Chieko flew us back in her pineapple yellow, antigravity car to the small town where she lives, and where the office of the SFPT that I know is located. I keep staring out of the surrounding windshield at the town, which has been built on both sides of a wide, winding river with fern green waters. I wouldn’t have considered this community a town. The buildings, which are megalithic, constructed from huge stone blocks, are distant enough from the rest as if they were farmhouses surrounded by grazing fields back in my native Gipuzkoa, but we keep coming across colorful flying cars, so I guess that the inhabitants of Mars walk around on the stone footpaths for leisure and exercise.
Both suns, the original and the one that Chieko called artificial, are dipping into the horizon, dyeing the sky in coral and watermelon pinks. I’m tired, my body is heavy. I feel my clothes touching my sensitive skin. I can’t remember how much I’ve cried, overwhelmed by having been rescued from a certain death on the old Earth. The gratitude I feel towards Chieko is an alien warmth in my heart that makes me feel like a bashful little girl. I can’t pay back what she has done for me, and I can’t live up to the artist she believes me to be.
Our ride through the sunset ends when Chieko points out that we have arrived at her place. She lowers her vehicle until the windshield shows an arched stone bridge that crosses the tranquil river, and beyond it a vast estate that features a garden with trimmed hedges, vibrant statues of human figures and animals, and a central ornate fountain that is shooting streams of water. The footpath leads into the two-story portico of a large villa that extends in colonnades to two adjoined buildings, forming a blocky ‘U’. The villa is also made out of huge stone blocks, but they are painted alabaster white except for the roofs that cover the colonnades, which are penny brown. It’s so fancy that I can’t close my mouth nor move out of the car seat I’ve sunk into, although Chieko has already opened a hole in the frame next to her seat.
“Chieko, you are loaded,” I say in a dry voice.
She smiles, but waves a hand back and forth.
“Oh, you have no idea how rich some people are. This is just a regular house.”
“I’m ready to marry you, just so you know.”
Chieko laughs and jumps out of the vehicle. I follow her down the airstair, then stand unsteadily next to her as I squint against the setting suns.
“Let’s get going, Izar,” Chieko says as she walks on the footpath towards the bridge. “I’m so hungry.”
I admire the white paving stones as we walk up the arc of the bridge. In the waters below us, I glimpse a couple of fishes swimming through underwater weeds. The greenery on the river’s edge has grown big and healthy. I hear the distant echo of a dog barking. I’m not surprised that these people brought dogs over, but I wonder if they get to live for hundreds of years.
As we cross through the garden, we pass by flower beds of bright yellow-pink flowers. Some look like daisies, and there are also violet and blue flowers that I can’t name. I feel like I’m walking through their scent.
“You must spend so much time tending to this place,” I say.
“What? Nah. The AIs trim these thick hedges, they make sure that the flowers don’t die, all that kind of stuff. Most days I barely notice they are there, to be honest.”
The cooling breeze blows water droplets from the fountain’s streams in my face, refreshing my skin. The central statue is a bronze, stylized fox, depicted as if it represents a deity.
As we approach the large portico, I spot a man jogging in the shadows of the colonnade leading to the front door. I’m startled, but in a couple of seconds I realize that he must live with Chieko. When he notices us, he stops. Once we stand in the cool shadows under the ceiling of the portico, I look up at the tall man, who holds my gaze with his brown, slanted eyes. He must be around a hundred and eighty-five centimeters. His face, which is beaded with sweat, looks like he’s in his mid twenties, but that might mean little around here. His hair is apple red, short, thick and unruly. He’s wearing a simple T-shirt and shorts, although their fabric looks expensive. By how vigorous the man seems, he must work out regularly, and knowing that the inhabitants of this new reality also run for exercise comforts me.
The man wipes his nose with the back of his hand as he recovers his breath.
“You brought your new friend over without giving me a heads-up,” he says with a deep voice. “That’s really rude, Chieko.”
“Oh, shut it!” she answers good-naturedly. “Don’t listen to him, he already knows I was working on your case.”
I bow slightly. I feel like I’m intruding in the lives of rich people when I’m just a peasant.
