Preamble: Dear readers, the post below represents the completion of the current serial, Mons, which will shortly be available as an electronic Kindle edition under the title We Walked to Space; the $3 book will be offered for free as a temporary promotion I will announce here, so that regular readers of this blog can get their hands on a copy gratis.
The Smashwords edition of We Walked to Space for all non-Kindle ebook platforms will follow after ninety days or so, with a 100% discount coupon available to loyal readers.
(The story concludes beneath the fold.)
by Cheeseburger Brown
(This is the sixth and final post in a multi-part serial, consisting of chapters eighteen through twenty of the story. Here are Chapters 1 - 5, here are Chapters 6 - 8, here are Chapters 9 - 11, here are Chapters 12 - 14, and here Chapters 15 - 17.)
Nirgal is a big, big city. It's so dense and so wild that it's laid out like a forest: in clumps and glens and fringes testifying to the accumulation of different financial seasons instead of according to any clear plan. The oldest of the old quarters are packed in along the north shore of the river, the mighty Marineris, the only river Martians ever mean when we just say "the river." The real estate that hugged the bank was ancient and sedimentary and rich.
The house looked like a castle. There was nothing that looked remotely like it back in Mangala Valley. The architecture was so traditional it looked almost Earthy. Weird.
I walked up the walk and stopped on the stoop, waiting for the door to recognize me. When nothing happened I cleared my throat. Finally I just leaned in and actually knocked on the door with my knuckles.
Very even footsteps approached. The door's central cell turned transparent. I found myself facing a very old model of household steward very similar to the one whose mission I would now complete. I cleared my throat again. "Hi."
"Madam, the master is indisposed and will see no one. Thank you and good day."
I reached inside my bag. "Um, this is weird but I want to deliver a stone."
"Madam, gardeners and other contractors must interface with the service entrance accessible from Cuthbertson Boulevard West."
"No, you don't understand. I'm not a gardener. I'm -- just helping out."
"Madam, the master is indisposed and will see no one. Thank you and good day."
"It's from the peak of Olympus. I'm finishing an errand."
There was a pause and then the door ground back into the wall with a rumble and a squeak. The steward reached out, so I put the stone into its hands. Its arms bowed a bit but it didn't fall over. After a moment it said, "The master would see you now."
"Oh," I said, and then, "Um, that's not really necessary. I'm just a proxy's proxy, you know? So. It's fine. It's okay." I tucked my bag aside and backed down one step. "I just wanted to make sure he got what he was looking for, so. I'm just going to go. Thank you?"
"Madam, the master would see you know. Madam, the master says, '"Please.'"
I sighed. I stepped up one step again. "Okay," I conceded with an involuntary smile. "I guess so."
"Madam, this way."
The house was dark, the corridor lined with tapestries covered in protective films that rustled as we walked by. The items of furniture were vague goliath shapes beneath dusty sheets. The windows were discoloured and the light that came in was yellow; the skyscrapers outside seemed fuzzy and golden and far away.
The steward escorted me up a winding staircase, though a hall of draped statues, and finally along a wide corridor lined with closed doors. At the end of the corridor was a double-wide set of doors from under which leaked a bit of light. The steward opened one of the doors and silently stood aside.
With a nervous smile I walked past the steward, and inside.
I blinked as my eyes adjusted to the brightness.
"I can't believe you really came," he said from his side of the membrane. He held up a hand in greeting, the fingers spread childishly wide. "But maybe I should've known. I'm sorry. I'm Sum, I should say, by way of introductions."
I couldn't help but smile. "I'm Claire, but I guess you know that." I waved.
Sum's suite was a kingdom of colour and splendour. The moving mural on the ceiling was intricate and whimsical and bright. The walls dripped copper over blue over copper in ever-changing streaks. The floor rippled and glittered as if water, the current appearing to split around items of furniture. Wide windows admitted gorgeous views of the river and the city's oldest core.
Every aperture was redundantly sealed. Very translucent intelligent plastics were sheeted taut across the window panes, and beyond them the faint glimmer of particle shielding. The outputs of the ventilation ducts had been connected to rebreathers with hospital logos on the sides. In a clean room in the corner nearest to me two corroded old robots were washing dishes.
Sum watched me take it in.
I said, "You can't come out."
"I can," he said in a friendly way, "but it's an ordeal."
"It's a long story. Let's just say I'm immuno-unique."
I laughed. "So you live your life through robot proxies," I said as we both watched the steward who'd met me at the door taking the stone from the summit into the clean room. An airlock cycled behind the robot.
Sum nodded. "I've got robots everywhere, living little bits of life for me." He gestured behind him to the central object of the suite, a two-tiered merry-go-round array of depthy video windows. "I was disappointed when my Olympic pilgrimage window went dark."
