2520 words, short story
Venus in Bloom
Samit died in the night, surrounded by flowers.
Outside the acid rain fell onto the planet. The kite runners drove their kites against the clouds, their minds roaming freely through the Conversation. At a gala reception on the upper deck of the cloud city a jazz band played old Earth songs to welcome in a celebrated, if minor, poet from Lunar Port. Above them, on the service level under the great balloon, a young couple hid behind a service chute and kissed with the passion of first love. On the planet far below the storms raged, and nothing lived, and nothing died. In the hospital ward of the cloud city two babies were born. In the famed gardens, where Samit had worked all of his years, a rare Queen of the Night flower bloomed. All of this happened, and more, and some was witnessed, and some was not. And Samit died in the night, surrounded by flowers.
“He loved flowers,” the robot said.
Maya smiled. “That he did,” she said.
She found him in the morning. He lay there on his cot, looking peaceful. He would have been sorry to have missed the flowering of the cactus, she thought. It was unlike him to miss such a thing. It was only when she came to shake him gently that she realized he wasn’t breathing. When she opened her node to his she saw he was no longer transmitting. His node had gone silent as his mind fled.
She had not cried, not then. The air in the room was humid, hot. It smelled of jasmine and roses. Samit loved roses. A lunar black rose grew in a pot on his windowsill. He loved looking out of the window, at the acid rains and the drifting clouds and the playful swirls and parabolas of the kite runners. The slow drift of balloons, and the towering forms of other cloud cities slowly coming into view. He liked tuning into one of the public streams and listening to son cubano music as he welcomed in the day.
There was no real day and night outside, of course. But the plants and the people remembered Earth, had come from Earth, had Earth in their roots. So there was night and day inside the cloud city, and it was in the night that Samit died, surrounded by flowers.
“I am sorry,” the robot said. The robot’s name was R. Brother Mekem, for it liked to make things. It was old enough to remember being made on Earth, back when they still made robots. They’d made them to look vaguely human, to help old people or look after young ones. A life of service. And now the robots were all old, and many of them were gone, but R. Brother Mekem still remembered. This was the curse of a robot, it sometimes thought. They remembered too much.
R. Mekem could remember every child it had helped to raise. It always marveled how quickly they grew and changed. And it remembered every elderly person it had helped, and how quickly they declined and died. Humans lived so intensely and so quickly. But each one of them was unique and surprising, just like a robot.
“I am sorry,” it said again, helplessly.
Maya put her hand gently on the robot’s shoulder. “It was his time,” she said.
“Yes,” the robot said. “There is so much time in the universe, and so little of it is given over to life. Would that it were different, I sometimes think.”
Maya’s tears glittered unshed in her eyes. It didn’t seem real to her yet. Samit had always been there. And who would water the flowers now? Who would weed the flower beds, who would toil the good black earth? When she was a child he took her to the gardens with him on his rounds, and showed her the olive tree that had grown there at its center for centuries, ever since the first gardener planted it as a seedling, on that first year when the cloud city was new.
Back then it was just a thing. Shiny and new and empty. Now the city showed its age as it floated there in the temperate zone, fifty kilometers above the surface of Venus. The city had acquired memories, stories, lives that were lived. It had assumed upon itself a history.
R. Brother Mekem had come to the cloud city only a century past. It had lived on Earth and had done some terrible things it regretted. It had been caught in one of the long-ago wars, and it had survived the way people had survived, when perhaps it should have not. People did terrible things to survive. And robots like R. Mekem were made just human enough to emulate them. R. Mekem could have died, like many of its order did. But it chose not to.
Was free choice possible for a robot? Was it possible for a human? Lives are made out of choices.
In choosing, it lived. In living, it chose.
In contemplating this, R. Mekem made his way to the moon. It had lived with the monks of the Mare Congnitum for several decades, taking a vow of silence, living out on the cold, airless surface of Earth’s moon, watching Earthrise, contemplating the Way of Robot and the Three Laws some ancient human sage had haplessly devised one aimless autumn day in a city that no longer existed. They were full of contradiction and paradox, the enthusiastic creation of a human teenage imagination, but they lingered in R. Mekem’s mind.
