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A Rest Stop In A Long Valley
"Head in the clouds, eyes on the stars, that was me."
Greetings, my fellow fiction-aficionados!
Today, I’m very excited to bring you.
Edward writes, where he imagines the future, through the lens of the past, with lyrical historical essays and Sci-Fi novels.
On this fine Saturday morning, he’s sharing with us one of his intriguing short stories… Enjoy!
2916 Mars, Tharsis Region, Valles Marineris Main Line
It was the kind of quiet that comes with the cadence of machinery performing as designed, manufactured, and maintained.
In the daytime, the view was a rolling unfolding of centuries of settlements and homesteads scattered through the deep long scar of the fourth world of the System.
Falling asleep came easy in the cabin. It was designed to do just that. Generations of designers and of design intelligences tested and retested for encouraging sleep and the feeling of stillness in a giant moving machine. The thing, however, was staying asleep, staying in the dark of the mind’s deepest valleys. The problems were the dreams. The cabin offered nanos for that but they didn’t work. Not for her, not in a long time.
That was the problem. Even with all streams boxed off, even if the cabin was as sealed in as a Faraday, one couldn’t shut off sights, sounds, and senses stored in one’s head.
“Approaching Melas Chasm County,” said the cabin.
She sat on the side of the bed. She didn’t wave on the ‘feed. She knew what they said. They’ve been saying the same thing for days and days. Lenamay rumors persist, Roque Cooperative denies rumors, issues no comment, Updates at the top of the hour.
“Mumme, think you got a new customer.”
The woman looked through her customhouse’s front window, watched for less than a minute as a tall, robed and hooded stranger walked down the street, and then went back to work, and cleared a table in preparation. A few minutes later, the stranger walked in, paused to look around for a host, locked eyes with the woman, who led the way to the table.
Looking up, the woman saw the stranger’s face, half-hidden under the hood. The young woman, no, she was more a girl, was tall, but she could have been blown down by a small gust of wind in town, never mind a dust storm on the plains. A young woman with faraway eyes, a little frail to be left alone thought the host. Not from here.
“Quaregahl, Ingermica,” greeted the woman, without thinking, as customhouse host, ending with a friendly informality of “my little angel”.
The greeting of the four gifts. Air. Water. Shelter From The Unsheltered Sky. Food. Since the time when sunsets were still blue and to be unsheltered was death, this was the greeting of each host to any visitor. Long after they remade the world, the customs remained, and took on new meanings with the coming and ending of the Long War.
To the host’s surprise, the tall frail stranger responded with a near local accent, “Quagrahtz, Mumme.” Near local but not local. Acceptance and acknowledgement of the gift with gratitude and respect, since the before times when sunsets were blue and the unsheltered sky was death. Gratitude for life.
“Ingermica, you are far from here,” said the host, who brought water and the first dishes of food. She poured a cup of water for the girl, who accepted it with both hands, fingers interlocked, in the customary fashion of the old Valley. Who was this girl? Nevermind, attend to her as the ‘Mother’ of this customhouse would for any visitor.
“Yehyeh, Mumme,” nodded the girl who fell silent and drank the water.
Memories of raising children was enough for the woman to default to feeding the girl, and giving her time to collect herself. The host attended to her other guests, some of whom glanced over, sometimes twice but kept to themselves. Some time later, as the customhouse emptied but for the stranger, the girl walked into the kitchen with plates emptied of their food, which pleased the old woman, who nodded over at the basin to her right. She then nodded at the faucet and looked at the girl.
The day was done, the old woman could put away the role of customhouse host.
Now was time to talk while the girl cleaned dishes, who being taller than most, stooped over a bit, leaned over the sink a touch as she cleaned the dishes by hand. The water drained back into the customhouse’s plumbworks, recycled for reuse.
“That’s quite a walk from the depot. I take it you’re from one of the Bigs?”
The Bigs, one of the cities, great urban nodes strung along the long rail network of the Tharsis, metallic-composite veins grown and grafted into the Valles Marineris, the godsized canyon of the world. The girl was surely from one of them, perhaps from triplecities of Tharsis Montes, or maybe as far as O-mons, Olympus Mons. Maybe farther.
The girl nodded, “When I first came here, I used to travel through the valley. Trying to understand, what it’s like to be from here. I didn’t grow up here,” the girl tilted her head a degree in the old woman’s direction, with a small smile, “but you know that.”