"I'm sorry," I said quickly. "That was my fault."
"Miss Claire I'll admit you were causally connected but I won't submit to characterize it as fault. From my point of view it was poetic justice. It was morally necessary for me to be cheated out of vicarity at the moment of climax, because my pseudo-pilgrimage was at heart a cheat. Fair's fair."
"Life's not reputed to be a very fair thing, Mr. Sum."
"Fair is in the eye of the beholder," he said with an earnest nod. "And don't tell me I've mistranslated the aphorism because the scholars who agree with my take could probably beat up the scholars anyone representing your side might cite." After a moment he said, "I hope you know I'm joking. It's a terrible habit."
"You saved my life," I said. "And Scotia's, too."
He smirked. "Well that's a shining example of two acts that sort of cancel each out. Poof!" Then he said, "I'm sorry, that's dreadful. Civilized people never joke about anti-matter. Or the comparative value of human lives, I suppose." He cleared his throat. "I don't get out much."
I smiled. "Enjoy your summit stone, Mr. Sum. I'm really glad I got to be a part of bringing it to you. I think you probably do deserve it, after all. You seem nice."
"Are you trying to go? Please don't go. Please stay a while. I don't mean to be rude."
"I don't think you're rude, I think you're hilarious. But I am trying to go because I had to get same-day train tickets or it would've cost too much. I've got a new job but I'm saving up for a few things, so." I looked at his carpet. I took my purse from my right arm and hung it on my left for some reason. When I looked up again Sum was wearing a peculiar little grin.
"I never get to say this," he said, "but I'd like to try it out: do you have any idea who I am?"
"Are you going to offer to buy me train tickets, because I think that would make me uncomfortable. I mean thank you but no thank you."
"It's my train."
"It's your I'm sorry?"
"Sander-LeRoche Pan-Planetary Transport. The historic limited-liability intelligence complex. I own it. The lines, the trains, the yards, the stations, the robots."
Instead of saying something smart I blurted, "Is that a hard job?"
Sum smiled. "They don't ask a lot of me."
"I still don't want a free ride," I warned him. "That would put me in a position."
He expression was child-like in its unvarnished disappointment. "But I just met you again and I don't want you to go."
I turned to one of the many robots in the room. "So why don't you come over? By proxy, of course. I've got someone I'd really like you to meet. She likes to laugh a lot these days and you two have a lot in common."
Sum looked at me sideways. "Are you trying to set me up with your undatable sister?"
I nodded. "There's a few things you should know, though --"
He grinned. "I've done my homework. I always do my homework. What else is there to do? Listen, Miss Claire: I'm not at all offended by your apt suspicion that I might have a weakness for girls in your league of pretty who also happen to be housebound and single."
I was blushing. I turned away. "So you'll accompany me?"
"Let me just get a clean proxy on," said Sum. He held up one hand and wiggled his fingers in a complex pattern.
An old but polished steward with an artfully decorated carapace stepped up smartly. I think it was probably the nicest one in Sum's collection -- a real classic. "Madam, this unit can serve as proxy," said the robot.
"Awesome," I said. "But when we get there I want to hear you speak up for yourself. I don't want my sister falling in love with your robot, Mr. Sum. Right?"
The robot opened its mouth and spoke with a slight echo in Sum's voice as Sum himself spoke on the far side of the membrane. "No de Bergerac routine. Understood, Miss Claire. Lead the way. But don't rush. We'll take my car. Car, tell the stationmaster Sum Sander's stand-in is sallying forth!"
The double-doors flew open, and we walked out and away from his body as it waved good-bye.
So that's how everyone could come to dinner, even Sum. Sum's proxy arrived with me, straight off the train from Nirgal and to our apartment door. I paused to dust the dust from the shoulders of the robot steward. "How do I look?" it asked with Sum's voice.
"Retro," I said.
We went inside. I could hear Madeleine laughing from the kitchen. Rolo was telling dirty jokes. I swept in and introduced the robot as nearly but not quite Sum from the Nirgal, owner of the pilgrim by proxy. Rolo's eyes widened. "Sum Sander --" he began.
"No," denied the steward quickly, shaking its gleaming head, "Sum Johnson. No relation."
"Because they say there's one of the Sander boys who's got some kind of secret condition and he never leaves --"
"Sum is a pretty common name," claimed the steward. Then, pointing at itself, asked, "Miss Claire, where should I park this thing?"
We decided to go to the sitting room. I pushed Madeleine's new wheelchair. She was smiling. She smiled all the time now. "So how was Nirgal?" she asked, craning her head up to look back at me.
