This is neither flash fiction nor a short story. It’s a cover. It occurred to me that people who play music and share it online often record and share covers of songs. That’s normal. But people never do covers of fiction. I’m sure there must a be a perfectly good reason for that but as of right now I can’t think of it. So here’s a cover of “A good cafe on the Place St.-Michel,” the first chapter of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.”
This is really just an exercise, a sentence-by-sentence rewrite. So instead of Paris in the 1920s this story takes the reader to Titan in the 2320s. Hope you find it mildly diverting.
A Good Café on the Shoreline of Ontario Lacus
Of course, there was always the weather. You didn’t know anyone who’d been there long enough to really see a year’s worth of seasons change but every 15 days when the sun rose the temperature would rise just enough to rain methane. It was always cold on Titan and you always wondered what it would be like to stick your hand outside for just a moment but you knew that would be the end of your arm and instead you watched hydrocarbons lap in slow motion against the lakeshore. The mist was constant in the still Titan haze and the stripped down fuselage of the wrecked cargo unit shimmered in the soft yellow light from Saturn and the Café E Ring was always crowded and hot with sweat and drink and the condensation formed on everything. It was as bad a bar as any bar could be when it was the only bar around and that is very bad indeed. I stayed away because of the smell of sweat cooked in suit rubber and the scrubbers working constantly to clear to the air made it so you had to scream all the time. The cargo crews that frequented the E Ring stayed drunk the entire time they were moonside, mostly on shots of pure alcohol and water. Sometimes, if they drank their entire wage they drank darkmatter, which was based on hydraulic fluid and tasted the most like peppermint. Lacus Port had better than three thousand permanent residents then but still most people who moved past the belt still did it just to get away.
The E Ring was the cesspool of Enceladus Street which was the first street in Lacus Port and snaked with the landscape down to the lakeshore. The oldest housing modules were there, the ones that detached right from the ships and in the interest of efficiency the sewage hookups all faced the street and looked like oversized garden hose faucets. The recyc bots would move down the streets once a week and collect everything for reprocessing. Later modules put the hookups in the back so people didn’t have to think too much about who made their protein shakes. The bots were six-wheeled and squat and you would think of the photos you’d seen of the Mars rovers and get sad sometimes that their grandchildren just carried around shit all day. No bot stopped at the E Ring though, and its construction, grafted and welded into a discarded booster stage was seemingly as half-assed and ill-suited for the Titanian climate as its clientele was to have made the journey from the inner planets.
And the port was worse when it was warmer and the methane rain started. Because warmer was still cold enough to be instantly lethal and now the yellow haze was thicker with the constant methane drizzle. There were no great views of Saturn or the rings as you walked but only the opaque bluish orange over the dark sidewalks of repurposed paneling. And the research wing of the main unit assembly and the habitat pods and the few shops all shut their outer hatch ports against the methane drizzle so even the yellow glow of the round windows blinked out and everything was very much like sleep all the way from Mysi’s capsule to Hotel Huygens, where you had a capsule on the top floor where you worked.
I was staying in either capsule 202 or 222 and she was the next one over and we had to pay for any time on infofeed and knew how much it would cost for an hour on the stream, a small trickle of data down to my terminal that I would use to surf and harvest pictures and video and audio and some text and make something. I pinged the feed traffic from the other capsules and saw only a few units logged in. The mist made connections difficult and I thought about how the increased radiation reflection interfered with the signals from the orbital relay satellites and I wouldn’t be able to draw on enough material for a collage and the feed time would be wasted and my credits gone with it and walked on in the rain through the hydrocarbon puddles. I trudged past the towers of the main relay and the hull of the Hyperion¸ the one-way colony ship set down on the surface a century ago and the massive recyc center and cut down the narrow alley behind the tanks and finally came out on Calypso Street and worked my way toward the lake until I came to a good cafe I knew right on the shore.
There were a number of cafes in the port and this was small and good and often empty and their infofeed free for patrons. It was warm and dry inside and the interface kiosk was well maintained and never malfunctioned or took your money. I welcomed the fresh air of the cafe as I removed my helmet and the air was cool on my skin. I hung my 50 Kelvin suit on a recharge rack and placed my old scuffed helmet and gloves on the low bench below and ordered an instant coffee from the kiosk. I took the cup and jacked my glasses into the cafe’s infofeed and began to collect. I was collaging about up in Michigan and since it was cold and raining methane on Titan that is the kind of day it was in the collage. I pulled pictures of grey winters in the Upper Peninsula, archival video, the sound of the lake and what people told about Michigan, and what I had told about Michigan and began arranging it all.
I had already seen autumn’s end as a boy and a youth in Michigan and saw it again on Mars as a young man on Phobos Station. From there I watched the fields of frozen carbon dioxide cover the pole and move south into the plains. Watching that gave me a queer feeling and that was the same time I ended everything with Caroline and it was easy to see metaphors on the surface. Now I could collage about winter feelings when they happen in Michigan or Phobos better than I could when I was actually there. That was called transplanting yourself, I thought, and thought then too of the acres of jack pine along the Valles Marineris and how some of them probably came from Michigan or at least a forest very like it and started to get all philosophical on myself. But I found some old Instagrams in the National Archive of boys drinking in the pine woods in the UP and it made me thirsty so I ordered a Sailor Jerry approximate. It was very close. This tasted wonderful on Titan and loosened my connections. I kept on collaging and feeling inevitable and feeling the strong kick of cherry rum warm me all through my body and spirit.
