“You’re here. Good. Come so. I’m going to Colum’s,” Kev said as I came into the door. “And I would be please if you accompanied me.”
I sighed. “Will I be toting or toiling?” I asked. I wanted to know if I would be doing manual labor and should change to work clothes.
“What? No. No. It’s my latest book. It’s ready at Colum’s. He’s printed it.”
“Please not quiz me as you quizzed me with your books before,” I said. I regretted what I said instantly.
Kev looked at me. “Well…. Ha. So…. Please don’t quiz you? Ha. I just…, I wanted to know how well I… if I wrote clearly. You’re reasonably intelligent and capable of comprehending—most of the time. Yes, you’re a fourteen-year-old male, and you have a partially developed cerebral cortex. Your impulse control and emotional intelligence want for maturation. Ha. But you should be able to understand what I wrote. You should have the intellect for one of my books. That’s why I ask you about them.”
Colum Fountain Curio’s owned that gray building on a muddy hill near the foot of Landing Ridge. The flat roof had three oversized vent hoods that dwarfed the building. Below the muddy hill was a muddy flat area next to a muddy creek where he built his house and painted it the same drab bluish gray. Rains splashed the surrounding muddy ground and gave both buildings muddy skirts.
“Doesn’t he make colors?” Columbine Muller Devi asked me once. “What a boring building. Couldn’t he have chosen something more… vibrant? Some color more interesting?”
I asked Colum why he didn’t paint his workshop a more attractive color.
“It’s good to go unnoticed,” he told me.
“What? Why?” I asked.
“Boring on the outside lets folk think boring on the inside.”
“I understand not.”
“I don’t want anyone burgling me,” he said. “Does that building look like I own anything worth burgling?”
Colum had computer cores that the Intelligences brought with them from Earth. On those cores was all the information from Earth that they decided would be useful to start a new civilization. Those cores also contained a lot of not-so-useful details as well. For example, they recorded that the winner of the Dubai Marathon in 2043 had been Vikram Niri. Why would anyone on Terra Beata care? Why was that worth the trouble to bring all those light-years from Earth?
Colum searched those cores for ways he could use old Earth technology to make a living. He decided to create pigments and dyes. From his early twenties, he mixed the complex chemistry for color in vats that sat underneath those vent hoods.
“All was dull grays, browns, and whites as before Colum,” Mom told me. “He’s mild meat, he is. Now so, an uninteresting man. But he made Terra Beata colorful.”
Colum used the cores for other things, as well. Kev sold hundreds of tapes that Colum compiled from Earth music. He liked reading Twentieth Century and Twenty-First Century English-language books and sold printing plates of his favorite books to Gara Fuchs Saar. The telibars come to his workshop once a week to buy videos not already seen in Aoustin.
We heard gunnies up and down the river based on the Rolling Stones, No Hurt, Robert Johnson, and Brian See from those tapes. Colum’s the reason the boys my age quoted lines from Brantley’s Revenge. He’s the reason we have ten copies of A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul in the library.
He collected the most gold coins by shipping dyes to the weavers in Neck and pigments to the paint makers in Aoustin. Colum and Kev had been friends when young, and Colum paid our corp to take barrels of dyes and mordant to Neck, and we returned with the empty barrels. Other riverlings wanted his business, but Colum stayed loyal to Kev.
The folks who did business with Colum knew what he sorts of things he made in his workshop. It surprised me that his workshop generated rumors and mystery.
It came up while I ate with a group during our mid-shift break at school.
Cecilia Bat Zhang looked up from her meal and turned to me. “I eye you as you go into such laundry. You labor within?”
“Laundry?” I asked.
“The int close at the foundation of Landing Ridge. Away behind the trees. The gray int.”
“Such’s no laundry,” I told her.
“It’s a laundry,” Cornelius Pinas Madua told me authoritatively. “Everyone speaks such.”
“No,” I corrected him. “Hear me. Remind yourself such I’ve been inside. I say it’s not a laundry. Truth.”
“They concoct drugs for the Vandal Horde,” Mary Hall Murray said. “Such int poisoning the town with fumes.”
