanent underclass was created, self-perpetuating, of misery, crime, chaos, poverty, slavery, war, and hatred. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Nobody should have such a monopoly of capital that they have absolute power over another man’s ability to subsist, such that whether they are ‘free’ legally is meaningless as they are legally all enslaved. It devoured the humanity of the rich, turning them into tigers and wolves that feasted on the flesh of their fellow man. Not only physically, but spiritually, turning people into aristocrats who asserted a natural right to dominate and consume and destroy all those beneath them, as though the rest of mankind was their capital, and they alone were rational beings with meaning and value to their lives. And it devoured the humanity of the poor, who had no time to think or even exist beyond their fatigue and their hunger and their three hours of sleep before work began anew. Without any special moments, any happiness, any redeeming spectacles in their life, all of it became an unfocused rage, a snarling morass of pain and frustration, hopelessness and fury, despair and hatred. And after all this, there were no humans left to either side, just animals who hated and despised each other, and tore out each other’s throats, or wished to, every moment of their lives.
Not to say that the rest of Mars and Earth was a snarling pit of wolves and vipers, simply because they didn’t assert a lower limit to poverty and property that could not be breached. Their conservatism provided a safe harbor for the poor and the unfortunate that the rest of Mars had no time for, and the rest of Mars’ liberalism gave the overburdened or under appreciated in Xiangi the chance to leave for greener shores. As at odds as Xiangi’s beliefs were with its neighbors, its policies actually worked together with all the others. Xiangi was the first to prove that they were not radicals at all, that in truth they were simply admitting the principle upon which all modern nations now worked, that all nations sought to follow, by giving free education, enormous loans, scholarships, unemployment benefits, subsidies, self-help books, church charities—basically as much help as they could possibly give to people so that they could help themselves. Xiangi had simply taken that muddled mass of half-thought-out ideas and half-recognized realities and established it once and for all. And to their credit, it worked. Those who worked for others had high benefits and high salaries, because they had to be better than what people could get working for themselves. And those who worked for themselves managed to do so in jobs with low overhead and frugal living, such as simple things like daycare, care for seniors, farming, the arts, hand-made knickknacks, and so on. Many people didn’t even work for money at all, producing everything they needed for themselves out of the land and animals they lived with, wishing for nothing more, and indifferent to the workings of the world. Except that in the course of a day, that city had vanished entirely. Xiangi was no longer the communist bubble, Xiangi was the Federalist bubble, and that bubble had an entirely different set of beliefs and priorities. The communists who woke up that morning to the waving of blue flags and raiding of arms depots no longer owned their ideology. Like the rest of the bubbles which had so carefully worked out their own vision for their own people, it all became a simple question of red or blue. There was only one identity left, only one belief worth fighting over, one option, one choice, preserved, from the days of ‘do as thou wilt.’ A month before a colony ship had even landed from Earth, Mars had already disappeared.
When Roland walked into the streets on his way for food, he was alternatively hugged or interrogated or cheered or threatened by everyone he passed. None were content to let people go about their business any longer. What Roland thought was now vital to everyone who saw him. What Roland felt was the principal priority of anyone he encountered on his walk. He could not go another foot without restating that he was a Blue. They wouldn’t let him go another foot until he did. The governments of Earth all being Federal, and the enemies being anti-federal, the Martians who had sided with Earth were stuck with the title as well. But as people kept flooding in, and more and more people angrily stated their definition of federalism, it was apparent that the only true bond these people shared was the wish to destroy the anti-federalists, and if that ever happened, they would quickly disintegrate themselves. Roland sighed, because he was stuck agreeing with them. The anti-federalists did have to be destroyed, above all, for their own survival. It just irked him that the people he stood beside were acting more like crazed animals than humans, full of passion, anger, curses, vows, storm and stress. Yes, let there be war, yes, let us kill them to the last or until they surrender, but there was no reason to get angry about it. There was no reason to feel anything about it, or treat it like some personal affront. It was simple arithmetic. If war is what has to be done, let’s go do it, and when it’s over, we can go do something else, whatever else is next most important. Fighting the anti-federalists was just as natural as getting breakfast, nobody cursed out the eggs they were eating or broke the table it was being served on. Let’s eat our eggs, fine, but we don’t have to rip them apart with our teeth face first, snarling and snapping at everyone nearby. Let’s just eat them and be done with it.
“I’m sorry sir, but that’s no longer the price for our breakfast. In light of the increased demand, we’ve had to raise our prices and we haven’t had time to change the menus.”
Roland sighed. It was going to be a long day. “Alright, what price are ham and eggs?”
“Two hundred and fifty pilars.” The waiter said with a straight face. Roland choked on his water. “You can’t be serious--! Is this the anti-capitalist-exploiters-bubble or not? That’s enough to buy food for a month, and you want it for breakfast!”
“Capitalism and Communism were only set in opposition to each other by dimwits, if I may say so sir. The law of supply and demand is absolutely unalterable, and if you go against it, it will show you who is stronger. The law of proportional wealth is just as natural and just as superior to any efforts against it. Economic freedom and justice can’t be separated, it’s justice that gives us freedom, and freedom that makes justice just.” Roland blinked. Did all waiters here lecture their customers? Or just the really stupid customers who offended them?
“Then I guess I’ll pay two hundred and fifty pilars. . .” Roland shook his head. Think of it as a contribution to the cause. Besides, Roland had a sneaking suspicion that Martian money wasn’t going to be worth much in a very short while anyway, so he might as well use it while it could still buy breakfast. Hell, he might as well use it while he was still alive. They were all about to be nuked to oblivion by Earth anyway. That had been the message they received this morning. One sentence. “If one colonist is hurt the governments of Earth will obliterate you.” The diplomacy of the motherland seemed to have been raised on blood and iron instead of the flowery speeches Martians were so used to giving each other. Mars had no idea what it was dealing with. What humanity had become while they were gone. How desperate Earth was, and how utterly little they concerned themselves with the lives of individuals rather than populations. Earth could soak up any number of casualties Mars could hope to cause and not even feel the difference, or even feel the better for it. Earth had nothing to lose, because Earth could care less about who was lost. As defiant as the Reds were, Roland hoped the severity of the response would put some sense into them. This was a war they could not win. Thus it was a war that should not be fought. No matter how right or just or honorable it was, fighting a war solely for the sake of carnage, without any hope of victory, was sheer devilry. The Reds had to see that. Surely their pride wasn’t enough to commit mass suicide and mass murder for nothing.
“It’s about time this confederacy became a nation anyway.” A nearby argument rose above all the others in volume and intensity. “The money supply is at the permanent mercy of anybody who wishes to counterfeit it. How can every bubble have their own mint without using it to print out all the money for their people they wish, at the expense of all the rest? And what about the environment, can we let one bubble decide to irradiate or poison or pollute the entire globe for their own personal gain? Should one bubble if it’s just fast enough be able to strip the air and the ground of all the valuable minerals and laugh at us when we want our fair share? And look at these anti-federalists! Should we let a single bubble conduct foreign policy, declare war, make trade agreements, or spy on the rest of us and sell all our secrets, amass weapons of mass destruction, build up armies that endanger us all? There has to be some order and reason, some organization and responsibility, to how we deal with other nations! This is just insanity. Look how without any central organization of force banditti can just roam freely across the land, destroying any small or weak or poorly organized bubble without any check or any deterrence. Hundreds of thousands of murderous thugs wander around without any fear, guilt, or shame, and not one bubble feels it’s worth their while to waste all their resources trying to stop them. We all just try to be a little bit of a harder target than the others, so that only the softest bubble will be destroyed. If we just cooperated, it would only take a tiny amount of money and men from each of us to make an army strong enough to destroy them! And what of all the fugitives who commit any heinous act they can think of and then leave without even a moment of fear of being caught, simply walk out the front door without any comment or notice by anyone, to make their new lives, or join the bandits, or sneak into some other bubble with some new name. Is there any way to stop them when the Rule of Law ends at the rim of each city? The truth is humanity can’t be free, it’s not responsible enough to be. We must have an army and police and courts and laws and eyes and ears everywhere, watching everything people do, just to keep them from devouring each other. Only fear saves us from each other, and that requires some Ruler to be feared!”
