“And these,” I say, motioning to the stack of metal discs on Pan’s booth, “are coins. Earth’s economy is entirely based upon the transmutation of coins.”
“How so?” Ro asks, flashing his beautifully wrinkled smile.
The moment that Ro arrived at our tent this morning, I decided that he was a man. As far as we know, this culture has no such concept—but a man is what I want, and Ro will have to do. In my line of work, you can’t get hung up on the details.
“Allow me to demonstrate,” I say. “Suppose you own some surplus metal objects, like some knives and spoons.” (I wait for Ro to nod in comprehension. I explained spoons a few minutes ago.) “So, you take your knives and spoons and melt them down into coins.” I gesture to Hyacinth’s glowing furnace, a few booths over, where some other locals have gathered. “Now, suppose one day there’s a leak in your roof and you need some nails to repair it. You take some of your coins,” I take a few off the stack, “and go back to the blacksmith and ask for nails. The blacksmith melts the coins again, casts them in a mold, and,” I pull some nails out of my front pocket, “now you have nails. As compensation, the blacksmith takes a portion of the metal, usually around five percent. This process of melting and re-forging is known as liquidity.”
“Why don’t people on Earth just re-forge the metal themselves?” Ro asks.
“Most people don’t have their own furnace,” I explain patiently.
“Fascinating,” Ro says. He gazes at the stack of coins thoughtfully. I think I’m in love with those green eyes.
“Would you like to see more?” I ask.
“Absolutely,” Ro says.
We go to the next booth down. Marble, as usual, is dozing off; I clear my throat and kir eyes snap open. I can’t say I blame kim. It’s been a long day of doing the same shtick over and over at kir booth. Me, I always prefer to guide the locals around the tent’s booths. That way, you get a chance to get to know them better, and isn’t that the whole point of all this?
“Ah! Welcome!” Marble says, instantly awake and getting into the role. “What’s your name?”
“Ro,” says Ro.
“And has Car told you what we’ve got at this booth?” Marble asks Ro.
“No,” says Ro.
“Ah, well, I suppose it’s best if it’s a surprise,” Marble says, pantomiming contemplation. Ki takes the box out from under the table. “This,” ki says as ki hefts it onto the table, “is a banjo. Allow me to demonstrate.”
With exaggerated care, Marble opens the metal clasp at the meridian of the box. Ki opens it on its hinge and then snaps it shut: one, two, three times.
“We do have boxes on this planet,” Ro says carefully.
“Not like this! Not like this!” says Marble. “It’s all about the talent of the musician, see. I, alas, am only an amateur musician of the banjo. But on Earth, there are master banjo players who, well, when one hears the aural perfection of these percussive beats, the need to dance is simply irresistible.“
“Is a banjo just a fancy box?” Ro asks.
This isn’t going anywhere fast. Pretty soon Ro’s going to get bored and leave the tent. Leave me. There’s no time for me to find someone else before the cultureship departs.
“Hey,” I say, “Let me show you something really interesting.”
You’re not going to let me finish the demo? Marble messages me.
Stop telling everyone you’re an amateur, I message back. The locals want experts. Just say you’re an expert and they’ll believe you.
Obviously. I’ve been doing this as long as you have, Marble messages with obvious annoyance. I didn’t realize you were in such a rush to move things along with this one.
“Sure,” Ro says, interrupting our silent conversation. “Where to?”
I resist the urge to take his hand; we still don’t know what that would signify in this culture.
“This way,” I say, motioning to the very end of this long row of booths. As we walk, I tell Ro, “You’re so beautiful. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like you.”
“Yeah, well,” Ro says, blushing, “I’ve never met anyone like you either. You’re so well traveled… really, the most traveled someone can be, I guess… You must think I’m really ignorant and simple.”
“No, no,” I say, “whenever we stop at a planet we learn as much from its culture as it learns from us. You have so much… I would love to get to know you better.”
We’re at the booth. Singer is here, but I alert har that I’m going to run this one myself.
You’re asking me to let you mangle the demonstration of the most important item in the show? Singer messages back. Sure. Whatever. It’s been a slow day anyway.
“So this,” I say, taking one of the green stalks from the bundle, “is celery. On Earth, it’s grown at nearly every farm. It’s one of the most widely-used aphrodisiacs.”
“Sorry, a what?” Ro asks.
“It gets you sexually excited,” I say.
“Ah,” Ro says, “A ———.” The word enters my ears as static. Apparently, it’s untranslatable in either direction.
