Granny Jen didn't want them to think she was ungrateful. She liked being taken on vacation, and she knew her son-in-law didn't have to pay for her share. So she had not said a word when they stopped at Phil's House of Cheese. McBain's Freak Show drew no protest. She kept her mouth shut at the World's Largest Outhouse and the mutant farm.
Then Darren pulled the minivan up to Crazy Bob's Museum of the Twentieth Century. The fašade was festooned with old-fashioned Christmas lights and painted with a psychedelic mural. Granny Jen's daughter Alison turned around to her. "We thought this would be fun for you, Mom!"
"For me?" said Granny Jen, groping for something to say. "You really, um, you shouldn't have -- I don't need to -- not on my behalf!"
"Come on!" said Darren. "It'll be fun! And we can get out and stretch our legs, shake the stink off."
The grandkids were already running across the parking lot, ten-year-old Tina easily outpacing seven-year-old Jared. "Slow down and wait for your grandmother!" Darren hollered after them.
"They don't need to bother with me," said Granny Jen.
"Oh, no, Mom," said Alison earnestly. "This is your museum. You can show them all the things that are like what you had as a kid!"
"Lovely," said Granny Jen. She felt a headache coming on.
The sound system was playing an Al Jolson tune when they got in the door. Jolson strummed the last few bars on his ukulele, and immediately the sound system switched to Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild." Little Jared wrinkled his nose. "Is it all going to be classical music?"
"Yes," said Alison firmly. "This is what your granny listened to when she was a girl."
"Steppenwolf recorded this song ten years before I was born," said Granny Jen.
"Come see this!" called Tina. "Were you a flapper, Granny Jen? These beads are great."
"That was long before my time," said Granny Jen. "But they're nice beads, I will say."
"Granny Jen bobbed her hair," murmured Tina, reading the placard next to the battered beads and fringed dress.
"Did you wear superhero underwear, Granny Jen?" yelled Jared.
Granny Jen blushed. "Yes, I had some Underoos. Oh, let me see those." A set of Daisy Duke Underoos faced the corresponding Wonder Woman set. The placard read, "During the Vietnam War, even children's underwear was used to demonstrate the country's split on the war-time issues."
"No, no," she said. "That's not how it was at all."
But the grandchildren had already moved on to the next exhibit. They stared at it wide-eyed. "Granny," whispered Tina, "did you have to watch black-and-white videos when you were my age?"
"My parents never had a black-and-white television," said Granny Jen.
They looked at her in horror. "Oh, Granny, I'm sorry you were so poor!" breathed Jared.
Granny Jen sighed and set herself to endure the rest of the museum. She skipped the gift shop completely and stood outside, trying not to think too hard about the mess inside. She took a deep breath when the kids came out with full bags, dreading the ride to the motel for the night.
"Here's a shirt for you, Mom!" shrieked Alison.
Tina giggled. "Isn't it you, Granny Jen?"
"'I survived The Twentieth Century,'" read Granny Jen aloud, "'and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.' Oh, Ally. You shouldn't have."
"Put it on, Granny Jen!" said Jared.
So she did.
There was a boy, and there was a girl. It is that kind of a story.
The girl lived in a hollowed-out asteroid with three mothers, two fathers, six aunts, seven uncles, and five cousins. She was the oldest of the cousins, and the smallest, and the most stubborn.
The boy lived in a floating city in the clouds of Venus, with one mother and one father and twelve robots and no aunts, uncles, or cousins at all.
Every year there was a great gathering, when all of the asteroid ships made their way into Station Four from the Oort Cloud and traded supplies and crew and whatever else they had sitting in their storage closets that no longer interested them. Station Four, usually a quiet emergency post, bustled and hummed with all of the traffic. Oorters set up stands and kiosks with their specialties, foods from their hydroponic systems and entertainment from around the Solar System. And every year, the rich people from the inner system came out to see what there was to be seen. They never left disappointed.
The year the boy turned fifteen, his parents dragged him to the station. The girl couldn't wait to get there. She and two of her uncles unloaded their trade goods near their docking slot, just like the other Oorters. The docking bays were full of people sitting with their trade goods.
Her dads ushered a troop of cousins out of the asteroid ship, followed by a mom and an aunt, and then an aunt and an uncle.
The uncles who helped her unload watched sadly after them as they ran and slid down the dark grey-blue decks of the station.
"You can go," said the girl. "I'll make trades for the stuff, for now."
"Are you sure?" asked one uncle.
The girl nodded.
The uncles took the items they could easily carry in their pockets to trade and left more quickly than the girl thought was strictly polite.
