Gymnopédiste

April 17, 2094

Jacques missed his snails.

The succulent flesh, the way they slid so willingly, almost eagerly from their shells when prepared properly.  He missed the intermingling of rich butter and pungent parsley.  A trip to any restaurant in Paris worth its étoiles was incomplete without a steaming plate of escargot: shells set upon a silver tray as though tiny cups, each one brimming with parsley and butter mated with garlic.  A fresh baguette would be set upon the table, one so fresh he could warm his hands over it.  And of course there would be wine: always a chardonnay, lovingly crushed from Burgundy grapes, light and crisp and playful.

Now, he sat dejected, staring reproachfully at his plate of sliced soy protein resting on a bed of kelp, garnished with bonito and jellyfish crackers.  Only a few decades earlier, he’d have sent this back in disgust; better yet, he’d have demanded a word with the head chef, and dressed the man down for not only disgracing his restaurant and himself, but his country as well.  But of course, that was a different time.  Those were days before the bombs fell and the great sickness came.  In those days, men acted as though their world was inexhaustible.  In those days, Jacques would never have stood for a three-star restaurant serving him a plate of seaweed and scorched tofu, doused in fish dust and topped with dessicated jellyfish.  Then, it would have been an insult.  Now, Jacques scowled, but he bit his tongue, as though he had better use for it.  At least there was still wine.

Once, Jacques had been a man of the soil.  From a two-story house hewn of ancient stones, he’d walk to work each day down a short path of sun-drenched brick as the dawn broke over the hills, their pristine meadows interspersed with neat rows of vines.  His neighbors had all been vinters, their families having plied their trades longer than France had existed.  But not him; he was a man of the soil, and it was the soil that nurtured his snails.

His beloved snails…with their shells hanging as though bulbous brown swirls upon their backs, hundreds at a time dangling from nylon screens.  His barn had been but a stone’s throw from the farmhouse, yet every step was an eternity on his way to the job he’d so loved.  There, in the relative warmth and safety of the decrepit barn, three nylon curtains hung heavy with the fruits of his labors.  He’d taken great pride in his work, upheld the venerable culinary traditions of his country.  And he’d prided himself on knowing that all the finest restaurants in Paris used his snails, and his alone.  For the finest escargot, no other snail would do.

Then, the future came.  Suddenly, there was no need for artisan snails, or artisans.  Or farmers.  Or money.  Now everything was provided, every need attended to.  With no one to buy his snails, no one to eat them, Jacques had attempted to sell his beloved farm, the one that had been in his family for centuries.  As there was no money anymore, he’d simply donated it to the government.  They’d turned it into a museum.

He’d been provided with an apartment in Paris.  Of course, they’d tried to muscle him into La Défense: he’d been shown several pristine units, more spacious even than his modest farmhouse had been, with gleaming polished floors and minimalist furniture and huge windows offering breathtaking vistas of the City of Lights.  But while they were upper-floor, desired, they lacked character.  They were cold, more a statement than living space.  It would have felt as though he’d taken up residence in a modern art gallery.

Instead, he’d opted for a smaller flat in the city itself.  After all, he wanted a place with a story; he didn’t want to see the city, he wanted to live in it.  Humans, he was told, lived in urban places, in spotless, energy-efficient high rises.  But he didn’t want to be human.  He wanted to be French.

And so he’d found himself a modest, two-bedroom flat in the heart of Paris.  It was half the size of the obscenely ordered units he’d been shown in LaDef.  Not long before, though, they’d have cost ten times as much.  Now, a lifelong dream of an apartment in central Paris was fulfilled, the unit free and his for the taking as the younger citizens of Paris poured out of the old city, packing like anchovies into the rising towers of LaDef.

When first he’d arrived, he’d tried to call it a retirement of sorts.  Free from the everyday toil of his farm, the careful work of tending his snails, he would immerse himself in culture.  Bereft of financial concerns now that the future had come, by day he’d tour the art galleries, take in musical performances, perhaps even take up painting.  He’d stroll the Champs Élysées in the afternoon, and in the evening he’d dine like a king before retiring to his cozy flat with a bottle of Burgundy.  

And it had worked, for a time.  He’d rise each morning and dress in a fine suit, his shoes always neatly polished, and with a scarf at his throat and his favorite wool cap upon his head, he’d set out into the city.  He’d take his petit dejéuner at the café in the plaza below his apartment; he seldom cooked for himself.  Soon the waitresses at the café knew him by name.  They’d greet him with a smile, and bring him his usual breakfast without even bothering to ask for his order.  He always ate simply: pain au chocolat and café au lait.  He’d sip and eat slowly; no need to rush.  As those around him chatted busily, or stared engrossed at their flexis, he’d sit and watch the city breathe.