“No, the owner, he’s a friend,” I told her. “My father’s friend. My family’s corp hauls upriver for him. He generates dyes, mostly. That shirt you’re wearing, such? Made as with his dye. And he hoards stuff. On one wall, he had panels one to another stacked. They were cut off from a spacecraft long-long-long since.”
“Old spacecraft…,” Cornelius said.
I caught myself. Colum did not want people to know he had anything valuable in there. “He collects trash such as discarded.”
“How so interesting is the trash he must have?” Cornelius asked.
“Not so.” Again, I lied. “Unlessen you recon broken old-old interesting.”
But, in truth, the inside of his workshop fascinated me.
When we were little, Xavi and I played with the Earth equipment he had stacked everywhere. We twisted ineffectual nobs. I shouted commands to deaf electronics. We pushed imaginary buttons on long-dead screens. Even as I got to be older, I imagined I was back on Earth when I came to Colum’s. I pretended his workshop was a small factory or a scientist’s lab somewhere on Earth. Maybe, the workshop was in the United States. Or the European Union.
Colum let me sit in front of his screens and listen to music and watch old videos. Through his computer, I used virtuals to wander up and down streets in cities light-years away and talked to people who had been dead for hundreds of years. I experienced night. And I looked up to see the sister planet of Earth, the Moon, hanging half-lit in the sky.
Colum opened the door for us, “Hayo, yagize!”
Once inside, it took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The building had few windows, and those let in shafts of light illuminating a row of large metal tanks line up through the middle of the large room.
Colum and Kev walked to a wooden table with a stack of paper. I got closer and saw Kev’s latest book as flat sheets, not yet bound into a book.
“So, finally. The last of your books,” I said, teasing Kev.
“No. I have more to write,” Kev said.
“Is this going to be the same size as the others?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
I joked some more. “Your books are adequate for swatting up raccoons.”
“Look closely at the type, Pierrot,” Colum bent over with his nose almost pressing against the page while looking through a magnifying glass. He spoke in a soft voice, barely audible above the pumps and in the room. “I dronned with that printer more. You can barely see dots.” Like Kev, he talked the talk on the videos.
He gave me the magnifying glass. I bent over and examined the top page. It looked better than any other book I had seen. I felt the smooth new paper between my fingers.
“What count of this book will you generate?” I asked Kev.
“I opine that it’ll have few readers,” Kev noted. “Ha! Why try? Let’s get this book bound, and no one will read it. When done, I can send it to languish unused on the College library shelf.”
“Before you go, I have something for Pierrot.” Colum walked to his office and soon came back. He held what looked like a small book in his hand. He held it out to me, smiling.
“I’m loaning this to you. Mind what I say, I’m not giving this to you, just loaning it.” He held out the book for me to take. It had a brass cover.
I took it from him and opened it. What I thought was a book was a screen, a small computer, and it looked ancient.
“It came here from Earth,” Colum continued. “It’s a small computer. I filled it with movies and books and music.”
I held the small device in my hand. Colum reached over and pressed a button. The screen flickered to life, and I could tell it had faded severely. The screen only displayed washed-out colors that had begun a merge toward a low contrast, monochromatic hue. An electronic stain flickered across one edge of the screen. The glass cracked.
I began to tear up.
“I… this happies me,” I stammered.
“Say ‘thank-you,’” Kev reminded me.
“Remember. I’m just loaning this to you?”
But Momma didn’t like the computer. At all. I found out clearly when I got home.
“Damn, tell me Colum gave not you such?” she complained.
I still held out the computer that Colum lent to me. I had run into the house excited and hunted Momma out to show it to her. I didn’t expect her reaction.
“And where so were you?” Momma asked Kev.
“I don’t understand,” Kev answered.
“He gets so lost enough within Earth solely as with books and movies.” She said, turning back to me. “Now, he has a computer. Earth, Earth, Earth. Such’s all he speaks. The Earth in the books and movies and on the computers exists not. Terra Beata, today, is the real world.”
“Earth’s not real?” I asked defiantly.
