The Rings of Floriston
"You have to try to exist in the moment you’re in, while also seeing the place you’re inhabiting on the arc of civilization."
The people of Floriston have a saying: hope doesn’t live on the horizon. It’s a reminder for a society of cloud-dwellers to not substitute the heavenly beauty in the distance for meaning in the life around them. Most of the good people of Floriston have taken that maxim to heart.
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The rings of Floriston had appeared at the turn of the previous century. Now, residents and visitors alike find it difficult to imagine that the rings weren’t always a fixture of the pink, rocky world, whose atmosphere was, at the time of the following circumstances, approaching the completion of a two-thousand-year terraforming process to make the air breathable for humans. The planet Floriston, was named for Heder Floriston, who was the leader of one of the earliest expeditions into the inner band, where his party discovered this relatively dry, rocky ball of what Heder Floriston had called “future good fortune.”
He envisioned a landscape of bounding oceans, hillsides covered in green trees and grasses, soaring cityscapes, and rolling acres of agricultural beauty. He had a vision he knew he would never live to see. Yet he and his expedition spent six arduous years in orbit setting in motion the biochemical processes to pull oxygen from rocks and release water to bubble up from beneath the surface so it could slowly collect in the fresh-water oceans now evolving beneath the rings of Floriston, where all of the planet’s residents now lived.
The rings themselves are quite unlike the familiar massive planetary rings of Athos or Iophos that stretch the incredible equatorial circumferences of those famous gas giants of Dreeson’s System. Floriston’s many rings are humble structures that each, when disassembled and set straight across the landscape, would span hardly a tiny fraction of their modest world’s circumference. The ringbuilders, being far-flung descendants of the original terra-formers, had returned to Floriston during the first decade of the West Battery Wars, when fighting first broke out between Etterus and Trasp; and by virtue of their colony’s location between the two warring factions, the only logical choices were to join a side or to relocate. It was during the ensuing debate when Heder Floriston’s foresight was recalled, and the people chose, nearly unanimously to flee, for it was certain that if they joined either fighting faction, no matter the outcome, their colony would suffer the fury of the conflict disproportionately. The planet Floriston was tucked away, far beyond the buffer provided by Dreeson’s, Carrol’s, and the four lettered systems housing the reclusive splinter colonies bordering the two Battery Empires.
The planet’s surface wasn’t yet livable when Heder Floriston’s descendants returned, so the new pilgrims identified an ideal landscape to raise self-levitating rings—a remarkably flat plain that stretched out hundreds of kilometers. At the center of this uniquely useful geography, they constructed a tremendous retractable tower as a primary winch point. The ingenious pilgrims of Floriston turned that location into a factory that produced a staggering two hundred fifty tethered rings over the course of two decades, which they released into the atmosphere like so many circular balloons. The pilgrims then flew these rings into place, tethered by drone, and knitted them into a planet-wide fabric, like a sheet of fine chain-mail armor hovering in the heavens, an airborne net where Floriston’s citizens took up residence among the white clouds over the pink rocks, nestled within the outer reaches of the stratosphere and the protective sheath of the planet’s strong magnetosphere. And on that fabric, they built a resilient, innovative society characterized by the same pragmatic foresight Heder Floriston had embodied.
In the clouds, apart from both a literal and figurative view of a long horizon, the citizens of Floriston benefited from the chemical composition of the upper atmosphere’s unique properties, which contributed to the most exquisite sunrises and sunsets. It was a cosmic wonder nearly unrivaled in the quadrant, endlessly cycling around the gossamer filaments of their society, its brilliantly colored light a striking reminder of the passage of time, and of natural beauty writ large, unfailing, bookending the start and end of each day with a unified cultural moment for pausing, reflecting on their blessings, honoring the sacrifices of their ancestors, and remembering their duties to those who would come after—their grandchildren’s’ grandchildren, who would someday step out of the clouds to the surface, to tend the fields of grass, fruit trees, and forests of leafy timbers and evergreens that would soon blanket over the rocky pink soil and stone on the surface below.
One could usually tell by the manner a viewer took in the sunset who the tourists were, they with their giddy smiles and exclamations of excitement, their wonder at the novelty of the sight—the colors in the clouds, the striking reds and oranges at the edges of Xanthous-12 as she dipped below the horizon, the blazing streaks of pinks folding into the purest sky-blue human eyes had ever beheld.
Floristanis, on the other hand, tended to be silent, almost reverent as they took in the sunset, prayerful, some even mouthing the words of daily recitations that were a popular custom begun in the earliest days of the columns, long abandoned in all but a few outposts in the quadrant, yet revived here in many of the elementary schools of Floriston. Tourists, by their contrast in manner, could almost instantly be picked out by a discerning eye.
One such discerning eye had picked out an anomaly. On the day this stranger arrived, Kaminessa Daley was working her usual shift as an ambassador in the Altura Pavilion on the Odin ring, which was then hovering over the high desert plains of the southern hemisphere, about twenty degrees from Floriston’s equator. Her primary duties that evening involved giving directions and advice on how to navigate the tram station, the rings, places to watch the sky, and generally being helpful to visitors so foot traffic moved freely. The people of the Odin ring, in keeping with the culture of Floriston, opted for humans in many positions where bots, automated kiosks, and apps would have been an easier solution. For them, it was still vital to put friendly human faces into the crowds of visitors. Kaminessa excelled at her position because she liked people, and it showed in her body language and bright smile, which she was quick and generous with.