She sat alone, cross-legged on the floor, smiling at passersby, until someone came to dicker for some of their rare earths, in a containment field.
The boy slipped away from his parents. They called after him indulgently, "Be back by supper!" He had no idea when supper was supposed to be, without a solar day to guide him. He wandered, looking for something to catch his eyes. Most of the items made no sense to him. The rest seemed too ordinary to bother with. He walked faster.
Then the boy saw her.
The girl had wide, clear green eyes and a short fringe of black hair. She looked like a video star playing a young girl of the Oort Cloud. She was trading with another young Oorter, one game module for another. He hung back until the other girl was gone.
He glanced at the object sitting next to her. It was iridescent blue with purple streaks, a shape that made him squint a bit to try to get its measure. He suddenly found it beautiful.
"What's that?" he asked her.
"My aunt's gift sculpture from when she married my uncle and joined the family," she said.
"Why are you selling it?"
"We need the money," said the girl.
Pity gripped the boy. "How much do you want for it?"
The girl smiled shyly. "I like you. I would give it to you if I could, but my mothers would be angry with me."
"I understand," said the boy.
"Perhaps three dollars would be enough?"
The boy smiled back at her shyness and her quaint frontier notions of currency. "I think I have three dollars."
She didn't hear the patronizing note in his voice. She accepted the three dollars gravely. Two of her aunts came out of the ship.
"Ah, good, cash," said one of the aunts. "Trades are good, cash is better."
"I also got a new game in exchange for that old Nuke Hunter we'd all beaten a million times."
"Good girl!" said the other aunt. "What did you get?"
"At The Barricades," said the girl. "It's an old French Revolution game."
The boy smiled again. He had played it three years ago, as had everyone on Venus.
"You've done well," said the first aunt. "You can have some time if you like. We'll do the trading for awhile."
"Thank you." She stood up gracefully and left them, waving over her shoulder. The boy walked with her.
"I could buy you some food, if you're hungry," he ventured.
The girl thought about it. She was hungry. And she had been told never to turn down sensible hospitality. "Thank you," she said.
They wandered among the station's food kiosks, rejecting noodles and flatbreads. The boy bought a big bowl of potato curry and rice for them to share. She dipped her fingers in and ate without fork or bread, and he watched her, smiling indulgently, before reaching for a fingerful of his own.
The girl touched his hand gently after he'd eaten a bit. "What's that? On your wrist?"
"Oh, that. It's the band from the ship we took out. My ticket band."
"So you need it to get home," she said.
"No, no, there'll be another for our trip out. I just forgot to take this one off."
"There's all kinds of circuitry in it," she said softly. "Tiny signals."
He stood up, holding the sculpture in one arm. "Are you done eating?" She nodded. "Let's just walk a bit."
He took her hand as they went, but she kept trying to turn it to look at his ticket band.
"You can have it, if you like," he said, laughing.
He laughed louder. "I'll give it to you. For free."
She drew back. "But it's -- it's got all this stuff in it."
"They'll give me another."
"It won't be quite the same."
"Look, I can include it in the payment for the sculpture, if you like," said the boy.
"You already paid for that."
"It's just a sculpture," she said in confusion. "My aunt can make another."
He laughed. She watched him.
He leaned in and kissed her, gently. She blinked in surprise, though he kept his eyes closed. She smelled of soap and ozone. He smelled of musk and carefully blended herbal cologne.
You're so innocent, they thought together. They stood in the corridor and gazed solemnly at each other.
"There you are!" said the boy's mother, breaking the spell. "We're about to have dinner. Come along."
"I just had a bit of curry from a kiosk."
His mother wrinkled her nose. "And if you aren't sick the whole way to Neptune, it'll be a miracle. What have you got here?"
"It's nothing," he said hastily. "I'll explain it later."
The girl watched him go. She wandered back to her own ship. Her aunts smiled and asked if she wanted to stay and trade, but she shook her head and went inside.
That night, the boy sat cross-legged in his bunk and fingered the girl's sculpture. The girl stroked the boy's ticket band under the table where she played games with her cousins.
Those eyes, he thought.
That smile, she thought.
But at least there's something wonderful to remember by.
They shook their heads, pulling out of their daydreams, and showed the others what they had gotten, so cheaply.
The old codger was the first human in the shop all day, but that was just fine with me. The robots never called me sweetie or tried to get my number or yelled at me if it took more than a minute to find something. They're programmed to be inoffensive, and by God, they're programmed well.
