The next morning Senaria joined Kiri and me for a drive (this time in the larger vehicle) into the nearby town of Nedro to pick up a few groceries and other provisions. Like the preceding day, the weather was bright and clear, and so it was all the more impressive when we crested a small rise and saw before us was what looked for all the world like something out of a child's building block set. It was a moderately-sized town consisting of relatively small (one- and two-story) buildings, but liberally interspersed with tall, narrow and very brightly-colored towers, extending as much as ten or twelve stories into the air. Some had tops decorated with pointed onion-like domes reminiscent of pictures I'd seen of the Kremlin. The overall effect was very colorful and very cheerful.
Where an Earth town would have had streets I saw instead grassy walkways; as we grew closer the effect reminded me more of a park than a city. Just before we reached the first outer buildings our barcoded road ended, joining a circular roadway extending the circumference of the town. As we approached it Kiri punched something into the keypad and our vehicle slowly left the roadway and headed for one of the colorful structures.
"Parking towers," Senaria explained as we approached one, and I saw that each one had a series of platforms jutting out from all four sides, just wide enough for a vehicle and walkway on either side. We pulled into one about six stories above the ground and stopped. I thought of the cavernous concrete parking garages back home and shuddered at the comparison.
I noticed that most of the vehicles already parked on the other platforms had a logo on each side which Kiri's lacked. "They're public vehicles," she explained. "You call for one and sign it out and it travels to your home or office or whatever. Once you reach your destination you enter a command and after allowing you time to exit it returns back to its base." The direct cost to the user? Nothing.
She explained that the savings in parking, congestion, etc. more than made up for the expense of providing and maintaining the vehicles, ultimately creating a net profit for the government, and hence for the citizenry. "You do pay for it if you want it for more than twenty-five* hours, though," she added. "A lot of people who commute sign one out from work, keep it home overnight, and release it after they return to work the next morning."
"Try sell that to American taxpayers," I commented sadly. "Even if it saved the government, hence the taxpayer, money, you'd never be able to convince the public that it wasn't a--what's the word?--'boondoggle.' " Kiri responded with a snort, muttering something about people not being taught to think until it was far too late.
Following her lead, I stepped out of the vehicle and through a doorway in the tower, where an elevator waited. Soon we were on our way to ground level.
There I found myself in an outdoor mall. There were only a few vehicles traversing the grassy walkways (always floating several inches above the ground), and those appeared to be public transportation of some kind, resembling nothing quite so much as open-sided trolley cars. Kiri confirmed this as one approached, instructing me to hop onto the side platform as it passed. We rode it for several blocks, then dropped off and caught another on an intersecting street. A few minutes later we hopped off again in front of a large store with the rough equivalent of "Nedro Market" lettered above the entrance.
"The bigger cities do have some vehicle traffic," Kiri explained, "but even there most people use public transportation. There are no prohibitions against owning your own private vehicle, but the majority of people just don't need one."
"So how did you happen to end up owning two?" I asked curiously, wondering just how privileged this seemingly unpretentious little family was.
"This was Dad's flier," Senaria explained. "It was provided for him as part of his ambassadorial rank. When he died they left it with my mother."
"How long ago was that?" I asked cautiously, not knowing how sensitive a topic it might be. She thought for a moment. I noticed she had an almost invisible scar on one cheek, very thin but extending from her chin to about an inch below her left eye. I wondered what kind of accident would produce a scar that couldn't be removed by what I assumed was the advanced medicine of this world.
"Twelve years ago, I guess," she decided. "I mean, that's when he died. I think he first got it about fifty years ago." Seeing my face, Kiri laughed.
"We Build Cars To Last," she pronounced sententiously, imitating that one announcer that seems to have been hired to do every car commercial ever broadcast in the United States during the past century.
"But fifty years?" I protested.
"Your economy is built on things deliberately failing and being replaced every few years," she said as Senaria disappeared into the market. "But here the market for vehicles is relatively small, since most people don't need them. So they're somewhat expensive but built to last for decades. If they need to be upgraded, for example if there are improvements in the navigation circuitry, they get upgraded, not replaced. Besides, the population is stable, so there're no new markets to service."
We found ourselves a suitable spot on the turf where we wouldn't be in the path of one of the frequent hovertrolleys, as I thought of them, and settled comfortably on the soft grass. "If you like to watch people, this is a good spot," Kiri said with a grin. "Sooner or later everyone's got to eat."