She was also trained to read the crowd, to observe and report any suspicious behavior that may pose a threat to the rings, the people of Floriston, and the visiting tourists. Kaminessa had never flagged anything major, but many keen-eyed ambassadors like her had foiled kidnappings, confiscated contraband, and had even broken up a fledgling extremist network from the neighboring Regis system. Kaminessa never guessed she’d call in such a code to her security network that night, but there was something troublesome about the tall young stranger standing at the atrium window as sundown approached.
He had a dark look about him—almost menacing, or maybe pained—she couldn’t quite tell. He was alone, wary of others, shifty, would step away whenever the crowd got close, and he refused to engage anyone in conversation. None of this was strictly illegal, nor even overly suspicious in most cases. Her eyes, though—human eyes—had a sense that something wasn’t right about him, that dark kind of solitude, the way he stared at the horizon so purposefully, as though he longed to be there and not here.
The clouds that night were tremendous. She gave that sunset a strong eight, and she was a tough grader. The tourists were ecstatic—more oohs and aahs than the usual Tuesday, and a sizable crowd was there to appreciate the moment. Not the tall stranger, though, or at least it didn’t seem he was happy to be there. There was no discernable joy in his disposition. She saw him tuck something into his waistband and look around as though he was nervous about someone watching him. She followed him to the tube as the sky got dark and the crowd filtered out. She kept her distance so he wouldn’t suspect he was being monitored. She called in support.
Floriston had leased the conversion license to several front-line strike-infantry models of Etteran make. They were fast, intimidating, and served as a strong deterrent to anyone thinking about defying Floriston’s laws. Two units were at her hip as the glass doors to the tram swung open. The crowd was thin enough by that point that when the tall suspect entered the tram, the car was nearly empty.
“I need you to step out of the car with me, sir,” Kaminessa said, as the two police models flanked the man and stood by.
He looked over his shoulder and then back at Kaminessa. “Me?”
“What is this?”
“Not a conversation, sir. You will be coming with me. You are being detained. Step off the tram, please.”
He looked shocked, frightened, his hands began to shake, and though it took him a beat to comply, a look at the police bots to either side convinced him to slowly walk forward and off the tram without incident.
The petite young woman before the stranger directed him toward the public safety office. He didn’t speak much along the way, only asking what his detainment was about and insisting he hadn’t done anything to warrant his being held.
“You didn’t even ask me any questions,” he stated at one point.
“That’s to protect your privacy, sir,” Kaminessa said.
“Or to protect you from public scrutiny, perhaps.”
“I assure you, sir, we on Odin Ring have nothing to hide.”
She led him into the office and ordered a full search of the man’s person, pulling up his ID tag. Immediately, she was struck by a glaring inconsistency. He looked the part of a young man—mid-twenties—yet his ID had him tagged as forty- eight years old. Kaminessa had guessed him to be no older than she was.
Kaminessa’s supervisor was content with her explanation for the visitor’s detainment and agreed that something suspicious was going on with this man. She authorized a hold until they were able to confirm the authenticity of his documentation and backstory. Kaminessa was sent in to interrogate him.
“It’s just a friendly conversation,” her supervisor reminded her. “At this point we have no reason to think he’s done anything wrong.”
He was seated at a small table in a square room looking out into the darkening sky when she came in. The police units stood outside the room as Kaminessa closed the door and sat. He was visibly distraught.
“I told them. They can’t take my belongings without cause. I have a case, a black case. It’s very important to me.”
“We’ll get to all that,” Kaminessa said. “First, I’d like you to tell me your name.”
“You don’t believe my ID tag, do you?”
“You don’t look forty-eight.”
“There’s a lot about me you wouldn’t get from looking at my ID. I received a GTAA dispensation due to chronic hardship, to twenty-five.”
“You were in the military? What faction?”
“One of the independent colonies within the Letters. I was born on a very small cluster of cylinders called Arnette, orbiting Delta Omega.”
“Delta? I didn’t know there were even settlements there.”
“And you were given an aging dispensation?”
“Reluctantly. Unique circumstances,” he said, rubbing his palms together. “Please, miss, that case is very precious to me. It cannot be replaced. If it were lost, I don’t know what I would do.”
“Why are you so nervous? You have to see we can’t give you back your belongings until we ensure that there’s no way you could be a threat to—”
“If you lose her, I might die,” he said, rubbing his forehead, and appearing to Kaminessa of being on the verge of tears.
“Sara is so much more to me than that. It’s hard to explain.”
“Why don’t you tell me about it, sir, starting with your name.”
“My given name is Katohna Hatria, but I’m accustomed to answering to Bartleby.”
“Bartleby? That’s an odd name.”
“Sara gave it to me. Can you bring her in here, please? At least let me see her, just so I know you haven’t lost her case.”
Kaminessa didn’t know what to make of the way this man was acting. He was middle-aged, looked young, and was acting like a child when separated from their first play bot.
“Excuse me for a moment,” she said, getting up from the table.
“No, please,” Bartleby said.
Kaminessa left the bots at the door to guard it while she conferred with her supervisor, who was inspecting the thin, black case when Kaminessa arrived.