Everyone around him always seemed to be in such a rush.  The younger ones hurried down the street, often staring at their flexis, sometimes using them to carry on some urgent conversation of assumed importance.  Of course, they were in such a hurry because for them, Paris was not a place to live.  They would come into the venerable city to breakfast at its cafes, to dine in the restaurants, to shop or take pictures in front of the Tour d’Eiffel as though they lived every day of their lives in its shadow.  But they always left, hustling off to work or sleep in the glittering towers of LaDef.

In time, he made friends: other elderly people who’d left their rural lives behind for the cherished goal of city life.  So many of his neighbors were nearly as old as he, or even older, that with his pressed suit and the silver hair beneath his cap he now seemed to fit the new stereotype of a true Parisian.  He liked them; they understood him in a way the bustling younger ones, with their flexis and their rushed conversations, never could.  Like him, they’d been left behind when the future came, too old to start again, left without purpose in a world where every need was met.

Over time, though, he grew self-conscious of his lifestyle.  All his life he’d had a purpose, he had worked.  Now, when chatting with younger people, he’d no idea how to respond when they asked him what he did.  Requiring some sort of answer, he’d borrowed an old joke from one of his favorite composers.  He’d tell them he was a gymnopédiste.  

Though his friends understood him, everyone else always seemed to have something to do.  They worked, they bustled and darted about with purpose each day.  He began to grow restless.  Rising from bed each day became a weary routine: a grim task performed out of necessity rather than joy at the day that was to come.  He grew keenly aware of the company he kept, not just with his friends, but indeed everywhere he went.  At every art gallery, every opera, always the assemblage was one of gray hair and creased faces.  The young no longer cared for the finer points of French life: they looked to the heavens, to the stars beyond the sky.  Even his own grandsons showed little interest in their heritage.  Robert was in secondary school and already working toward a position in the astronaut corps, yearning for a life spent in the vacuum of space.  And Kevin, a bright and energetic young man, had left Earth years ago for a life sealed inside an orbiting wheel, one of the Braun space stations.  He received a video call now and then, but he hadn’t seen his grandson in several years.  Unwilling to travel in space at his age, Jacques was forced to realize he might never see Kevin again.

He could never understand how anyone could want to live on some great monstrosity caught in Earth’s thrall.  A life breathing recycled air, drinking recycled water, subsisting on bland food in foil packs, sealed into one’s own foil pack bounded with a hatch.  How drab, how sterile such places looked.  How joyless such a life must be.

A decade had passed in the blink of an eye.  Ten years spent in what had once been the greatest city in the world.  Now, the City of Lights appeared worn and dim, set at the foot of the towering structures of LaDef as though a monument to what once had been.  As the world had advanced at breakneck speed, Paris had been left behind, its cramped boulevards and ancient buildings dismissed as relics of the past.  La Défense, once considered a great steel eyesore so vulgar that Parisians saw fit to apologize for it, was seldom referred to by its “old” name.  Now, LaDef was the new Paris, its once glamorous counterpart referred to almost derisively as the “Old City”.  The young scarcely even considered themselves French anymore; they were simply Human.  Even the French language seemed to be dying, replaced by English, Hindi, and German.  Soon, Jacques found it difficult to converse with anyone younger than himself.  His English had always been rusty, and he was too old to learn a foreign tongue.

Now, so many years since he’d left his farm behind, Jacques felt that he was living in a museum.  It was a sad museum at that, one displaying the “old” life, a place where France had come to die as the rest of the country forgot itself, and Jacques was little more than just another exhibit.  He’d always been a vigorous man, proud that his energy defied his age.  But now, in this dusty place, he found the face in the mirror each morning looked older by the day.  In this ancient city of fading light, he felt he stood upon the last swath of France on a world without boundary lines.  And as he once again beheld his monstrous dinner, he found he was alone in finding it objectionable.  His fellow diners, nearly all far younger than he, gulped down their soy and seaweed and fish dust with smiles, gleefully washing it down with the last few drops of France from stately vineyards they’d never seen.  

Paris remained, but its heart, the soul of French life, the joie de vivre, was gone.  These people lived in France.  They were descended from French men and women.  They might enjoy French wine, might even speak their native language fluently.  But they were not French.  He was, and now he felt like a foreigner in the capital of his own country.

Feeling isolated, for a while he’d tried to fit in.  He’d gotten his own flexi, created a Vive account.  He’d eschewed his coffee and croissant for chai and skyr.  Of course, it hadn’t worked.  Before, he’d felt like a relic.  In attempting to fit in with the “Modern French”, he felt like an impostor.

