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CASTLE LARK and The Tale that Stopped Time

CHAPTER 1 -- STAR TOP

Nothing about space travel was quite like Fasha had expected, and the surprises were not happy ones. The cabin was tiny, the seats lumpy, and the meals stingy. Two days into the flight she learned that the diet was intentionally light—because the weightlessness of freefall was nauseating. After that unpleasant phase of the journey came intolerable boredom. Specifically, the link remained inoperable during interplanetary travel. She felt cut off and claustrophobic—more hostage than galactic adventurer.
    Around her, just about everyone passed the time with a little device in their ear and a notepad or palmpad in their lap, privately enjoying music, literature, vidshows, or personal correspondence. Relying on the link as a portable library, Fasha hadn't felt the need to load up her notepad with tunes and 'zines; she'd only brought her favorites. Now they were her least favorites—she'd played them all twenty times already. And the ship's on-board entertainment was lame.
    That was really mean of Mom not to tell me about the link, Fasha fumed. Sure they had been feuding, but that was no reason to deprive her of vital information. Whatever happened to the rules of war?
    She really wanted to send a message to Heather, but notepad use was limited to audio plug-ins—no dictation allowed in the main cabin, "as a courtesy to our fellow travelers." The only way to record a message was to wait in line for a soundproof booth in the back of the cabin; and even then her lament couldn't be transmitted until the spacecraft had landed on Earth—when the whole ordeal would be over. Fasha didn't bother getting in line.
    Several well-seasoned commuters were typing up their thoughts on keypad extenders. Apparently, clickety-clicking wasn't as intrusive as muttering into dictation devices. Old-fashioned but convenient, Fasha thought, wishing someone had suggested she bring one. Through slitted eyes she gave her mother a nasty sidelong glance. Twice betrayed! But she didn't say anything. Fasha had not spoken to her mother since the big blow-up right before the trip, and she wasn't about to start now. No way will I give her the satisfaction of knowing how miserable I am.
    Naturally, Fasha's mother could tell that her daughter was miserable. She wasn't all that happy herself. At least the silent treatment spared her an explicit accounting of Fasha's grievances—for a change. Now she was free to contemplate her own indignation over the absence of Fasha's father. He'd had to dash off to Luna on business at the last minute and was to join them on Earth at some unspecified time. She didn't think that was a very nice way to start vacation, especially when she and their sixteen-year-old daughter were in dire need of a referee! Oh, well, at least there's quiet if not peace, she consoled herself, and returned her attention to the lengthy Art History survey she'd brought along.
    Really a low-down dirty trick! Fasha tried not to pay any attention to the small images flickering across her mother's notepad. In a torment of bored discomfort she reached for the on-ship audio entertainment plug-in and played through the menu yet again. She was going to make herself listen to something, anything, before she lost her mind—the choices couldn't all be as awful as they sounded. Mars Today, she mentally prompted the automated voice; it repeated, "Mars Today, Issue 36." Sorry, saw vid edition already. Solar Something— "Solar System Monthly," the voice said. One play-through was quite enough, thank you. Dome Improvement— Now it was a game to see if she could remember the whole list. "Dome Improvement." Dumb, but not as dumb as I Love Luna—sheesh! "I Love Luna." Gag me! Oh no, here it comes—The End Of The World As We Knew It— "Earth's Last Day," the voice intoned. No way! The story of "Earth's Last Day" took five days to tell, the documentary having been produced specifically for this flight. Fasha wanted nothing to do with it. She frowned while the voice droned through the familiar list, unable to bring herself to choose something. If I get to the Somnambuchannel, I'm picking it, she told herself.
    The Somnambuchannel was simply a tonal program designed to put listeners to sleep and keep them asleep. It was the last item in the menu, as Fasha recalled. She had discovered that it worked well when one was feeling space-sick; but once equilibrium returned she started to wonder if this wasn't a cunning way to carry out some sort of evil mind control. That was fun to think about for a while, at any rate. Now it looked like she would be submitting to the experiment again. The voice in her ear had but two items left to recite.
