by Eric Williams
“Well,” said Röntgen after we’d breakfasted. “I suppose I should take you to see Le Sal.” He checked the time. “He’s up by now, or should be once we get there.” My gaze followed his out the big window, past the little garden with its passionflower trellis to the atmosphere recycling stacks beyond, row after row of fog-wreathed funnels marching up the wall of the cylindrical space station to hang over our heads.
“I probably should make a pilgrimage,” I answered. “He’s reckoned the best poet here.”
“Best poet in Aznar Station?” Röntgen laughed and drained his coffee. “Well, I can arrange that too.”
We strolled to the already bustling Plaza de los Pájaros. A long line had formed for the Axial. The cylindrical station mimicked gravity by rotating slowly, producing a wrap-around landscape with buildings and streets overhead and draped along the walls; it also meant an axis of minimal rotation existed where you could experience microgravity. Down this line ran the Axial cable, strung with motorized plastic bubbles where you could float the length of Aznar. It was the quickest way to cross the station, and the view was very popular with tourists.
“Bad luck,” shrugged Röntgen. “We’re in for a trek then.”
We skirted atole vendors on the edge of the park and walked down a road running from Röntgen’s neighborhood through a technicolor palangke where I bought fragrant sampaguita sprigs for our lapels. Beyond the market we caught a tram that bumped us down the famous shop-lined Avenida Kotányi, the bus flashing in and out of shadows cast by the sun towers. Forty-five minutes later, we hopped off near an old industrial district. I gawped at the spires reaching axisward, each tipped with low-gravity semiconductor farms. Directly overhead, through the vapor of recirculators, I glimpsed Röntgen’s building and the little garden.
Le Sal’s home was a pre-schism mansion sliced into apartments; he lived alone on the second floor in shabby rooms carefully curated to display a suitably artistic chaos. A heating coil glowed in one corner, but the windows were open and a cool breeze mingled nicely with the room’s warm air. He wore a house coat and smoked a reeking pipe. Röntgen introduced us.
“Always glad to meet another writer,” he said with a magnanimous tip of the pipe. Le Sal, in addition to his volumes of verse, also edited a journal that threatened to become fashionable. He offered career advice while Röntgen stood by the window.
“Work is the thing,” Le Sal said, leaning back in his chair. “It’s like the Red Queen, running hard just to stay in place.” He tapped the pipe against his slipper, then reached under the chair and produced a thick sheaf of papers. “For example,” he said excitedly, “I’ve been working, rather furiously in fact, on what may be my best work. An epic, a retelling of Odysseus’s journey through that wine-dark Aegean but, rather than recounting his adventures, it’s told from the viewpoint of his erotic conquests. Contrasts the militarism of the General with the amorousness of the lonely man far from home, you see?” I nodded politely and, encouraged, he asked, “Shall I read some?” I nodded again, Le Sal leapt up and, positioning himself attractively in the glow of the heating coil, began a sonorous and extremely pornographic chant.
I find even the most novel or deranged descriptions of sex boring, so it wasn’t long before I was fidgeting in my chair. I was thinking about the two billion miles of space I’d endured only to find myself trapped in Le Sal’s living room, when I noticed Röntgen waving me over to the window. I hesitated, not wanting to seem rude, but Le Sal was lost in his own words. I got up just as the orgy in the Caverns of Ogygia got underway and joined my friend by the window.
“Well,” he whispered, a smile quirking his mouth. “What do you think?”
“He won’t mind I’ve gotten up?” I asked. Behind us, Le Sal’s frenzied voice rose and fell.
“He’s been smoking all morning,” laughed Röntgen. “Trust me, he’s forgotten us.”
“Hard to imagine he’s the ‘Greatest Trans-Neptunian Poet,’” I said.
“Politics,” shrugged Röntgen. “In grad school at the University of Titan he was roommates with Esim Ghoti, who now chairs the Rhysling Committee. But if you’re interested in seeing one of our humble station’s truly great artists, I think I can accommodate you.” He looked at his phone. “They should be along shortly.” He pointed out the window.
It wasn’t much of a view—the back of a warehouse, dominated by loading bays, ramps, nothing but a desert of grey ferrocrete and steel. At the end of the block crouched dumpsters filled with heaps of gallium shards, the glittering leftovers of the microgravity manufacturing of semiconductors. A chute periodically shuddered to life, disgorging shining streams of crystalline refuse into the dumpsters.
