On the roof was like night though some light lifted from the street below.
“Mrs. Smith, are you there?” Masterson asked in the dark.
“Be so kind as to close the porthole.” She did, expunging the warm glow. “Look up,” he bade her. She tilted her head to glittering stones and worthless sparkling gneiss. “Mineral inclusions,” he explained. “The process by which they are formed alone is a miracle. When I knew we would never see the sky again, I chose this spot for my residence.”
“Is this something like what the sky was…before?”
“At night, yes.”
She heard him rummaging about and soon a beam of light sprang from midriff to ground.
“There we are,” Mrs. Smith warded the beam as Masterson searched her out. “Sorry. Just checking if you were still here. People have a tendency to disappear.”
She didn’t know what to make of that, so instead, asked the most obvious question: “May I ask why you’ve brought me up here?”
There was the crunch of footfalls as he walked the silt covered stone. The flashlight’s beam stabbed the dark, wasting its reach in the empty pockets.
“You’ve been a loyal worker, Mrs. Smith,” Masterson’s voice was muffled, his face turned away.
“Thank you, sir… Sir!”
The footfalls ceased. “So sorry, Mrs. Smith. I’m far too overzealous,” his voice was clearer: he had turned around. “Walk towards me. It’s quite alright.”
She hastened forward, walking the light as though it were a bridge or a tether or light. After a minutes walk, her guide stopped and began to speak.
“The Martian venture as you may know (and I have confidence that you do, as it would be unusual indeed if you could conjure up those dropped lines of Xian’s, but fail to know something twice as big) failed for a number of reasons. Lack of finances was but one.”
“As analogized in the last scene between Ngoyo and Constantine Blum?”
“Precisely. Yes.” Masterson paused; she hoped he was impressed. “But there is more to it. The truth is that we began too late. How does one galvanize to unified action ten billion souls?”
She waited, eager to hear more of those troubled days, but he quickly changed tack.
“I’m sure these tales from the old days must bore you, Mrs. Smith. I confess I am attached to such reminiscence mostly because I was there, but you didn’t come up here to listen to this sort of nonsense, did you? Let’s have a look, shall we?”
Masterson whispered a quiet command via D.I.S. Immediately three floodlights, placed equidistantly in a triangle, bathed the Ship, a huge hulled craft a hundred haths tall, in their light. On the craft’s sides were the painted flags of a hundred nations, now faded to shades of gray. Fins approximated the wings of birds.
The hull beetled over them, stretching true to the glittering vault. Moisture residue from the vent system glistened on the shaft, which would now never know the difficulties of entering the Martian atmosphere, or of probing earth’s battered climes. Trapped in staid mockery, the blunt nose plumbed nothing more than the black vault above.
“Is it not majestic?” Masterson asked. “Is it not superb?”
“It’s certainly large, sir,” replied Mrs. Smith.
Masterson seemed not to hear, “I knew we wouldn’t make it–I mean of course the entirety of the human race. You could literally smell it in the air: a charnel stench,” he seemed to drift off and to then return. “But I had resources of my own. In exchange for free passage to Xanadu-“
Masterson chuckled, “My name for our home. If you’ll indulge me:
The words washed over her, and though the hull loomed over her in mute testament to man’s impotence something in her awakened: a spirit of resistance. In her world, some hard impersonal phallus always reared over her, always and forever, commanding bluntly its needs as they arose. Always and forever, great men extolled themselves and their accomplishments while their lessers, the slighted women and bastard children, labored to set the stones in the path they trod towards temples erected for their own grandeur.
“In exchange for passage for some very influential people, I demanded the Ship. Or at least this part of it.”
“It is magnificent,” Mrs. Smith said carefully. “But Mr. Masterson, why do you keep it?”
He sputtered, “Why do I keep it?”
“Yes,” she continued. “It is just a reminder of our failure.”
Masterson nodded vigorously, “Hah, I begin to see things as you must! Perhaps it is at that,” he said. “But I like to think that it is more than simply a remonstrance made manifest. I like to think it serves as reminder of the rectitude of Xanadu.”
“I know what it means, Mr. Masterson.”
But he had already turned from her and was walking to the light-canvassed hull. He stroked the metal and she thought of Mr. Thick—how he had stroked the kitchen wall, listening for signs of life behind it. Did all men stroke when alone and deep in thought?
Masterson continued, “Do you know how many times I’ve wondered if what I set into motion down here is right?”
Mrs. Smith realized with surprise that he sought affirmation. How strange. He probably wasn’t even aware of it. Should she recount to him the twisted fruit of his labor? The sweatshops Bovinerator operators, the ancient infrastructure and dangerous contra-flows that already that night had plagued them. Everyone knew they were a hundred years overdue for an overhaul; perpetual motion isn’t perpetual where steam, grime, and dust is involved. Should she enlighten him about the cartels: the Ice Thieves, Moshe’s Ghosts, the Soap-Box Heliophiles? This world he had conceived; everything in it flouted common sense.
Should she just spill the beans? While he slept in his aerie here in the Gilded Flats, his incorporeal daughter flitting through the flickering halls, chaos and brimstone reigned below.
Half-lit by the glaring strobes, Masterson’s shoulders seemed to sag. His Xanadu had become a facsimile of life, a pale shadow. They were living truly in the shadowlands. She understood now the mawkish madness of those who entreated Moshe’s return.
But she felt it was not yet time for the truth. Let Mr. Thick rest among the fungi—his bones would be good powder, his organs food for the soil. He would feed them, as they had fed he in life.
“I think that,” she drew a breath. “Like any parent, you did your best.”
With surprise she realized immediately upon uttering this banal sentiment that it was true.