“Sleek unit,” she announced. “The battery and computing power on this little number could run a small outpost. Did you take eyewear off him?”
“An earpiece,” Kaminessa said. “Can I bring that AI down there? I think it might calm the guy down.”
“Not yet. Something’s not right, and until we figure out what, I’m not comfortable giving him access to such a high-end piece. He could be up to anything with this unit if he’s savvy.”
When Kaminessa got back to the door, she could see from the window that Bartleby seemed to be having a full-blown panic attack. She opened the door and stated calmly, “Hey, it’s all right. You’re all right,” and she put her hand gently on his shoulder.
Bartleby recoiled so harshly he fell out of the chair and crashed into the wall in the corner of the room, drawing heavy deep breaths as he pushed himself back against the wall with his feet.
“You sho—you shocked…me,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
It was the last thing Kaminessa was expecting. She was startled that such a gentle, caring gesture could elicit such a shocking reaction from a tall, otherwise imposing man. He kept repeating, “I’m trying. I’m trying.”
“Would it help if I got you your AI?”
He nodded. “Please.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Kaminessa returned sometime later carrying a small case in her right hand.
“Until we can get our tech analysts down to clear this unit of yours, I’m afraid we can’t allow you to interact with it, but I want you to know your AI is safe,” she said, opening the case to reveal the server sleeve Bartleby carried Sara on. Then she closed it and placed the case on the table. Seeing that it was safe seemed to calm him.
“Would you like to tell me what this is all about?” she said.
“I would prefer not to,” Bartleby said, “but it seems as though I’m compelled to. Can you tell me why you’ve detained me, please? I wasn’t doing anything anybody else wasn’t, just watching the sun go down. It was beautiful, by the way.”
“It wasn’t what you were doing, sir. It was your manner.”
“I’m sure it is peculiar,” Bartleby said. “If you give me an opportunity to explain everything I’ve been through, I think you’ll understand. The AI sleeve, the genetic age-reversion, it was part of my severance from the military, to make up for the ordeal I endured. That’s the start of my story.”
“I’d like to hear it,” Kaminessa said.
Bartleby then related the story of his life to Kaminessa, that he had been stranded in space while on a peacekeeping mission outside the Garvin 9 system and had only survived through a miraculous transit to an autonomous mining outpost on the inner part of the system, where he was brought back from near-death for the first time by an AI name Saraswathi, who was presently residing in the server sleeve they had confiscated from him.
“Ah, I can see why she’s so important to you now.”
“It’s a personal thing,” Bartleby said. “And it goes much deeper. Sara saved me more times than that.”
Bartleby continued to relate how, in the absence of interstellar communications, Sara and he were able to engineer a transit to the nearby Garvin 8 system—over nine of the longest years a human being may ever have endured. Along that transit, Sara again rescued him from near-death by pulling him back from the brink of suicide and self-destruction more times than Bartleby could count.
They arrived at Hahn after a full nine-year journey only to find the Hahn outpost abandoned and subsequently ransacked, either by a party to the West Battery war or more likely by scavengers of several iterations.
Kaminessa found Bartleby’s story utterly believable and the teller of the tale surprisingly warm, despite his earlier behavior. He was even amusing and self-deprecating at times. Given his circumstances, she forgave him his eccentricities.
Bartleby continued to relate his troubles on Hahn, spending years trying to convince a neutral party to make a long detour into dangerous territory with no financial incentive and little humanitarian motive beyond alleviating one poor man’s loneliness. He expressed that during those years, the hopelessness had piled on so heavily that his deepest wish was merely to be seen one more time by human eyes before he died.
Kaminessa was surprised by how frank Bartleby was with this heartbreaking admission. She couldn’t help but visualize him out there, alone, in contact with the nearby systems, only to have them tell him, year-after-year, that they were sorry, he would have to wait.
Then, after fifteen long years scraping by in the remains of the Hahn outpost, almost inexplicably, the Trasps and Etterans signed an armistice that seemed surreal, for there were few alive in the sector who still remembered when those bitterest of rivals were not at war with one another. Two more years passed before an Athosian FTL ship on a reclamation project was persuaded to take a detour to Hahn on a humanitarian mission. Bartleby spent most of the time in transit back to Athos hidden away in the shuttle he’d convinced the Athosians to salvage under the pretext that the AI embedded in his ship had invaluable information about the stability of the peace between the warring factions. When they arrived back in Dreeson’s System, the eastern allies decided that Bartleby’s situation was so unique and harrowing that he should be compensated with backpay at combat levels for each hour he’d spent in space after he was left for dead in the infinite, along with a special dispensation for anti-aging procedures if he wanted those years of his life back. Bartleby told Kaminessa that he had only agreed to this proposal at Saraswathi’s urging, who promised she would help him re-socialize through an outpatient program on Hellenia, which was where Bartleby was heading when he stopped along the way to see the rings of Floriston at the suggestion of one of the Athosian psychologists who had helped him with his initial debriefing.
It was a tale too wild to be anything but the truth, Kaminessa said. She professed to believe him, and she promised to keep Sara safely in her possession until she could get the unit cleared by Tech. She said she would rush the process.
“If you believe me, can’t you just let me hang on to her?”