“Nice to meet you. I guess you already know that I’m Izar, that I come from the past and all that… Are you Chieko’s husband?”
The man makes a dismissive wave with both hands.
“Izar, you have screwed up your introduction. What a way to give me a bad impression! Me, Chieko’s husband!”
My rescuer lets out a noise of dismay. She shoves the man’s chest, but he barely budges.
“You know that she just found out about this society! Damn idiot…” She looks at me apologetically. “This is my brother, Yuichi. We both live here. He’s usually nicer when you get to know him.”
Yuichi smiles thinly, and bows his head.
“So, are you going to live with us for a while?” he asks me.
I look nervously at Chieko.
“I think I’d be a burden, but…”
Chieko grabs my shoulder and narrows her eyes at her brother. I can’t tell if she’s actually mad or if they are used to interacting like this.
“Yes, you know that’s the standard practice. A representative takes care of the artist they bring over from the past, until they can live on their own. And I would have invited her to live with us anyway if I had found her living in the streets!”
Yuichi rolls his eyes.
“That means close to nothing. When was the last time you saw a homeless person on Mars? But I guess that Chieko needs someone to share the workload with. Don’t worry, we’ll keep you fed. I can’t imagine what the people in town would say if we allowed a servant to starve.”
I’m smiling like an idiot, unable to defend myself or contribute to the conversation. Chieko puts her hands on my shoulders from behind.
“No workload of which to speak! I have barely done anything but laze around recently. C’mon, you just keep running! We are getting in and replicating some food.”
When Yuichi gives up and continues running, Chieko pushes me gently towards the front door, which is made of some smooth, brown metal. She presses her hand against it, and the door opens inwards.
We enter the cool house, which smells like leather and saffron. A low-key jazz song starts playing from somewhere deeper within the house. My gaze is glued to the floor of the foyer, which is a mosaic of carefully laid out pieces that display beautiful scenes, in reds, yellows, whites and blacks, filled with Japanese imagery: white-faced ladies wearing yukatas, the silhouettes of traditional Japanese houses, heroic images of samurai. Areas of the large mosaic also show depictions of animals. Maybe I should already expect to find arresting masterworks wherever I go in this society, but my brain has a hard time associating this artistic display with someone’s home.
Chieko grabs my hand, and then swings my arm as if we were both children. I’m getting dizzier and a heat is rising to my cheeks as I walk further into the large space. I may be staring at the central room of Chieko’s house: it’s an atrium bathed in pinkish light. The beams come down from the skylights built into a vaulted ceiling made of stone, that wouldn’t have felt out of place in a cathedral. The slanted beams of light from the sunset are bathing sofas, hammocks, dining and coffee tables, a structure that looks like a chimney, and some isolated machines that resemble game consoles or ovens. Flowerbeds and water gardens are arranged near the furniture.
The illuminated space is about four times larger than I would have expected even a luxurious living room to be. You could play a sports match in here if it weren’t for all the obstacles. All the walls are covered in kaleidoscopic frescoes that represent scenes both from ancient myths and from either my era or one that came after, because I recognize the skyline of modern cities from my original present, as well as spaceships. This living room is ringed by an interior balcony. From down here I glimpse an arched gallery that must lead to bedrooms, offices and other personal rooms.
“Come!” Chieko says as she guides me around a tiny fountain towards a sofa. “You clearly need to sit. Let’s eat something, shall we? Or do you need to go to the bathroom first?”
I look at her nervously.
“Well… I don’t know… No, I don’t think so.”
If I were in my house, I would have emptied my bladder, because I’m feeling those two glasses of water that I drank at the SFPT office. But I need to sit down and figure out a way to stop my mind from reeling. When I sink into the sofa, the velvety fabric embraces me lovingly. Next to the gilded, pleated arm of the sofa, a cluster of red buds that have grown in a flower bed are wafting a sweet scent.
Chieko sits next to me, takes off her shoes and folds her slender legs so her bare feet rest on the cushion. She smiles at me and opens her mouth to say something, but I interrupt her.
