"HELLO VENUS!" screamed the clock radio. "This is Jeff Christie, with the News and Information Service of Radio Venus, bringing you The Jeff Christie Show! It's Thursday, the 16th of Messidor, and it is 11 AM here in Venusburg. That means it's 8 PM in Gagaringrad, midnight in New London, and 7 AM for you people in Buchanan and the Rio Linda Delta...."
Refusing to open his eyes, Simon York reached out with his arm and tried to find the clock radio on his bedside table.
"I'll be opening up the phone lines for your calls in just a few minutes; but first, the news...."
As Jeff Christie pointedly rustled his papers into the microphone, Simon's hand found the radio and began to gently feel around its surface for the buttons. You didn't treat electronics roughly; not anymore. Not since the war.
"Governor Pournelle met with a delegation from the Venusian Farmers Union on Wednesday in an attempt to settle the ongoing subsidy controversy. Representatives...."
Simon's middle finger found the button...
"...from both sides met ..."
...gently pressed down...
...and Jeff Christie was silent. Simon rolled over and went back to sleep.
Two and a half hours later Simon was washed, dressed, and walking into the lobby of what had once been the Slayton Air Force Base Bachelor's Officers Quarters. Deke's picture was still up on the wall, but the seal of the U.S.A.F. had been replaced with those of the Venusian High Guard and the Venusian Commerce Commission; and the "B.O.Q." sign out front had been changed to read "Visiting Spacemen's Home." Simon thought that made it sound like an alien retirement village, but nobody had asked his opinion on the issue. He had been somewhere near Jupiter when the change had been made; not that his opinion would have mattered anyway.
Simon walked up to the front desk and the clerk greeted him.
"Good morning, Mr. York. What can we do for you today?" she said, with a smile on her face.
"Uh... is there somewhere around here I could get breakfast?" asked Simon.
"I'm sorry Mr. York, but we stopped serving breakfast an hour ago. However, there are a number of local restaurants you could try."
"I haven't been here since before the war. What would you recommend?"
"There's the Two World's Dining Room, a couple of miles from here down on Heinlein Boulevard. Ask for Ferris."
"Ferris?" Simon asked.
"He's the fry cook, fill in chef, occasional assistant manager, and best friend of just about everyone in town. If anything is going on here in Buchanan, he'll know all about it."
"Thank you, I really appreciate it."
"No problem Mr. York, and Happy Fourth of July" she replied.
"Fourth of July?" The words hit Simon like a ton of bricks. Was it the Fourth of July? Simon thought through the past couple of days... The ship had locked orbit late Tuesday night; they spent a few hours clearing customs, then had to off-load cargo most of the day... Simon had grabbed a seat on the last cargo shuttle down, had dinner, and checked in...so today was Thursday; Thursday, July 4th, 2013. Yep, today was the Fourth of July.
The memories came flooding back... Big plastic bags of Flaming Arrow Fireworks filled with brightly colored cones, green and red boxes of sparklers, and red, white, and blue striped whistlers. He could still remember the smell of the smoke bombs and snakes. He would set them all off in the morning and then spend the afternoon impatient for the sun go down so they could set off the rest. The taste of the burgers and the inevitably charred hot dogs his Dad made on the gas grill in the back yard. Sitting on the back patio watching Dad light fireworks with a blowtorch because Dad didn't trust the matches to not blow out. Eating chips and dip till it almost made him sick. Being a kid on the Fourth of July.
Simon's trip down memory lane ended suddenly as he walked out the lobby doors and into an almost solid wall of hot, humid, Venusian morning. Heinlein Street was only about a mile or so away, and after two and a half months cooped up aboard ship, Simon decided that despite the steaminess, he would enjoy the walk.
He was wrong.
The humidity was almost thick enough to swim in. Inside the old base perimeter, the buildings were all Government Issue mid-century modern. Combined with the muggy Venusian weather Simon could have believed he was back in Florida, training for the astronaut program.
Once he passed the base gate though, the illusion vanished. It wasn't just the solid overcast of the Venusian sky or a horizon dominated by jungle covered mountains that reminded him he was a long way from Coco Beach, it was the city itself.