    "The DNA Chain, A Detailed Look." Talk about boring! That must be for people who are too paranoid to try the S-channel. Okay, here we go. "The Somnambuchannel." Good night, nurse. Fasha's finger was poised to click SELECT but the voice continued, "The Adventures of Sir Ambrose."
    Cool! Fasha mashed the button. Where did you come from? She couldn't possibly have overlooked this title all those times through the menu. Had someone just programmed it in? Had her unit been skipping files? No time to wonder about that now, "The Adventures of Sir Ambrose" were underway. Fasha closed her eyes and surrendered to the fantasy tale of medieval Europe—her very favorite kind of story! Sir Ambrose turned out to be an outcast knight, a real Robin Hood type; and his sidekick was an impish fellow with magical powers, a sort of pint-sized Merlin. Fasha couldn't believe what a gem of a story she'd found. The remainder of the flight sped by; the food improved, and her seat began to feel rather comfy.
    When the ship roared into the spaceport at Star Top, Fasha was actually disappointed. She frantically tried to download the "Sir Ambrose" file to her own notepad so she could finish listening to it later, but with no success. Her equanimity was instantly replaced by irate frustration; and when her mother broke their five-day silence to hurry her out of the cabin, Fasha nearly smashed the ship's audio unit in her fury. She and her mother stormed off the spaceship enveloped in the same black cloud that had accompanied them on board. In keeping with ancient conceptions of their home planet, Mars, they arrived on Earth in full warrior mode.
    The accommodations they found awaiting them at Star Top Dome did nothing to lighten their mood. Fasha's father had secured a hostel for the family in the oldest part of the old dome. His itinerary called it a "living museum" but Fasha considered it a moldy antique, and she could tell her mother felt the same. The last straw came when Fasha learned she would be bunking with the single women, ten to a room. Apparently, she'd have no more privacy at over-booked Old Star Top than she'd had on the spaceship.

***

    On the third day of their stay at "Tar Stop" Fasha realized she must put aside her self-consciousness around the mostly older women in her dormitory and message Heather. With the arrival of her father the previous morning another twist had been added to the tour of Earth, and she simply could not keep her thoughts to herself any longer. Huddled on her cot, she opened her notepad and clicked "1." Her personalized directory set up the file. Taglines typed themselves out on the mini display, scrolling quickly out of view: EARTH, 20 JULY 2170—TO: HEATHER HEATHR@MARSNET 82.LNK); FROM: FASH (FASHA@TEMP300.LNK) —SUBJECT:—— SUBJECT:—— SUBJECT:——
    Fasha stared at the flashing prompt, collecting her thoughts. "Help!" she hissed into the notepad mic as she curled herself toward the wall, trying to block out the presence of her bunkmates. But she quickly forgot about prying ears in her eagerness to communicate with her best friend. Through the course of the dictation her voice gradually rose from a soft murmur to its usual conversational pitch, and her posture unfurled into a casual sprawl.
    "Heather, I told you this vacation was doomed! Mom started in on me the minute we landed and has not let up since. She's still acting like I cut my arm off. What is with her? It's a butterfly for heaven's sake, not a skull and crossbones!
    "Anyway, we're at Star Top, staying in the old zone. What a mess. This has got to be Dad's idea of a little lesson for me. Mom tells him that I don't appreciate anything, that I'm too spoiled and apathetic and I'm 'not meeting my potential' so Dad arranges this little demonstration of how hard dome living used to be and how lucky we are to have what we have and all that shlock. If Mom wasn't so genuinely miffed about Alex, I'd think his whole deal was a set-up, too. Alex and his history lessons! It's like Dad gave him a script.
