BREAD AND SALT
As the stimulants entered his bloodstream, Klaus saw a human figure moving behind tracings of frost on a glass panel. It was his wife Claire, who had obviously already been released from dormancy. But this was wrong, he remembered: they had always made sure in the past that their two beds were perfectly synchronized. Neither of them much enjoyed the experience of re-entering the world alone.
She was still naked, leaning against the wall, massaging her right foot beneath the huge, framed Rembrandt original the Firm had sent them two sleep cycles ago. “Frostbite?” Klaus asked her, as his bed tilted forward and he stepped out into the conditioned air of the recovery room.
Claire smiled and walked up to him, sliding her arms over his shoulders. “Nothing serious. I’ve already sprayed it with analgesic. I’ll show it to a medical ’bot tonight, after the party’s over.”
Klaus kissed her lightly, still foggy in his mind, his limbs shivering. “It was only an eight-year freeze. Funny that the beds would malfunction like that after having worked well for almost two centuries.”
Claire stepped away from him and began to unfold the lightweight robe she had left out after their last awakening. “I should probably head to the kitchen and synth up a few trays of appetizers. I’ll grab a snack for you while I’m there.”
“Did the HouseMind explain to you when you woke up why our sleep cycles were out of sync?”
“Oh.” She pressed the palm of her hand against her forehead. “No! I guess it didn’t. That’s rather strange, isn’t it? I’m sorry darling—you know how absent-minded I can sometimes be right after a freeze.”
“HouseMind!” Klaus snapped, looking upwards at the speakers embedded in the corners of the room’s hand-painted ceiling. “This is the voice of Klaus Rumancek. Rehearse protocol E-16: Surface Memory Inventory. Please tell us everything that’s changed here over the past decade.”
His command was met with total silence.
The computer is down! Klaus felt an icy prickle at the bottom of his stomach. This had always been his deepest fear about the way that they lived. During the long uneventful periods between parties, both of them were utterly helpless in their beds while the machine maintained their home, managed their finances, preserved their art collection, and sustained their bodily functions. The ’Mind’s gently maternal voice was normally the first thing they heard after dormancy, reminding them of what tasks their employers needed them to perform during each cycle of wakefulness.
Klaus remembered that their latest round of visitors was scheduled to arrive on the interstellar galleon Cartier a few hours after they unfroze. Between now and then the pair of them had to synthesize and lay out a full, four-course meal, design a playlist of up-to-date popular music, and enlighten themselves on recent economic and political happenings throughout their region of the galaxy. Accomplishing all of this without the AI’s help would be nearly impossible.
He tilted his head back and was about to call out to the computer again. But then Claire’s eyes met his and wordlessly begged him: don’t!
Klaus looked his wife up and down. Claire swallowed and attempted a smile. She had always had a nervous disposition, but she seemed to have acquired a more cautious, tentative demeanor during their last few cycles together. A slender lock of her hair had turned a feathery silver during their last sleep. He drew her toward him for a longer embrace.
She pressed her face against his bare shoulder. “I know we don’t really dream in those beds,” she said, “but I always feel afterwards that I’ve experienced time going by. It’s like that poet from Kepler 61b said in the sonnet he read to us a few freezes ago. What was the line?”
“Time always finds a way to speak its passing, even through the space between the stars.” Klaus stroked her back through the silky robe. “I’m sure everything will be fine, love. We set the clock so we’d be revived six full hours before the Cartier arrives. There should be plenty of time to check the circuits and fix the ’Mind before then.”
“I wonder who’ll be visiting with the crew of the Cartier. I hope they bring along another writer or a composer or something. It can be tiresome talking for the whole evening with commodity traders.”
“I looked at the passenger manifest just before we went dormant, but I’ve forgotten.” Klaus was getting antsy. If the ’Mind turned out to be seriously damaged and needed a full reboot, they’d have a pretty tight window to operate in before the evening’s festivities were in danger of being disturbed.
Claire suddenly became very brisk and cheerful. “Well, whoever is coming, at any rate, I’m sure they’ll want to hear all the gossip from planetside. You’d better go catch up on the news.”