"People actually go to the grocery store to buy food?" I marveled. "I would have expected that you'd be doing all your ordering online and having it delivered." I thought of the gushing predictions that computer magazines were so fond of, in which the humans of the future basically sat back on their collective couches and had everything they wanted brought to them. Humans of the future were going to be tremendously obese, I had concluded skeptically.
But these people were trim, healthy, and often carrying bags of groceries and other purchases. Some pulled small carts behind them, carts which like the vehicles floated a foot or two above the ground. Once or twice I saw an ownerless empty cart float down the street and into the market. "Would you really want to buy strawberries online?" Kiri snickered. "Or pears? There's no substitute for actually seeing, smelling and pinching what you're about to eat. Even virtual reality simulations are no match for the real thing."
"It's like a festival in the park," I continued, struck by the relaxed, friendly atmosphere I saw everywhere. Somehow it was hard to even imagine a crime being committed here, nor did I see anything resembling a peace officer. "Do you have such a thing as police?"
Kiri laughed. "Of course. People are still people, and they sometimes do things that they shouldn't. There are professional police to make investigations and handle difficult arrests. But for the most part people police each other here. If you were to attempt to pocket something in the market, you'd probably have ten people clustering around you politely requesting that you put it back, and asking just what in the world you were thinking of. On Earth you'd consider people like that busybodies, but here it's part of one's civic duty."
"On Earth I'd expect someone to pull a knife or a gun on me if I tried to prevent them from shoplifting," I replied dubiously. I was answered with a long silence, and I looked at her in surprise, wondering if I'd said something wrong.
"People in your adopted country have no sense of community," she said finally. "They might love their family and care about their close friends, if they're lucky enough to have any. They might even belong to a small group like a church or club and think that provides them with a 'sense of community.' But that's as far as they get. A relative few claim to love their country, but hardly any of them act as if they actually believe in what it's supposed to represent. 'Patriotism' for them is an excuse to harass the foreign born, or to enforce their particular brand of conformity. The remainder treat their own government as something to thwart at tax time or even to actively subvert, as though 'nation' means a set of colors sewn onto a piece of cloth."
"You know, in a lot of ways I admire the courage of Earth's peoples. So many of them go through life terribly alone, living in a sea of predators endlessly selling them on things that will supposedly give their life meaning, whether they're political philosophies, religions, or diet pills. And yet in spite of that they muddle through, trying to make their own existence count for at least something before they're swept under. Some of them even manage to create a little beauty amidst it all."
"But we love our planet," she went on, her eyes brightening. "It's much more than just a 'country.' It's our mother and father, our community, and our home. As a people we're all part of it. You could say that we really do worship the ground we walk on." Her voice shook slightly with the last sentence.
It was a rare and unexpected glimpse into her inner self, and for a moment I was rather stunned. I think that's when I finally understood just how hard the events of the past thirty years must have hit her. "I guess that makes us both orphans twice over, doesn't it?" I said softly.
For a moment she looked at me sharply, and I saw the fire in her eyes fade. "For you, yes," she said finally, "I suppose it does. But for me it's thrice over."
She stood up. "I guess we'd better find where Senaria got to."
It was in this fashion that I spent the next few days with Kiri, Senaria or Gelhinda, or some combination of the three, whom I was already coming to view as my own adopted family. There were endless new natural wonders to see, new customs to absorb (and a few gaffes that I won't go into further here), and the wonders of a civilization centuries more advanced than Earth's and yet in many ways far simpler.
No, not simpler. More commonsense, really, with a solid feeling for when technology was and wasn't appropriate. There were no cyberspace wars here, no computer jacks permanently embedded in the backs of people's necks. What I saw was a solid sense of decency and consideration for others, symbolized by such minor matters as the lack of "boom boxes" on the streets and in vehicles (Qozernans would find it simply unthinkable to inflict their own musical tastes on innocent bystanders). In fact, the longer I remained the more impressed I became with how little people's hopes and needs really differ when you get right down to it.
"By the way," Gelhinda commented casually that evening at dinner, "Zee's coming back tomorrow evening, and this time Lev's coming along." I saw Senaria's ears prick up. "They said you had some serious catching up to do. I wonder if it has anything to do with what happened on Earth? It's been a long time since the Brizali bothered you like that."
Afterwards, Kiri told me that she was going to be working for a while, and that if I needed her she'd be in her computer lab, now moved to the second floor of the house from the Futaba's living quarters. I watched another episode of Himiko-den with Senaria that evening (her television tastes appeared to be omnivorous), and saw no sign of Kiri by the time I hit the sack for the night.
* The Qozernan day is twenty-five hours long. - Ed..
MIKIRIA. Copyright © 1998, 2000 Lamont Downs. All rights
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