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The Snowbirds

by Michael Mathews

Aliza Spirowitz settled herself uncomfortably into her pod. She tugged at the sleeves of her sweater until they were even, one, and then the other, holding her arms out in front of herself to compare.

Satisfied, she leaned down to adjust the position of her handbag a fraction of an inch, and then, after considering it, moved it back again. She wished she’d worn her blue wool jacket.

“All these air nozzles!” she protested to no one in particular. “Is there some law that a cryogenic chamber always has to be so drafty?”

She fussed in her eggshell and plopped back with a humph.

Humming a white-noise song to itself, a servoid wheeled discreetly down the aisle towards her. “Are you uncomfortable, madam?”

“Uncomfortable?” she said, as if insulted at the suggestion. “Uncomfortable! I could tell you all about uncomfortable. After thirty-two years of marriage, I could write a book with what I know about uncomfortable.”

The servoid cleared its throat with a sound of static and then rose up to adjust the air nozzles above Aliza’s pod seat.

“What’s to complain about anyway?” Aliza continued. “Spending a year frozen in this thing will be like a vacation, a holiday in the Poconos, compared to living with that man.”

An automatic nod was emitted from the servoid as it worked.

“Gil wouldn’t know the meaning of the word comfortable. Thirty-two years he keeps me living in a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side, and why? So he can run the world’s smallest jewellery shop, that’s why. Every night I waited up for him. Thirty-two years I kept his soup warm,” she said to the servoid. “A little cold air, I should be so lucky to have such a small amount of uncomfortable!”

The servoid retracted, telescoping back in on itself, and a smile flickered across its face. “Is there anything else required, madam?” Its voice came smooth and silvery.

A white-haired man sat in the pod next to Aliza, and he suddenly jutted forward. “You can fix my air,” he yelled to the servoid, louder than was necessary.

“I — me — I know all about uncomfortable,” the man said, pointing vigorously at his chest. “She thinks it was easy running a business by myself? Thirty-two years of struggle, that’s what it was. And never once did I hear a word of gratitude from her. A simple expression of appreciation? Not once!” he cried out.

Ratchet wrists clicked while the servoid worked.

“Gratitude!” Aliza scoffed to the air. “Now he wants gratitude! I lived the life of a pauper while he was a servant to women whose husbands could afford to give them nice things. Pah! Gratitude!”

The servoid rolled back and set down on the metal floor. “Will that be satisfactory?”

“I’ll be glad to start a whole new life,” Gil said, “where I won’t have to slave for such an ungrateful wife. A new life!” he announced, his finger trembling in the air.

Unable to detect a request in the man’s statement, the servoid swivelled and moved away on black rubber wheels.

The man and the woman sat with arms crossed, the silence between them stretched tight.

After several long minutes Gil declared: “No meal? Such an expensive spaceship — with robots even — but do they offer you a sandwich?”

He spied Aliza picking at the turquoise knit of her sweater. In a softer voice he said: “You think I love being poor? I promised my father I’d look after the business.”

“A cup of coffee even,” Aliza called out towards the retreating robot. “Nothing!”

“Not even a glass of water!” Gil exclaimed.

Another long silence, this time brushing lightly up between them.

“I could try something new,” Gil said, “I could work in the hydroponics module. Andrea’s brother left for the colony last year and I hear he’s making very good money in hydroponics.”

“Hydroponics now?” she cried, incredulous. “So all of a sudden he’s an engineer! What do you know about hydroponics? Nothing!”

“I could make valves,” he said with force. “Switches, maybe. Some of those sprinklers they use have very delicate valves. I bet they break, what with all that sand blowing around and getting into them. I could fix them. It could be a whole new life for us.”

“I read they’ve been mining gold in the Tharsis Craters,” she said.

“We could get our own adobe-dome on the flats.”

“You’re a businessman, you should start a business. With all that gold they’ve been mining, they might like some jewelry once in a while.”

“Maybe buy some land on the dunes, overlooking the Valles Marineris.”

“A canyon?” she said. “What would I want to look at a canyon for?”

“It’s a very big canyon,” he said quietly.

“And our own dome? So much to keep clean. We don’t need all that space. It’s not practical. A waste for just two old people like us.”

“But if I could get a job in the hydroponics module,” he protested.

“We’ll get an apartment!” she declared, arms crossed. “In Tharsis City. We don’t need much. Why waste money on our own dome, and looking at a canyon all the time? We haven’t got money to waste on canyons, you know.”

“I suppose,” he said nodding thoughtfully.

“And you,” she said. “What do I want to be married to a fancy hydroponics engineer for? A man your age, you should stick to what you know!”

“I could open a shop. There are a lot of people there with money these days.”

“It wouldn’t need to be much, something small,” she said. “Location is the most important thing. Location and hard work. You can’t be afraid of hard work, you know.”

He nodded at this and they sat considering it for a long while, until he said: “It’s a long way. I wouldn’t mind a sandwich. Even a cracker. Would it kill them to give us a cracker?”

“When we get to Tharsis I’ll make you a nice soup — matzo ball. You like my matzo ball soup.”

A servoid was moving down the line of pods, pulling the transparent clamshell covers down and securing the seals. Aliza squeezed her sweater tight around her shoulders.

The servoid stopped in front of Aliza.

“Hold on,” Gil snapped. “Here, take this,” he said to Aliza, handing her his jacket.

She settled back into the pod and pulled the jacket up around herself before the cover clicked shut at last.

Copyright © 2006 by Michael Mathews

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