Buchanan City was a strange mix. Close to the spaceport was the oldest part of town, where log cabins and wood buildings stood side by side with N.A.S.A. pre-fabs, Air Force Quonset huts, structures built from salvaged spaceships, and some that incorporated all of the above. The latest in VHF/UHF antennas were attached to walls made of unfinished logs, and poles made of spacecraft grade aluminum supported awnings woven from native grown jute. This eclectic mix of imported high-tech and primitive local improvisation had once been the cutting edge of style back on Earth. "Venusian Colonial" they had called it. Somehow, it seemed less stylish on a muddy street in the middle of the Venusian jungle than it had in Upper West Side condos. Simon thought it ironic that the handmade chicka wood furniture in his room at the Visiting Spaceman's Home could have sold for twice his yearly salary back on Earth...at least before the war.
After a bit, Heinlein Boulevard began to live up to something close to its name. The improvised buildings gave way to more professionally constructed ones. Some were still made of wood, but they were larger and better built. Most though were made of brick or concrete, and had the pale yellow tinge that always came when Venusian soil was used in the mix. Nearly every building here had an awning of some sort, and more often than not, the sidewalks were elevated well above the street level, to prevent flooding during the rainy season. It reminded Simon of the old parts of New Orleans.
By the time Simon finally saw the Two Worlds Dining Room, it was clear he had overestimated how hard he had been working out in the ship's gym. He wasn't exactly tired, but he was dripping with sweat, and the walk had taken more out of him that it should have. Simon navigated through tables lining the sidewalk patio, passed a window with a large neon sign proclaiming "We Never Close", and entered the Two Worlds.
The Two Worlds was a large establishment, with high beaten copper ceilings and large ceiling fans that tried their best to disperse the Venusian heat. It was surprisingly full for this time of the morning. Waiters moved around the large room, taking orders, refilling coffee cups, and delivering everything from beignets to burritos. Simon wasn't sure if the diners were enjoying a late breakfast or an early lunch, but either way he headed across the dining room and took a seat at the bar.
The bartender was a chubby, middle-aged man. He was stocking a small refrigerator with glass bottles of beer. He looked up as Simon sat down. "We don't start serving booze till eleven buddy."
"That's ok; I'll just have a Coke."
"Haven't had any Coke here since the war. I can get you a ginger beer though, or a chocolate soda from the kitchen."
"Sorry, force of habit. What else do you have?"
"Bud, you are on Venus. Ever since the war, we've had coffee coming out of our ears. I can make you coffee, cafe au lait, iced coffee, espresso, cappuccino, Greek coffee, Turkish coffee, New Orleans coffee, Greek coffee frappe, three kinds mocha, five kinds of frozen frappe, six kinds of berry teas over ice, or just about anything else you can think of; as long as it grows on a bush, and doesn't come in a can."
"I'll take an iced coffee, extra cream, and extra ice."
"Not a problem." Replied the bartender, as he set to work. "You just landed?"
"What do you mean?" Simon replied.
"Well, you ordered Coke, and you look like you walked here. Locals don't do either of those things."
Simon smiled. "I'm the navigator on the Pete Conrad. We came in late last night with a load of electronic parts from Ceres."
"Electronic parts, you say? You think you might be able to snag me one of those new 686 chips they keep talking about?" said the bartender as he handed Simon his drink.
"If I could, I would; but the Captain had the entire cargo pre-sold before we even landed, including my share. The shuttle off loaded it even before we came down."
"Oh well, maybe next time," said the bartender. "My name's Jake by the way, and that will be two fifty."
Simon reached for his wallet, and suddenly realized he had forgotten to change his money at the front desk. "Oh damm." He said. "All I have is American Dollars and Belt Marks. Either of those any good here?"
"Technically no; but here at Two World's we're kind of flexible. I can have the manager change your Marks, those are always good; as for the dollars, what kind do you have?
Simon opened his wallet and looked at the bills.
"Ummm... looks like mostly Texas, and a few from Mount Weather."
"Well we can probably change the Texans, but I'm afraid you're out of luck with the Mount Weathers. The Charleston Government shut them down about two weeks ago."
"Really?" said Simon. He was genuinely shocked. The various American governments were always skirmishing with each other, but it was rare for one to fall completely. "Which President were they? Isn't Charleston they the one with the Supreme Court Justice?"