“What? So now, Earth still exists… in some form. But it’s different than what you’ve seen. It essentially to be different. Too many years have flowed past. Even so, such which you see in books and movies was not real. It’s fancy. It was fancy then. Remember, shit stinks on Earth, too.”
“Now so, shit stinks on Earth,” I said.
“You making fun of me? You say not that word, ‘shit.’ You’re too young to say such.”
“Say not shit,” I said. I regretted it the moment I heard myself say the words.
“Stop such taunts!” she growled with murder in her eyes.
“Yes, ma’am,” I tried again. “Don’t get lost in Earth.”
Despite her objections, she let me keep the computer.
Kev spent about a week every month at home. When he was home, I spent time with him, helping with the boat and the business. For the first few months after I got the computer, I hid away and used that screen between school and the sleep shift whenever Kev wasn’t home.
“Get out from the house,” she told me. “And leave such thing in with here.”
Each day after that, when I came home from school, she fed me, then told me, “Go so.”
My friend Marvin, Marvin Rey Giang, worked on the docks to make extra money. Through Kev, I knew most of the riverlings, and they knew me. I felt comfortable there. So, I usually went to the bayou to where the boats came in.
Marvin had entered the intermediate stage between childhood and adulthood of acne, constant growth, and voracious hunger. I had not. He stood much taller over me and made me look smaller than I was.
The folk on the docks called me Bait, short for fish bait, because of my size. Some riverlings gave Marvin the name Cat Boy. I guess they called him that because he liked to show off his forte at jumping high or across long distances. Marvin did what Marvin did, and jumping is what he did. A few other riverlings called him Fur Butt. I never wanted to know why they called him that.
Marvin and I worked together as dock monkeys. I did not have the strength or size the other dock monkeys did. But, because I was small, I could crawl into crowded holds and stow cargo in spaces too small for the bigger guys. Riverlings liked my father. They gave me work because of him. They also didn’t pay me as much as the larger men. I didn’t mind. At the age of fourteen, I didn’t need much.
I meandered around the docks and waited for someone to give me work by yelling, “Hey, bait!” as I walked by.
Marvin and I usually ranged along the docks with Marvin’s older brother, Samster Rey Giang. The riverling folks called him Samster.
So riverlings didn’t just yell, “Hey bait!” when they needed me. They sometimes yelled, “Hey Samster, Cat Boy, Bait!”
The other dock monkeys I worked with included Breaker, Tripod, Goose Neck, Grease, Black Hole, and Jim.
I didn’t always go to the docks. I don’t abide by monotony well. At least once a week, I went on one of my perambulations. I took Kev’s old militia rucksack and tried to get lost in the woods. Once, I followed the bayou and ended up in swamp filled with water boiling up from sandy springs.
Another time, I walked along the base of Landing Ridge and found a steep trail to the top. I traveled back along the flat top of the ridge back towards town. I sat and felt the wind the country folk called Chuck rush over it. The wind blew much harder up there.
The river cut through Landing Ridge at Aoustin, and I looked out over the edge down to the town far below. The boats looked like toys on the river. Looking limbward, with the sun at my back, to the tree-covered landscape looked more rolling than it did from the river. I saw hills on the horizon. Looking sunward, I could barely make out the bright sand as the river spilled into the ocean. I could not see the sea directly. It lay beneath a thick white haze that the clung like a line of clouds to the edge of seeing. Another, lower ridge, was separated from Landing Ridge by a shallow valley that contained the main road that ran sunright and snaked to the Unlaw.
I searched the top of the ridge for entrances to the tunnels. The Intelligences had carved tunnels into the hill when they first landed. I saw no new openings, but I did see where someone had piled rocks in a monument of sorts. I added a stone of my own to the top.
Occasionally I disobeyed Momma and slipped the computer into the rucksack. When I did that, I hid in an unsealed tunnel entrance I knew about not far from Colum’s workshop at the base of Landing Ridge. There, a stiff cooling breeze poured from the tunnels.
Those tunnels were both intriguing and menacing.
The Intelligences cut the tunnels throughout Landing Ridge soon after the ships from Earth landed. The fregs they cut with left behind a smooth, glassy surface. Those tunnels are the oldest Earth-made structures on Terra Beata. The original people of this planet were born and raised there. The passages within Landing Ridge preserved history. They tied us to Earth.
