A Touch of Earth
by Colin P. Davies
part 1 of 2
He’d said he was a writer and at first I’d considered that fact just cause to decline his company. But he was insistent, and clever. There was the coffee shop encounter and the accident with the dog in hydroponics, the botulism scare and the missing mail from his mother. Within weeks, familiarity led to capitulation and we became friends.
Carol was not happy. She said Gunn smelled odd and, like all writers, lived in the border country between this universe and a far stranger one.
The children were not happy. They said he played with their toys.
As for myself, I was intrigued by the concepts of creation and free imagination, of writing something other than technical reports. I was an architect and worked from the approved book of patterns. Free imagination for me consisted of selection of wall colors and the choice of bidet. And anyway, writing fiction seemed like harmless fun.
Until, that is, the night of the carnival.
* * *
“Carnival? I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous.” Carol climbed into the open-top minicab and slammed the door. She pressed her thumb to the dash credit-meter. “We don’t have carnivals on Mars!”
“Gunn said it’s a traveling carnival... been to Athens, Soloi... last call was Marineris, I think.” I hoisted her bags over onto the back seat. God knew why she needed so much stuff. It wasn’t as if she brought council business home — or, if she did, she kept it well hidden from me. “He said it’s due here within days.” She was only a goddamn councilor, and that for a ward of barely one hundred people.
“Oh well, if Gunn said it’s coming then I’m convinced it must be coming. Even now, it must be zipping its way across a thousand kilometers of frozen, near-airless desert just to lay on a show for us... Grow up, Robert! ” She leaned toward the dash. “City Hall, and make it for ten!” The cab eased forward.
I trotted after it. “He’s got no reason to lie. I believe him.”
“He’s an Earthman, for God’s sake! They’re all liars. Even the children don’t believe a word he says.”
“They don’t understand him.”
“And they still believe in Martians.”
I ran alongside the cab.
“But just say it turns out to be true, just say...” I snatched at my breath between words. “We could all go, couldn’t we? Me, you and the children.”
“It’s different, that’s why. Don’t you want to do something different?”
“I mean, why would I want to go anywhere with you?”
I stopped running.
She stood and turned to glare back at me. “Look, Bob, I know you’re not politically minded and you’ve got the attention span of a narcoleptic two-year old, but there’s a crisis about to break. I need to concentrate on bigger things than a new trend in entertainment.”
Or your family, I thought. I’d had enough of her politics, of her pseudo-concern for the colonists. I knew what lurked behind those blue eyes. Yes, she was beautiful... long yellow hair, body like a stick, but she was a bitch.
I raced ahead and waved my hand in front of the cab. Immediately, emergency systems yanked the cab to a halt. Carol caught herself by grabbing the dash. I stepped in front.
She glared at me with years of distilled distaste. It was hard to believe she’d ever loved me. Politics had changed her. I’d much preferred her as a children’s entertainer.
I found I had no words to say.
She shook her head slowly. “Robert... don’t be ridiculous.”
I knew when I was beaten. I moved aside.
The cab continued two junctions up the oak-lined boulevard, then turned along the Corinthian colonnade that led into the business district. Carol didn’t glance back once.
Confused, and a little wounded, I stood for a moment longer. The sun was warm this morning. The translucent city-roof, the great tent, glowed pink. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine a summer day on Earth. How would it be? Warm breeze, birds exchanging gossip, the scent of cut grass... somewhere the insect song of a Sunday mower.
Gunn’s stories were full of such magic — made of memories of Earth, of this planet I’d never seen. Next time we met, I’d ask to borrow more of his books.
But perhaps Carol was right and Gunn was not good for me. My current project was already behind schedule and I was finding it harder to motivate myself. Even my IBM was starting to get sarcastic. The last time I’d sat at my desk, it had greeted me with “Hello, stranger!” And it’s voice had been a cruel imitation of Carol’s.
Stopping only to collect a white rose for my desk, I returned indoors. I needed to forget Gunn and his distractions and save my professional reputation... and possibly my marriage.
* * *
The carnival arrived at midnight.
A dust storm was building as the trucks emerged from the black desert. Through a viewport in the tent wall, I watched the approaching headlamps bob across the rocky terrain.
Excitement caused an odd unease in my stomach. Yes — excitement! An emotion I hadn’t experienced since the first night I’d taken Carol into my bedroom. She’d slipped from her clothes with unsettling artistry, causing a tremble in me so intense it set the bedside lamp rattling. And she’d disappointed me then, as so often.
I’d had a skinful, that was true. But I was capable. For Carol, though, things had to be just... right! Can’t define, can’t explain, know it when I trip over it! She got dressed; I got mad. She was sick of me; I was sick on her shoes.
Now I watched as, one by one, the garishly decorated vehicles roared through the vast airlock and rumbled into the city. Images of gathering children squabbled across the flank of one truck. Another carried a colorfully fictive comic strip of the first Mars landing. Here and there, a well-placed holo-image gave the unnerving impression of distant vistas within the substance of the trucks. I was impressed.
Gunn had brought me here, dragged me all too easily away from my work. That’s not to say that I’d totally jettisoned that infamous Martian skepticism, born of a legacy of disappointment. I realised now that, even to the moment when the first headlamp had pierced the desert gloom, I’d doubted him. Now I was high on wonder. I’d read about these things in Gunn’s stories, but I’d never truly believed.
The trucks lined up parallel by Visa Control — twelve wide, dusty, thick-tracked vehicles, each four times taller than me, in red, green, purple, pink... strung out like bunting on Mars Day.