In the end, the flexi alone had provided hope.  He’d been skimming his Vive feed one morning when he’d come across a completely unexpected ad.  It appeared to have originated in one of the Carson GeoHabs: a group of sealed habitats on Mars that aspired to become a true colony.  There, it appeared agricultural researchers were searching for an efficient means of providing sustainable protein for their colony, and one of them believed heliciculture might provide the answer.  Thus, they were putting out an open call…for anyone with experience in farming edible snails.

After five years in Paris, Jacques had looked into resuming his work, hoping to find someone, anyone, interested in his trade.  An agricultural official had interviewed him, and expressed interest…provided, that was, he was willing to attend university for five years to acquire the requisite degree.  Of course, Jacques could do no such thing: he was too old to start over, and had no interest in trading his increasingly empty life for a new one surrounded by youthful faces.  At least in Paris he’d felt as though he belonged.

But now, five years on, he found this new offer difficult to refuse.  Of course he was torn; in his youth, a life in Paris had been the goal of every successful Frenchman.  Yet now, he struggled to find anything in its ancient blocks worth holding on to.  Paris was the old France.  But it was the last remnant of the only France he’d ever known.  His France, indeed his world, was gone, never to return.  Perhaps, he decided, the time had come to reclaim his purpose, in hopes of preserving his past while helping the future.  There was nothing left for him on Earth.  Perhaps the time had come to look elsewhere.

In all his ninety-six years of life, Jacques had never ventured further than Paris, yet mere days after finding the ad he’d procured a ticket to leave his planet behind.  The next morning, he’d have one final breakfast of coffee and croissant before taking a maglev to Charles de Gaulle, where an SOT would ferry him to Stanford 1: a massive ringed space station far from Earth.  There, he’d be put up in temporary housing for a week, before a MERIT would carry him on to Mars.  That was the morning: on this, his final night on Earth, he chose to walk the Champs Élysées once more.  He might never have the opportunity to do so again.

The avenue was fairly crowded, as it often was.  Young couples strolled arm-in-arm by the light of street lamps that cast their glow down through the broad leaves of tall London Panes.  The trees stood narrow and tall, arrayed as though an honor guard ushering tourists toward the Arc de Triomphe.  The spring air was crisp, a cool breeze rustling the leaves as he walked slowly, breathing in as much Parisian air as his lungs could hold.  There had been a time, not long before, when he’d first laid eyes on the ancient boulevard and truly believed his life would end here, beneath the solemn trees.  Now, in a way he felt it had.  His old life did indeed end here.  The next morning, as he set foot on the orbital transport, his new life would begin.

The following morning he packed up his belongings and sent them ahead to the transport, leaving with but a small duffel bag hanging from his shoulder.  As always, he wore a pressed suit, polished shoes, and though he’d eschewed his scarf his favorite cap sat once more on his head.  After a final glance into the mirror, he’d left, hailing a groundcar to the maglev before speeding off toward the spaceport.

Mere hours later, he sat in a comfortable seat on an SOT, the gravity fading as he saw his planet from orbit for the first and final time.  As he gazed out the window, hoping France would pull into view before he lost sight of Earth, he was surprised by a voice from the seat next to his.

“Bonjour, monsieur,” he said.  The voice belonged to a young man.  His hair was short and neatly coiffed.  Unlike Jacques, he wore a crisp black jodhpuri, neatly buttoned at his throat.  The young man had briefly lowered his flexi and rolled it, apparently moved to polite conversation.

“Bonjour,” Jacques responded, smiling.  It had been quite some time since he’d had the privilege of speaking his native tongue with someone so much younger.

“I’m…sorry,” the young man stammered, apologetically.  “I’m afraid that’s all the French I know,” he finished, his French accent barely discernible.

“That’s okay,” Jacques replied sincerely.  At least the fellow had made the effort.

“So, what brings you to orbit?” the man inquired, politely.  “Visiting family?”

Jacques smiled again, shaking his head.  He did intend to pay Kevin a visit, but of course Braun 3 was not his final destination.  “No,” he replied softly.  “No, I am heading to Mars.”

“Mars?” the young man responded, clearly surprised.  “That’s a long trip.  About a month from Stanford 1, right?”

Jacques nodded enthusiastically.  “A month, yes.  But I believe it will be worth it.”

“So, what are you going to Mars for?” his flying companion probed.

At this, Jacques grinned absently, returning his gaze to the window to look out into the stars.

Joie de vivre,” he replied, simply.

END

The above story is the first of a series of short fiction pieces set within the universe of my current work-in-progress, Pathfinder.  The image above is a 1948 oil painting of the Arc de Triomphe by French painter Robert Ricart.

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