“It’s very mild, as far as these things go,” I say, “but,” and I crack the stalk in two, and hand Ro the bottom half, “if you’d like to share?”
That night, after we’ve finished, I rest my head on Ro’s left breast and ask, “How was that?”
“That was incredible,” Ro says. “You’re magnificent.”
“Really?” I say, suddenly and uncharacteristically in need of affirmation.
“Yeah,” Ro says, exhaling. “That thing you did with your mouths… You know, everyone on this planet has only one mouth?”
“I wish I could…” Ro starts. “I hope that I…”
“It’s fine!” I say, smiling twice. “I don’t need you to have more mouths. You’re perfect just the way you are.”
“Thanks,” Ro says.
We’re very quiet for who knows how long. I admire Ro’s body in the light of this planet’s two moons. Moonlight is so rare to me that it always feels strange and impossible, this un-starlike glow. I think that the first people on Earth must have created religion because they needed to explain their moon (the Moon). The sun is ubiquitous, the earth is tautological, but then at night people would look up and see the Moon, a brilliant disc and wonder: What’s holding it up in the sky? And how is it that its shape changes? They would’ve had no way to answer these questions without believing in some sort of divinity.
“I know what celery is,” Ro says softly.
“Sorry, what?” I ask.
“We grow celery here,” Ro says. “I know what it is. We eat it.”
Oh boy, I think, here it comes.
“Did you just…” Ro’s lips move while the translator lags a bit, “make all this shit up?”
“Celery,” I mutter by way of an answer. “That’s a new one. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a planet that actually has celery…” I frown. “But if you knew… If you know what celery is, then how could it have worked as a placebo?”
“I guess I genuinely wanted to sleep with you,” Ro says.
“Huh,” I say.
“Why the deception?” Ro asks, getting back to the point. “Why pretend celery is something that it isn’t?”
Normally, this is where I tell people that there are hidden properties to everything that we showcase, gnoses that only we, the starfarers, can possibly explain. Or sometimes I tell them that we’re explaining the original purpose of the thing, the way it’s used on Earth—maybe people on Earth believe that celery is an aphrodisiac! Or, I don’t know, sometimes I’ll just say it would take too long to explain.
Ro watches my face expectantly.
“Obviously we’re not from Earth,” I say. “Though we never claimed to be!” I add. “We’ve always said that we’re just providing cultural continuity.”
Ro waits for me to continue.
“We don’t know what celery actually is,” I say slowly. “What I told you—some of it is our best guess, and some of it we just made up.”
“Amazing,” Ro breathes. “I was so sure that there was a whole elaborate ruse. I truly didn’t expect that you really didn’t know.”
“We know it’s from Earth,” I say, getting a little defensive. “On Earth, people have celery. We know that. Our ancestors were like us. They lived and died on the cultureship. They taught us everything they knew about Earth. But it’s been so long, and so much has been forgotten…”
“What about the banjo? The coins?”
“Both from Earth,” I affirm. “They have those, on Earth.”
“But do you know what they actually are?” Ro says.
“Not really,” I sigh.
“What about barbershop quartets?”
“Those,” I admit, “we aren’t sure are actually from Earth. Some of us think that barbershop quartets were originally a fertility rite invented by the early settlers of Tau Ceti.”
I see the pensive look on Ro’s face. He’s going to ask the inevitable question: Why? Why do we go from planet to planet showing off our Earth objects, performing our Earth songs and Earth historical reenactments, when we know it’s a sham?
And then I’ll have to launch into a whole speech about how easy it would be for humanity, scattered across unfathomable distances on innumerable planets, to stop thinking of their distant brethren as humans and start thinking of them as others. Once that happens, it will be the bad old days of imperialism and conquest all over again. Far better that the cultureships exist to arrive in low orbit every few generations and remind the locals of our shared heritage.
That’s what I’ve had to explain to a lot of people—too many people. Maybe I should stop sleeping with the locals every time we go planetside.
“I want to show you something,” Ro says instead. He wriggles away so he can sit upright. I roll over and watch his brilliant, curious green eyes scanning back and forth as he rummages in a wooden compartment behind him. Finding whatever he’s looking for, he withdraws an item carefully and cradles it in front of him.
It’s a rectangular slab made of what appears to be a wood-derived material. No, it’s a stack of rectangles, each incredibly thin. Surrounding them, maybe holding them together, is a thicker rectangle, upon which there is a complex set of glyphic art.
“This,” Ro says, “is a —-.”
“Sorry, my translator missed that word.”
“Take it off,” Ro suggests.