The old woman nodded, kept her eyes on the pot and the half-dozen other things cooking for the breakfast meals. In the morning, others were coming to feed and rest, or eat and start, from town and as far as the rail station, “It’s on your face, you have a lot on your mind. With that much on your mind, you must have come even from even further away than the farthest Bigs.”
“We both know that you know that I’m not from any of the Bigs.”
“True. No, not even the farthest girls from the Bigs look like you, Ingermica.”
They both chuckled.
“I’m from the Outer. Jovians. Ganymede,” nodded the girl in confirmation of the old woman’s guesses.
The old woman put down her soup ladle, and took a look at the girl.
The girl froze. She wasn’t sure what to do. Did everyone else in the place earlier know too?
“I…,” The girl took a half step back.
“Oh, no, no, Ingermica. Don’t worry. Nobody here talks. You’re safe here.”
The old woman smiled, grasped the girl’s hands, and then she drew close and gave the girl’s hands a light squeeze. The girl paused for a moment and returned the gesture. “It’s you. You were there. You were there, when you woke my boy up. He was asleep for so long. After the war, he wasn’t the same. They took him to the Halls.”
The girl put down the dish she was cleaning, and held her hands in front of herself. For a moment, she didn’t seem as tall to the old woman. Indeed, the girl felt small for a moment.
“He was there? The Halls of Reverence? That feels like a long time ago.”
The old woman smiled. “Long time ago, indeed, for you to say such a thing, long time ago, so young to say that. It was five years ago, and you’re right, it feels like a long time ago. When you were there. You woke him up. You woke so many of them up. Some who were here tonight, they had children too, grandchildren, in the war, and then later, some of those returned, whose minds were lost, were cared for in the Halls. It’s not our way here, nobody will say even if they knew for sure you were the one at the Halls. Quaregahl.”
“I understand,” the girl gave a light exhale and nodded in relief.
“You will stay here for as long as you like. But the others, the youngers, there are some looking for you? Through the ‘Verse? Maybe even the Triumvirate itself, its enforcers.”
“I can cut myself off from the ‘Verse. When anything of the ‘Verse sees me, it doesn’t see me, it sees something, someone else. But it takes a lot out of me. It makes it hard to sleep, sometimes to stay awake like everyone else in the daytime. But it works.”
The old woman closed up the place, and showed the girl her room for the night.
“Before you sleep, Ingermica, let me show you something.”
The girl followed the old woman into a small room. It was a room with a couple of armchairs and the clutter of a long life. There was a table on which there were many pictures, both static and stream. A memory parlor. The old woman picked up one, showing three young men.
“My boys. We lost two of them, James and Andrew, during the War. But the youngest, John, he came home. He wasn’t the same. The war changed him. The war took so many of their minds and never gave them back. At the Halls, they tried to do all they could for him, I could not take care of him as I used to. I used up all I had in taking care of my husband, their father. He’s gone now. My boy lived in the Halls, like many of the others who came home but never returned. He’s finally at peace now, my baby.”
The girl held a picture of the old woman’s son. He was smiling, his uniform was new.
The old woman continued, “but for years he was lost, then five years ago, a miracle. The ‘Miracle of the Halls’, they called it afterwards. For a little while, my son was home, he was himself. I don’t know how you did it. Can I ask you, how did you do it?”
The girl sat down in the small room and looked at all the pictures in the room.
“Back home, on Ganymede, when I was very young, I got sick. The war left behind new diseases. My mother cried every day. One day, a man came to the clinic, and he treated me. Some kind of doctor. I wasn’t the same.
But then, my mother said I wasn’t the same as the others, ‘head in the clouds, eyes on the stars, Elena’. I used to dream about the stars but they were so far away.
When I was sick, Momma used to cheer me up with the expees she could afford. My first ones were about the stars, and faraway places, that’s all I ever thought about. Soon I learned to make my own. My friends made fun of them, they kept asking why not make ones about Earth or Mars, about all the places they dreamed about. Them, not me.
Head in the clouds, eyes on the stars, that was me. Was.
Anyway, I got better at making them, I could do things with expees no one else could. I made them for fun, then I made them for tourists to help bring in lokens, local tokens, for food and rent. I made them for local competitions for prizes, later prize money. One day, a woman, Lady Fernanda, from here, this world, found out about me. She talked with my mother first. Momma was sad but she agreed it was for the best. Opportunity. After a while, I forgot about the stars.