“Will do. I’ll be in the kitchen later on to help with mixing the drinks.”
She nodded, then turned and walked away down the thickly carpeted corridor that led to their central living space.
A gold-framed rectangular screen was set into the recovery room’s wall. It switched on as Klaus approached, presenting an image of two squat, domed houses covered in solar panels. This was the style of dwelling that most people lived in on the world where they were stationed. The Firm had shipped them here about a quarter-millennium ago, after setting up a trading post to distribute seeds, medicine, and agricultural machinery to the locals in exchange for rare minerals, exotic animals, and the usual knickknacks of folk art and literature. Klaus had thought at the time that the terms of exchange were overly favorable to the colonists on this austere and rustic desert world. But the Firm seldom went longer than a decade without sending at least one interstellar cargo ship down to the surface, so it was safe to assume that they must be getting something worthwhile out of the arrangement.
“Suppress the exterior camera,” he said to the screen. “I’m not interested in what’s going on outside. Show me some recent regional and planet-wide news broadcasts, please.”
Nothing changed. Klaus recalled that the HouseMind was responsible for their media access. He was about to turn away from the screen when he noticed something odd about the house on the left. Its front door was swinging back and forth slowly in a light breeze, and there were burn marks along its exterior wall. He leaned in close to get a better look. “Scan left and right thirty degrees each, please.”
A few more houses on either side of the first pair he’d seen were more seriously charred. Still more worryingly, none of their neighbors seemed to be out and about. The local citizens were a glum, puritanical crowd, but the streets would normally have been bustling on the day that a trade ship was due to arrive.
“Scan the full circumference of the complex and pause on any human figures.”
The image blurred for a moment as the camera did a circuit around the outside of their home. Then it stopped abruptly and zoomed in on a decaying human corpse. The body was lying on its back where two roads intersected. A shallow heap of sand had drifted up against it on one side. A heavy-jawed quadruped with ragged black spines and enormous ears – one of the indigenous predators from the surrounding desert – had its face half-buried in the dead man’s abdomen and was chewing lazily.
“Oh, my God,” Klaus murmured. “Screen off.”
He was shivering again, and remembered that he still hadn’t put on any clothes. The loose-fitting exercise suit he’d left in the room just before their last freeze was still there, sitting next to the precious Peter Carey first edition he had been reading before entering dormancy. Klaus slid into the outfit, trying to make sense of what he had just seen.
Then Claire’s voice crackled over the intercom. “Darling!” she called out. “I’m afraid that I’m going to need a little help with the place settings this time.” Her voice was filled with tension. “Could you come along and… ah, it’s such a mess out here!”
Klaus could already guess what had happened—their organic synthesizer hadn’t produced any food for the evening’s festivities. The machine was old and finicky, and it was scheduled for replacement by some hospitality techs from Tau Ceti who were supposed to be arriving on the Cartier. But as part of a gradually emerging pattern, its failure was still worrying. Without a functional synth, he and Claire wouldn’t have any food to survive on by themselves.
“I’ll be right there.” He tugged on his old pair of silver-buckled shoes and made his way down the corridor, preparing himself for the worst.
When Klaus arrived in the dining room, his wife was clutching a stack of hand-painted porcelain dishes against her chest. Her hands were visibly shaking. “If you could just put one of these on top of each of the trivets,” she said, “and give the wine taps beside each chair a light dusting…”
The overhead lights above the polished oak dinner table flickered wanly. A layer of dust covered all of the room’s antique furniture, and a pile of sand had blown in underneath the lower edge of the tall ebony door that led outside. An alabaster Buddha on the sideboard had tipped over onto its face, and the holographic centerpiece on the dining table kept flashing in and out of existence. Two feathery-winged insects from outdoors were wheeling about near the ceiling. Klaus had never seen organisms like these indoors before, and for a few seconds he was distracted from his worries by the dancelike elegance of their movements.