"Nah. Some history professor runs Charleston. Not sure about Mount Weather." replied Jake, as he continued mixing Simon's drink.
"I thought Mount Weather was the one with the Secretary of Education," replied Simon without thinking.
"Nah, the Secretary of Education's the one on the aircraft carrier. She got mixed up with some Admiral. Last I heard they had this little rag tag fleet wandering around the Pacific looking to found "New America' or something. What kind of admiral takes orders from a schoolteacher?" asked Jake as he put down his bar rag.
Simon sensed that this discussion was drifting dangerously close to a subject he made it a point to avoid; namely, which of the various "governments" of the United Sates was the "legal and constitutional successor" to the one from before the war. In Simon's experience, such discussions never ended well. So Simon extended his hand, put on his best "Let's not talk politics" smile, and changed the subject. "Well, Jake, hows about we change what we can, and I'll just keep the rest. By the way, my name is Simon, Simon York."
"Nice to meet you Simon York." said Jake as he shook Simon's hand. "Now let me get the manager to change your money."
Over the next hour and a half Simon learned that Ferris had gone to Venusburg for the week, that the Two Worlds exchange rate was about fifteen percent worse than the official one listed at the Visiting Spacemen's Home, that there were no Fourth of July parties scheduled in Buchanan, and that his next destination was across town on Dula Street.
Jake brought Simon his tab just as the Two World's began to fill up for lunch. Simon took the hint, placed a couple of Venusian Republic Rubles under his plate, and walked over to the cashier's stand.
The cashier hardly even looked up as she took his tab. "That will be eleven fifty," she said as she offered up her automatic smile.
Simon looked in his wallet and handed her a twenty-ruble bill.
"Oh, um," he said, "I forgot to ask earlier. Are there any fireworks shows or parties going on tonight?"
The cashier rang up Simon's bill and started counting out his change without missing a beat.
"No, I don't know of any. Should there be?" she replied cheerfully.
"Well," said Simon "It's the Fourth of July. Buchanan was one of the American Colonies, so I figured..."
The cashier's smile froze as she handed Simon his change.
"No sir, I believe you're mistaken" she interrupted coolly. "Here on Venus it's the 16th of Messidor. We have our own calendar you know."
Simon was already mentally planning the rest of his day, so he missed the hint.
"Oh, I know that. What I meant was, that back on Earth...," he said as he put his change in his wallet.
"Sir," replied the cashier, with icicles in her voice.
Simon looked up and put the wallet in his pocket. The clerk's face was a mask of stoicism.
"Sir, I understand what you meant. I grew up in Chicago, on the north side, near the lake. My parents, my little brother, and the man I was hoping to marry were all there, in Chicago, on War Wednesday. Almost everyone on Venus lost friends or family that day, so please understand sir; as far as the Venusian Republic is concerned today is the 16th of Messidor, and that's ALL it is."
"I'm terribly sorry...," said Simon. "I didn't mean to..."
"No offense taken" replied the cashier. Then her automatic cheerfulness having dropped back into place. "I hope you enjoyed your meal, and that you'll visit us again, soon," she said with a smile.
"Thank you" replied Simon, and he walked out into the hot and permanently overcast Venusian day. Weaving between the sidewalk cafe tables, he walked to the corner where a line of rickshaw cabs and cyclos were parked. The drivers were talking, playing cards, or lounging in the seats of their cabs. He came up on the nearest one and tapped on the cab's roof.
"Hey, are you for hire?"
"I'm not, but the cab is." came the reply.
The driver climbed out of the back seat and unplugged her cab from the charging stand. She was in her early twenties, pretty, and had dark hair flowing out from underneath a battered Boston Red Sox cap. She mounted a seat behind the motorcycle like handlebars at the front, and wrapped her long legs around the machine to reach the footrests as she started the engine. "Where to?"
Simon climbed into the back seat of the rickshaw like contraption.
"2125 Dula Street. You know the place?"
"I know every place in this town." the driver replied, as she gunned the cab's motor and pulled out into the street. "It's my business."
Simon wasn't political, but he was enough of an egalitarian that he always felt a little uncomfortable when someone was waiting on him. He liked to do for himself, not hire others to do for him. He could never have ridden in a man-powered rickshaw, and even an electric one like this made him a bit uneasy. He decided to try to break the ice.