But the tunnels hid Aoustin’s darkness.
My friends told me stories of the mentally ill who took refuge hidden within Landing Ridge. Men and women, not able to face society, secreted away in the darkness of the underground labyrinth. Parents told their children those stories, I thought. They said this to them to keep them from exploring the dangerous maze so close to town. There are stories, too, of little boys and girls getting lost inside and dying of thirst and starvation in pitch blackness.
But the breeze that blew from the tunnels did confirm that people lived deep within. I could smell faint evidence of humanity. The breeze always seemed to have a faint hint of human sewage. And sometimes the odor cooked maize and bread and meats and spices came from inside. Someone or someones lived deep within.
I usually stayed near the entrance when I visited the tunnels. I used a torch from Miss Genius to see.
The unreal light of the torch revealed the peeling paint and the rusting anchor bolts in the wall. Once, I walked around a corner, and I could no longer see the faint light from the entrance behind me. I turned off the torch. I had never known darkness that profound. I moved my hands in front of my face, and it was as if I didn’t exist.
I used the tunnels for an experiment that failed. I wondered to myself what a campfire in the darkness of an Earth night would be. I had the most authentic lack of light that I would find on Terra Beata.
I started my fire in a small room some distance from the entrance. I piled wood and paper I scavenged from town into a shaky pyramid. I also brought a cardboard box full of flammable cellpells from the Miss Genius, as well. I knew fires were hard to start, so I used a lot of paper.
I lit the paper, which ignited the cellpells, which burned the wood. I turned off the torch and looked around as the flickering light illumined the walls. I was delighted. That’s what it must have been like for our cave-dwelling ancestors deep in our past.
My delight quickly turned into a hard-won lesson about creating fires without ventilation. The light of the flames lit the walls. That light also illuminated the copious amounts of smoke that poured from the fire. I sat there next to the fire, watching in awe as the smoke obscured the ceiling and formed a distinct layer in the air. I watched as that layer came lower and lower and soon engulfed me.
That day I learned that smoke was unbreathable. I coughed and hacked and fell on my knees to where the air was still clear next to the ground. I crawled quickly out to the corridor and then to the entrance. Still coughing after I ran out of the tunnels, I saw a column of white smoke rising from the opening in the hill.
Across the square next to the slips, I saw Kev come out of the corp’s warehouse. He waved for me to go to him.
“Magritte and Xavi just landed,” told me. He pointed at me, then at himself, and pantomimed driving the truck.
“How much time will they visit us?” I asked. I jumped and danced. It had been years since I last saw Magritte or Xavi.
When we got to the Ironsi landing field, two women stood next to a small pile of bundles off to one side. I recognized Aunt Magritte, but I only knew the other one was Xavi by her red hair. She had become an adult. They both stood motionless after we drove up, and Kev killed the engine.
“Greetings, sister,” Kev shouted out.
“Peace, Kev,” Magritte answered. I could barely hear her.
I walked over to Magritte.
“Hey Pierrot,” she said as she tousled my hair. I barely noticed. I looked wide-eyed at Xavi.
“Hi Pierrot,” Xavi said.
“You are… much…,” I said.
“Neanderthals mature sooner,” she said through tightly clenched teeth. “Peace to you, too.”
I stood before her, still a little boy even though I was fourteen. We were the same age, and she had become taller than me and curvy and buxom. I gawked at her breasts. They should not be there, but there they were.
“Pierrot!” Kev poked me. “Be polite. They don’t like that. Women don’t. At least, the few women I have spoken to about men staring at the bosoms don’t like it.”
“When have you ever talked to a woman about men staring at their breasts, Kev?” Aunt Magritte said incredulously.
He opened his mouth. Then he paused. “I can’t say.”
Embarrassed, I quickly looked up at Xavi’s face. My face burned with embarrassment. “My wrong,” I cried out. “I’m so sorry. Migone. My wrong.” I fixed my unblinking gaze at the ground.
“I wrong,” I said.