    "Who's Alex? I hear you say. Apparently he's our new traveling companion. Oh, Heather, you're not gonna believe this! When we went to meet Dad at the spaceport yesterday he had this kid with him, Alex, the son of my 'aunt and uncle' Glo and Gordon Huntly. They're friends of the 'rents. I haven't seen any of them in years; Glo and Gordo split up while we were living at Bear Dome, and when we got back to Mars we didn't see them. Anyway, Dad shows up with Alex and says he's with us for the whole trip. If you think I flipped out, you should've seen Mom.
    "Well, we're trying to be nice and all, because it's a whole sad story. No one wants to say anything about it, but I guess the deal is that Alex was going to spend the rest of the summer with his dad 'cause his mom is remarried to some young stud, but when he got to Luna-1 Uncle Gordon wasn't there. So, my dad goes to Luna-1 on his business trip and finds Alex hanging out at the company sportsplex, hasn't even got the combo to Gordo's flat. Dad tracks down Gordo out on some space station; Gordo claims he had the dates mixed up or something lame, and Dad says he'll bring Alex on vacation with us. My father, the saint.
    "So now Mom's as mad at Dad as she is at me, but she's trying to act like she's okay with everything, and you can tell it hurts, like her face might snap off. I thought she would blow any minute when we were on the tour of Old Star Top this afternoon—which is real thrilling, by the way, looks just like Mars Annex but all old and dingy.
    "Anyway, Alex just about put her over the edge. Turns out he's a regular encyclopedia of catastrophe. He knows the history of every Earth disaster leading up to Evac and is now narrating the whole trip for us. Dad thinks he's some sort of prodigy and just eggs him on. I am so bummed. Like it's not going to be bad enough hauling butt from one fakey 're-creation' to the next, we have to listen to old Al describe how great the planet used to be before it got trashed, and how it got trashed, and how the way it got trashed was covered up, and how pathetic and inadequate the domes and restorations are—you get the idea. And Mom thought I was negative? She is really scorched. And you can guess who's getting busted for it! This is totally unfair—I hope all of Alex's bunkmates snore!"
    Noticing that her own bunkmates were rustling around impatiently, Fasha resisted the urge to describe Star Top in more detail. "Please message me at this address. I am really going crazy!" She touched SEND and her notepad emitted a small beep. This, followed by the click of the cover snapping shut, elicited more snarls of irritation from her companions in the darkened dormitory, and an exhaled "Finally!" from her immediate neighbor.
    "Puh-leeze," Fasha muttered, stowing the notepad in the basket under her cot. Satisfied at having made contact with civilization, she was now ready to sink into the narrow air-mattress and attempt sleep. She wished she had the Somnambuchannel to block out the chorus of sleep noises gathering around her. Instead she had the echoes of Alex's depressing lectures, the very material she had avoided on the flight. Now, thanks to Alex, the story of "Earth's Last Day" was going to follow her around for the entire two weeks of their tour. How would she ever stand it?
    Doesn't anyone see that knowing how awful everything was just makes it worse? There's nothing here to come back to. And Mom and Dad's whole idea that "progress" has saved us is totally lame. Domes would be cool if they weren't all we had, if they were just a space thing like they were meant to be. We were always evolving out into space, would have made domes on Mars and Luna eventually and traveled the galaxy. But now it's spoiled. The ideal of us as "citizens of the solar system" will never be. Humans ruined Earth. How can we be trusted with anything else? Look how we're junking up Mars already.
    From her cubby in the primitive Star Top compound Fasha contemplated her home in the Red Planet Islands, a new development of linked mini-domes on Mars. It was the nicest place they had ever lived, she supposed—clean, convenient, efficient—what was not to like?
    Only the very perfection of it! she thought. Every room in every building, every walkway, every plaza, every garden was perfectly arranged and charmingly adorned. The fussy decoration ran to whimsical geometries and nature motifs, so stylized as to be unrecognizable. Fasha failed to see the appeal, even as an alternative to the plainness of Star Top. At least there was an honesty to the ugliness here. The designers hadn't tried to hide the fact that Nature was dead. Earth is more like Mars than Mars is like Earth, Fasha thought sadly. She and her family had lived on Earth for three years, at Bear Dome, and it wasn't so special; she didn't think coming here on vacation was all that special. Lots of people lived on Earth now; some had never left. There never really was a "last day."