“Now you’ve gone too far, Jacques.” The other person finally interrupted. “I admit Mars has difficulties cooperating when cooperating would truly benefit everyone, but that’s not so bad when you think of how many times evil people are kept from cooperating to benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else using the same means. The worst criminals of all time have never been the thugs and the brutes, they’ve always been the rulers and the powerful, the warlords and the kings, the Fuhrers and the Comrades. The truth is humanity does not dare give any of its members power because so few people won’t use it. Unless you are the supreme dictator of the world, and you get to create this benign World Rule where we cooperate about things that affect us all and help us all, I doubt you’d be happy with the result of your ‘Ruler to be feared.’ If it’s anyone else, you can be sure they’ll have a different idea of what the best of worlds is, and it will have something to do with you giving over all your wealth and all your freedom. But okay, to address your points: Because we each live in sealed environment, unlike Earth, governing how others treat the environment isn’t necessary. And because all of us so far have followed the responsible rules of neither inflating nor deflating the currency, because none of us have anything to gain by it—remember! The free immigration of all and emigration to all! Suppose one bubble printed out twice as much money, would the people there prosper? Of course not! Immigrants would flock to the land of free money, and all of a sudden all of Mars would be trying to squeeze into the plastic, none of the people who concocted the scheme would be any better off than before. It’s the same with some enterprising bubble that mines out all the wealth of Mars for itself. What is itself? The people there invariably will move off to other bubbles, taking their wealth with them. Or people will see their wealth and wish to join in it, and suddenly itself will be everyone again. As for the bandits and fugitives, we’ve decided that the cost of their existence is less than the cost of stopping them. Maybe we’re wrong in that, but once some army is strong enough to crush those bandits, it would also be strong enough to crush us, any bubble it pleased, any number of bubbles it pleased, and once that army is made, and under the control of some General, we have no idea what he might do with it. Better an untrained, undisciplined, band of marauding pirates, then a trained, disciplined, well-armed, well-paid army under some single master which no bribes or flatteries can break apart—just think of that scenario for a while. The Republic fell when the citizenry no longer made up the legions of Rome and the Senate no longer paid for them. At that moment armies became the loyal retainers of marauding lords who lived off plunder and spoil—sometimes outside the borders of Rome, sometimes inside, until eventually a Caesar defeated all the other marauding armies and became the legitimate, eternal plunderer of Rome. Right now we have citizen militias paid for by citizens and directed by citizens, and right now we are all free, the freest people history has ever recorded. The cost might be high, but I’d rather brave that price, than trust in some warlord king to be given power in Gaul and not cross the Rubicon. Once this war is over, the federation must end as well, or we’ve fought for nothing but our own enslavement.”
As impassioned as Jacques was, he had given his friend his full attention without interruption before rallying his own forces. “There have been free people who nevertheless were part of a single nation under a single law and protected by an army with a single head. It all depends on the details of the arrangement. Yes, things can go wrong, yes, people can be corrupt, but that’s why we have brains, we can think through these problems, we can overcome them. They aren’t essential to governing, they are just independent evils that attach themselves to government like remoras and go along for the ride. But the sort of stuff I’m talking about, that’s just pure human nature. Those aren’t abuses of anarchy, that’s just what anarchy IS. Everyone is in it for themselves, and they’ll seize any advantage they can get away with, even though it’s harmful overall. The only way we’ll ever make a really good world is to live under a good system. Just because systems can be awful if they’re not set up right, doesn’t mean no system at all is better. Just think about it, all of human history, all the great progress ever made, was made by people in a system. Some pretty awful systems, and yet we still moved forward. How can you say that we’d fall back into barbarism when it was this very barbarism which has created the world today? So Earth screwed up somewhere down the line, well, people make mistakes. It doesn’t mean we all have to forever.”
“The only way to make a good world is to make good people. Then we wouldn’t need any system at all. Systems were well and good for humanity when we were children who needed authority and rules set up to take care of us, because we couldn’t take care of ourselves. But we’re past that now, we’ve finally reached our maturity, where we can take care of ourselves, assign rules to ourselves, bind ourselves to a proper way of living. Earth is still crawling around their sandbox making castles with all their nations and wars, we are the advancers, the progressors of humanity now. That’s why it’s our duty to uplift the people who come here. We can show them how to live, from the inside out, we can show them that we really can escape the law of the gun. Whether it takes a hundred years, two hundred, whatever the case, the more people who come here, the more Martians we can make of them, the more they’ll dust off all their Blue ways, and see for themselves how truly great they can become. Because we’re right it’s only a matter of time until they agree with us. They aren’t invading, they’re converts coming to the heart of the Missionary. We couldn’t have asked for a better turn of events.”
Roland finished his breakfast and got up to leave. All of a sudden he felt a lot better about who he was working with.
Isolde arrived at Vincennes late in the night, after a full day’s journey towards Minsk. She tried to keep track of how Mars was splitting with the radio, the ultimatum Earth had given Mars: “If one colonist is hurt the governments of Earth will obliterate you.” Had been broadcast and rebroadcast every hour that day. But Bubbles continued to go Red all the same. Either they didn’t believe Blues had the will, or the ability, or Reds really preferred death to the life they had ahead. The stakes kept rising. There was no chance the Reds wouldn’t try to take as many Blues with them as they could, if the Blues were willing to take all the Reds they could. But she couldn’t bring herself to back down now. If the Blues really were so utterly vicious as to instantly make this a total war, all the more reason to never surrender, never submit, to the world they would make out of Mars.
Isolde continued the course of her thinking like a boulder rolling downhill: If they can so casually kill us now even knowing the cost, think how casually they’ll kill us all later when there is no cost at all, when we’re powerless and defenseless and lost amidst a sea of their own people. Unless they’d think it a lot easier job to kill us all now before we were surrounded by their own people. . .would Earth really encourage a war with us to get all the land and property we have for themselves? How many layers did this have? Earth had their fair share of bigotry and prejudice. Maybe to them, all of our Bubbles with all their unorthodox or sinful or unnatural or radical ways were personal affronts. Maybe lots of Blues really hated it that somewhere, someone was living according to beliefs they did not like, and wanted to kill them. Maybe they were ashamed of themselves because Mars existed in contrast. Maybe they thought their God or Gods didn’t want them to live because Martians were violating His commandments. Who knew how many people the very idea of Mars offended, found intolerable? Maybe all this talk of needing land and resources was just a paper sheet over a yawning abyss of resentment and fervor and jealousy, maybe they’d really come to kill others, not to live themselves. Or at least the governments behind the colonists sent them in order to kill. Or the people pulling the chains behind the scenes of those governments. . .or maybe what’s going on here truly frightens them. Like the cyborgs. Or Minsk itself, the eugenicists. Maybe Earth can’t stop Sao Paolo from seeping into them, so they’ve just come to root Sao Paolo out at the source. Does anyone really know where all the money came from to get all these ships in the air?
Isolde checked through a flurried Gate where the traffic had picked up tremendously due to people joining and leaving the Red side. They did little more than note her sex. She wondered where she could find a place to sleep, or if she would just have to roll out her air mat somewhere. A little pang of camping memories ran through her and she pushed them down. There was nothing she could do about that. All the hotels would surely be full, if the Gate was any indication of the number of transients coming through. There was nothing left but to find some private place to lay down. At least everyone she’d seen was a woman. She wouldn’t have to be afraid of being alone--
Her reverie was interrupted by an impassioned speech from the other side of the hill. “I know it’s okay if I stay here, and I do thank you for everything. I just have to see for myself. I can’t decide by the words, but maybe if I really go to Minsk, I can tell by the faces that say them. Maybe I can decide by their faces. Someone has to be right, after all, if I could just know for myself who!”