“You were a very brave girl to come so far from home, Ingermica.”
“On my first day, right after arriving, I tripped and fell on her. I wanted to run.”
The girl laughed a moment and shook her head at the memory, “And Lady Fernanda, she didn’t mind, so that helped me be less scared. Soon after, she took me to the Halls. The Reverence and Remembrance Halls. I never saw anything like it. We have places back home but nothing like the Halls. She asked me to try to do what I do but for the people living there, an expee for all of the soldiers being cared for in the Halls.
I was even more scared than when I said goodbye to my mother and got on the transport but the Lady looked at me and wasn’t scared. Somehow she knew.
So, I connected through the Halls, to all of them. Your son. In the Halls, it was like I was there with all of them, I saw through their eyes, they saw through mine. And something happened. Something that never happened before. It was like so many closed eyes began to open all at once. So much in that moment.”
“I still don’t understand, how did you bring my boy back, how did you do it?”
The girl kept her gaze on the picture of the old woman’s son.
“I’m not sure, I just know I can. After I was cured, I found out I could partition myself, my mind. Sometimes I’m in many expees at once, sometimes the same one for many people. Sometimes, it’s the reverse, I’m with many minds, many people, inside the same expee, at the same time. Most of the time, after a while I forget things, but I know, I felt it happened but I half-remember, like in dreams.”
“Here you are, sitting in my house. It is a dream, come true, all the way from Ganymede. To come from so far away, to bring my boy back to me. If only I knew it was possible when they brought him there, I wouldn’t have given up but I had my husband, the boys’ father, to take care of. It’s a mother’s shame, to give up because you never ever want to give up. Your mother. She must miss you so much. She is still home, do you talk with her?”
The girl nodded and looked down. The old woman guessed, Her mother, that’s why she’s here. Something.
“My mother, a few weeks ago, I found out she got sick, the same way I did, only there wasn’t anyone there who could help her. The man who helped me was gone, nobody knows where. She was so far away, and I wasn’t there with her. She never told me, nobody from home told me she was sick. I couldn’t be there for her.
I didn’t tell Lady Fernanda, she was used to me exploring, to learn, this time I just left.”
The old woman sat next to the girl, took her hands in hers, and the girl let her.
The girl continued, “I went to the first city I visited when I first came here. When I realized that people were looking for me, I covered up. Well, they weren’t looking for me, Elena Firmina May, they were looking for ‘Lenamay’, the name given to me after the Halls when I began to do shows, tours, and performances. The System is wondering where is ‘Lenamay’ but not me.”
The girl gestured at the pictures, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry I couldn’t make it last longer, last forever. I was told later that it faded for everyone. Please believe me, I’m sorry.”
The old woman squeezed girl’s hands, “Oh no, Ingermica. I’m grateful. Just to have him back, after so long, even if it didn’t last, you have no idea. For me, and for many others, after so much nothing that was everything.” This poor girl just wants to be left alone.
The old woman stood up. “Come, you must sleep. In the morning, you will have some of my son’s favorite foods for breakfast. I haven’t made them in so long. Rest well, Ingermica. Elena.”
As soon as she was under the bed’s soft covers, Elena fell asleep. No dreams.
In the morning, the host, after she began to prepare breakfast, went to wake up Elena but she had left already. On the table was a stream. The girl had left it for her. It was like the ones in the old mother’s memory parlor but it was new, it was her son John. A note came with it.
“I remember. Here is everything I remember, from him in this stream, for you. I remember him, and the others from that day. I remember why. My mother was right, head in the clouds, eyes on the stars. The stars. Quagrahtz, Mumme. Elena.”
“Quaregahl, Ingermica,” said the old woman to herself. After kissing it, the mother put the stream of her youngest son in a pocket, and began to prepare the customhouse for the day’s visitors.
The sound of the train as it passed by the township echoed in the air.
Notes on the real Valles Marineris:
Valles Marineris, is a system of canyons on Mars, the largest of the Solar System, 10 times longer (2,500 miles (4,000 km), 20 times wider (120 miles, 200 km), and five times deeper (4.3 miles, 7 km) than Earth’s Grand Canyon. It is as long as the United States is wide.
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