    But the day did come when no one could live here outside of a dome. And a dome is a dome. Earth, Luna, Mars—it's all the same now, the Tri-World. And everyone wants to pretend that Earth was only ever a big laboratory for perfecting our supposedly blissful dome-life. The past as test tube. But what does that mean for the present and future?
    Alex knows that it's all a lie, Fasha thought with grim satisfaction. Then she turned over and put her pillow over her head. Damn Alex and his history lessons!
    She commanded her thoughts to desist, but her fretful mind had not worn down yet. Alex and his history! She liked history too, older history—old Earth history. She wasn't really good at it like her mom, had trouble keeping the dates straight—Mom thinks I have no discipline—but she loved the drama, the conflict, the eccentrics and visionaries, the heroes—real or imaginary—like Sir Ambrose! Ancient history, it seemed to Fasha, was about ideas and identities. The starring roles went to those who had principles they were willing to defend at all costs.
    These days no one lays it on the line for anything, she mused regretfully, it's like there's nothing to fight for. She was thinking of the dramatic story she had listened to a few days ago. The details were already fading from memory, but the sense of heroism lingered. No one's heroic anymore, or eccentric or radical or mad or passionate, or anything, Fasha decided, because everyone's comfortable, everything's figured out, and there's a fix for every problem. "Conflict" is a dirty word. We're so proud of ourselves—we've perfected the art of making nice.
    It was true. In the Tri-World Union a place was made for everyone; everyone always belonged. The fact was, Fasha could be as apathetic and undisciplined as she felt like and still there'd be a job waiting for her, a little niche just for apathetic, undisciplined social drop-outs like her. And no one in the whole tri-world would think to recriminate—except my mothe.r Fasha could just hear her now: "It's a good system. No war. No one goes hungry. But it means that we have to work harder to make our lives meaningful."
    Weird, huh? Mom thinks we always have to be striving for something or our lives won't be meaningful. She thinks we've entered some new Age of Enlightenment because supposedly we're focused on knowledge and beauty instead of money and survival. Still, what's the point? Mom's got all those degrees in Art History and a head-full of facts to entertain herself with, but it doesn't make life on Mars more interesting, or even more promising. Something is still missing. That's probably why people have kids.
    Fasha supposed she and her brothers had a lot to do with how meaningful her parents found their lives, and wasn't sure which generation she pitied more. She could be grateful for one thing on this trip, anyway—that Wally and The Twins hadn't come along to add to her torment. She'd long ago decided that her brothers were totally out of it, even worse than her folks. Really, she had more in common with Alex.
    Puh-leeze, that geek? Fasha flopped over with an audible groan. A couple of weary women growled back at her. At least Alex knows that without Earth none of us has much meaning, no matter what anyone tries to make us believe, she thought, forcing herself to lie still. In old times people found knowledge and beauty in nature, in things not touched by human hands. So where does that leave us? Earth, Mars, Luna—under the dome everything's man-made. What's to discover, what's to seek?
    This proved to be one question too many for Fasha's overworked brain. To everyone's relief she fell asleep. The cacophony of slumbering women entered her dreams; together they intoned lamentations for the death of meaning while a great ice sculpture—half dome, half Madonna—slowly melted into a pool of stars.