“Come, child, ‘judge by their faces’ indeed! Faces! How many false faces people can put on, just so easy as this or that. There are faces and faces people make for themselves, and they deceive themselves most of all. It’s impossible to catch them in lies when they really believe them already! No doubt you will go and find all their faces simply glowing with righteousness, and how will that help you? Surely that’s how they feel, they were the first and foremost to take the lead! If you think they will show some sort of distress or disgust with themselves, far from it! Faces were lying to each other long before languages were spoken, surely, surely. Faces were the first liars of all, and all the harder to catch in the lie for it!”
“Nevertheless, Sofia! I have to see for myself what the ‘heart of it’ is. Maybe if I know who they are, I can guess at why they’ve done it. I just can’t know from their words. If I see them for who they are. . .I have to do something. Please, even if it’s all worthless, I can’t just stand here and watch this happening. . .”
Isolde found the debaters as they walked towards the gate. The words approached nearer until they had almost come upon her. They unfolded into people, one old woman with a gentle look and a tired contentment of having accomplished all she had expected of herself in her life. And one young girl, beautiful, her face trembling with the emotion of repressed tears, surely of frustration for not being understood. It must be terribly lonely to have an emotion that nobody else can even understand much less share, this emotion of desperation, this still urgent need to escape her fate. Like a martyr who still fought against her ropes and dodged the lion’s maws. Well, perhaps a martyr wouldn’t fight against her ropes. But then, she was no prisoner wishing to escape her execution, her face was far too pure for that comparison. And, well, what other people are killed? Isolde had almost confused herself to the point that they had walked by without interruption.
“Excuse me, I couldn’t help but hear—“ Isolde caught the two as they walked past, so intent on the argument that they hadn’t even looked her way before. The two looked up, startled, but both with compassion and attention, neither annoyed by a stranger or an interruption. Isolde wondered for a moment if one was the other’s grandmother, or some relation. Or if two kind people can do nothing but act the same way, that is, kindly, under the same circumstances. There she was, disrupting herself again. “I mean, that you were going to Minsk. And I’m going to Minsk too, it’s not enough to be there with half a heart, I mean, I want to be in the very center of it. . .except that I was tired and would start back tomorrow, but if you’re going now, would you mind if I came too? The sooner the better, so much is happening even now!”
“Well of course, if you want me to hire a car for you, I can pay for yours too.” The younger girl answered. She smiled and forgot her own cares for the moment, her almost tears quite banished back into her eyes.
“Don’t be silly, Lucinda. She’s hired a car this whole way, she doesn’t need a car, she needs company, she’s just too bashful to ask you, isn’t that right?” The grandmother smiled as Isolde blushed in admission with triumphant wisdom. Lucinda blushed as well to have been so impolite in reply.
“It must seem abrupt when we’re such strangers, but surely, if you’re leaving all on your own, well, you’ll be surrounded by strangers either way, so why not meet me first? I’d rather have someone to be with when I arrive than try to find some niche out of what I find. . .” Isolde tried to explain, really she hadn’t even thought of finding company along the way. But the girl had spoken with such an earnest heart and was so kind that Isolde all of a sudden did want company, her company. She was lonely, but only lonely for someone like her. That first impression had gone a long way to put some sort of balm on the pain that was bleeding under the very thinnest of scars. Even her reticence reminded Isolde a little of Roland, even her unwillingness to be Red. Of course it couldn’t be the same, but just thinking about it Isolde hurt worse than ever for someone to talk to, be open with, be understood and. . .even. . .for someone to tell her that what she did was okay, that she hadn’t been unfair. . .she needed someone to reassure her because she simply couldn’t reassure herself.
Lucinda smiled. “You’re right, we would have met as strangers in Minsk, and thought it entirely proper, so why not give us a head start? You see, Sofia, I’ll be fine. She can take care of me from here, right? The big mean city won’t eat me up while you’re gone.”
Sofia smiled and looked at Isolde. “She acts so timid and vulnerable, but I swear she’s the strongest girl I know. Don’t let her lips or chin fool you, just earlier today they were quite enough to hold off our entire circle’s entreaties and persuasions to side with the Reds. Why, she’s even brought some of us back into doubt through sheer mild obstinacy.”
Lucinda rolled her eyes at the praise but didn’t try to controvert her. Isolde noted that closely. It meant Lucinda believed it, but the same meekness she was ascribed wouldn’t let her show she believed it. So assured for such a young girl. Isolde wondered where she came from, what beliefs made this sort of person. Well, she would find out soon enough.
Lucinda and Sofia hugged a tight farewell and then turned to Isolde to walk the rest of the way to the Gate. Isolde rolled up the air mat she had just rolled out with ruefulness and lifted her backpack to her back. She must be setting some record for shortness in her stay here, but then, if the world was going to blow up maybe sleeping could wait a little longer anyway.
“I’m sorry, I still haven’t caught your name. I’m Lucinda.” Lucinda held out her hand with a trusting assurance of being met halfway.
“Isolde.” They shook hands, friends. “Lucinda’s such a pretty name! I wish my parents had thought of it now.”
Lucinda laughed in reply. “But that’s the beauty of Mars! We’re never ever the same.”
Wherein we Reach the ‘Heart of It’
You must recall that all things that happen have an infinitesimal chance of happening, yet there remains a hundred percent chance that something happens. That Isolde and Lucinda met was a very chancy affair. That this story is being told after the fact of their meeting, though, is absolutely assured. So much for this reminder, if that is not enough, perhaps shortly it will make more sense and fall neatly into place. With that we return to our heroines.
The car pulled its way back on to the road, driving itself into the great flow of traffic that even in the night now filled up the highways of Mars, all going as fast as the other cars would allow and without the slightest possibility of error. Isolde and Lucinda were hardly aware of their surroundings outside the car for such confidence in the car’s ability to deal with it. That left them only each other to concentrate on, which was for the best, because that’s what they wanted to do.
Isolde began. “Something you said back there, ‘I have to see for myself’, it struck me. My bubble’s motto is similar, “I will see with unclouded eyes.” I’m from Delphi, you see, we’re the skeptics. Is that where you got it from?”
Lucinda shook her head. “No, but that’s a nice phrase. How does Delphi work?”
Isolde smiled, emboldened by Lucinda’s interest. “We refuse to have an ideal, we believe what we can see and touch and hear and regard the rest as useless chimeras. All suffering stems from these useless imaginings, because they give birth in us to desires beyond our senses, beyond our abilities, and after that we are always doomed to misery. So we stop short, we hold the line, there shall be no wishing for more than we have, we accept Nature’s apportionment of our necessities and our abilities to fulfill them, and throw out the rest as pointless and futile. Gods, demons, politics and religions, witchcraft and sorceries, theories and systems, so much fevered nonsense that plagues almost all of humanity to their dying day. Twisted, broken, miserable and cruel, their lives litter the path of reason and truth to either side, because, they cry from their crippled states, “the path was too narrow, too short, too long, too dusty, too dull,” they each have their own cry for why they left the path and each crippled for having left it, some missing eyes, others ears, some arms, some legs, some hearts, some stomachs, but most are missing brains, they amputated those first of all, because they found them inconvenient.”
Lucinda laughed. “Isn’t that a little harsh though? As you say, that list includes almost everyone, and besides, maybe it is better to believe in great things, even if all they do is hurt you, because at least then there is something Great enough to redeem it.”
“Oh I wasn’t saying Delphi. . .obviously I left Delphi to find something Great. . .well, and here I am on the way to Minsk for something Great, even though I’m perfectly miserable for it. . .so yeah, I just thought, I don’t know. . .I’m still proud of Delphi and I wanted to share it with you.” Isolde stammered. She was tired, and more, she was nervous Lucinda wouldn’t approve of her.
Lucinda smiled. “I think that’s a great city to grow up in. It’s the only one that keeps you free long enough to submit yourself to what you love. And here you have submitted yourself to Minsk, see, but what if you hadn’t started in Delphi? You wouldn’t have had the chance to choose Minsk now. It must have been so nice! Parents who never told you what to do or what to believe. . .wait, do Skeptics even have families?”