“Unfortunately, no. Once I flagged you, it meant the process would have to play out to the letter of the law. Our planet is exceedingly safe and peaceful because we police aggressively. Fairly, we hope, but aggressively. Our society floats in the clouds, so unfortunately we can’t, and don’t, take any chances.”
“What does that mean for me?”
“We’ll vet your story with the authorities on Athos, and in the meantime, we’ll make you as comfortable as we can here until we get the all-clear.”
“That’s a four-day FTL window. So what, a week at least?”
“More likely two, the way Athosians do business.”
“In custody like this? In a cell?”
“I’ll see what I can do about getting you a hotel and a monitor.”
Bartleby’s hands began to shake again. “Oh, no,” he said, almost involuntarily.
“What’s wrong?” Kaminessa said.
“Without Sara, I’m going to be alone. You don’t understand, I’m talking to you because, well, because I have to, and you’re easy to talk to, ambassador, but I’m deathly afraid of being alone. Sara’s the only thing that kept me alive all those years.”
“I’ll make sure you have access to a house AI you can talk with wherever we put you up tonight. I’ll have Tech clear your unit tonight and I’ll come by to see you first thing in the morning to see how you’re doing.”
Bartleby could tell that was the best he was going to do, so he nodded. Despite his initial misgivings about the young ambassador, he did believe that Kaminessa would look out for Sara while the AI sleeve was in her possession. This too was part of rejoining a society, he told himself, interacting with people, knowing that those interactions would not always go the way he wanted, and remembering the mental exercises he and Sara had gone over a thousand times in preparation for this moment. He took a deep breath and then another, and he decided that he would do his best to be patient as the situation played out.
Kaminessa rang his hotel door the following day. The accommodations were far better than anything he was accustomed to, even before joining the military, certainly far better than during his decades-long journey back to civilization. She was smiling when he opened the door.
“Good morning,” Bartleby said, expecting that she might have word about Sara, though it seemed the last thing on her mind.
“I thought it might be good if you joined me this morning,” she said. “I have a safety detail along the southern cage. You aren’t afraid of heights, are you?”
“No. Crowds aren’t my favorite, but open spaces, heights, space. Those are good for me.”
“Perfect,” she said. “I just thought with your situation, I didn’t want to see you cooped up by yourself all week. Especially since—oh, I almost forgot. The tech team is tracking down a portable limiter for Saraswathi. You’ll need a wired earpiece for a few days, but they should be able to get her back to you tonight.”
“That’s excellent,” Bartleby said. “So what is it we’re doing this morning?”
“Come on,” she said. “I’ll show you the way.”
Kaminessa took Bartleby below the main causeway outside Altura’s central promenade to check the connections on the tether system. She explained how each ring was free floating and had to be tethered together in order to keep the fabric of the dynamic ring sheet in formation. With a fairly active atmosphere, this meant play in the tether system, which meant that even with the strongest nanofilament cables making up the tethers, they frequently came loose or bunched up as the rings themselves shifted in the atmosphere.
“Shouldn’t the engineers make that assessment?” Bartleby said. “Instead of a young ambassador and a random guy she arrested the previous day?”
She laughed. “Sure. They will, though. We’re just taking pictures, visualizing the connections and sending them a report on the junctions they need to look at. We do it all the time. The view is spectacular. You’re going to love it.”
“Why me again, though?”
“Honest answer? I felt terrible about how I treated you yesterday. I thought about it a lot last night and just thought about how I could have handled it better. Like maybe approaching you and talking to you first. I think I was just intimidated by you.”
“Yeah. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the height or your discomfort with all the people, probably both. We’re trained to not cause a scene, but I think I presumed too much.”
“As long as it all gets ironed out, I can’t say I’m too disappointed at having to spend a bit more time here on Floriston. The sunrise was almost as spectacular as the sunset.”
“Wait till you see this,” she said, leading them down the stairwell to a hallway formed from thin, nanofilament mesh walls, open to the high, thin air, and a crystal-clear polymer floor that stretched out indefinitely along the underside of the ring.
“You weren’t joking about the heights,” a wide-eyed Bartleby said, looking down almost two thousand meters to the mountains beneath them.
Kaminessa looked back at him from the clear walkway, smiling as she encouraged him onto the nearly-invisible floor panels.
“You’ll get used to it, Bartleby,” she said.
“Whew,” he said, taking a few uneasy first steps into the sky channel.
But as she moved forward, he began to walk more easily behind her. She talked as she walked, explaining how the rings worked, what it was like for her getting used to walking the sky channel, her duties, her life on the Odin ring. Bartleby found the sound of her voice and her presence soothing, even staring down into the ether. Soon, his mind had adjusted to the situation and he began to walk more easily.
After they inspected the first few junctions, he realized why they didn’t send the engineers out unless they needed to. There were so many connections that they’d need thousands of engineers per ring to keep up with them all. It soon became easy for even him to tell when a cable was bunching or needed to be patched or replaced. Kaminessa was taking stills and video with her glasses as they visualized the tether junctions. Bartleby realized about halfway through the morning that he was enjoying himself. He couldn’t remember the last time he could say that about a day. He realized to his surprise, given the strife she’d caused him the previous day, that he liked this girl.
“So tell me, Bartleby,” she said at one point as they were walking between junctions. “What kept you together out there? I mean, Sara you said, but what did she do that kept you going all that time, all those years alone?”