***

    Single men bunked twelve to a barracks at the Old Star Top Hostel, and whether by nature or curse of Fasha, all eleven sharing Alex's quarters did snore. Perhaps Alex did too, because in spite of his misery he finally slept. When he awoke early, surprisingly refreshed, he slipped into the day-before's dirty clothes, grabbed his notepad, and stole out to the dawn-lit topiary garden where he quietly dictated an entry to his journal:
    "Star Top Dome, Earth, 21 July 2170. I guess it was sleeping dormitory style here at the hostel 'cause I've never had a dream like this one. It was a medieval kind of place, rough stone walls and straw on the floor. There were horses. It had to have been a stable. But a big one, long—with a kitchen at one end, big brick fireplace and old-time cauldron hanging over it. There were a bunch of us, young men. We slept on the straw. Right. Before that we had ridden, ridden the horses. A hunt or something. And then we groomed them. And then we ate from the cauldron over the fire. And then we slept on the straw, wrapped up in our cloaks.
    "I have never had a dream like that before. It was so real. I could smell the horses and taste the soup. Riding was more like flying, though. I don't think riding a horse can really be like that. But sleeping was like sleeping! I feel like I've had the first decent night's sleep since I don't know when. Since Mom and Dad broke up probably.
    "I just realized, that was actually a dream of being out of the dome. That has definitely never happened before. Uncle Walsh says we'll be out of the dome when we go to Africa next week, and that Four Corners will be almost like being out-dome because it's so big. And of course we'll be between domes on our way down there today. Yeah, it'll be a long hoverbug ride from here to Four Corners but I doubt we see much. North America is still socked in with smog.
    "I'm looking forward to riding in one of these out-dome 'bugs. They're a lot bigger and have a whole different kind of telemetry. Uncle Walsh has to take a class at the rental place this morning to learn how to fly out-dome. Fasha convinced him we should all go and 'familiarize ourselves with the vehicle.' She's a trip, not exactly the little twerp I remember. She's got Uncle Walsh wrapped around her little finger and Aunt Cammie on the brink of hysteria. Or maybe that's me. I still don't know what I'm doing here, and I don't think they know what to do with me. I don't know why I thought the boys would be here, the twins anyway. But no. Just me and Fash and Aunt Cammie and Uncle Walsh. Maybe that's why Uncle Walsh was so excited to bring me along, 'cause the womenfolk are so strange."
    Alex played back his entry with growing disgust. He had intended to record his observations about Star Top Dome and Earth in general, not ramble on about personal stuff. The dream had sidetracked him. He considered what he would want to remember about Star Top, and found he was bored with the place already. This older section was notable only in that it lacked the designed-to-death quality of the Mars domes. He took some pleasure in the sheer nastiness of the cracking, yellow-tinged, vacuum-formed furnishings. The look on Aunt Cammie's face alone was worth the price of admission. But in the long run, ugly was ugly. The novelty wore off pretty fast.
    Alex promised himself he'd start his travelogue when they got to Four Corners Sanctuary that evening. That would be something really different. Meanwhile, he still had a chance to hit the showers before everyone was up. He carefully pushed several keys on his notepad to save his entry and then quickly checked his link for messages. There they were, one from his mom and one from his dad. He deleted them both without listening to them, as he had yesterday and the day before. Screw you. Then he realized he'd also just deleted his journal—again. Jeez, Al, are you a total idiot or what? He snapped the notepad shut in disgust, stuffed it in his pocket and stalked through the menagerie of sculpted shrubs, traversing the network of pathways twice before he was calm enough to return indoors.
    What was the point of documenting his life, anyway? I'm not even paying attention half the time, he thought, too busy blabbing. Alex began to attend to the whimsical topiary display, looking around the garden in amazement. There really was no medium that would do justice to this queerly believable porcupine of clipped foliage, with the title "Hedgehog" smirking up from its little plaque, in a garden of living plants made to look fake, adjoining a dingy tube-and-celluglass compound under a hazy, artificial dawn. This was his experience, now that he'd put away the stupid notepad, and nothing could record it better than plain old memory.
    Alex loped back to his bunk to get some clean clothes before heading to the showers. He promised himself he'd never forget the morning's dream, whether he had it in his journal or not. Yet dreams were funny things; he wondered if he hadn't already dreamt this one and forgotten it, perhaps more than once.

* * *
from CASTLE LARK
© 2000, Zelda Leah Gatuskin

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