The codger had thin white hair, smoothly combed and tucked behind his ears. The lines in his face spoke of worry and of laughter, probably sometimes at the same time. He was an American, I could tell before he even spoke -- their bad taste in clothing is quite distinguishable from our bad taste in clothing. He peered about him, dissatisfied with postcard racks and painted teacups.
"May I help you?" I asked him.
"Do you have anything to eat in here?" he said. "The sandwich shop appears to be closed."
"Oh, yes, they're not open after 2:00 on weekdays," I said. "We have some ice cream toffee bars in the freezer case."
The codger sighed. "Yeah, all right, I'll take one of those. If there's nothing else close by."
"No, the area's so filled with tourists that only the tourist shops survived."
"But no sandwiches," he said, passing me his credit card and unwrapping the toffee bar.
I shrugged. "Robots eat very few sandwiches, as a rule. Also rather few toffee bars, but we do sell a few."
He wandered in among the busts of great computer scientists, munching on his toffee bar. He was a very neat eater, so I didn't worry too much about the merchandise. "It's all a robot affair, then?"
"Most of our customers are robots," I said. "They have the most interest in Turing's life. It's sort of a pilgrimage for most of them. Our human visitors seem to view it as more one stop on a longer vacation."
"I suppose," he said. He finished off the toffee bar. He licked the stick clean, wrapped it in the wrapper, and put it neatly in his jacket pocket. "I worked for Aitch Pee, you know, when they were still Aitch Pee. Before all the mergers and buyouts and ownership changes."
Before I got a job at the shop, I wouldn't have known Aitch Pee from Eff Yew. Now I was hip deep in all of it. "That must have been quite something."
"Oh, it was. It was. Very exciting place to be. I was in hardware, you know."
"Did you work on the first AI robots?"
"A little. At the end of my career. Before my -- before my partner got sick, and I was needed for nursing care. Honey, I don't think you know how old I am."
I didn't mind so much when the codgers called me honey, as long as they didn't try to pinch me.
"So where are all the robots now?" he continued.
"There's a guided tour every hour on the hour," I said automatically. "They'll come in from that any minute now."
"And buy like mad. Good consumer programming there."
"Well, they all need a magnet or a stick-on." I pointed at the rack of apples. The metal-bodied robots bought magnets, the plastic ones stick-ons. "Some of them want programs or books or e-books, postcards, what have you. But they all need apples."
He looked at it. "Pretty little things. Part of the pilgrimage?"
"Turing died eating a poisoned apple."
"Him and Snow White," said the codger. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to be disrespectful of the dead. It just seems -- they buy magnets for that?"
"They wear them on their cases."
"If that don't beat all. It give you the creeps?"
"It's just a remembrance," I said carefully. "Of a great man taken prematurely from us."
"A great man indeed," he said softly.
And then the robots were upon us. The codger retreated to the corner of the gift shop to witness them, a silent, gentle swarm of locusts, politely picking the apple kiosk clean and stopping for power cells and maps on their way. They said all the right words, please and thank you and isn't this moving, and they used all the right tones, soft, unthreatening. None of that had worked for Turing.
The codger edged to the back of the shop and acted fascinated with the bright blue T-shirts we'd just gotten in. The robots left with a minimum of chatting. I pulled the box of apple magnets and stick-ons out from under the counter and went to replenish it.
"You handle them well," the codger said, creeping forward past the book displays.
I shrugged. "Lots and lots of practice. And they make it easy."
"Some people think they're unnatural."
I looked him straight in the eye. "They used to say that about us, you know."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
I snorted. "If your partner had been a woman, you'd have said, 'I had to take care of her.' Not 'I was needed for nursing care.'"
He examined the back cover of one of the biographies minutely, without speaking. I waited.
"Some of them still say that about us," he murmured. He put the book down and came over to me, held his hand out for an apple stick-on. I rang it up for him.
It's not just the robots who wear them.
Jing-xie was bored. The doctors told him that the infection was clearing up nicely, and the bones were knitting, too. Soon, they told him, the little machines would have done their work, and he would be back on his feet, back on his ship, back on his own world.
In the meantime, Jing-xie was getting to know the corridors of the New Albuquerque Colony Hospital much, much better than he had ever wanted to, as he wheeled his chair around them. His shipmates had repairs to make, and they could only spend a few minutes every day with him. He got bored with reading, with music and movies and playing solitaire. There were very few other patients, and most of the others were too ill to be interesting from anything but a clinical perspective.
He was playing yet another game of solitaire the afternoon the aliens came. He had resorted to begging some physical cards from the nurse instead of playing a virtual game on his computer: it killed more time to lay the cards down one by one.