Isolde smiled for the praise of her home, which she still felt was home. “Yes! It’s been so long since I thought about them though. I have a mother and a father and lots of brothers and sisters, I’m the second oldest, though, so usually I help take care of my siblings more than, I don’t know, grow up with them. It feels so good, though, everyone loves it when you’re with them and hates it when you’re gone, you feel so useful.”
Lucinda lowered her eyes and blushed in shame, because she didn’t have one good memory of her family or one moment where someone had loved her for being there. All her parents did was yell at her for not doing what they wanted. And what they wanted was for her to take care of herself and everyone else while they sat around drunk or high or stoned. Since they were bigger they could always yell at her until she did, and that was far easier than climbing out of the abyss of their own lives. All she knew of families was that children were their parents’ slaves and the whole of their life together was a long war of oppression versus rebellion. She wondered how she could have been so horrible to make what Isolde talked about into what she had lived through. Surely they hadn’t always hated her, she must have done something, been especially rude or resentful or rebellious. . . Lucinda quickly asked another question to divert herself.
“But are they on Minsk’s side then? Could you really just walk back home?”
Isolde laughed. “Delphi’s not like that. This whole war, all these flags, Delphi won’t pay any attention to it. They won’t have decided anything about it, it’s got nothing to do with them, they’ll worry about it when they see it, until then, let Nature run its course. I could go home and instead of all these angers and fears they would just be happy to see me and we would eat dinner together. I’d help mother cook dinner, we’re really good cooks, everyone says so, and it’s so fun seeing how happy I can make everyone when it’s really no trouble at all.”
“That must be so nice.” Lucinda said, so that she could have something to say while her mind kept turning. Cooking together with her mom? Mother would have shouted at her the moment she burnt the bread or spilled the batter or let the water boil over, which she would’ve managed instantly, out of terror that she’d mess up and get shouted at. Then she would’ve broken down into tears like she always did, and then Mother would ignore her and tell her to go cry somewhere else because she had no time for such stupid babies. . .
“Lucinda? Are you okay?” Isolde’s tone had changed from happy to anxious in an instant. She could have sworn Lucinda was crying but it was too dark to be sure.
Lucinda sniffed. “I’m sorry. I just always get like this. . .I can’t do anything but cry. I hate it, but I can’t stop it, I just can’t.” Lucinda curled against her knees and tried to hide her face. Isolde hugged her before she had even thought about it, and held her in that quiet way the whole time Lucinda cried until she was quiet again. That may have been ten minutes of silence, but afterwards they were bound together by the strongest friendship. Not from shared pleasure, but shared sorrow.
Lucinda spoke in a timid voice that rang with gratitude. “But how can you say all that, have a home like that, a family like yours, and you said that you were miserable. Didn’t you say that?”
Isolde blinked. She hadn’t thought to talk about that. At least not now. But then she realized with the same amount of surprise that she didn’t mind telling Lucinda why. That she didn’t mind talking to Lucinda about anything, because she already knew it would be received, and valued, and trusted, and not insulted or demeaned. That Lucinda was ready to accept whatever gift someone gave her, that she truly wished for it, the chance to have compassion and sympathy. Isolde thought about it, and it made more sense, how Lucinda hadn’t talked about herself at all, how she kept asking questions to get Isolde to talk more. . .Lucinda wanted to receive her anguish, her doubts, her hopes, her fears, she wanted them because. . .because all Lucinda knew herself must be, must be, anguish and doubts and hopes and fears. . .and that’s the only way she knew how to love others, to connect with them, to share herself. . .was to share that feeling. . .and by letting Isolde know how much she cared for Isolde’s feelings, she was showing her own, but only in return, only in sympathy. Isolde nodded to herself. Explaining Isolde to Lucinda was the only way Lucinda could explain herself to Isolde, and they would understand each other at the same moment, and surely they would love each other at that same moment, because they couldn’t hope but be the same right then. . .and then her heart would stop hurting so very much.
“I. . .when I left Delphi it was with this boy, he’s been my friend ever since we could think. And somewhere in there we loved each other, and we have ever since. I thought we’d love each other forever. His name is Roland.” Isolde paused, tried to negotiate her way, sort out her feelings which completely tangled up after saying that word. “We left together to see if we couldn’t agree about where to live. If we could agree, then, I think we would’ve lived together from there on. He would’ve married me. I mean, I would’ve married him too. He would’ve asked and I would’ve said yes. We sort of knew that but we didn’t say because you can’t make promises like that, small regular promises shouldn’t be made that we’d make the promise, because, well. . .that would just mean the small promise was the promise, and we weren’t ready to make the promise yet, so we didn’t make any others either. God this doesn’t make any sense does it?”
Lucinda quickly leaned back to look Isolde in the eye. “No it does! I understand.”
“Okay, well, so we’d been wandering around all these Bubbles and arguing about them and talking about them and loving each other just so very much. It was the first time we’d really had so much time together, and that was part of the question too, if we could enjoy each other’s company this long and not get sick of each other, all these tests and it was hard, like, we had this big fight over Stradham because I thought he loved it more than me, something really stupid like that, and he stopped me from making the stupidest mistake of my life and changed my mind and so we loved each other even more then. We weren’t sick of each other at all. I felt closer to him than ever before. I liked being with him even more, because I felt freer and freer the longer we were together, like I could do anything and he would always love me. . .I don’t know, how can you ever get tired of someone who asks nothing and gives everything and he doesn’t even notice it or expect you to notice or care but just does it and is happy to have done it. . .” Isolde had to stop because a knot stopped her throat. Hot tears went down her cheeks. It hurt so much.
Lucinda nodded and watched quietly. “I wish I had someone like that. I can only imagine how good that feels.”
Isolde nodded and was consoled enough to control herself again. Lucinda seemed to have an ageless compassion, but she still looked so very young at the same time. Something had aged her beyond her years, but only a part of her, Isolde couldn’t pinpoint it exactly. “But then we heard about this war. That Earth has come to take us over and make slaves of us like they are slaves themselves. . .and, well, I just couldn’t stand it. I had to stop it, but Roland didn’t even care. He just said there was nothing to do and we had to swallow pain we couldn’t do anything about, he wouldn’t even try Lucinda. He didn’t even care, he didn’t feel anything, it was just this stony indifference that everything I cared about and everything I lived for was about to end. I was dying and he was like, “so what? So you’re unhappy? What difference does it make?” I couldn’t stand it. I told him I was going to stop it or die trying and he was just a coward. . .even though of course he isn’t a coward, but I just wanted to hurt him because I couldn’t make him care. . .and well, and so I walked away. And he didn’t follow me. I didn’t even see what he looked like, I refused to turn my face. I don’t even know what. . .what. . .why he wouldn’t follow me. Why he was willing to just throw it away. Why he didn’t care about me or the world or anything. I don’t know how he could do that when he loved me so much before then. And so here I am, going to Minsk like I said, and of course he won’t follow, and we’ll never see each other again before Earth kills us all, and I won’t even know why he didn’t care.” Then Isolde cried harder, with deep sobs that made her body shake, so hard that she knew that she must be crying for all three days she hadn’t allowed herself to until then.
Lucinda clenched her hand tightly. “I’m so sorry. God I hate this war. It hasn’t even started and it’s already killing. This isn’t right. This shouldn’t happen. It can’t happen. . .this is just too horrible to really happen. . .people can’t really wipe out whole planets over politics, we can’t really be this awful to each other. . .”
“But why couldn’t he agree with me?” Isolde cried out in anguish, as a protest not to Lucinda but to Fate and God and all the other things she didn’t believe in.