"Historic and frenetic," I said. "I got you a snow-globe at the train station."
"Love you, sis."
She reached out to take it and then wheeled herself over to put it on the shelf, using her own doughy arms for locomotion. Ever since we'd decided to walk to space again one day together she'd been doing more and more for herself. We were having a lot of fun together again, like we used to when we were kids. How did my climb up a mountain cause Madeleine to stop being one? I don't entirely know, but I suspect it means it really was me that was keeping her down somehow. It was my own lack of hope that smothered hers before it could even kindle.
"I brought dessert," said Rolo, pinching my shoulder. "Six of your favourite flavours!"
"Do you think you-know-who will really show?" asked Madeleine.
"I don't know who you-know-who is," said Sum's proxy.
I smiled. "It's Scotia. And maybe she'll come and maybe she won't. We won't wait on her. The invitation said we dine at nineteen sharp."
"Scotia?" echoed Sum's proxy. "The woman who set you up to fail on Olympus?"
"She may have thought she was setting me up to fail but in the end she set me up to unfail, now didn't she?"
"Not on purpose," Madeleine pointed out.
"Purposes are a confused business," I said. "We work through ourselves in mysterious ways. Now let's get all this carried out to the table. Maddy, where's your tray? You're a ferry. Sum can load and unload you."
"With your permission," said the steward for Sum.
Madeleine's round cheeks pinkened. "Toot-toot," she said.
"What should I do?" asked Rolo.
The door chimed. I looked toward it and then back at Rolo. "You can answer the door, I guess."
He smiled but didn't move. "What if it's Scotia?"
He smiled sheepishly again. "I'm kind of afraid of her."
I rolled my eyes.
Scotia brought a big bowl of salad and it was the only thing she looked at for the first few minutes. I put it down on the kitchen counter and her eyes followed it. "I'm glad you came," I told her, but when I reached out to touch her hand she flinched. "You don't have to feel anxious."
"I'm not anxious," she said to the salad. "I just keep feeling like something bad may happen. Like this is all an elaborate joke. So you can humiliate me somehow. Which I probably even deserve somewhat."
Back in the sitting room everyone laughed at something at once. To Scotia I said, "I don't need revenge on you. Okay? If it weren't for you I'd never have climbed the mountain."
"We used you," Scotia said, looking up at me for a second. She put her hands together tightly. "I recognize that now."
"Okay," I agreed easily. "So why don't you carry that salad out to the dining room because this oven says it's almost finished working on dinner?" I tugged on a pair of oven mitts with cat faces on the back of them. The cat faces had silly eyes that roamed randomly while their tongues stuck out.
Scotia took a step closer. "I've come here tonight prepared to apologize to you," she told me earnestly, now holding my gaze properly.
I shrugged and smiled. "Who cares?"
When I straightened from the oven with the roast in hand I headed straight out to the dining room. Madeleine wheeled up to the table with a bottle of wine in her lap. The steward helped her to open it while Rolo took his seat and unfolded a napkin upon his lap. When Scotia didn't follow me out I pushed through the swinging door back into the kitchen. "The salad?" I said.
"I don't think you understand where I'm coming from, Claire. This is a big deal for me to take responsibility for my part in what happened to you up there on Olympus."
"Oh yeah?" I said, scooping up the salad. "Can you grab the salad tongs hanging on the wall behind you there? I think Rolo's going to start eating the table if we don't get him started."
"You're not taking my apology seriously," pleaded Scotia, her flawless brow furrowed.
I offered her another friendly shrug. "It's not always about you."
At table Scotia's salad proved popular. We'd nearly finished it by the time she emerged from the kitchen and quietly took the last vacant seat. She interrupted a lively conversation to say, "I understand now you've brought me here to humiliate me by refusing my apology, Claire. And I can't blame you for that."
I put down my chopsticks and looked at her. "I didn't ask you here to humiliate you. I don't have a plan to punish you. There's no secret lesson in what's going on here tonight. I included you because it's my party to celebrate the summiting, and you're part of that, too. I tried to invite Svetlana but she blocks my communications; and Suzumi -- well, obviously she couldn’t come. So I'm very glad you could, Scotia. But you're not the guest of honour or even the guest of dishonour. You're just a guest. Okay?"
Scotia seemed puzzled. "But aren't you streaming this?"
I shook my head. "Nope. At least, I'm not. Rolo? Sum? Maddy?"
"What kind of a degenerate would stream a private dinner without consent?" scoffed Rolo. "I'm not an animal."
Scotia narrowed her eyes. "Then what's the point of acting all forgiving toward me if there's no audience? What kind of twisted game is this, Claire?"
"It's just real life. There's no score. No influence index. No trending in the library-commons. Just how we feel and what we see."