“Do you have any clue of the life of luxury you and your people enjoy?” I ask in a weary voice.
“It’s a matter of comparisons, isn’t it? But yes, when I travelled to your era, I was shocked by how tiny the houses were, and stacked on top of each other! It was suffocating. You could hear the neighbors going to the bathroom, and could even make out parts of their private conversations! That couldn’t have been good for people’s mental health. No wonder people were so neurotic!”
“Yeah, I have always thought that living in cities, let alone in a metropolis, turned people crazy. We aren’t meant to live in such cramped spaces. But then again, it’s not as if we could have chosen to live in some better way. The Earth was vastly overpopulated, moving to the countryside was expensive, and everyone needed to get used to being a speck of dust that would likely amount to nothing.”
Chieko twists one side of her mouth into a grimace.
“I don’t think Earth has improved much in that regard. If you thought that it was overpopulated, if you see it now you may vomit. Truth be told, many of those people have never been ready to leave the nest. But thankfully we don’t have to worry about that on Mars, or other colonized planets.” She claps once. “So, are you hungry? Because I’m starving.”
I nod quickly.
She turns to make eye contact with an oven-like machine that is propped on a stand.
“Replicator, we want your services.”
The indicators over the cavity of the machine light up in arctic blue, and to my surprise the machine lifts off silently and floats up to us, until it hovers a meter and a half in front of Chieko as static as if it was propped on an invisible stand. It reminds me of a butler, another one, waiting for instructions.
“Pay attention to this, Izar,” she says. “You’ll rely on the replicators and the decomposers to fulfill your basic needs, and you’ll also use them whenever you need to replicate objects like cutlery, clothes, books… Everything that could fit this cavity, really. These are the personal models. For cars, furniture and similar objects you go to a shop, because they own industrial replicators.”
I swallow, then nod. I stare at Chieko’s reflection in the reflective front of the machine.
“Alright, replicator,” Chieko says. “Recommend us a menu for dinner!”
The machine radiates a solid-looking beam of light that unfolds and spreads until it forms a mosaic of images, around thirty, which are as colorful and detailed as those in the computer screens with which I’m familiar. Each image shows a plate with food as they would appear in the menu of a restaurant, and the images also feature associated dishware such as bowls, saucers, glasses, spoons, forks… as if they came with the dish.
I point with a trembling finger at the options.
“Chieko, are you telling me that I can choose any of this food and it will appear in that cavity inside of the machine…?”
“You get it quickly.”
I rub my eyes.
“I don’t. I really don’t… How is this possible?”
“Don’t worry about that for now. As you know, you don’t need to understand how something works to use it! I wasn’t the one who invented this thing. Just order whatever, Izar.”
I take a deep breath and look over the options. Although I only recognize about a quarter of the food I’m staring at, my mouth salivates.
“Oh, that looks like pizza.”
“It certainly is. Cheese pizza in particular. The replicator always recommends it to me, because I love it. Have you ever tasted pizza before, Izar?”
“If I have… Nevermind, yes. Pizza sounds good. So how would I choose it?”
“Remember, the machines are sentient. Replicators and decomposers are silent by design, but they understand. So just tell it what you want.”
When I stare back at the replicator, I have a hard time believing, or facing, that a person is waiting for my order. I’ll need to get used to dealing with artificial intelligences, but thankfully that Guide showed me that I could make myself understood without issues.
I point at the image of the cheese pizza.
“Alright, then give me that one, please.”
The mosaic collapses, and the beam of solid light dissolves. As the machine hums, the cavity fills with a similarly opaque and featureless light, and when it vanishes, the inside of the replicator contains a steaming cheese pizza. Even a pizza cutter. The pizza’s crust looks so crispy, and the golden yellow cheese so thick and juicy, that my mind forgets its doubts and worries. I only want to fill my stomach with that impossible food.
The replicator’s cavity opens, which allows the pizza’s aroma to reach us, and Chieko pulls out the plate. After she leaves it on the coffee table, both of us are quick to grab a slice, which came pre-cut although the replicator also produced a cutter. When I bite and chew the morsel, my mouth fills with the expected taste of a cheese pizza. My shoulders relax.