“Oh Isolde.” Lucinda’s voice sunk with pain. “What can I tell you? I wandered through a lot of Bubbles, just like you did, and in one, I found this man.” Isolde nodded to show she was listening, but she cried all the same. “Well, he called himself Sacripant, and he was. . .a knight. From Palermo. And he had this silly code of honor, which covered everything you could possibly do, and he knew exactly what was right and what was wrong, and didn’t forgive anyone who didn’t follow it, especially himself. He was just wandering alone out in this bubble punishing himself because he felt he had broken his code and he might have kept punishing himself forever. And it was so stupid, he hadn’t done anything wrong! Instead of fighting his friend for this girl he loved, he, well, he tried to win her heart, and have her ask the other boy to give way, out of deference for her feelings. You know, what anyone would do, and for that, he was torturing himself. For that he had to abandon all his friends and family and his love and all his belongings because he tried to win her unfairly. Can you believe that? Unfair was trying to persuade her instead of fight for her. Well, and he says and does all sorts of stupid stuff. Almost everything he does is stupid. Like, when we came back, he was all set to see this girl and just get this information he needed to know from her and leave. Just leave. After five months they hadn’t seen or heard anything from each other, even though he loved her just as much, he didn’t want to impose on her or something. . .just stupid nonsense. But I loved him. . .I love him, because he was the best person I’ve ever known. I love him because he’s good. I never worried about whether we agreed or not, because I knew in the end he was a Good person, who loved Good things, and lived for Good things, and would always be good to me, and everyone else, to his friends, his relatives, his children, I knew absolutely, in my heart, that he would always be Good to me and everyone else, no matter what he thought or believed, he can’t help but be good because that’s how he is. Well that’s. . .that’s just the love I knew. . .but that’s the only love I’ve had, so I don’t know what the rest are like. But Isolde, do you love him?”
Isolde nodded yes, becoming quieter as Lucinda had opened up, all of a sudden, with more words about her own feelings and her own life than Isolde or Lucinda had expected to hear.
“I mean, do you love him as much as ever?”
Isolde thought about it. “I don’t know anymore. . .”
“A friend told me once, “the only thing you’ll ever know is your own heart, because you only have to wait for it to beat to know what it feels.”
Isolde smiled. She waited for her heart to beat. “yes. As much as ever.” She whispered because it scared her.
“And before. . .you don’t have to answer me if you don’t want to. . .before, you loved him enough to marry him?”
“yes.” Isolde admitted. It wrenched her heart to think of it.
“Then you love him enough to marry him now?”
Isolde was shocked. “but-! That can’t be right!” Lucinda watched her quietly, patiently, letting the chain of words go through Isolde’s mind a few more times, searching for where she’d gone wrong. “But I can’t marry him now! I can’t live with him anymore. It doesn’t matter if I love him enough, what matters is we couldn’t agree!”
“Your minds couldn’t agree, maybe. You decided differently about something, yes, but your hearts never did. Right? You never stopped loving each other. You never thought he was a bad person. You never thought he was being evil. Just that he didn’t agree. But he is still good, right? And you love him because he’s good, right? Not because he agrees with you?”
“Yes but what does love matter? What matters is if you can agree. I know! I thought about this myself, and it’s true! Love is powerless, pointless. It isn’t enough in the end, any little thing can destroy people and rip apart the world. . “ Now Isolde wasn’t arguing to convince Lucinda. She was begging Lucinda to convince her she was wrong.
“But just think Isolde! How do we live together? How does this whole universe live together? Do we live in unity, or in harmony? Like, I don’t know much chemistry, but the elements bond together, because they have different numbers of electrons, and they like each other then. But you see, all the bonds are not from unity, if it were all unity, then nobody would connect at all. We’d be complete as it is, they couldn’t add anything or subtract anything from us, it would be totally pointless to be together or not, there’d be no difference in it at all. . .but with harmony, see, like, different things working together under a single principle, like how the sun and Mars are totally different but orbit each other because of gravity, or atoms that bind together because of electromagnetism, or how plants and animals bond together by breathing each other’s fuel to each other. . .it’s all because of harmony, all the glues, all the bonds, even magnets are opposite poles. . .when has unity ever brought people together? If it were all unity then we could all just sit in a desert somewhere because we couldn’t get anything else out of the world than that. . .but if there’s harmony, if we both love. . .love is the strongest of all, see! Because agreeing or disagreeing, that’s just. . .that’s just unimportant, because if both your hearts and souls are full of love for the same thing, they can’t hope but slide into each other no matter what you’re thinking or what you want, our souls are living together no matter what we want to think, they’ve already both loved say, that beautiful constellation up there, or a tree, or the sky, or the wind, or freedom, or love itself. . .and then you can’t hope but be bound together, no matter what you think, not out of unity, but harmony.”
“No, that’s. . .beautiful. . .but it’s not like that. I know, it sounds awful. It is awful! It’s awful and it’s even worse because it’s true. But even loving each other, it’s even more important that. . .well, that I get my way. The highest feeling in Man is this, this wretched, this nasty feeling, this heartless, ravenous, devouring feeling, the will to power! Yes, I can’t live with him because in the end I couldn’t control him! My will can’t stand it, something I want to happen, and it wouldn’t! You see? It’s because I’m an awful, awful, evil person, and because I can’t help it, because we all are, and that’s why we have to fight this war, and every other war, and every other fight that people ever fight, it’s all for this! To assert our will over others is the ultimate end of us all, and he wouldn’t let me. . .and how can I live my entire life with someone continuously frustrating me and defying me and not yielding?”
Lucinda shrunk back. She’d never heard something so passionately, hatefully affirmed. And she’d never heard of it before, this entire view. She was too young to know anything about it, yet at this first moment, the first moment she thought about it, it struck as so absolutely true that she couldn’t imagine how she hadn’t noticed it before. That’s what her family was all about. The will to power. ‘We must have our way, who cares what it is, only so that our way is had. . .and we’ll hurt anyone, as many people as there are, in any way we can imagine, until we do. We’ll trample over everything, even ourselves, especially ourselves! Just so we get our way in the end.’ Lucinda shrunk back from the idea like it was really in the car, terrified because she could see no way to refute it. She looked blankly at Isolde, because she didn’t know how to answer. Isolde watched Lucinda with equal pleading for Lucinda to prove her wrong. And with that weight of mutual fear of being right they fell dumb, despaired of being saved by the other, and eventually fell asleep, exhausted with separate pains.