When he looked up and saw the aliens, he said, "Holy shit!" He tried to stand, to run, but his broken leg kept him to an ignominious little bounce. There were two mountainous aliens, both a bilious shade of yellow, both peering down at his leg in great interest. They were lumpen and naked and looked ready to engulf him.
His doctor emerged from behind them, rubbing her hands nervously. "Hello, Jing-xie," said his doctor. "These are, ah, some visitors. They're on New Albuquerque to experience human culture."
"Where the hell are they from?" asked Jing-xie.
"Somewhere out the arm a little further. They call it --" She made a gurgling noise deep in her throat. "It's a tonal language."
The aliens made identical gurgling noises and grinned at Jing-xie.
"What do they want in the hospital? Don't they know there are sick people here?" Jing-xie peered at her suspiciously. "Don't you know there are sick people here? This is a bit disturbing of my rest, you know?"
The doctor rolled her eyes. "Your rest. Don't give me that. You've been skittering around here in that chair any time the nurses will let you. The machines are working fine."
"What do they want?" Jing-xie repeated.
"They want your infection."
"I beg your pardon."
"Yorrrrr infection," said one of the aliens in a near approximation of the doctor's voice.
"Here's the thing," said the doctor. "The first time they visited an alien planet, they came down with a bad case of diarrhea."
"Moooooontezuma's Reveeeeeenge," rumbled the second alien, grinning hugely.
"They have amazing immune systems, and they learn from bacteria and viruses," said the doctor. She sounded weary. "So...they like to pick up one or two. For souvenirs, when they're visiting a planet where they've never been before. And your infection is a strain they've never seen before. If you share it with them, they'll pay your hospital bills."
Jing-xie winced. His ship didn't have a lot of spare cash, and the hospital bills were going to drain their resources. "What do I have to do?"
"Let them lick your leg," whispered the doctor.
The aliens rumbled. Jing-xie realized, with a lurch of his stomach, that they were giggling. "Picturrrrrre," said the first alien.
"And they want a picture of it," said the doctor.
"Of the bacteria? Or virus or whatever?"
"Of the, ah, licking."
Jing-xie leaned heavily back on his pillow. "Oh, sure, all right. We could use the money." But really, he thought, could it be more grotesque than another game of solitaire. Most likely it could not.
The second alien moved in close to him, leaning towards his leg, and the first held up a tiny device. "Smiiiiiiile," it said.
I'd never been to the reading of a will before. I think Great-Aunt Claire was the first person really close to me who had died when I was old enough to know the difference. It was just me and my parents in the office with the lawyer, and I have to confess, I wasn't paying much attention. She had left things to all the charities she'd supported in her life -- a scholarship for her alma mater, the Humane Society, one of her old professional organizations, the Sierra Club. My parents were to administer the rest of the money as they saw fit.
The laywer said my name, and I looked up. She produced a package wrapped in brown paper. "Your aunt wanted you to have this, and to look through her apartment and take whatever else you found that was of interest. The rest is to go to Goodwill."
"Are you sure that she didn't mean I should go through the apartment?" said my mother. "It's a big job for Alicia to take on herself."
"It says quite specifically that Alicia should do it herself."
"Well, if you need help sorting things, I'll be available," said my mother dubiously.
"If there's anything special you'd like, I'll get it for you, but I think I can handle it," I told her.
"Never mind that," said my father, "what's in the package?"
So I unwrapped it. It was a snow globe with a little dome inside, and the red plastic base read, "Greetings from Dejah City, Mars!" The apartment key was taped to the bottom.
"Oh, dear," said my father.
"I didn't know she'd kept that old thing!" said my mother. "I don't know why she would."
I turned the globe over, and the snow drifted down on the miniature dome. "It doesn't snow on Mars, does it?"
"If you have no more questions about the will...." said the lawyer.
We assured her that we did not and hurried out of her office, pulling on our scarves and hats and mittens. I had ridden to the lawyer's office with them, so we took their car back to my place. It whirred along contentedly, but very little of the energy got diverted for heating. We hurried into my apartment.
"You don't have to keep that piece of junk, Alicia," my mother said.
"Aunt Claire wanted me to have it."
"And I don't know why!" she snapped.
My father gave her a look that was intended to be calming. "Claire spent a year at Dejah City."
"Over a year," said my mother. "And look where it got her."
Uncle Lucas had died when the saboteurs got Dejah City, long, long before I was born. Aunt Claire had barely escaped with her life, and her lungs had been permanently damaged. It was probably why she had died so young, only 83.