“I think whatever just happened to be very awkward,” Kev said. “Again, greetings, sister, and niece. How long will you two be visiting? Or, as Pierrot says, how much time?”
“I don’t desire to talk about any of it,” Magritte replied in the mountain accent. “Can we abide at your house?”
“You don’t want to talk about it,” Kev repeated. “Ha. That’s good. Let’s be even more awkward. I like this. Awkward moments make life interesting. Don’t you think? It is an interesting day. Yes, it is. It is becoming more and more awkward and more and more interesting. And yes, I think I can speak for both myself and Tennessee and say it is okay for you to abide at our house, even without a schedule for your stay worked out beforehand.”
We all stood there, quiet for what seemed an eternity.
“Well, with that, we go,” Kev said. “I’ll carry your packages to the truck, and Pierrot will be helpful. Here we go. Pierrot will carry your pieces. Pierrot. Helpful. Now.”
Before I could grab anything, Magritte and Xavi filled their arms with packages and walked towards the truck, leaving only a few things for Kev and me to carry.
Later that day, I found Xavi on the couch. She leaned back with glazed eyes. “My wrong, Xavi. I looked not at you like, you know…. You precisely are so different.”
“You’re not the only one.” She spoke heavy with the Mountain accent, as well.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Why your mother tell us not how much time you will abide at here?”
“The golden threads that bind two people, one to another, can be stretched and break.”
“My parents don’t want to live together. We may be in Aoustin for a long time.” Tears welled in her eyes.
I did not know what to say. I sat down on the other end of the couch and looked toward Xavi quietly. I notice how she smelled. That faint trace of foreignness drifted by, went away, and came back again. Her face had changed and became longer. The childish roundness of her face had become harder, but prettier. But I could see the Xavi I knew from years before in some of her briefest gestures.
“Now so, it’s well you returned,” I told her. “I missed you. Bad-bad it happened as this way, though. You and I can run together, more now. We can. I hope you allow me. Unfortunately, folk will think you are my mother.”
She laughed. “Don’t fret. You too shall pupate. Soon enough, you will be a chrysalis like me.” She gestured toward herself with flat hands in affected elegance.
“It shall be bad bad bad if I transform such a way as you. As Kev says, men… and women… would stare at my… bosoms. I wouldn’t like such. Not a bit.”
“Kev finished another book,” I said.
“Truth? A new one?”
I walked over to the shelf, retrieved Kev’s book, and sat next to Xavi. The strangeness of her smell became more powerful.
“I’ve read his other two,” she said.
That confused me. I looked up and corrected Xavi. “You have not. Yes. There are two other books like such. But you’re confused, so. You experience some other books. There’s only one number of each. The singular copies are down in the college library.”
“No,” she said confidently. “They’re Kev’s books. They are. Look at this!” She touched the page in front of us. “This book has drawings. They’re the originals!” Kev pasted his drawings from his notebooks directly into the book, on top of the words from Colum’s printer. “That’s the ink of his pen on the paper. The drawing looks much better than the reproductions do. What’s this one called? What so it yonded?”
“You’ve read not his books. You’ve his books confused up with another.” I said, perplexed by this time.
“Not unless another Kev Roux Dignac writes about Terrans. I like the drawings in Survey of Symbiotic Species within Terran Communities. What’s this about?”
I could not imagine a reality in which people read Kev’s books thousands of kilometers away in the mountains. “Now so…. Momma urged you to taunt me, had she not? Or was Kev, so?”
She got annoyed. “I don’t care if you do believe me. What is so strange about the Ironsi liking his books? Once more. What is this called?” She flipped to the front. “Intra-Hex Terran Symbiotic Structures and Connectivity to External Systems. Wow. That title tells me little. I wonder what it’s about.”
“Now, so, who has these books? Why so they have them?” I still did not believe her.
“My father’s family has them. The Ironsi. They have three copies of each. The paper is much different.” She felt the paper between her fingers. “I like this paper better than our copies. Is it okay if I read it?”
“I think I can speak for Kev and myself and say it is okay for you to read his book, even if you did not schedule reading it beforehand.”