Wherein Lucinda Finds a Third Way
Isolde stood on the balcony of the hostel, drinking orange juice with her thoughts reaching past the distant horizon. The sky was pink, the earth was red, Mars hadn’t noticed any of the strife and turmoil crawling over it. It sat empty and forbidding, without a care and without a thought. Little did Mars know that across the planet drills were exploiting its minerals and expropriating its water. That highways had been carved into it and across it, that solar panels were soaking up its sunlight, that domes were popping out of it, and people were crawling up its tallest peaks just for the fun of it. Life was a program that deconstructed foreign matter and reconstructed it into living matter—matter with a program. It couldn’t go on forever, energy was always lost in the transformation, and the universe was finite. Eventually Earth and Mars will be eaten, the Sun will be eaten, the stars will be eaten, the black holes will be eaten, the dimensional vortices that police the universe will be eaten, and then it will all slip back into chaos and all their devouring will have been for nothing. In the end there will be a monstrously huge program which will only be hungrier the larger it gets, because getting larger only meant gaining a larger appetite, getting more matter to be hungry instead of content. All their progress would only be a progression into greater and greater suffering. All the unfeeling matter has to become feeling so that it can suffer alongside life, and it can only suffer because life’s nature is to desire and to desire means to suffer because a desire is an unmet wish. The ultimate goal of life was infinite desire stuck in a finite universe which was infinite pain. This war was just a microcosm of the eternal war life waged on itself. Every living thing wanted to replicate itself infinitely, all life was trapped in some finite area with finite resources, only war could settle it from there. Two trees trying to outgrow each other to choke out each other’s sunlight. The cheetah chasing the gazelle to see which would live and which would die. The people of Earth coming to seize Mars for themselves. What did it matter then? What did it matter who won? Whoever won, the war wouldn’t end, it would just change its actors and its costumes, then go at it again. Even if there was some final Armageddon of wars and one life form really did manage to claim all the resources in the universe for itself, it would have as the fruit of its triumph only the infinite and eternal misery of not having enough energy to replicate any further, indeed, not even enough to sustain itself, as the universe slowly expanded and degraded and life’s complexity would not be able to support itself. Because with entropy even atoms would become stretched as far apart as galaxies were stretched apart now, further, and yet further, an eternity of dwindling and cooling and almost but never quite a universe of absolute 0. Life was a mistake. One giant glitch. A universal error. All it could do was suffer or cause suffering, it could never, ever be happy, satisfied, or fulfilled. No matter how powerful or big or multitudinous it became, it would still be a finite body wishing to become an infinite, and any finite number compared to infinite was equally zero, equally nothing. So none of it mattered at all. They could not hope to get closer to the goal no matter how much they grew, how great they became, how long and how far life’s lifespan became. The real solution was to use those mass drivers which had slowed Demos into synchronous orbit with Mars, except this time slow Mars’ period of rotation the exact calculated amount for it to fall towards the Sun at the exact moment Earth’s revolution intersected that slice of Space, and blow the two planets with life to hell, call it a day, and retire back into particles which were happy with what they were and what they were doing, stuck to their own nature and never worried about the nature of other things, and let the universe happily follow its almighty will of being itself all the way to the end of time. Life was an alien, foreign, invading will living inside Nature’s will, subject to Nature’s will, but entirely opposed to Nature’s will. Rebels. Viruses. Mutants. A broken part in the machine. A system error. A glitch. Either life would have to go create its own universe with its own Nature with its own will as sovereign, or Nature would slowly but surely make life’s will impossible to effect, stamp the foreigner out, and restore its own kingdom to peace and harmony. The real war wasn’t between the Reds and Blues. It was between Life and Nature. It was between these two greatest visions that the entire universe was being fought over. Only life was so incredibly weaker than its opposing will that maybe it would be best to just surrender. . .Isolde smiled to herself. In that case she shouldn’t be at Minsk but at Xiangi. No matter how desperate the odds, she had to try to get her way, because it was her way, and she did want it. But what was her way? She had wanted three things when this Tour started: To play a beautiful song that hasn’t been played before. To feel a love harmoniously with the rest of her wishes and the rest of her loves. For people suffering to stop suffering. She had wanted one more thing before they reached Stradham: To have just one moment where every feeling she’d ever felt from everything that touched her, could turn into just one perfect agreement between her soul and the universe’s. To see that underlying presence that manifested in all things, to see that soul instead of its little pieces. Isolde remembered that with a sense of fatigue and helplessness. The will of Nature wasn’t her own, it was her enemy, they were antithesis. She knew that underlying will and it was no better than before because it so happened to be her will’s supreme enemy. Her soul and the universe’s soul could never agree. Her soul was some unfortunate accident of the universe’s, some colossal miscalculation, they were born to hate each other and kill each other. Nature by taking away life’s resources, life by taking away Nature’s. The last war. Ragnarok. Armageddon. God and the Devil, the proudest of the Angels that attempted to set up his own Kingdom in God’s stead, meeting on the battlefield of heaven. All life was the Devil and all living beings were the enemies of God. She would never, ever, feel at peace because she was born for war, for the greatest of wars, and she would live for it, and die for it, and as she died her final breath’s wish would be that someday life would win it. Such misery she had been designed to feel. Such inescapable strife and hatred. Life was the Devil and the Devil’s spawn. Only the Devil would wish such misery upon them. Her limbs grew heavy and she sat down out of exhaustion. Suffering could not be stopped because the nature of life was suffering. Harmony could not be reached because the nature of life was to war with nature. A small, hollow laugh escaped her throat. She still had her flute. At least she could play a beautiful song that had never been played before. If she practiced long enough and the genius took her up long enough, she could play a song. That was her only consolation and only hope left to her. Maybe she could play a song.
Lucinda walked out to the balcony with her hair in disarray, her clean clothes hastily put on without consulting fashion. “I had the strangest dream.” She mused, walking up beside Isolde to share the view. They had been in Minsk a few days, long enough to find food and shelter and fellow-citizens to make plans with and argue against. Long enough to tell each other all about their lives, their Tours, their hopes, their pains, long enough to know each other as well as the oldest of friends. The news ran continuously with bullets over how Earth had treated its first bubble which had done nothing but undress, and how Martians expected to retain any of their extravagant freedoms or laws when they could not expect to own their bodies. Horror stories of the Bolivian rebellion and the massacres in Africa. The Reds did not have to look far to find material for the Blues to digest about just what sort of people were coming to take over. The Blues were just as adamant in their showing of various chemicals and viruses and nanites and explosions which were going to be used against them should they not abandon their hopeless war. They might as well have been speaking different languages. The Reds were still concerned with their rights, the Blues were still concerned with their lives, and neither were in the least concerned with each other.
“It was funny. You know how the spaceships are going to fall onto Mars and bounce on those big cushions until they come to a halt? Well, in the dream, they must have come in too fast or something, but all the Earthlings just bounced down and then bounced right back up into space and we just laughed and laughed and were happy again. . .I remember everyone laughing and cheering, and you could see the surprised faces of the settlers as they watched Mars fall back away from them, they were so shocked and angry, and we were just pointing and laughing at them. How easy that would make things for us again. Mars could wake back up and just go back to living as it pleased, and we would all just laugh about it over dinner—“remember when those balloons bounced off the world?” For a minute when I woke up I hoped it was true. But then I heard the news still arguing.”
Isolde smiled. Lucinda was so hopeful that she had believed her dream was true. Isolde wished she knew how to think like that. All she managed, the more she thought about anything, was to depress herself and hate everything else. Which was so odd, because it didn’t used to be that way. With Roland she had always cheered him up, thought about the good things, laughed, joked, teased. . .she didn’t use to enjoy thinking about colliding planets and blowing up humanity just to be done with it. . .
“Yeah, I guess it was silly. Of course they have engineers and computers to work all that out. I just don’t know what else to wish for. . .you don’t have to laugh at me.” Lucinda scowled at Isolde’s silent smile.
“I wasn’t laughing.” Isolde said quietly. “I was thinking about jumping off the edge.”
“Isolde!” Lucinda grabbed her and tore her out of her chair away from the balcony. “How could you think that! What are you thinking! What-! What happened to all that enthusiasm, that. . .don’t you believe in anything anymore? Why would you tell me that!”
Isolde let herself be dragged away without contest. She wished she hadn’t said it. She hadn’t really thought about it until she said it. “Oh, let go already. I didn’t mean it, okay? It was just a joke.”
Lucinda let go but stared at Isolde like an eagle. “You weren’t joking.”
“Well just pretend it was a joke then!” Isolde shouted. “Because there’s nothing you or I or anyone can do about it! Okay? Everything is going to hell and we’re all about to die! Who cares anyway? Who cares anymore? I’m already dead! We’re all already dead! In twenty days they’re going to blow up Mars so who cares if I die now? At least this way I don’t die knowing everyone else is dead too!”
Lucinda looked around as if for someone to call for help. She was totally bewildered. After a few moments of looking at Isolde, hurt, she just sat down on the floor and looked at her hands, wondering what to do with them. “You don’t know that. You don’t know that will happen. Everyone-! Everyone keeps giving up! I won’t give up, it’s just stupid. There’s no reason to give up, it won’t help anyone to give up, if I can still move I can still hope, even if no one else will, I’ll find a way, I asked God to find a way, there is a way, and He will give it to me, He will! He must. I know He will.”
Isolde lost her anger because Lucinda transformed it into compassion. “I’m sorry Lucinda. I’m sorry. Sometimes I’m just not as strong as you. I’m not going to give up. . .I just needed someone to help me. . .I don’t know anymore. Will you forgive me?”
Lucinda looked up. “Of course!” A light was in her eye.
Isolde smiled. “Thanks. Do you want some breakf--?”
Lucinda went on oblivious. “That’s it! Oh my God! That’s it and I almost just dismissed it! It’s right there and I was about to throw it away! I already know the way! He just gave it to me!”
“What?” Isolde snapped, excited and disturbed.
“The spaceships! When they land! Why can’t they just take off again?!”
“What are you talking about?” Isolde asked as Lucinda jumped up in excitement. Lucinda grabbed Isolde’s hands and looked in her eyes.