"So," asked Simon, for lack of anything else to say, "You like baseball?"
"Then what's with the Red Sox hat? Where'd you get it?"
"Lexington Environmental Science Coalition, Lexington Massachusetts" she replied.
"How's that again?"
"Lexington Environmental Science Coalition. Dr. Jackson gave them out to us. I was part of a youth science trip. Gap year on Venus. Study new species on the wild frontier. Look good on your college applications. That sort of thing."
The driver paused while she swerved to pass a slow moving ox cart.
"I was three weeks short of going home when all of a sudden the folks on Earth went and launched WWIII. After that, I didn't have a home to go back to."
"So you're an American?"
The driver's slim figure seemed to...well not quite start, but Simon could tell his question had hit a nerve. He couldn't tell from behind, but Simon got the impression she had a surprised look on her face.
"Hadn't really thought about it much. Why do you ask?"
"Well, today's the Fourth of July, and nobody seems to care. I was kind of looking for someone to celebrate with."
"Well, if you're asking for me to find you some hookers, you've got the wrong cabbie."
"No, nothing like that". Simon replied. Then, suddenly Simon's mouth took over, while his brain simply stood by and looked on in surprise. "Actually I was kind of hoping you might be interested...."
The cab slowly pulled over to the side of the road, and the driver put the bike in park. She spun her seat around so she was facing Simon, and her ice blue eyes looked him over with an expression that was equal parts hardbitten cynic and quizzically friendly. Simon noticed those eyes, and her smile, and her skin, and was suddenly surprised by an unexpected feeling nervousness. He tried to look confident while a couple of millennial length seconds dragged by.
"It's the Fourth of July." Simon interjected, just to break the silence. "Burgers, hot dogs, back yard cook out, beer, fireworks, chocolate ice cream and floats made with A&W root beer, just like you remember."
"My folks were lawyers, Spaceman. Every 4th of July my stepdad would throw a firm party on his boat. He and Mom spent all day schmoozing clients on deck while I sat below sneaking lobster salad sandwiches off the buffet and listening to Casey Kasem. I don't think I've shot off a single firework in my life."
"Well then this will be a learning experience. Think of it as an exercise in American ...history."
The driver paused for a moment, apparently decided that Simon had indeed passed muster, and held out her right hand.
"Lisa Martinelli. And you?"
"Simon York," he replied shaking her hand.
Lisa paused for a moment. "Okay, Spaceman, it's a date, but only on two conditions."
"...and they are?"
"One, you are a rich spaceman on leave. I can tell by your walk you're not quite used to the local gravity. I'm nothing but a humble taxi owner taking an unpaid day off work; so you're doing all the buying."
"Not a problem."
"Two, just because you're doing all buying, don't expect me to automatically sleep with you."
"What kind of a man do you think I am?" Simon replied with a faux shocked voice.
"I think you're a spaceman on leave; and it's because of guys like you that I keep a knife in my boot. On the other hand, if you just wanted to party, you'd be down at Rick's by now--hip deep in strippers and whiskey. Instead, you're at Ferris's place, trying to score ice cream. So, I'm thinking you just MIGHT be a decent guy after all Simon York. Color me curious; but not stupid."
"Curious, but not stupid... Got it..." said Simon, with a grin. "...and how did you know about the ice cream?"
"You think I don't know my own town, Spaceman? 2125 Dula Street. That's Creamland Dairy. And by the way, we should go there last. I don't want your ice cream melting all over my cab while we are running around looking for hot dogs and fireworks."
Seven hours later, Simon and Lisa were behind the Visiting Spacemen's Home, sipping warm beer and comfortably sharing a chaise lounge that still had USAF PROPERTY stenciled on the back. A disused picnic table was covered with the remains of their cookout, and a fire was slowly dying in a borrowed charcoal grill.
"So, this is how you grew up, Spaceman?" Lisa asked playfully.
"Near enough..." Simon replied. "though to be honest, my parents wouldn't have let me drink this much beer when I was a kid. They kind of insisted that I finish grade school before I started polishing off six packs," he said with a wink.
"What fascists!" Lisa said sarcastically. "How did you ever survive?"