“Different things,” Bartleby said. “There were daily things, when I was doing okay, things that helped ground me. Like Sara used to play sounds that are inherently soothing to humans, birdsongs and babbling streams.”
“She has that audio? From Earth?”
“Presumably that’s where it all came from. You know the bot builders that make birds, you have to figure they get the songs from the original birds.”
“I never thought of that,” Kaminessa said. “I’ve never heard a stream before. I think I’d like to.”
“It’s spiritual in a way. Calms the mind in the same way a lotion soothes the skin.”
“Streams and birds?”
“I’m sure it’s in the library here on Floriston,” Bartleby said. “You just need to know to look for it.”
“And what about when times were bad?”
“I think the worst was after the turn. About three years into the second transit. I didn’t want to live anymore. Sara tried everything.”
Bartleby stopped for a moment as they were walking, overcome by a sudden realization of the moment he was in, walking above the clouds, staring down from the sky at this beautiful pink world, talking with this warm, beautiful young woman. He never thought it could happen to him, through all those years, but it hit him that very instant.
“Give me a moment,” he said. “I need a minute.”
“Sure,” she said, turning around. “Everything okay?”
She could see he was emotional, teary-eyed.
“I’m here,” he said. “I made it.”
“You did,” she said, very slowly moving toward him and placing her hand on his forearm. He was looking down, clutching the mesh netting at the side of the sky channel. He didn’t pull away. He let her touch him. “I’m glad you’re here, Bartleby. I’m so glad you made it.”
“Me too,” he said, taking a deep breath. “I hope this isn’t too much for you.”
“For me?” she said. “With everything you’ve been through, you’re doing great.”
After he’d regained his composure, they kept walking, Bartleby telling her about the various things Sara had done to help keep him sane in the depths of space. One time, when he’d given up, she started reading him a book, and before he knew what he was doing, he was eating a ration bar so he could focus on the story instead of the hunger. At the end of the novel, Sara and he had discussed the story, the time period, the history, the author, the context. The discussion had gone on for days.
Then Bartleby told Kaminessa about Patricia, the woman from Earth he’d met in the simulation. He told Kaminessa how that perspective of seeing a person from outside her civilization had caused him to spiral into a misanthropic despair, had caused him to see humans as pointless, misdirected, shortsighted creatures. That was the darkest place he’d ever been.
“How did you get back from there?” Kaminessa asked him.
“After about five days, Sara figured out what to say to me—that I had formed this contempt for this woman who couldn’t see beyond the prison walls of her own society. Then Sara asked me to try and see myself that way, trapped, in that spaceship, in that moment, in this civilization, this quadrant. She asked me to pull back and see myself. And I realized it was far more difficult to do that when you were the one trapped in that place.”
“And what did you think of to get yourself out of that place, Bartleby?”
“This,” he said. “Well not this exactly, because you can’t imagine the future exactly, but it was more like…you have to try to exist in the moment you’re in, while also seeing the place you’re inhabiting on the arc of civilization. You can’t be in either alone. In the one case you’re blind to the meaning of what you’re doing, you’re just doing. In the other, you’re so focused on the meaning you don’t get to be a human being. I worked on that. I worked on being both. That’s what kept me going on Hahn. And the hope I’d get back.”
Kaminessa stopped walking and turned around again. “I’m sorry I detained you, Bartleby, but at the same time, I’m really glad I did too.”
“Would it sound funny if I said the same?”
Kaminessa shook her head. “Come on,” she said. “We’re almost to Benthos. Let’s get some lunch. There’s a place where I eat on walk days with amazing flavias. You’ll love it.”
They had a pleasant lunch together. Kaminessa could tell Bartleby was still not yet fully accustomed to actual food again. And Benthos’s flavias were some of the best cuisine the Odin ring had to offer. She felt that special kind of amusement one feels from the delight in another’s joy. And Bartleby enjoyed watching the easy pleasure Kaminessa exhibited interacting with others. She would start conversations with anyone around her, punctuate her comments with smiles and laughter, make easy momentary friendships. She even made Bartleby feel like he could be there too, feel connected to these strangers for a moment.
At the end of lunch she said, “I was planning to put you on the tram back to Altura, because I have another 10K to cover to Chimini, but I’d love to have the company if you’d like to tag along, Bartleby.”
“I’d like that very much,” he said.
“I want to hear all about Hahn.”
The afternoon was the longest, most pleasant walk Bartleby or Kaminessa could ever recall. At one point, she told him, “You have an easy way about you, Bartleby, despite what you may feel.”
“I think you’re making it easy on me.”
“I guess that’s what I do,” she said. “I hope it’s helping.”
By dusk, they were approaching Chimini. As they neared, Bartleby couldn’t see the lights that characterized the gallery levels on Altura, Benthos, or any of the other cities Bartleby had visited on Floriston before his detainment in Altura.
“It’s closed for maintenance,” she said when he asked about it. “But I could sneak us in if you like?”
Bartleby nodded and detected a wry smile from the young ambassador.
They arrived at an identical stairwell to the ones they’d descended at Altura and Benthos, but this ingress was nearly pitch black. He followed the dim glow from Kaminessa’s glasses as she climbed into the darkness.
They emerged from the stairwell to Chimini’s large, flat, empty viewing gallery as the sun was just approaching the horizon. Bartleby was in awe.