Then he glanced over at their antique atomic clock, embedded in a synthetic diamond bust of Galileo.
“Claire! Those numbers. If they’re right then it’s…but it can’t be…”
She shook the pile of dishes at him impatiently. “Take them!”
Klaus stared for a moment, then did as she asked.
“Sorry darling, my wrists were starting to hurt.” The sparkle was back in her voice, though her smile remained unsteady. “I was looking at the Cartier’s passenger manifest,” she said, glancing over at a yellowed printout sitting on the kitchen counter. “There will be a famous young holo-sculptor, and a very good novelist from Sol who’s on a reading tour. I’m so excited to meet them!”
Conversation with guests over dinner was usually dominated by dry commercial discourse. There were always a few exotic or technologically advanced imports packed away in the ship’s hold that needed to be carefully explained, so that Klaus and Claire could answer questions from their neighbors in the days after the visitors left. But after dessert everyone would adjourn to the sitting room to listen to a recitation of poetry, play a game, or sample some new style of exotic hallucinogen. The visitors could stay as late as they wanted—Claire always set herself the goal of keeping them entertained for at least twice the time it had taken to eat. Then, after they had bid their guests farewell, the two of them would go to bed together—a real bed, with cotton sheets and down pillows instead of neural stasis drugs and cryogenic induction coils—their minds filled with news and gossip and wisdom.
None of these things would be happening tonight, though. Not if the date and time on the clock were anywhere close to being correct.
“Thirty-one years!” Klaus sat down heavily on a dusty chair. “The Cartier must have been delayed, or else the trip was cancelled. But to just leave the two of us on ice like that! I know we agreed to this way of life, but it seems… unnatural, somehow, to be dormant for so long.”
“What did you say?” Again, the edge had come into Claire’s voice. Klaus could tell by the way she was avoiding his gaze that she had seen the calendar as well. His wife had already changed into the dark blue gossamer dress and jewelry she’d worn for their last interstellar visitors. It was unsettling to see it on her again—she had never before dressed in the same outfit for two parties in a row. She was moving very quickly around the wide modular space that they used to entertain, from entrance hall to kitchen to dining table, nudging furniture and decorative knickknacks into place while she stepped over low drifts of dust and insect carcasses.
Klaus knew from long experience that whatever crisis was happening inside her head would have to be allowed to run its own course. He stood up and took a long deep breath. “Do you remember where I put the planetside radio transmitter, darling? Perhaps we can have some local food brought in, just to keep us going until… ”
Something thudded hard against the ebony door. Claire screamed and dropped a soup spoon onto the table with a clatter.
Klaus’ felt his throat constrict. He walked across the room and into the vestibule, wondering if one of the prickle-backed desert predators was trying to force its way in.
The door creaked open while he was still a few steps away, and a human hand appeared.
“Stay out! Stay away!” Claire shouted. Her silver bracelets clicked together as she brandished a dinner fork.
“I’ve got a gun!” said Klaus. There hadn’t been a weapon inside their home for over a hundred years, but he couldn’t think of any other threat to make. He picked up a chair and lifted it over his head to fling at the owner of the intruding fingertips.
The hand slid back and the door shuddered a couple of times. Somebody on the other side was trying to push it ajar.
“The HouseMind is down,” he called out. “The door won’t open from the outside.”
But then it did just that. A stocky, deep-eyed man wearing a ragged suit stepped inward through the accumulated heap of sand.
“Get back! Get back!” Klaus had seized a ceramic replica of the Venusian parliament buildings in Sol and was waving it above his head.
“How dare you!” Claire screamed. “The Firm has a very clear policy about uninvited visitors to this compound. Please depart immediately.”
Their visitor stopped just inside the threshold and looked back and forth between them. “Good afternoon,” he said in the coarse accent of the planet’s colonial population. “I am Brym One-Four-One. You are Klaus and Claire Rumancek, yes? I am here to explaining some things to you.” He took a step forward and offered a hand to Klaus.
“No! You… you simply can’t be here!” Claire was shaking a finger in the air.