“Chieko, you live in heaven,” I say with my mouth full.
“This pizza always tastes amazing, yes. The same as the pizza that was scanned to produce this blueprint. Not that I ever tasted the original pizza, but that’s the idea.”
After I finish eating my slice, I wipe off the juices left behind on my lips. I go for a second slice.
Chieko also orders glasses of orange juice. We eat as we lounge on the sofa. Night has fallen, and some floating orbs have switched on and are bathing us in soft white light. I’m so comfortable that I get mental images of kittens rolling around in their cat bed.
We finished eating a couple of minutes ago. My benefactress’ eyes have turned sleepy. After she picks up crumbs from her puff sleeve blouse and eats them, she leans back and offers me a tired smile.
“That’s all you need to know regarding replicators, I think. Now I’ll show you what you’ll do when you want to get rid of something.”
Chieko looks directly at the replicator as she addresses it. Maybe it’s necessary to make eye contact.
“Replicator, return to your stand, please.” As the replicator floats towards its stand, Chieko gazes at the similar machine propped up on a stand next to the empty one. “Decomposer, come here.”
The decomposer obeys like a pet. Although this machine’s purpose is the opposite of the replicator’s, its main difference is that the cavity is hidden by a round hatch. The machine stops a meter and a half away from Chieko, who gets off the sofa and puts the pizza cutter on the plate on which only crumbs remained. She adds both our empty glasses. She opens the machine’s hatch and leaves the plate inside. After she closes the hatch, she sits back down.
“Decomposer, destroy your contents.”
A round indicator on the front of the humming decomposer lights up in red, and a couple of seconds later it shuts off.
“That’s it,” Chieko says.
I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that any machine could get rid of any object with such speed. This society must have solved the issue of the growing mountains of garbage, as well as the patches of plastic in the oceans.
“Doesn’t it worry you that someone could kill another person,” I ask, “dismember them, throw their remains into a decomposer and make them disappear?”
Chieko laughs merrily, closing her eyes and holding her hand against her mouth.
“Your mind goes directly to murder, huh?” she says. Her fingers flick outwards to open her palms towards me. “What a horror… You should want to help other people, Izar, not end them.”
“Hey, that’s a worry that anyone would have.”
“That’s why they built in a system that notifies the authorities in case it detects that it would decompose human remains.”
“Alright, so you future people haven’t outgrown homicidal impulses. You haven’t evolved that much.”
“The animals that evolve to outgrow violent impulses get killed by those who didn’t. Isn’t that the case?” Chieko replies with a smile.
I realize that jazz was still playing in the background when it stops abruptly, and gets replaced with music similar to soft rock. I’m confused for a moment, because Chieko didn’t order it, but a more important question pops up in my mind.
“How does this replicator of yours produce objects from zero? Are the raw materials inside the machine? Even 3D printers from my era needed some sort of cartridge.”
“It makes a request for the needed periodic elements to the deposit that every town has. We pool those resources together, it’d be too much of a hassle otherwise. They get sent through quantum teleportation.”
“Of course, it had to have quantum in the name.”
“Haven’t you both gotten comfortable,” Yuichi’s deep voice reaches us from behind.
Chieko and I look over the back pillows of our sofa. Yuichi must have taken a shower, because his thick, wavy red hair is combed back and damp. He’s wearing a grey sweat jacket and sweatpants. His sweat jacket features the drawing of a multi-limbed mechanical being with a red cape. I won’t try to deduce what it represents.
He struts to the replicator, which is resting on its stand, and tells it to produce his usual protein shake. In a few seconds he’s holding a metallic-looking, opaque flask. He approaches the armchair closest to us and plops down on it. As he unscrews the cap of his bottle, he stares at me brashly as if he intends to challenge me.
“So, Izar, are you religious?”
Chieko lets out a noise of dismay.
“Yuichi! You barely know her!”
The man doesn’t tear his gaze away.