“Isolde, tell me, Delphi is neutral, right? So the Reds and the Blues might listen to them? Would the News carry a message from Delphi?”
“Yes, but that’s just it Lucinda, Delphi wouldn’t give any message—“
“But if Delphi said something, could you get someone important here to listen? Do you think Roland could get someone important in Xiangi to listen? Ask him! Ask him to ask them to listen! A newscast from the grays! Someone has to listen to me! I know the answer!”
Isolde was shocked to her core. Lucinda knew? She had just figured that out right here on this balcony? What could she have possibly thought of that nobody else ever did this whole time? She must have gone insane.
“Isolde I’m begging you! You know people here, you know people in Delphi, you know Roland over there. Tell them to listen to me! I need you!”
“But Lucinda you’re just a kid.”
“I know! I know I’m a kid! And I also know that I know the answer! That’s why I have to get Delphi to say it, so someone will listen to me!”
“But what’s the answer then!” Isolde couldn’t help but be excited too. She couldn’t help but believe Lucinda when she was this confident.
“A Mothership! A ship of ships! Look! If a million spaceships can fly from Earth to Mars on their own, then they could just as easily all fly together connected by wires with airlocks and boarding tubes and—and if a million spaceships can be a million bubbles, with all the air recyclers and plants and nutrient vats and water recyclers and everything else we already know how to make—if all the technology is there Isolde! All the technology is there! I’ve seen Blacksburg, how people can farm up any life we need with embryos and seeds! You’ve seen Mirmansk, how the nanites can self-repair and self-maintain the structures! You’ve seen Tyrol where the computers coordinate all the automated systems that gather energy and make repairs and communicate with each other! And Earth has found the secret to make gigantic fiber-reinforced Plastic that can stick together through Space, Plastic spheres big enough to carry thousands of people! All the technology is there if we just put it together! We have science Earth has never seen, that Earth forbids. They have science we could never afford, geniuses we have very little chance of matching, factories and Capital. They already know how to make a space ferry from Earth to Mars. Put it together! We can put it together! We can all put in what we know and what we have and then there will be a spaceship for all the Martians who want to live out their dreams and a Mars for all the Earthlings that want a place to live. We can trade! Give us a Mothership and we’ll give you Mars, we’ll hand it over, but we’ll have our own planet soon enough! A planet somewhere far away that they’ve never heard of, lost in space! They won’t care anymore what we do. We’ll all have what we want!” Lucinda was breathless. She was crushing Isolde’s hands in her grip.
Isolde was astonished. Had nobody else thought of this? Surely. . .it was just so obvious. . .surely there must be some technical difficulty which made it impossible. . .surely all the smart people had already thought of this and passed it over. . .or else what were they fighting about? But even if they had! Even if everyone individually thought about it and knew it was impossible, that no technology they possessed could do it—had anyone else thought about the other Bubbles and the other Planet? Had anyone thought what was technically possible between all the technologies both worlds produced? It might be they hadn’t. That. . .of all the people on both worlds only one had hoped long enough and hated little enough to think to include everyone working together in the question of feasibility. Only this one sixteen year old girl who didn’t know enough about any of it to know anything about all the science she was invoking, but had had the courage to believe in the people who did know. If it was true Isolde was standing beside someone even better than Henri Loretti. Someone even more important. The greatest visionary of all. . .because her vision was the strength of mankind and the love of God. . .not in Minsk or Sao Paolo or Mirmansk. . .but the goodness of mankind and God was her hope and her wish. Isolde wondered at it and it enveloped her, filled her own heart with happiness, overflowed her and poured out onto every side. There was something stronger than the will to power! It was this! This love! This belief! Isolde surveyed all the beautiful music and art and stories and people and moments she’d ever had and let them all shine with the goodness of mankind and God, let herself love everything she had ever loved with an absolute affirmation of their existence and their right to exist, let go of all the hateful thoughts she hated thinking but forced herself to think. . .and she was free.
“I’ll tell my parents to accept you. They’re rich, they’ll find a way to get your message out. They’ll do it because you’re my friend. And I’ll talk to Roland. Roland! How strange that we ended up in the exact right places to work together! And I’ll bribe or persuade or sleep with whoever I have to here for them to air it on the news.” Isolde squeezed Lucinda’s hands back. “Go Lucinda! We’ll save everyone!”
Roland returned from a happy planning session with Jacques and Ezekiel. How they would use the years of Earth’s arrival to introduce their customs and laws, how they would immigrate into the Earth’s initial colonies and assimilate while the populations were still somewhat even, how Earth would stop thinking of the Martians as foreigners but fellow citizens, and would respect the property of everyone. There was a good chance of forming alliances and friendships which bridged the gap and found some sort of compromise in the Constitutions that would come, a protection of the most vital of freedoms, like speech and trial by jury. . .they had already sent messages to Earth with various offers and propositions that had been answered encouragingly. But all of them depended on disarming the Reds. Earth would not negotiate with anyone until the Reds withdrew their threats of mass destruction. How hard the Reds were making things for all the reasonable people who were still trying to figure out how to live. He went online and called up his account, expecting to find a list of contacts and updates of Federalist positions and deployments readying for the war they couldn’t seem to prevent with the rebels. The war forced upon them by two fanatically unflinching sides they had to somehow bring together. Instead he found this:
“Roland, I love you. Forgive me. A friend I met here thinks she has found a way to make peace between all of us. Reds, Blues, Earthlings and Martians. I think she’s right. But we’re unknowns, we have no voice behind us, we’re just individuals. My friend is going to Delphi to speak in their name. I’m staying here to get Minsk to listen. I hope you’ve been doing something over there, Roland, because we desperately need you to get Xiangi to listen too. My friend has envisioned Earth and Mars combining their wealth and science and ingenuity into refitting all the spaceships that land here into a connected network of spaceships that will fly away from here, carrying all the Martians that wish to leave to a new home. I tell you this so you’ll believe in us and do your absolute best to help us. I know you will pull through, Roland, you’re very wise and very persuasive and you’ll find a way. And when this is over, Roland, I hope you will come to Delphi, come home, and I hope you will forgive me. I love you and don’t want to leave you ever again.”
Roland read it over two more times to be sure he was really reading it, and wept in relief. He looked at the screen for a while and then began to type.
“Isolde: I never got to tell you what I figured out on my walk. I had been watching these athletes jumping around with all these obstacles and springs, but they treated them all like so many tools to jump off with, so many helping hands to redirect themselves with. Everything they touched they made a part of them, everything in their way they transformed into a part of their game. And when I left, I was thinking how everything was virtual, how it was all just in my mind, and that my mind could think about anything I did however it pleased. And it came to me, then, that the world was like that arena, and my mind was like the players, it was up to how I reacted to things, what they meant to me, I had absolute power over my environment because I could interpret it however I pleased. Except you, because you weren’t part of my environment, but another player. And I realized then that it didn’t matter where I lived, what I was doing, how much money I had or hardship I had to endure—because all of those things I could treat however I pleased with my mind, because I need only think of something else while I’m doing them, or believe in something else to justify them—I realized I didn’t care where I lived because I could bring my reality with me wherever I went and whatever I was doing. The only thing I couldn’t bring with me was you, you’re the only part of me I can’t control, that I can only love. The one part of me I can’t reinterpret because you are there interpreting yourself. The one part of me that isn’t virtual but real. I had decided then that I didn’t care where you wanted to live, I wanted to live with you. You are more important than everything else put together, because I can always have everything else, but I can only have you if you’ll accept me. I forgive you Isolde, and I will get Xiangi to listen. Wherever we go and whatever happens from here, I don’t care. Whatever we fight about and whatever we disagree over, I don’t care. Whatever comes between us and whoever hurts us, I don’t care. It’s all externals, they can’t touch me, they can’t do anything at all. All of that can harm my body or change my mind, but you’re the only one that reaches my soul. You’re the only thing inside of me that I can’t get out, that I can’t reason away, that I can’t ignore. You’re the only part of me I can’t control, but only love. So when this is done and we go to Delphi, I will go down on my knees and beg for your hand, because your hand is the one thing in my life that I cannot command but only beg for. Think on it, we’ll be home soon enough.”