"It wasn't easy," said Simon. Then his mood began to change. "Actually it was pretty good. Atari video games, my older sister's hand-me-down bike, Star Trek re-runs, Pizza Hut delivery, sleepovers at my best friend's house, two dogs... it was a good time, a good way to be a kid." Simon took another sip, finished his beer, and set the bottle on the arm of the chaise lounge.
"You still really miss it, don't you?" asked Lisa.
"What do you mean?"
"America. Everything. Barbeque potato chips, College Football, Easy Bake Ovens, forty hour work weeks, promotions, careers, suburbs, minivans, prosperity, futures. Everything they said would last forever, but didn't."
"Sounds like you miss it too." said Simon.
"I used to." Replied Lisa as she took another swig off her beer. "But I got over it."
"What do you mean 'got over it'?"
"This one's all gone," replied Lisa, putting down the empty beer bottle.
Simon, he reached out to an ice chest and grabbed a beer. "You want another?" he asked Lisa.
"Another what?" Lisa replied.
Simon smiled. "I see what you're doing there," he said.
"Well, even if I wanted another, there isn't one," Lisa replied. "Not another life, not another future, not another family, not another Harvard, not another Boston..."
"Well, you ARE getting another beer." said Simon as he pried the cap off a bottle, and handed it to her. "Harvard?" he asked.
"I'd been accepted to Harvard." Lisa said, her sense of pride shining through her beer buzz. "Pre-med. Turns out Dr. Jackson was right about the 'looks good on your application' thing. He even snagged me a scholarship." A tone of anger began to creep into Lisa's voice as she continued. "Unfortunately while I was working my ass off, some idiot with an empty head and an expensive smile went and got himself elected President. Then one day I turn around and BOOM! 'Very sorry Miss, but your future's been cancelled. Pity you worked so hard for it: probably would have been a nice one.'"
Simon thought about what the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces had done to the northeastern U.S. "Could have been worse," he said.
"It could have been a darn sight better, if it weren't for President Emptyhead." Lisa continued, "You know, if I had graduated from medical school, they would've made me take an oath that says 'First do no harm'. Why couldn't Emptyhead have taken one like that?" Lisa held up her right hand mockingly. "I do solemnly swear that I will not fix any part of our Great Republic that is not broken, I will not kill the goose that lays our golden eggs, and I will not ruin the good thing we Americans have going here." Lisa took a swig of the beer. "I'm only twenty-six and I've already outlived my country, Simon. How the hell did that happen?"
"I don't know." Simon replied. "What do you do when your future's been cancelled?"
"Why should you ask? Your future wasn't cancelled."
"What the heck does that mean?" replied Simon, angrily.
Lisa had struck a nerve, but the beer prevented her from seeing that. "Where were you on War Wednesday?" she asked.
"I was on the ship. We were on patrol near the Ganymede colony when NORAD cut into our uplink from Houston with an emergency warning order. Houston came back on line for about five more minutes, then they cut out too. Given the time delay, they must have been hit before we even heard the message. After that, we scanned for any broadcast we could, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. Didn't find much. It wasn't till Luna City raised us about a week later that we finally got the whole story."
"That's my point. You were an astronaut already. You had a life. Sure, it's been royally messed up, but you still have it. There may not be an Air Force to pay you anymore, but you get what? Five percent of the profit from every cargo your ship hauls? Ten? And all tax-free. Don't talk to me about 'Could have been worse.' Mr. Spaceman."
Simon stopped. He didn't like to think about that. He didn't like to admit it, even to himself, perhaps especially to himself, but the war hadn't really hurt him. He'd never had a wife, or kids, and he hadn't spoken to his sister or his dad since Mom's funeral. Sure, the bomb that took Miami has cost him a sublet condo and a storage locker full of yearbooks; but his ship had become his home, and his shipmates had become his family long before the war. He still had that, and his a bank account was larger than it had ever been--even if it wasn't denominated in U.S. dollars anymore. The single worst day in the history of Homo Sapiens had made Simon's life... better. It was not a topic Simon was comfortable with.
"For someone who's angry that I have money, you sure were happy to help me spend it all afternoon" Simon lashed back. His attack was more from his sense of discomfort than genuine anger. He was upset that Lisa had hit his sore point, but what upset him more was that Lisa had hit his sore point, and he wasn't very mad about it. Sure, a lot of that was lust talking; but, he asked himself, was he actually starting to care about this girl?