Out of the trucks spilled the travelers. An odd bunch; some short, some tall, and all fat. Their build revealed them to be visitors. You couldn’t get that bulky on Mars gravity and city rations. With that insight I realised Gunn‘s fragility. I’d been viewing him as a fellow Martian, not an emaciated Earthman.
He was ahead of me as we crossed to where the travelers were gathering. “I’m looking for an old friend,” he said, as he peered into the chattering crowd of offworlders.
“You know these people?”
“I know Captain Winter. We go back a long long way.”
A grey-bearded face pushed out of the crowd. “All the way to Earth!” The man laughed. They embraced with genuine warmth. “Who’s your skinny friend?”
Gunn released himself. “This is Bob.”
A strong hand attempted to crush my fingers into a homogeneous mush of flesh and bone.
“Bob is an architect.”
That threw me. I hadn’t realised my occupation held the slightest interest for Gunn. I nursed my hand.
“Ah ha... .” Captain Winter’s eyes widened. “You’re still hanging on to that dream.”
Gunn clasped my shoulder. “If I lose that... I’ll have lost everything.”
* * *
“You were out late last night.” Carol threw back the shower curtain, taking me by surprise. “Got a woman? Should I be jealous?”
I turned off the hot spray of recycled water and rubbed at my eyes. “I didn’t know you cared.” I watched the bubbles track towards the drain and disappear into the tanks below the house. I’d be drinking that water tomorrow.
Carol held up the towel for me — an unexpected friendly act. Was this a truce in our undeclared war? I accepted the offering and stepped out.
“I hear your carnival arrived last night,” she said.
I smiled smugly. “Figment of my imagination.”
Carol released a grin. “All right, all right. I can be wrong occasionally. Were you with Gunn, the writer?”
“He took me to meet an old friend.”
She followed me into the bedroom. “So Gunn is involved with the carnival?”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“How far would you go?”
I peeked out past the window blind. Ian and Maria were playing out in the back yard — I am my own grandfather, or some other equally grotesque time paradox game.
I sat on the bed and draped the towel carefully across my lap. “That’s a lot of questions.”
“I’m just curious.” She took a band from the dressing table and tugged her hair into a pony tail, then tidied up the result via the mirror. “It’s an unusual event... and these are unusual times.”
“You see a connection?”
“No... . No connection. How could there be?”
I reached around Carol to open a drawer. She moved aside.
“When are they open for business?” she said.
“This evening. The trucks are moving to the west shore of the city lake. They need water for some of their sideshows... are we taking the kids?”
“What exactly are they selling at these sideshows?”
“Something you wouldn’t understand. Gunn told me about it. Nostalgia and magic. A touch of old and a touch of strange. A touch of Earth. Gunn’s words... not mine. The theme is the home planet. The sense of things being lost, like the beauty of the changing seasons.”
“We have seasons.”
I shook my head. There was no point trying to explain to her. “As I said, nostalgia.”
“Nostalgia is a sickness,” Carol said. “It’s not good to have people getting sentimental about Earth when our leaders are in the process of severing ties. Mars is about to break free.” Her voice rose. “The Colonial Governor is at present under house arrest.”
“And what’s that got to do with me?” I pulled a sweatshirt from the drawer.
“You’re an idiot, Robert. You can’t see what’s going on... or you don’t care.” She kicked the drawer shut. “The people can’t be distracted right now. They must be single-minded. ”
“Ah... the people. The people are anything but a single mind.”
“That’s why we have to think for them.”
I laughed. “And you called me an idiot!” I turned my back and pulled my sweatshirt on over my head. Behind me, the door slammed.
In the dressing table mirror, I was smiling.
* * *
The carnival opened for business at sunset and the crowd, at first thin and curious, quickly swelled until rivers of men, women and children flowed between the trucks.
I arrived late and alone and was swept on the currents beneath strings of colored lamps and ghostly flights of pale illusory owls. Country dancing music tugged at my feet while, high above us, the dust storm composed a chorus of whispers as it played across the tent skin. I’d arranged to meet Gunn at the gold truck, the sideshow called Illinois Morning.
I finally reached our rendevous an hour before midnight. Gunn was waiting and quickly ushered me up the steps, past the attendant, and into the truck. Out of the night and into... a summer’s morning. I was stunned into immobility.
A short distance in front of us, two boys sat on the grassy bank of a narrow river, their makeshift fishing rods held high. Blue sky and a cornfield horizon. A static sun. I spun around — 360 degree panorama. Where was the entrance we’d just walked through... the electronic curtain that had whispered across my skin like the teasing of warm breath?
“Don’t worry.” Gunn held my elbow. “It’s unnerving at first. Just hold onto the fact that it’s all illusion. A technical trick. Anti-noise shuts out the real world.”
I laughed as the tension uncoiled from my spine. “It’s incredible... so peaceful. I can hear insects. And the river, it smells.”
“And the breeze is warm.”
I held up my hand. “Yes... the breeze.”
“The entrance is behind us, between those ancient signposts.”
I regretted not bringing Carol and the children. I should have tried harder to convince her. Surely even she would be impressed, moved, by this magic — even if only by the technology.
One of the boys scrambled to his feet and ran up to me. He held out his small hand. “Hi there, mister.”
I reached out and my fingers passed through his hand. I shuddered, almost afraid. The boy jeered and ran back to his pal.
“Remember it’s all an illusion,” Gunn said.
“But I was sure he could see me. He knew I was here.”
“It’s... .” I searched for the right word to pin down these curdling emotions that had me lightheaded and... happy. “Wonderful.”
Copyright © 2006 by Colin P. Davies