I set the snow globe on the kitchen counter. I could deal with her apartment later, preferably when my mother wasn't irritated by the globe. "Do you want some dinner?"
They did, and I managed to keep the topic away from the snow globe and Aunt Claire's apartment until they were getting ready to leave. "You call me if you need any help," said my mother firmly.
"We just don't want you to have to deal with more than you're ready for," said my father.
"Aunt Claire kept a clean house," I said. "I think I'll be fine."
They looked at each other portentously and hugged me and left.
Uncle Lucas' death at Dejah City was just another piece of family trivia to me, so it was easy to forget how much it upset Mom and Dad. They were newlyweds at the time, and Lucas and Claire were established engineers, well into their career, responsible for the safety of all of the tourists at the resort.
They had failed. Of the nearly three thousand people living in Dejah City or visiting it, two thousand eight hundred and five had died. And Aunt Claire had never said a word about it to me. So why did she leave me the snow globe?
I had taken the next day off work in case I needed the time to recuperate. It seemed like the ideal time to start cleaning Aunt Claire's apartment. I spent the first two hours folding clothes and putting them in bags to go to Goodwill. Packing dishes came next. That was the easy part. I wrapped the interesting pieces, heirloom crystal goblets and quirky candlestick holders, in bubble paper and tissue. The daily china was also wrapped, but less carefully, and I labeled those boxes for Goodwill, too. I set aside the chipped stoneware tumblers I'd drunk from so many times as a child. Those went in with the goblets.
I had spent weeks, months of my life in that apartment with my Aunt Claire. I knew every patch on the brown-and-gold quilt, every knickknack in the kitchen windowsill. The old-fashioned smell of the place, cinnamon and yeast and Emeraude perfume, was as much home as my parents' house. I had never seen the snow globe before, never seen a trace of her old life on Dejah City. I didn't know where to look for them.
I sat down on the sofa to think. Some part of me waited for Aunt Claire to plunk herself down beside me and start quizzing me about my job, my dates, my life. And if she'd plunked down beside me and handed me the globe, it might have made sense. She'd handed me enough other things, thrown me enough other curveballs.
I got up again. I went through the bookcase, hoping there would be journals, books about the sabotage, anything. She might have made notes. She might have left papers, a letter for me.
If she had, they were not on the bookshelves. The only papers I found were tax records, insurance records, that sort of thing. Aunt Claire had saved everything official. If I wanted to, I could see the warranty for her latest palmtop. I didn't think it would prove useful, but I leafed through the official stuff just to make sure.
I shook my head. It didn't seem like Aunt Claire to just have the official stuff, but she had never wanted to talk much about her work life. I knew she had worked for one of the big hotel chains, in the computer security department. She always said it was boring and nothing to discuss.
I kept going, looking through the pantry, the armoire, her jewelry box, her bathroom cabinets. I think the bathroom cabinets were the hardest part. Mom had always told me that nice people did not look in each other's bathroom cabinets. But Aunt Claire was gone, and the array of cotton swabs, aspirin, and half-empty prescription bottles put a lump in my throat. I threw the prescription bottles in the trash. One of us would use the half-box of bandages she'd used on my knees and fingers when I was a child, or we'd give it to a homeless shelter.
It was too close, too personal. It was too much. I was ready to go home for awhile.
But I knew I would want the checkerboard, so I went into Aunt Claire's storage closet to get it. And folded on top of it was a little piece of paper reading "Alicia." I opened it.
"Look at the base," it said.
I looked at the floor of the closet. The base of the wall? The base of the stairs? The army base? What was I supposed to be looking at? Like an idiot, I realized that Aunt Claire had only given me one thing in specific, and it had a gaudy red plastic base. I slipped the checkerboard under my arm and ran down the stairs to my car.
Sitting at my own kitchen table, I turned the snow globe over. There was nothing unusual about the bottom of it. The lettering, too, looked normal, if a little faded. I looked at where the globe met the base. There, embedded so tightly that I was sure it would never come out, was a fine red dust.
I frowned and banged on the globe with my fist. It was a durable plastic, not glass as I'd first assumed. And if it was a durable enough plastic...it had made the trip out with Aunt Claire. It had left the dome with her.
But why a snow globe? She didn't even like them, as far as I could tell. There weren't any others in the apartment.
The answer occurred to me as I looked around the rest of the apartment: it was the only thing she could grab as she fled. It was all she had left of those days, a tacky trinket with red dust from another world.
Souvenir means "to remember." I promised myself that I would.