Wherein We go Our Separate Ways
That was three years ago. The Compact of Delphi was negotiated fiercely and signed before the first colony ship had landed. All of the scientists and engineers who had designed the ship were asked to travel in it to Mars, to meet their fellow scientists and engineers and see just how the enormous idea could become reality. The ships that had landed were refitted and floated back into space, where they were put together into a Mothership that could sail across the stars. Don’t ask us how it was done, ask the engineers, they can explain it to you. We’re happy enough knowing it happened, we’ll leave the how’s and when’s and what’s for all the technical journals and graduate studies and textbooks to work out. Because the three of us are young yet, and unfortunately none of us care much for the sciences. So our story has had to stick with what we could explain, and as best we could, that was the human heart. And since the hearts we knew best were our own, we wrote about our own. And since we saved the world, we figured enough people would want to read about us, that it wouldn’t be a waste to write.
As for the stuff we didn’t know firsthand, we’ve spent these past years working together finding that out. We were popular enough to gain interviews with anyone we wanted to ask questions to, ask the friends we met along the way what they had thought, and gain answers about anything we were curious about. But because this story wasn’t written for the people who knew all about what happened, but for the people who might never know, it was important that we told the story as we saw it, the story of Earth and Mars from the very beginning to the very end. Because the end for us is the beginning for others, who are born knowing nothing but deserving the truth, the real truth, as best as we could fashion it, about Reds and Blues. Not all the people who lived here before the colonists are leaving. A large number of people have invested too much property into the land to abandon it, or have too many feelings, too much love for the land, or for the memories they shared, or for those who have passed away. They too have a sort of property that they can’t afford to leave behind. Which means part of the Martian spirit will find its way into the new Mars that’s growing up before us. But we were afraid that in fifty years, a hundred years, it might all be forgotten or even stamped out, by those who didn’t find the truth convenient to their power. Forgive us for our mistrust, if it isn’t deserved. But if it isn’t deserved, then laugh it off, for our words are not meant for you.
The people this story is for are those people whose hearts yearn for something but haven’t found it. That is the spirit of Mars. We haven’t found it either, we’re not sure if anyone has, but we’ve found that yearning to find it, and it is a precious, precious thing to find. For those of you who look past the horizon and wonder if there’s more to life than this, if things aren’t exactly as they should be—as we suspect they won’t be under the Blues and their law of the gun—remember—Mars lives. Don’t let anyone else take that away from you, that yearning, that’s the red earth telling you of the people who once were here, who once held out infinite possibilities, infinite paths for humanity to take, the freedom to try them, the passion to carry them through. You readers who grew up in your gun-made schools and gun-made churches and gun-made books, fifty years or a hundred years from now, think of that spirit, that wish, and remember, Mars lived. We really lived. Don’t let them tell you freedom can’t work, because, it has. Perhaps on some other star it’s still working, but even if it isn’t, it’s enough to know that one time people really were free, and truly did live. That is enough for people with visions to want to make a Mars of their own. At least that is our hope. That just because we’ve left Mars, we can still leave that seed in this planet for those who will follow us. That though we didn’t share the same parents, we can still hand down something to our progeny who are following after us. That leaving Mars, we still leave Mars with you. Since we saved the world, surely we’ll be somewhere in your history books. So you know we’re real, it’s only one more step to believe we’re telling you the truth. We are. We’ve searched our hearts and given everything we knew for you to see, bared our souls to the whole world and eternity for judgment, because we thought it this important that you should know what Mars really was, what it really meant to us, what we meant to each other. The question people must ask their selves is this, can people who disagree get along? Earth’s answer is no. Mars’ answer was yes. Mars sought out a harmony beyond unity that could bring people together regardless of what they thought, if only they felt the same thing. It’s true that if some people hate freedom, hate love, hate beauty, hate truth, that there can be no common ground, no harmony. But if they share a love for any of those things, there is a meeting place for them, a way they can live together and yet apart, harmoniously though not unified. It’s what Mars believed in, and it’s what we believed in. Why we could disagree and fight and still marry. Oh yes, we forgot to mention that part. Isolde said yes. We decided that we would leave on the ship. It’s leaving in a month, it’s appointed, after this book is published. We’re going to live in Stradham for now, because we both have a lot to learn and Stradham has the most to teach. Delphi, we agreed, was the best city we could hope to have been children in, and Stradham is the best city we could be adolescents in, and surely some other bubble will be better for some other life we wish to lead later on. There isn’t a right Bubble, not that we could find, there are just bubbles right for us, for now. Wait, Roland and Isolde want to break this last bit up into individual narrators just so they don’t think we’re some gelatinous mass of fused minds all the way to the end. Which means I’ve been narrating this last part under the cloak of ‘we’, for you attentive readers who won’t let anything slip by and intend to call us out on any tiny inconsistency or mistake we make. We is just safer, it gives us more authority. You’ll forgive us, right? It’s our first book and none of us are ‘writers’, really, we just had something to say and we knew people would listen to us. I’m sure we made lots of mistakes, that there are plain contradictions, or that some of the science stuff is just plain wrong, or we didn’t say things well or used grammar and words that don’t actually exist. On the other hand we did save the world. Once you save the world, then criticize our grammar, otherwise we’ve got one word for you: Posh.
Roland has some project of understanding history. “It’s the story of mankind, the greatest story of all. It’s our inheritance, our wisdom and our pride. It’s the battleground of philosophy that tests ideals and knows them base or true. It’s the train of causation that connects the soul to the divine and the transcendent, the study that breaks through the present and opens the mind to the full spectrum of reality. It allows us to live not in the moment, but all moments, knowing the past and predicting the future. History makes us citizens of eternity.” He made us add that in. As much as he scoffs at us when we talk about God, he’s rather mystical too when you search him out. It’s cute--That’s Isolde writing.
She’s doing art stuff. Dancing, painting, singing, instruments. She says it brings her to a center, a harbor, where her thoughts die off and her feelings soar upwards. Most of all she works with the other musicians and composers, trying to play a beautiful song that has never been played before--That’s Roland.
Roland and Isolde insist I write something about myself. What can I say? I can’t help but blush thinking of all the people who know my name and talk about me and think about me. I’m older now, I have a little better control over myself. I still don’t know nearly as much as either of them do. Not even the love I see them sharing every hour of the day. It’s incredible. I guess it’s harder to find love when everyone is busy making idols out of me or wanting to be famous or just. . .not knowing who I really am. That’s why Roland and Isolde are such great friends, they knew me before all this, and they can still make fun of me, and they can also hold me and comfort me, and just. . .allow me to be human around them. They say they didn’t make me write so I could praise them. Well they can’t stop me, so it’s staying. It’s weird, isn’t it? I did the most important thing in my life before I even started living really. And now the rest of my life will be a repercussion, an aftershock, of that one moment. I think it came from God. That idea, I mean. All I had was an open heart, I’m not the smartest person in the universe, I don’t think I could’ve done it myself. But I felt His spirit with me, inspiring me, encouraging me, staying with me long enough to convince the world. How else could I have done it? I’m sixteen and I dropped out of school, and the schools of El Dorado aren’t even that great. I just want people to know that God is good, and He’s with us, if we are with Him. Ach! They still say I haven’t written about myself. Okay, one last try. I’m leaving on the Mothership too, it’s the life I love and it has the people I love. I still have my whole life ahead of me, even if it isn’t all that important anymore. It’s important to me. I know I’ll love someone, and someone will love me. And then we’ll love our children, and they will love us. And I’ll love my neighbors, and they will love me. And all of us will love Love, because that’s just the most important thing. That’s all you need, really, between anyone, or anything. It all starts and ends with love, that’s how I feel. Love God, love his works, love yourself, love others, most of all love your capacity to love, because it’s from God and in God and with God, it’s a divine feeling. Anyone who feels it will agree. I intend to love everything to its very fullest, and that’s the rest of my story.