“This is amazing,” he said, gasping.
“Pretty nice view, isn’t it?”
“That’s pretty too, yes,” Bartleby said, grinning. “I was marveling as much at the open space. I haven’t seen such a wide-open place since Hahn, maybe. Not even on Athos. Everywhere’s full of people. May I?” he said, gesturing to the open floor.
“I’m not stopping you,” Kaminessa said. “Knock yourself out.”
Bartleby went running out onto the floor like a child, and after a few steps, he stepped into a one-handed cartwheel followed by a front flip. He then proceeded to perform a series of flips, spins, jumps, and kicks in quick succession, almost as though it were a gymnastics routine.
By the time Kaminessa finally caught up with him, he was on his knees at the far end of the room, looking out the observation window, weeping she thought at first. Then as she got closer, she could see that it was quiet laughter.
“Oh, the years I would have killed for a minute in a space like this,” he said. “All that time in that tiny cycler.”
“What was that you were doing?” she said.
“Capochi,” he said. “A kind of mix between dance and martial arts. Kept me sane between Garvin 9 and 8. But I never had the space to properly string moves together, just perfect them one at a time, over and over. That felt incredible.”
“Looked pretty good too,” Kaminessa said.
She walked over beside him. Bartleby reached up, and as he did, Kaminessa took his hand as he stood. She sensed a hesitation in him, but he didn’t let go.
“This is perfect,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do to top this tomorrow.”
She laughed. “Well, I’m working in the sunset gallery tomorrow, so I won’t be able to help you there. I’ve got some ideas for you, though.”
“You do?” he said.
“Homework, maybe. You’ll have to come see me in the morning, and I’ll tell you then. I don’t want you stressing about it all night, like I know you would.”
“Oh, now I’m really going to be stressing about it.”
She gripped his hand tighter and felt his arm begin to relax a little, “You’re going to be okay, Bartleby,” she said. “You’re not broken, you’ve just forgotten who you were before you got lost. You’re going to remember. I’d like to help while you’re here.”
“You already have,” Bartleby said.
At that moment he didn’t know where to fix his eyes, on Kaminessa or the sunset as it began to peak, with the reds of the sun’s corona just beginning to kiss the horizon. With the colors in the open room reflecting off the walls, the floor, and the glass sculpture in the gallery’s center, the light was mesmerizing. She was looking up at him. He was certain he’d never experienced a moment so beautiful, not cosmic beauty nor human. He shook his head, took a breath, and stood holding Kaminessa’s hand until the sun went down.
They took the tram from Chimini back to Altura walking side by side, occasionally bumping into each other. Kaminessa noticed that he didn’t back away from her anymore.
She walked him to his hotel room.
“Are you going to be okay tonight without Sara?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “I have enough to think about. It was quite a day. Thank you for arresting me, Kaminessa Daley.”
“You’re welcome, Bartleby. Maybe tomorrow you can tell me why Sara calls you that.”
“I would prefer not to,” Bartleby said, smiling.
“Okay,” she said, returning the smile. “I’ll get it out of you eventually. Good night, my friend.”
The following morning, Bartleby met Kaminessa in Altura’s viewing Gallery. He stood off to one side as she finished chatting with a group of elderly couples, suggesting some sites to visit on the Odin ring before heading further south for the sunset.
“Hey, Bartleby,” she said as the group walked off, “you ready for today’s mission?”
“I was stressing about it all night.”
“No! Please tell me you’re kidding, right?”
“I was fine. I’m joking.”
She laughed. “See. You’re getting better already. Today’s going to help.”
“Okay,” he said.
“I want you to have at least three conversations with strangers at three different cities on the Odin ring. I’ve gotten you a travel pass. Unfortunately, you’re restricted to the Odin ring until we hear back from Athos, but you can go anywhere on the ring. Three people. Tell me their names, what they do, and where they come from.”
Bartleby looked terrified. She quickly surveyed the people passing by.
“Okay, come with me,” she said. “We’ll do a few here to practice. I’ll start, then you. People love talking about themselves. They’ll tell you everything.”
“That’s not the part that scares me,” Bartleby said. “It’s the start. I just can’t seem to approach someone without a reason.”
“It’s fun to talk to people,” she said. “There’s your reason. And it’s easy. I’m going to give you your opening line, watch.”
He lagged behind her as Kaminessa approached a young couple who looked like they were on vacation.
“Hi, where you guys from?” she said, and when they answered, the conversation was off and running.
“That’s it? Where are you from?” Bartleby said.
She nodded, and then she goaded him into starting two conversations right there in the gallery. The first turned into an awkward exchange with a businesswoman from Athos. The second evolved into a cordial discussion with one of the line engineers on the cable rig team, who, as it happened, was off to double check a few of the joints the engineering team had flagged from Kaminessa’s photos the previous day.
“All right, that’s it,” she said, handing Bartleby his tram card. “Off you go. Three cities. Three people. I want the details by sundown. Show me what you can do, my friend.”
It was much more difficult without her. Bartleby thought about trying to start a discussion on the tram, but he dreaded what would happen if the conversation failed and he couldn’t escape the car. What would he do then? He thought about not letting Kaminessa down, how he wanted to do more than three. He rode the local tram for almost an hour, nearly halfway around the ring, telling himself as each station approached that this would be the one. He got off at Davidson Heights and walked around for several hours.