A girl came into the cafe and took a table alone near the windowscreen. It was showing flyers in a loose formation gaining altitude over Kraken Mare. The enormous carbon fiber-ribbed wings strapped to their arms had the look of bats and one of them suddenly cut toward the camera and left behind him the words “Visit Titan” which I thought was weird because we were already there. She was very pretty and pale and her skin reddened in the heat of the cafe giving her the appearance of blushing and her hair was a shock of unkempt red curls and tendrils still holding the shape of the helmet.
I watched her ping the infofeed and she excited me and I wished I could collage her as well, keep her, put her anywhere but she placed herself so she could face the window screen and the port door and I couldn’t get a good shot of her. She was waiting for someone and I felt like collaging her with the drinking boys in the jack pines would be a disingenuous thing to do so I went back to the UP and Phobos Station.
The collage was forming itself, finding its own level and space like leaves moving on surface tension and I was having a hard time keeping it contained. I ordered another Sailor Jerry and watched her often push her curls behind her ear whenever I took a drink or changed feeds. Even though I couldn’t put her in the collage I would someday and thought you belong to me, beautiful girl in the cafe on the lakeshore, whoever you are, and if I never see you again. You’re part of my collage and you belong to me and all of Titan belongs to me and I belong to the vastness of the things people leave as they pass, the photos and films and updates and little creations.
Then I went back into the collage and flew through it all and was lost in it. I was forming it now, it was no longer spreading itself and I did not pay any more attention to the cafe or the girl or anything else nor order a third Sailor Jerry. I was tired of shock of cherry and alcohol without having to tell myself to be tired of it which was a good sign that I was really working. I moved through the collage once, the boys in the pines after graduation, the expanse of Mars moving beneath my empty room on Phobos, the grey rains of the Superior National Forest and then I came out and looked for the girl and she was gone and I hadn’t even noticed the hatch open. I hope she’s gone with a perfect lover, I thought. But I also felt sad.
I shut down the feed and set it to back up and was hungry. I took a chance on some oyster approximates and 500 ml of Sauvignon Blanc. After finishing a collage I was always so melancholy. I loved myself more but I was also empty and sad and thought of girls I should have kissed more or never kissed at all and other things of that sort. I was sure this was a very good collage and maybe my sadness was the sad focus, the grey and the cold and rain, but I would not know for sure how good it was until I experienced it again the next day.
The oysters were very good and even had a faint taste of the sea but they also tasted metallic and I didn’t know if that was intentional or not so I pretended it was and also that this was something I knew. The cold white wine washed away the metallic taste and left only the sea on my tongue and I also drank the cloudy water at the bottom of the bowl and that was very cold and intense and I stopped thinking of lost lovers and started to be happy instead and make plans.
Now that summer was come to Titan and the methane rain I was tired of Titan and of the cold and the dark. We would catch a freighter and make it back to Ceres station and then Earth and maybe Michigan. We had never seen Europa but the orbits were wrong and we would have to take a much longer gravity assist sling to catch up. So we’d go in, find somewhere warm and breathe atmosphere and feel real rain come down through the pines and watch water we could not see across. In Petoskey there were places we could camp at the shore and be together out of doors and even read real books and feel the paper in our hands and at night I could roll over in a big bed and wrap her up and pull her tight into myself. That was where we could go.
We would give up our capsules at the Hotel Huygens where I collaged and there was only the rest of the Titanian day’s rent which was a sunk cost anyway. I had published a story on riding water jets on Enceladus for Toronto and the transfer for that was due. I could write more journalism on the trip home, maybe something about the Belt and politics and all of that was very boring but it paid and we could have the money to make the trip.
Maybe back on Earth I could collage about Saturn the way I could collage about Michigan and Phobos on Titan. I did not know that it was too early for that. That I did not know the people and only knew the views of Encelaedus and her jets, the sun over the rings and flying along the great and strange mountain range on Iapetus. And all of that was great to see yourself but I did not know the people there and that’s all that really matters in a collage and I would not be able to make anything meaningful until I went back there more than 20 years later. That’s how it worked out. But we would go back to Earth, if my wife wanted to and after the oysters and the wine I checked my balance and climbed back into my suit and made my way back into the haze and mist and shortest way possible back to the Hotel Huygens through the alleys and hydrocarbon puddles and Titan was now some place where enough people lived that walking on it wouldn’t really change your life.
“Oh god, please, Bubba. Let’s leave Titan,” my wife said. She had enormous blue eyes of the sort that stuck with anyone who saw them and her smile exploded at the idea of any adventure and she thought most things were adventures, whether they really were or not. “When should we leave?”
“Whenever you want. On the next transport if you like.”
“Oh, right away please. Didn’t you know how much I wanted to leave?”
“Maybe we can head north into Michigan and stay while on the bay in Traverse City or Petoskey. It’s so perfect to be there in the summer.”
“Oh I’m sure that will be perfect,” she said. “What a perfect thing to think of, too.”