“I’m afraid my wife is correct,” said Klaus, disarming himself reflexively once the man had made a show of civility. “According to the arrangement your government made with the Firm, anyone other than the two of us and starship crew members needs special permission to enter this complex. Unless… perhaps you’re from a ship yourself?”
The man who’d referred to himself as Brym shook his head and smiled at them, but there was also a look of challenge in his eyes. “Oh, no. No no, there is no ship, Mr. Rumancek, I am afraid.”
Claire leaned over against the cooking range close to where she was standing. Klaus could hear a hitch in her breathing. He walked over to her and placed a hand on the small of her back again, stroking lightly.
She turned to look at him with moist eyes and nodded once. “It’s all right,” she whispered. “Whatever’s happened here, it’s all right. As long as you’re here with me, darling.”
Then she straightened her back, reached under the kitchen counter, and walked over to Brym with a small embroidered towel draped over her hands. Sitting on top of it was a portion of soft Russian bread and a cup of sea salt, from a supply they’d had shipped from Earth and kept sealed and dehydrated since the last of their splendid parties. She blinked away a small tear before bowing to her visitor. “Welcome to our home.”
During the silence that preceded this gesture, their guest had walked a little further inside and sat down on a wickerwork chair woven from giant palm leaves. The flimsy antique squeaked in protest beneath him as he leaned forward to accept the token gift.
“Please, mister, um, Brym,” said Klaus, when his wife had completed the ceremony. “Could you explain to us why you’re here?”
“Certainly. Let me beginning, however, to be apologized for my rather abrupt intrusion.” He sniffed the bread he’d been handed with curiosity, then took a tiny nibble. “Those who sent me here would have contacting you through your House-Machine, but regrettably it was become nonfunctional, on account of lack of energy.”
“Lack of energy?” said Klaus. “I don’t see how that’s possible. The HouseMind is powered by subterranean fuel cells built to last hundreds of years.”
“Fuel cells, yes!” said their visitor. “A very valuable resource. It became necessary to gain access to these, to use some of their energy for more important matters. Might I have a glass of water? The walking here was quite long.”
“You stole our power?” Klaus stepped out from behind his wife with his fists balled up at his sides. “Who authorized you to do that? What commercial interest do you represent? The government of this planet would never let you… ”
Bryn held up his hands. “Please relax, Mr. Rumancek. I am myself from government of this planet. Much has changed since you last were awake. I shall explaining further, if I may.”
“Go on, then.”
Their visitor dug a hand into his jacket pocket and pulled out what looked like a small brown tulip bulb with a dry, slightly flaky exterior. He held it out into the light and turned it slowly in his fingers, his face taking on a distant, wistful expression. “During the last party that you hosted, Mr. Rumancek,” he said, “did any of your guests from the starry beyond make to show you one of these?”
Klaus shook his head. But Claire squinted and leaned forward to get a better look. “Isn’t that a… oh, what was the name of them? One of the macro-grains they use in terraforming? There was a big cargo of them on the last ship from the Gliese system.”
Bryn nodded. “The representatives from your employer referred to it as DuneCorn. In the years following those persons’ departure from our world as wealthy men, it has acquired a new name: we call it Death Seed.” He dropped the grain onto their hand-woven rug as though he had suddenly become overwhelmed with disgust.
Klaus was finally beginning to understand. “I suppose what happened,” he said, “is that your government purchased these seeds in considerable bulk. Then perhaps after you planted them, something went wrong? Low yields? Couldn’t sell it as breakfast food to your citizens?” He had heard of such things happening on other worlds, sometimes with even more inconvenient consequences. Interstellar commerce was always a gamble.
“Oh, no! A wonderful crop. A marvelous gift for my people, from across the galaxy!” Their guest stood up and walked slowly toward the dining room. The seed he’d dropped crunched beneath the heel of his shoe, making Claire wince. “For the first year after planting, three times the normal harvest! Our farmers all are becoming rich, and even our paupery have full bellies. Then in the second year, not so much – only an eighty per cent yield. Oh, well – we are still all well-fed, and very happy! So we do not worry. Other crops we grow are removed to make way for this new marvel.”