I remove the earpiece, suddenly feeling very naked.
“Book,” Ro repeats.
I nod. I study the book. Ro starts to say something, and I quickly put the earpiece back.
“—pedagogical necessity for thousands of years. They decompose quickly. This is a copy of the original Earth artifact.”
“I’ve never seen one of these before,” I say. “How does it work?”
Ro carefully lifts the binding rectangle at one edge. It opens on a hinge. Ro grips the corner of the thing’s rectangles with a thumb and moves them from one side of the hinge to another, and they bend like tree leaves. Each of these leaves has row upon row of tiny ink markings.
“These symbols,” Ro says, “somehow express human language. We’ve studied them carefully and believe that they’re linked to phonemes. To operate a book, you look at each glyph, or maybe cluster of glyphs, and recall the corresponding cluster of phonemes, which can then be re-assembled into words and maybe even grammatical sentences.”
“How could anyone do that efficiently?”
“We believe that on Earth they used to scan books with the aid of a crude neurological implant.”
“Incredible,” I whisper. Then: “Wait. Used to? People on Earth don’t use this anymore?”
“No.” Ro gently closes the book. “There’s a legend that is told on this planet. It’s only a story, but… Supposedly, it was first recounted by people who arrived on a vessel like yours, a long time ago.” Ro sighs. “There was some kind of disaster. Something terrible happened. Humans don’t live on Earth anymore.”
“Impossible,” I say too quickly.
“That’s what people on this planet believe,” Ro says shrugging. “Not just my culture either. Go anywhere, to any continent. You’ll hear the same tale.”
No Earth. No center of humanity. No core of human experience, of human expression. “I don’t believe you,” I say. “You don’t have proof.”
“Neither do you,” Ro says, not unkindly, “of anything that you’re peddling.”
I look at the book in Ro’s hands.
“You could stay with me,” Ro says.
“What?” I almost shout, suddenly very alert.
“I don’t know how sexual partnership works on your ship,” Ro says, “and I can’t explain the details of my situation until we understand each other’s languages better. But the short version is… I’m available.”
“I can’t stay, you know that,” I say, words tumbling out of my upper mouth.
“Why not?” Ro says. “We know that travelers such as yourself have in the past decided to stay. Those who have, we’ve learned so much from. We’ve loved them and they’ve loved us.”
“I have a mission!” I say, standing upright. This was a mistake. I should’ve spent the night with my shipmates, where I belong. Where the hell are my clothes?
“I’m sorry,” Ro says, taking newfound care with his words. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m not upset!” I say. “I… Look. This is what I do. This whole show that we perform? This is it. This is my whole life. When I’m not doing this, I’m usually in an induced coma until we get to the next stop. That’s how we live so long, by the way, I wasn’t lying about that. This is all I know how to do. I can’t farm. I can’t grow celery. I just know how to run this show.”
“You know how to do a little more than that,” Ro says.
“Like what? Oh,” I say, looking at the tousled-up bedding, “Well, okay, sure. Uh, thanks. But the point is—”
“Is this really what you want?” Ro says. “To be so bored with your pointless mission—” he says it offhand, like it’s obvious, “—that you deactivate your brain while traveling between the stars? Here, we have open air. We have our own song and dance. We have cultural harmony and resource abundance. And I’m here,” he says, jabbing his sternum with a finger. “You’d have me.”
“I have my crew,” I say. “Marble, Singer, Pan…”
“Would they hate you if you decided to stay here?”
“They wouldn’t hate me, I just…” I can’t find the right words. Maybe if I wasn’t speaking through a translator this would be easier to explain. “I can’t. I just can’t.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Ro says, his face bearing an unfamiliar expression that must be extreme disappointment. He offers the book to me. “I want you to have this, Car. To remember me by.”
“I can’t accept this,” I say this, getting my skirt on.
“Please,” Ro says.
“I can’t,” I say. “I’m sorry. This was a big mistake. I have to go. Keep your book. It was very sweet of you to offer and… I really like you a lot. But I have to go. I have to go now.”
Later, as our ship finishes its ejection burn from planetary orbit and begins the multi-decahour process of prepping its interstellar drive, we’re all feeling a little too restless to go under right away. I get into bed with Marble and Pan. But after a little while, I find myself too distracted to continue.
“Do you know what a book is?” I ask Marble.
“Still have that native on your mind?” ki says.
“No,” I sigh. I close my eyes and listen to the whistling of the air vent. “I have you. The cultureship. All of you, and all of humanity, on every planet and every star. All of us, we all have each other.”