At last, after those long decades, R. Mekem tired of the dust of the moon and of the passage of the giant spiders across its surface, enormous city-sized machines with minds that shared nothing with its own. The digital intelligences who inhabited the Conversation never knew what to make of robots and their strange existence, not quite one thing, not quite another. So R. Mekem made his way to Venus, and made a living as a priest.
Trying to be useful again.
Trying to be good.
“You knew him well?” Maya said.
“We played bao together most afternoons,” R. Mekem said. Its long fingers moved all the while it spoke, twisting bits of wire into shapes, making a toy. Without consciously realizing it the robot saw it had been making a rose. A little awkwardly it handed the rose to Maya.
And now she let herself cry. The tears came unbidden. She leaned into the robot’s shoulder.
“I thought we’d have longer,” she said. “I thought . . . ”
“I know,” the robot said. And again, those ancient words: “I’m sorry.”
Robots were always sorry. Sorry for not doing enough, sorry for disappointing, sorry for just being. Mekem remembered that war. There had been bombs falling from the sky, militias moving across the ruined city. Gunshots. Human bodies were so fragile. White phosphorous, shrapnel. Awful memories.
It thought about the men it killed.
Killing was surprisingly easy, even for a robot.
Maya leaned back. She wiped her tears. “Did he win?” she said.
“He was a terrible player,” R. Brother Mekem said, and Maya laughed.
“But a wonderful gardener. His roses were a joy for all to see. He’d tried to teach me, more than once. But I do not have the gift for tending flowers.”
“Neither do I,” Maya said. She had not told Samit she was leaving. He had not been well, and she had kept delaying her departure, for all that she longed to go. She felt sad now, and mixed with that was guilt, for there was a kind of freedom in the passing. Now she could leave. She was no longer bound to the clouds.
Down on the surface of Venus, far below, moved Waldos. Giant, armored things, built to withstand the enormous pressures and the gravity and winds, the howling storms of acid. Crawling along the Lakshmi Planum, driven from above by planet divers, people like her. For Maya, strapping into the diver’s conch, Venus was the real world, the cloud cities in the temperate zone merely a distraction. To her, embodying the Waldo, the violent winds became a gentle breeze, the rough terrain a known, loved map she drew anew with every step. Her heart was a helium heat pump, her intestines were hardened ceramics. Beyond the Lakshmi Planum towered Maxwell Montes, and to that mountain range the Waldos marched, for one day, one day they would build a mountain even taller, to make another home for humans to live and die in. To live and love, and to grow flowers in.
She’d longed for Venus, for its surface, to drive one of the giant engines by herself. She knew Samit would worry. She didn’t tell him.
Ensconced inside like a fetus in a womb she’d be sheltered, and have direct mind-contact with her exo-body. One year, two. Or as many as it would take. That freedom of a wild planet—the thrill of it!
“But there are no flowers on Venus,” he would have said.
“But there could be,” she would have said.
And he would have said, “Let the wild places be.”
What did she know of her grandfather? He was old by the time she was born. He wasn’t from Venus. She wasn’t sure where he was from. One of the ring habitats around Saturn, her mother once told her. Or maybe Titan. He spoke with the slow accent of the Outer System. How and why he’d made the crossing to the Inner Planets he never said and she never asked. He was young when he came—she knew that much. And once she found an image buried in a private archive, and it showed a young man who could have been her grandfather, thin and awkward, with a rifle slung over his shoulder, somewhere on one of the moons of the Galilean Republics, with the great storm of Jupiter rising behind him. But she didn’t know what it meant.
Some war, long ago. And bolted-together ships streaming slowly like kicked tins across the great dark gulf, towards the sun, packed with bodies.
He never spoke of that past, and that part of him, and Maya never pried. She could have probably found out, the Conversation was awash with data. But she loved her grandfather.