He stopped, distracted by an ovular bronze chafing-dish that sat above a brazier on the dinner table. He lifted it up between two calloused fingers. “Please tell me,” he said. “What sort of food are you putting into one of these?”
“It’s just for anything that needs to be slow-cooked,” said Claire. “Flavored foams and wine-based sauces, mostly. So what happened next with the DuneCorn?”
“The third year, there is very small drought in the south, where all of our farms are builded. We are most surprised when half the new plants die. Yet even now, we do not worry. Instead, we simply harvest the dead sheaves, for re-planting of our older, hardier crops. But now, we must worry. For our soil is ruined! Poisoned deep town into the earth, almost to where the water runs.”
“Poisoned? How? Surely you don’t think the vendors from Gliese deliberately…”
Bryn shook his head impatiently. “Was it an accident, was it by purposing? This matters very much to us, when we find we must live off food reserves for a year. It is mattering less the next year, when the dying starts. Then the food riots, the diseases. The first ground warfare on our planet for three centuries. Eventually, one clever biologist discovers that the Death Seeds have reacted with a rare mineral in our soil.”
“Pardon me,” said Klaus, “but I’m still confused. If the seed caused problems, why didn’t you summon help from offworld? All your government needed to do was transmit a distress signal and the closest of our ships could have made an unscheduled stop, with plenty of emergency supplies and… what?”
Bryn was shaking his head furiously. “Perhaps, Mr. Rumancek, you have not studying the history of such things as famines, wars, epidemics, and suchlike. In three months, we went from surpluses to starvation. How long do you think that such marvels of science as the tachyonic transmitter—which your Firm also sold to us—would survive an uprising of the angry and unfed?”
“No!” Claire cried out, then clapped a hand over her mouth.
“My God. You didn’t… you surely didn’t destroy the transmitter,” said Klaus. “But that means there’s no… ”
“Pardon, Mr. Rumancek—I myself destroyed nothing. Please to recall that I was only sixteen years old at the time. The day that the main signal tower fell, I had just completed burying of my father. In rioting, my mother had died already.”
The three of them stood face to face in silence. A small mechanical clock on a corner table that Claire had rewound earlier whirred, then chimed four irrelevant times.
Brym took another step toward them. “Mr. and Mrs. Rumancek,” he said, “you must know that my government bears you no ill will for the treatment of our planet by your Firm. While these horrors were happening, you were innocently asleep. I visiting you today not to cast blame or seek revenge, but merely to make offer.”
“This new government that you’re talking about,” said Klaus. “I don’t suppose that by any chance it calls itself the ‘people’s’ something-or-other.”
“You are making good guess!” Their visitor gave him an encouraging smile. “We are People’s Congress for Health and Reconstruction. We have sent me here today to give you both invitation: join us! Life on this planet makes demanding—long hours of work in hospitals and greenhouses, and our food is rationed. But no more starvation and epidemics for almost four years now, and there is some time also for recreation.”
“You say this is an ‘offer,’ Mr. Brym, as though we actually had any choice,” said Claire. “You’ve disrupted our dormancy cycle, you’ve isolated us from our employers, and as I’m sure you’re aware, we couldn’t survive in this complex without central power for more than a few days.”
“Indeed, this is most unfortunate, yes. I am sorrowing to report that we of the People’s Congress lack your flair for… hospitality.” Their visitor shrugged, and smiled with what might have been a shadow of remorse. “After the past three decades, we find we are left with much salt, but only a little bread.”
“Oh, my darling. I am so, so sorry.”
Claire’s voice sounded thin and metallic through the intercom in Klaus’ dormancy bed. He had already plugged himself in to the two IV tubes that would fill his body with the numbing and nourishing compounds required for a peaceful sleep.
“Sweetheart,” he whispered back to her, “what on Earth are you apologizing to me for?”
She started to respond, but he heard her voice catch.