“When my sister told me that she had taken one of the rescue missions, I was sure that she would bring home some nut from the Middle Ages, or an Ice Age sculptor. I would find myself having to listen to that person freaking out and wondering how his or her god fit into this new world.”
“I see how that would be annoying,” I say. “I’ve never been religious.”
Yuichi sighs, then leans back on his armchair as if he figures he can relax.
“What century did you come from again?”
Yuichi arches his eyebrows as he takes a big gulp of his protein shake.
“Was your era as terrible as we picture it from the surviving records?”
“I don’t know what you’ve seen. I’m sure that any other era looks like hell when compared to living in this town. But I admit that I didn’t enjoy living in my time. I dreaded that everything was going to collapse eventually.”
“To me, it looked apocalyptic,” he says with sympathy.
I let out a long sigh.
“What can I say, I’m glad that Chieko brought me here. I can’t begin to explain how safe I feel now.”
A cat-sized creature is moving close to a flower bed filled with purple and yellow flowers. I glance at it absentmindedly, expecting to see a cat, but my gaze falls on a sleek, metallic octopus that’s watering the flowers through its flexible tentacles. My eyes widen, but neither of the siblings pay the robot any attention.
“You are a writer, right?” Yuichi asks. “Many of those around.”
“Yes, and not one that deserved being saved. There were millions of writers like me in the world back then. We were lucky enough to get published, but didn’t sell enough to pay the bills.”
“Izar, you need to stop putting yourself down,” Chieko says, more upset than I would have expected.
I lower my gaze to my lap.
“It’s true. I have no clue why you saved me.”
“I don’t know why my sister chose you in particular,” Yuichi interjects as he smirks at Chieko, “but your heroine was motivated by procrastination. You have avoided a sad fate because Chieko couldn’t figure out what creative project to start next. That’s the truth.”
My benefactress looks down and fiddles with the corner of a pillow. More than embarrassed, she seems guilty. I reach over to put my hand on her arm. I don’t want the person who saved my life feeling bad about any aspect of her decision.
“She didn’t tell you that she had lofty, virtuous reasons for bringing you over from the past, did she?” Yuichi asks with some concern.
“No, she told me that she was going through a dry spell,” I say. I try to hold Chieko’s gaze, although she’s avoiding it. “I wouldn’t care if you rescued me because you were paid to do so, or because you wanted to impress someone. If it weren’t for you, I would be living in the streets, and in less than a week I would have drowned in the river. You were never clear about how, but I don’t care. My life is yours.”
Chieko mumbles something as she blushes. Yuichi snorts, then shakes his head.
“She’s charmed you already, huh, Izar? I guess you can’t help it. That SFPT, they are running the ultimate seduction scheme. You have no idea how many of the people they bring over here from the past end up naked in their representative’s bed by the end of the first day.”
Chieko straightens her back and glares at her brother.
“It’s nothing like that!” She looks at me. “You lack some qualities necessary for me to… feel like that about you.”
“Hopefully just the physical ones that I can’t change,” I say nonchalantly. “I wouldn’t mind if you intended to seduce me. With this new life you have given me, I should fall in love with you out of principle.”
Chieko sighs and rubs her temples with both hands. Her brother empties the bottle, then chuckles as he wipes his mouth. He leans back again, with one hand behind his head.
“You know, it might do you some good, Chieko,” Yuichi says teasingly. “It’s been too long since you’ve been with anyone.”
“H-hey. I don’t have time for boyfriends!”
“What do you mean? You barely do anything now that you aren’t working on new movies!”
“You know I’m going through a dry spell.”
Yuichi grins as if he was expecting his sister to say it.
“That’s what I meant, sis.”
Chieko snaps her head back and stutters her reply. I have been letting my weight sink into the velvety cushions and the back pillows for a few minutes, my stomach is digesting that delicious pizza, and now that the siblings have forgotten that I’m here, a smile tugs on my lips. Every other person I had met either walked past me, or proved to me that I should have kept hidden the most important parts of myself. But now I can close my eyes and let out a long sigh as a warm feeling spreads throughout my body.