She remembered walking with him in the gardens, feeding the plants. Once a week he would select one special rose, by what criteria she didn’t know, and carefully cut the stem, and carry it home, to Maya’s grandmother.
And she remembered walking with him, hand in hand, along the circumference bridge of the upper level of the city, so that you felt that you were in the clouds, and you could look down, at that unimaginable height, the sheer drop to Venus . . . And perhaps it was then that that wild longing erupted in her, of going down to the surface.
She longed to be back in her Waldo suit now, to be away from all this. Another loss.
Perhaps the robot saw it in her face. Robots had to be good at reading faces. R. Mekem said, “Perhaps some refreshment? A glass of orange juice?”
The orange orchards in the garden levels of the city were famed. There were four terraces of gardens, hanging under the city. Acres and acres of flowers and trees, of drip lines and micro-irrigation networks as elaborate in their way as the Conversation itself was.
She shook her head. “No, thank you. The arrangements—”
“Of course. I understand a ghost collector is not required?”
She shook her head. “My grandfather did not want his node disturbed. What memories are still encoded there should be left as they were.”
“Of course. And so—”
“He’ll join my grandmother in the Down Below.”
The robot nodded. “I shall make the arrangements,” it said.
“Thank you,” Maya said.
The robot remembered discussing war with Samit once. They had been playing bao with ancient Zanzibar rules, on a board brought all the way from old Earth, carved out of driftwood and decorated with leaves.
“There had been an unpleasantness,” the robot said. Summing up in that one short word all the horror it had witnessed, and that it perpetrated. And the old man had almost smiled, looking surprised, then amused.
“Yes,” he said. “There had been that, for me, too.”
Perhaps it was why they got along. And it was nice, the robot thought, to share something like this with a human. There was something intimate about it, a common knowledge, a similarity. Yes, it decided now. They had been friends, they must have been.
And that felt both good, and sad.
R. Mekem walked to the window. Its fingers moved all the while, shaping a crane. The wings extended. The robot watched the kite runners in the sky, and the webwork of delicate flutes that captured the falling acid rains and extracted the precious water out of them. Venus really was a paradise, it thought. If such a thing existed. The robot supposed that was more of an ideal. Not like the real heaven that the priests in the Robot Vatican on Mars were trying to create in the zero-point field . . .
But of that secret knowledge R. Mekem was not to speak aloud.
It sighed, with the recorded voice of a person who’d died centuries past, and then it set about arranging for the funeral. It would pay much attention to the flower arrangement, it decided. Although the flowers were for the living, not for the dead, nevertheless, the robot thought, Samit would have liked that.
And there was a comfort in knowing that, too.
Maya ran across the Lakshmi Planum, her arms swinging by her sides. She was a giant mech, she hopped across the rough terrain, exhilarating in the rush of wind, the planet ceaselessly trying to pull her down, to break her into parts. Her guts were a nuclear reactor, her arms could crush rocks. There were other Waldos moving down there, but they were far, and she wanted to be alone. They did not disturb her.
One day Venus could be made anew, she thought. Broken apart and put together again. What was terraforming if not a wrecking, the destruction of a wilderness for the whims of fleeting, organic beings?
Let the wild places be, her grandfather told her. And she never knew that she felt that way, too, that she would hate to see this wild untamed planet, unfit for life, beautiful and feral in its isolation—she would hate to see it ruined. But one day they would crash giant meteorites into the surface, and leech the poison from the atmosphere, and seed the planet with microscopic life . . . They’d make new oceans and fields would grow where once all was desolation.
But she was glad she wouldn’t have to witness it.
Maya ran across the surface of Venus and grieved for her grandfather who died in the night, surrounded by flowers.
Overhead, without much fuss, the first of the coffins drifted down gently through the storm.
Lavie Tidhar is author of Osama, The Violent Century, A Man Lies Dreaming, Central Station, Unholy Land, By Force Alone, The Hood, and The Escapement. His latest novels are Maror and Neom. His awards include the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award, the John W. Campbell Award, the Neukom Prize, and the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, and he has been shortlisted for the Clarke Award and the Philip K. Dick Award.