By lunch, he’d summoned enough courage to talk with a vendor in the sunrise gallery who sold hats. She was packing up for the day to go home. Bartleby found out that she was local, had two kids she had to pick up from school and was named Jamie. That was one. Later, while sitting on the tram, he had a flashback to his years in space meeting fictional people in simulations. It got him thinking about Jamie the hat vendor, wondering, marveling about how this person he’d just spoken with was going back to an entirely different life from him, a completely divergent life that was just as real as his own, with two real children who had two real lives of their own. He suddenly remembered that he hadn’t spoken with Saraswathi in almost two days.
By nightfall, Bartleby had engaged in seven conversations he was excited to tell Kaminessa about. When he got back to the Altura gallery, she told him to get two more names during the sunset. By then, he was happy to do it. After the sun went down and the evening rush had filed out of the gallery, Kaminessa took him to dinner.
Bartleby was starting to remember what it felt like to be a person again.
As the week went on, Kaminessa’s challenges got tougher. On day three, she challenged him to shake hands with five people. On day seven, she challenged him to collect five thank yous from five different people.
On day eight, Kaminessa had walk duty. She invited Bartleby to come with her again. By that time, both Bartleby and Kaminessa were aware of the large unspoken tension building between them. Part of Bartleby was hoping that the Athosians were exactly as responsive as they’d been when he was stuck on the Hahn outpost. If they never sent back word about him, he wouldn’t have to leave. Problem solved. For Kaminessa, she’d only intended to be helpful, but the closer she and Bartleby grew to one another, the more she realized how much it may crush him when the time for him to leave did come. And the longer he stayed, the more she wondered whether she wanted him to go at all.
Their second walk day together was a repeat of the first, Bartleby telling stories of his travails in space, Kaminessa telling Bartleby about her life on Floriston, the things she liked, her hopes, the places she wanted to visit one day. At one point when she was discussing seeing Athos, Bartleby went as far as to say he wished he could see her face when she first set eyes on that ring. She could tell he wanted to say more.
That evening, in the empty gallery at Chimini, Kaminessa unrolled a speaker pad, placed it on the floor, and said, “All right, Bartleby, you’ve done good this week. Are you ready for the next lesson?”
He shook his head.
“I know you’re not comfortable touching other people, but tonight, we’re dancing together, you and me.”
“It’s important,” he said. “I need you to know. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s that I don’t know how to without it becoming awkward. It was decades without any human contact.”
“I know,” she said. “It’s okay. Come here.”
The music started, and they stood together for a moment in the dusk light. It was overcast, so there wasn’t the same glow about the place there had been the previous week.
She took his hand and tried to guide him with the music. At first, dancing together was just as awkward as it had been for both of them as children, that first time, for him so much farther back in memory.
It became easier. Then, after a time, natural.
“I need to ask you something,” he said.
“Ask me anything,” she said.
“Why doesn’t it bother you I’m twice your age? I haven’t been able to figure that out. I understand feeling sorry for me after detaining me, but that was almost two weeks ago.”
“I’ve thought about that a little,” she said.
“I don’t really have a good answer. Maybe I’m not such a great thinker,” she joked. “I’m more of a doer. It could be that you look my age. It could be that you’re so unique. I can’t really picture you as an older man.”
“I could show you,” Bartleby said. “I actually have that picture—Sara does, anyway.”
“Are you good looking?”
“Well, it doesn’t get much better than this, if that’s what you’re asking.”
She laughed. “I suppose that’s how it works for everyone, though. And this? You’re not so bad now, Bartleby.”
“I think you’re beautiful.”
They grew quiet, both wondering if that was going to be a problem.
“I don’t want to break your heart, my friend,” she said. “I’m afraid of hurting you.”
Bartleby nodded. “Here we are,” he said. “I never imagined I’d be here. So whatever happens, Kaminessa Daley, I’ll have these days on Floriston. I’ll always have a lot to be grateful to you for.”
She stopped dancing and began to look out at the darkening sky.
“What are we going to do now, Bartleby?”
“I’m just going to be here till I’m not,” he said. “One thing I learned out there is patience. It’s a good thing to know.”
“Comes with age?” she said, joking.
She looked over at him and wiped tears from her eyes.
“I wouldn’t be the first heart you’ve broken,” he said, casting a sad smile down at her. “I know that much.”
“This is different,” she said. “This is different.”
That week, while waiting for word to come back from Athos, Bartleby checked in with Kaminessa each day at the viewing gallery. She was friendly, but she was distant. He could tell now that it wasn’t he alone who was bracing for the news that it was time for him to go. For whatever reason, he didn’t understand why or how, but he knew Kaminessa cared for him. Her tasks got more difficult, bordering on ridiculous. “I want you to get someone to give you their hat” was one. “Take a picture with three people named Kim” was another. He completed them all.
Finally, word came back from Athos early on the fifth day since the two of them had danced the sun down in the Chimini viewing gallery. She told him when he arrived mid-morning for his assignment. When she informed Bartleby his detainer had been lifted, it seemed to her that she was punching him in the gut.
“So,” he said.
“So,” she repeated.
“What’s my task for the day, before I take you to dinner tonight to thank you for everything?”
“Bartleby,” Kaminessa said.