"But what everyone saw is my curated stream. And I cut it the way I cut it before you could cut something worse, and I didn't know you'd be forgiving me, so it's cut that way and that's the way it's linked and trending."
I looked at her blankly.
"You haven't watched the stream set, have you?"
I shook my head. "Maddy and I don't subscribe. Too expensive."
Rolo snorted. "I've seen it. And you make out Claire to be a monster, you cow." He turned to me. "I didn't say anything because I didn't want to upset you. It's a cruel portrait. You pre-signed consent when you configured the beads for a group documentary. I even consulted a barrister complex about it for you, but it said censorship would cost a fortune."
"I don't mind," I said, waving that away. "Why should I care about something I'll never see?"
"Everybody thinks you're a loser," Scotia said quietly.
I startled her by laughing. "Sister, I'm fat. Even after climbing a mountain I'm still fat. And do you know what that means? It means most people already think I'm a loser, no matter what I do or say or stream." I forced my expression to sober as I reached gently across the table and touched Scotia's hand. "You can't take away from me what I've never had, Scotia. I'm not popular. And I won’t be. You may see that as something I'll never have, but I just see it as something I'll never need."
Scotia didn't know what to say. Rolo got up to come over and squeeze my shoulders. "Excretums," swore Maddy. "That was nicely delivered, sis. It really is too bad nobody's streaming out."
Awkwardly the retro steward tilted its head and made the sound of clearing its throat. "Actually I stream out everything. It's a terrible habit. Large following, and so on. I'm afraid my charming hostess will have to forgive me for having just made the last seventy-two seconds of her life a top trending topic globally."
Rolo straightened. "I can't believe it -- you really are Sum Sander!" He reached out to shake the steward's hand.
"Sum Sander?" choked Scotia.
I turned to Madeleine. "I should really start reading the news more often, shouldn't I?"
"Reclusive transport magnate and vicarity advocate Sum Sander?" said Madeleine, eyes on the robot. "Housebound, rich and single? You dog, Claire -- I hardly bothered with my hair!"
"Your hair is sublime," said Sum through the steward. "Like candy-floss fire."
I rolled my eyes. "I'm going to switch seats," I said, getting out of their way. "I'm going to scooch in next to you Scotia."
Scotia threw up bits of salad into her lap. She covered her face with her hands and stumbled to the kitchen.
"That was off-putting," said Rolo, pushing his own salad away. He drained his wine.
"Poor Scotia!" I said.
Rolo looked at me around his wine glass. "You're incorrigible. Can't you hate her just a little, Claire? Try. At least try to try."
I shrugged and took up my own glass. "I can't see the point. She already hates herself enough for both of us, so."
Rolo refilled his glass and we had a little private toast. "Here's to that," he said.
"You're mean," I told him.
"The world is mean."
"Maybe. But I've walked right out of the world, and up top there's nothing but silence and a magnificent indifference."
"You still haven't told us what it was like. You've told us everything else, but nothing about what it was actually like up there, when you were at the peak."
I looked down bashfully and swirled my wine. "That's because it's mine."
"It was too awesome for words?"
"In a way, yes. But not because it could never be described. But because it shouldn't. Because my time there was too real to be ever brought down to the ground with words. I was there, and those moments are just for me. I think if I tried to share them they'd dissolve. You can't tell somebody about standing in space. It has to be lived."
Scotia was throwing up in the kitchen. The robot proxy and Madeleine had their heads inclined toward one another and were conversing quietly. Nobody was eating the poor oven's roast. Rolo poured another round of wine.
We touched our glasses together but said nothing more. Nothing more needed to be said.
We walked to space.
Nearly all of us made it back. Some of us who made it back made it as a shadow of their former selves, but some of us came back more ourselves than ever. Some of us got knocked down to humility, and for some of us our humility allowed us to stand taller than we’d ever stood before. One kind of person goes up the mountain and another kind comes down. It can be surprising to find out who is who.
It isn’t for people up there. But none of this world is. And looking down from above the sky helps remind us of that. A confluence of technology and history steered by the benevolent self-interest of a giant fungal spore is all that stands between civilization and ruin. The air we breathe barely clings to this world, and so so do we.
We aren’t supposed to be here, but we’re here anyway. We exist in spite of it all. If God had a plan for us it was probably irretrievably derailed the day we left the Earth behind. The promised land, the covenants, the miracles -- we live and work and eat outside of their country now. And so I guess maybe our luck is our own. And maybe if we’re damned we damn ourselves.
I choose grace. I don’t want to punish myself anymore. I believe there’s a future where we all get to laugh a lot, and I can get there if I try.
Space itself couldn’t stop me. What chance does anyone else have?