"I'm sorry," said Lisa. She seemed genuinely hurt by his words. "That's not what I meant. It's just...." Lisa paused as she tried to find the right words. "...when was the last time a job opened up in your field? When was the last time a decent job opened up in ANY field?"
Simon thought for a moment, which was no small accomplishment given the amount of beer he had consumed. No ships had been built since the war, nor was there any prospect of any more being built. It was hard enough to keep the ones that still existed flying. "Not since...."
"Exactly." Lisa continued. "Nothing's opened up since the war. Same thing everywhere. Nobody's actually building anything, everyone is just hanging on...which works out OK if you had something to hang on to when it started. But when you're young, growth is your only hope. If growth stops, it doesn't matter how smart you are, or how hard you work. You can't move up the ladder because the rest of the ladder is already occupied. 'Nothing personal Miss, but that position is filled...' You're just stuck. Day after week after month after year, while your life dribbles away. I've been waiting for things to get better for over seven years now Simon. Seven years! That's over a quarter of my life! Nowhere to go but down, no way to move up. I hate it Simon, and I'm sick of it!"
"A lot of folks...."
"Yeah, I know. There are couple billion people back on Earth who would sell their soul to switch places with me.. Like somehow the thought that other people are suffering more than I am is supposed to bring me contentment and peace? How messed up is that? "
Lisa took another swig of beer.
"The sad part is I really am thankful' she continued. "I know I'm lucky, but that doesn't make things suck any less. What the hell am I supposed to do?" said Lisa. "I'm spending the best years of my life, living off peanut butter sandwiches, sleeping in a converted garage, and constantly afraid that today might be the day that something I can't ever replace breaks for the last time." The emotion was causing her to tear up. "It didn't have to be this way, dammit!" she said, blinking her eyes. "It didn't have to be this way!!"
"I'm sorry." Simon gently brushed her cheek with his finger. "If there was some way I could fix things for you I would." said Simon. Somehow, Simon knew he really meant that, and somehow so did Lisa. "Just don't let it make you crazy," Simon said, and he kissed her.
Lisa kissed him back. She felt real emotion in the kiss. Something more than just simple lust. Oh, lust was definitely there; there was no disguising that; but she also felt genuine concern, caring. It scared her.
Lisa pulled back, sniffed, and put on a smile. "Don't worry about me. Back on Earth there are six different governments fighting over who should be running a place that doesn't exist anymore. You're busy pretending America never ended, and most everyone on Venus is pretending it never existed in the first place. Compared to you all, I'm the picture of mental health." She sniffed again.
"We need to get this food cleaned up before it spoils," Lisa said.
"Oh, it can wait," replied Simon, leaning in for another kiss.
"Simon, there's more meat there than I see in a month!" replied Lisa, gently pushing him away. "Not to mention the tomatoes, onions, watermelons and ice cream. I'm not going to just leave it out here for the bugs." Simon's disappointment must have shown in his face, because she continued "Didn't I see a refrigerator in your room...next to the bed?"
"HELLO VENUS!" the clock radio screamed. "It's the 17th of Messidor, and that means it's OPEN LINE FRIDAY!!'
Canned applause from a long dead studio audience interrupted Jeff Christie as Lisa's hand began to search for the clock radio.
"Yes folks, it's open line Friday, your chance to call in and discuss any topic you want. First here's the telephone number to call if you..."
Lisa's index finger found the button...
"...want to be on the program..."
...gently pressed down....
...and Jeff Christie was silent.
Lisa laid back on the pillows and looked around the room. Seven years ago she would have considered it a dump. Twenty-four hours ago, she would have considered it a palace. Now she just considered it 'Simon's.' That scared her a little, but she didn't really mind; which scared her even more.
"Rise and shine, Spaceman" Lisa said, as she gently pushed Simon in the ribs.
"Even in the worst of situations," Lisa thought to herself "...every so often, you find something that gives you a little hope, something that make hanging on worthwhile."
It would be some time before he would admit it, but at that moment, Simon was thinking the exact same thing.
Check out the next Independence Day contest honorable mention, A Supreme Moment by Fred Tribuzzo!