I was about to ask what we were waiting for when I saw it. Clumping around the corner on eight stubby legs came a robot, its movements as ponderous as Jupiter in its orbit. There were many robots on Aznar; they did most of the maintenance, but this one was different. It wasn’t iron grey or municipal yellow, for one thing. Rather, it swirled with color, reds and purples and sky blue daubed over its surface in strange geometric patterns. Rags fluttered from its antennae and circled its joints, bright streamers woven from shopping bags. A collage of band posters adorned its barrel-like body, a mosaic made up of furious fonts and screaming faces.
“Recycling day,” said Röntgen. The chute coughed another scintillating breath of crystals. The robot stood tall on the tips of its feet next to the dumpster. Four long, sinuous tentacles snaked out from painted hoods on either side of its body, their metallic surface hidden beneath a thick, whitish goop. “Wheat paste,” said Röntgen, noting my puzzled look.
The robot thrust its arms into the dumpsters, rolling them delicately through the shining sand until they glittered. It stepped out into the street and waved its arms in the artificial sunglow, a constellation of reflected light flashing against drab warehouse walls and the worn asphalt of the street.
We were watching the robot admire its new ornamentation when, from the warehouse, there arose a commotion. A door scraped up and open, and a group of gruff workers shuffled out, brandishing mops and brooms. A man in a suit and wielding a clipboard drove them forward, shouting and pointing. The workers ran at the robot, waving their implements and yelling. The robot nimbly danced aside, its eight legs jigging it away from the men who menaced it.
“What are they doing?” I asked. A big man rushed forward, thwacking the robot’s metal body solidly and scraping off some of its paint. The robot scuttled to one side, then another, holding its arms high above its head, protecting its new adornments.
“That’s their garbage,” said Röntgen. “Or, rather, the company’s. That robot is Serial Number PKD 2374. It’s famous for scrounging all over Aznar Station, here at the semiconductor farms, at the bioplastics factories, over at the rendering plant on Calle Bernstein, everywhere.”
“You mean it takes their garbage?” A man threw a can at the robot, bouncing it off its long head. The machine revolved slowly around, looking for a way to break free from the encircling men.
“It appropriates it, yeah,” said Röntgen.
“Why?” I asked. He shrugged.
“It’s a constructor, you know, one of the originals from back when they built this place, a hundred and fifty years ago. After the work was done they just shut ‘em all down, but somehow they never found ol’ 2374 there. Probably a damaged receiver or some sub-routine that went all wonky. Anyway, it stopped being able to get any orders, so it just sort of wandered around the station. The story goes, one day, it ended up at the far end of the station, around the big dish they use for deep space signaling. It’s a huge diamond mirror, very reflective. They say 2374 sat there for seven full days, just looking at itself in the mirror, and then suddenly something clicked. It smeared a bunch of joint grease over its body in a spiral pattern. That was the beginning.”
The robot dashed to the left, barreling through the crowd and breaking out of the circle. There were a few more shouts, but the workers seemed satisfied that they’d chased it off. 2374 stumped off quickly down the road and vanished around the corner. Röntgen smiled.
“What do you mean, the beginning?” I asked.
“Oh, the beginning of 2374’s artistic phase! It kept to the grease spirals for a while, then got into rag picking in a big way. They say it used to stitch together these enormous cowls from old t-shirts and jeans it’d pick from the garbage. It was really into brass wiring when I first moved here. Used to have great big hoops of the stuff all over it, jangling away. You could hear it coming for miles. Now it does a big circuit of the factories, looking for new materials to work with.” The workers finished sweeping up the gallium fragments that had been scattered in the street. They closed the lids of the dumpsters and locked them with great heavy steel locks.
“The companies don’t seem to like it very much,” I said.
“No,” laughed Röntgen. “They’d rather see that stuff jettisoned out the airlocks than watch somebody do something else with it. I don’t know why—just the way a factory thinks, I guess. No vision, not like ol’ 2374.”
Behind us Le Sal continued his reading, a muttering voice, rising and falling. I smelled the sampaguita flowers on my lapel and started to say something, but I couldn’t find the words. ♦
Eric Williams lives on the lithified remains of a Cretaceous Seaway in Austin, TX.