“Is everything all right in your bed, Claire? Are the drugs making you feel… ”
“Everything’s fine. I haven’t started the drugs yet.”
After Brym had departed from their living space a few hours earlier, they’d had a very short conversation about the options available to them. Then they had split up and quickly gone about the compound shutting down all of the machinery still drawing power from their depleted underground cells – the outdoor camera, the water filtration system, the overhead lights. Klaus tore up a chunk of flooring in the Recovery Room to gain access to the building’s hidden circuit breakers and wiring, and manually re-routed every conduit to feed power to the dormancy beds.
With these chores completed, they had tenderly undressed each other in the darkness. Then they climbed back into the accommodating plastic moulds where they had been preserved side by side ever since they’d first accepted their assignment to this planet.
But now, Claire’s words were coming out in a sudden rush. “Oh, Klaus—you’re so strong and sensible, you could probably flourish out there on that dreadful planet, while you waited for the Firm to rescue you. And I know how you sometimes get tired of this life. You might even make a few friends, amongst the People’s Congress of whatever-it-is! Perhaps if I were a little stronger, I could have gone out there with you.”
“Darling, why ever would you think that I’d have any inclination to live planetside? I might not die right away, but a few years of desert farming would put an end to me pretty quickly, if some resentful local savage didn’t get to me first.”
The truth was that for a brief, vertiginous moment after Brym left, Klaus had thought about the invitation and been tempted to accept. Many of the artists and wanderers who had visited them from faraway stars had been eloquent on the virtues of a peasant existence, and critical of their own rootless, itinerant way of life. Klaus had recognized their naivety for what it was, but the endless procession of rich meals and heady conversation had begun to exhaust him. How many more nights across how many centuries would the Firm expect them to be fascinating to a parade of strangers, before they were finally allowed to share in some of the wealth and leisure that interstellar trade was supposed to provide? He hadn’t suspected for a second that Claire had noticed him feeling these unfamiliar yearnings.
“Do you really think they’ll let us sleep, Klaus? If they’re willing to steal power from the fabricator, won’t they switch off our beds eventually? It would be a painless way to pass, I suppose.”
“It’s a risk I’m prepared to take,” said Klaus, trying his best to sound resolute. “But I don’t believe they have it in them, darling. That Man of The People they sent to scold us was arrogant and crude, but he didn’t strike me as a murderer, or a spokesman for other murderers. They might not like us very much, but I don’t think they’ll be able to just shut us down and let us rot.”
His wife was silent for a few minutes after this. The sensation of trickling numbness beneath his skin, as the cocktail of sedatives and paralytics entered his bloodstream, had always made Klaus uncomfortable in the past, but now he found it oddly soothing. His vision was just beginning to cloud when he heard Claire’s voice again.
“We could be frozen here forever, you know, if the Firm never comes back for us.” Her voice sounded calmer and a little dreamy; she had clearly begun to drug herself as well. “Like fossils during an ice age. Perhaps it really is the end of our era, Klaus. I wonder what will replace people like us.”
“Commerce doesn’t have an era, darling. It’s everything else that passes out of history. How many years do you really think it will take before their ‘People’s Congress’ falls apart, or becomes meaningless? Eventually they’ll be bound to discover some fresh need in themselves that can only be satisfied by commodities from other worlds.”
“Mm. Yes, I’m sure you’re right, my love.” They were slipping away together, now, impervious to the cold creeping along their limbs as consciousness was washed from their minds. “I’m sure you’re right. It’s good to feel needed.”
Outside, night was falling. A desert wind stirred the dead stalks of useless grain, and the planet’s other, less subtle species of predators wandered abandoned towns under the light of indifferent stars, searching for new victims.
Food for Thought
How much do we owe the people with whom we exchange goods and services? Is it better—or at least more efficient—if we keep our relations with them strictly impersonal? Or do the ancient obligations of hospitality always extend further than that—possibly across centuries, or even between the stars?
About the Author
Mark is a Philosophy Professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and an author of SF and horror fiction.
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Very enjoyable and thought provoking, Mark! Kudos!