Chieko showed me how to use the toilet, which works the same way except that it contains a tiny matter decomposer that takes care of the waste. We keep hanging out in the siblings’ luxurious atrium. By the time that Yuichi left to his bedroom, the skylights on the vaulted roof brimmed with stars. The floating orbs failed to illuminate the huge open room with their soft white light, so it felt as if Chieko and I were sitting on an island surrounded by darkness.
My benefactress guided me to replicate cotton panties, because I needed clean underwear, along with silk pyjamas, which were lemonade pink and shimmered in my hands as I ran my fingers over the fine and smooth fabric. I follow Chieko up the stairs to one of the guest bedrooms. Once she opens the door, I find myself staring at the most comfortable-looking and luxurious bed I have ever seen. The bedding set, which is embellished with gilded, royal motifs, is made of thick silk that overflows the mattress with a liquid feel. The four pillows resting against the headboard look so inviting that I want to run over and jump face down into them.
I close my mouth, then speak in a dry voice.
“This is ridiculous.”
Chieko places a hand on my shoulder, and my heart jumps. I feel every hair on my arms. I wasn’t kidding earlier: if she tries anything, I’m done for. Chieko is pleasant to look at, a joy to be around, and now that my heart stores nothing but boundless gratitude towards her, I don’t need much incentive even though I’ve never gone for women. Back on Earth I wanted to disappear; now that she has brought me over to this paradise, the notion of disappearing into everything she might have to offer is intoxicating.
“That thing on the double dresser is the multimedia center,” Chieko says, oblivious to the tingles running through my body. “Talk to it when you want to listen to music, watch movies, browse the net… Stuff like that. I’m sure you’ll figure it out. The gear to experience virtual reality is in another room, though.”
I turn around and look at Chieko in the dimness of the bedroom, only illuminated by the beams of honey-colored light coming out of two lamps on the nightstands. I stare for a couple of seconds at her apple red hair, gathered in two buns. I wonder what Chieko sees on my face. Even with both of us standing just a step apart, our personalities are standing on the opposite sides of a wall.
“I think that tomorrow you should take a walk around town by yourself,” Chieko says softly. “See the sights, focus on what interests you. People are friendly around here. And hopefully one of these days you’ll feel like writing again.”
We look at each other silently. While Chieko glances at the bed, I get the feeling that she’s unsettled, as we are both held hostage by this comfortable, secluded bedroom.
“You better get out of here, Chieko,” I say in a low voice. “I told you that I sink my claws in the people that I care about.”
She blinks rapidly and nods.
“Yeah, I’m feeling weird myself,” she says, befuddled. “Anyway, sleep as much as you want, alright?”
We say goodnight. Once she closes the door behind her and I hear her footsteps fading, I shuffle to the side of the bed and sit slowly on the mattress. I wait until my heart calms down.
I undress, I put on my clean underwear and I try on my new pyjamas. They feel like they float over my skin. I can barely tell that I’m wearing them. When I slip under the silk sheets and the comforter and then let the back of my head sink into the pillow, I feel ready to die. My old life, with all its troubles, has ended. I would be happy if I never had to move again. I wouldn’t think, I wouldn’t talk, I wouldn’t write. I would keep floating in a warm cloud and never worry about anything else.
Note from June of 2021:
Yesterday I went back to work, and this contract will last until the end of September. I’m not the kind of person that is happy whenever he’s able to work for others, nor do I understand that kind of slave mentality. My last contract ended on May 11, if I remember correctly, and in about a month and a half I wrote frantically a novel the length of 2.2 regular novels, as well as a few short stories and lots of poetry. Yesterday I barely managed to write anything at work, because they kept me walking throughout the hospital complex to fix annoying problems that nobody wants to handle, and by the end of the day I was exhausted and felt like shit, so my brain kept trying to convince me to lie in bed and just rest. That’s the routine that I’m terrified of returning to for the next months. I hate living like that when I could be writing otherwise, but like everybody else, I need to accumulate money.
Anyway, I have planned the rest of this novella, and I’ll finish it for sure sooner or later, even though I suspect that it barely works as a story. I’m having fun with it, and that’s what matters as far as I’m concerned.