She shook her head.
“Come on,” he said. “Don’t give up on me now.
“Surprise me,” she said.
She looked sad to him, what he didn’t know was how hard she was trying to hold herself together.
“Toughest one yet,” he said. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Then he disappeared into the crowd.
Kaminessa found herself choking back tears most of the morning. For the first time in her life, Kaminessa Daley was struggling to speak to people. Every time she saw a tall, brown-haired man from behind, she instantly knew from the way he moved that it wasn’t Bartleby. That became her first thought. At the same time, she couldn’t stop wondering what Bartleby would do to surprise her. He hadn’t failed a task yet. He’d done the work. He’d come so far so fast. She didn’t entertain the possibility that he’d fail. She just had no idea what form the surprise would take. Wondering about it was about the only thing holding her together. By mid-afternoon, though, nothing had happened. She hadn’t seen him or heard from him. With the end of the day approaching, she began to dread that final dinner together.
About two hours before sundown, she received a ping from an unknown sender on her glasses. On any other day, she’d have ignored it. There was a video feed. She clicked it on.
“Hey, Kaminessa girl, it’s your boy Rey Alton here,” the caller’s voice said.
His glasses were recording in a busy sunset gallery—she couldn’t tell where. Suddenly, his field of vision shifted to three shirtless dancers she recognized as three-quarters of an Odin-based troop of entertainers who danced in the galleries and tram stops. “Coming to you live from Heder City with your man Bartleby. He wanted you to check this out. All right, all right. Hit it!”
When the music came over her glasses, she couldn’t believe her eyes. Three dancers started a routine she’d recognized from the many times they’d performed in the Altura gallery. But there’d always been four of them. As soon as the caller began to dance with the troop, a fifth dancer appeared in the middle of the group, shirtless, and perfectly in rhythm with the music. He began to perform handstands, flips, kicks and spins as the four dancers in the troop moved around him.
“Bartleby,” she said, almost gasping, shaking her head. “I don’t believe it.”
The dance routine went on and on, the crowd around them cheering the dancers on, and there was Bartleby, shirtless, smiling, surrounded by a crowd of people. She began to shed tears of joy.
“I can’t believe it,” she kept saying to the caller when they’d finished.
Bartleby looked right at the camera and said, “We’re still on for dinner, right?”
“Yes,” she told Rey Alton to tell him. “Absolutely we are.”
She shook her head in disbelief as the feed ended. “Bartleby,” she said, shaking her head.
By the time he got off the tram in Altura, the sun had already set.
“You remembered your shirt,” she teased him when he got off the tram.
“Well?” he said, happy with himself. “Do I pass?”
“You passed, Bartleby. Flying colors, you passed. I wouldn’t have thought that in a thousand years.”
At dinner, she couldn’t believe he was the same person she’d met two weeks before, shaking, hardly able to look her in the eyes. She could tell that not only was he proud of himself for performing in a crowd but he’d actually enjoyed it.
They ordered dessert and coffee. They lingered at the table. Neither of them wanted to get up and walk back to his room. The sun was long gone from the horizon on Bartleby’s last night on Floriston by the time they finally stood.
As they left the restaurant, Kaminessa had a terrible, sinking feeling in her gut. Bartleby looked down at her and took her hand, walking with her up to the sunrise gallery window on the upper level. It was completely dark in the room except for a strip of white guidelights illuminating the footpaths along the floor. The stars were out and bright on the horizon.
“We could stay up here all night talking,” he said as they approached the viewing window. “As much as I’d like that, it would just be delaying the inevitable.”
“I suppose so,” she said.
“I was thinking all day about what they told me on Athos. Every psychologist. They all said that unless I went through with the therapy sessions in Hellenia, I’d have no chance to live a normal life. Sara told me that as well.”
“I believed them when they all told me that,” he continued. “I’m not sure I believe that now. What do you think, Kaminessa?”
“I don’t know what to think.”
“I think I’m doing okay.”
“You’re doing great.”
“I was also thinking on the tram on the way over that there’s no law saying I have to leave Altura tomorrow.”
“No. There isn’t,” she said.
“And I know someone in the public safety office I could talk to who might be inclined to resolve that matter even if there were such a law.”
“She might be.”
“So what do you think, Kaminessa? How would you feel if I stuck around a little longer?”
“I think we could use a guy like you around here, Bartleby,” she said. “I could.”
“So,” he said.
Their faces were illuminated by the dull glow of white light coming up from the floor. It seemed as though, having said what he’d been hoping to say all day, Bartleby didn’t know what to do next.
“Hey, Bartleby,” she said, “when was the last time you kissed a girl?”
“I’ve never kissed a girl on the rings of Floriston.”
“Do you think you’d like to?”
He could see the glint of white light reflecting off her eyes as she looked up at him.
“I think I’d like that very much, Kaminessa Daley. I think I would.”
She paused, waiting. “Well, Bartleby,” she said. “Haven’t both of us waited long enough?”
The timing seemed just right.
The sky was dark outside the window. No pink below. In all that night sky before them, unseen, millions of lives ticked onward, buoyed by the network of hovering rings that had been sketched out in the dreams and foresight of others, carrying the arc of civilization forward, and again, on that day and others, one more time, that same old hope was right where it always had been.
Hope doesn’t live on the horizon.
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