Pip and Tino Go To Mars – Part 1
I was laid out on the rooftop squinting at the sky trying to see Mars through the smog when my stomach rumbled. I winced at the noise. Not really caring, I wondered what the people on Mars ate for dinner. Probably really fancy stuff since everyone there was rich. I rolled onto my side as my stomach began chattering in its gurgling language. A language I understood painfully well. The coming smell of roofing tar assaulted my nose as I sat up and dug around in the third pocket of my cargo pants. I kept everything important in my third pocket: my ID chip, my food cubes, some thread, and a knife. Everything else went into my other pockets.
Tino liked to sing whenever I had to dig around in my pockets for something. This stupid rhyme he says one of the old ladies taught him at the church in the city. The first three lines are the only part he remembers, which is good because he hums the rest and it sounds like a really long song. It does get annoying having to listen to the same lines over and over, though. Finally, my fingers wrapped around the food cube I’d ‘borrowed’ from one of the boss’s lieutenants earlier. I pulled off the brown wrapper and smiled wide at the palm-sized cube wrapped in blue paper. Blue food cubes were supposed to be the best tasting ones. Too bad the lieutenant wouldn’t get to try it.
I was about to bite into the waxy coating when something started clacking below me. I wrapped the cube back in its crumpled paper and shoved it back into my pocket. I wasn’t the only one who knew about this place, and if it was one of the lieutenants my day would get a lot worse. The old building I’d dubbed my hideout had been abandoned for a decade; if someone was sniffing around, they’d probably tell the Boss on me. I got in position behind the crumbling edge of a statue, ready to drop onto the balcony beneath, just as Tino poked his head over the rim of the skylight we had to crawl through to reach the roof. I sighed, glad it was my best friend and not one of the lieutenants come to shake me down for extra chips.
“Pip, check this out!” He ran over clutching something in his hands, white plaster dust trailing off of his shoulders and curly hair. I didn’t even get to wiggle out from under the statue before he was shoving whatever it was in my face. “It’s a holo disk! The card kind that went out of style twenty years ago.” He opened his hands to show me a tiny disk, about the size of a food cube, nestled protectively in his cupped hands. “I found it in a case underneath one of the shelves downstairs.”
“Ok?” I really didn’t get why he was so excited.
“‘Ok’? That’s all I get? Do you know how rare these things are? This model’s one of the original first releases! They’ve been out of date for thirty years or so, it’s practically a priceless antique!” I ignored him long enough to get comfortable against the moss covered stone.
“You gonna try and sell it?” He shook his head, spraying more plaster flakes.
“Nah, the only collector for stuff like this is on Mars. I’d never be able to afford the trip, or the video conference.” He stroked the flat disk with a finger, gently smoothing a stain out of the plastic material.
“So it’s useless?” I wanted to stuff the words back in my mouth as soon as I said them. Tino’s face crumpled and the hand holding the trinket slowly lowered.
“I guess it is, but even if you can’t sell it it’s still amazing that something this small and old fashioned has survived this long. True, the newer stuff was a lot better but these old things were a huge breakthrough for their time.” Man, he even geeked out when he sulked. I nodded along apologetically.
“Your grandpa teach you that?” I asked. He looked up slowly, still pouting, but he nodded anyway.
“He was always talkin’ about it. Had a lot of tech catalogues in our house that he showed me when we lived together.” Tino’s granddad had been locked up a few years ago after a break down, and Tino got sent to a church orphanage before breaking out and joining us. I patted him on the shoulder to cheer him up. He smiled a bit and sat up, poking at the disk between his hands, already trying to figure out how it worked.
Tino was always talking about his granddad. Memories about the time when they’d lived together after Tino’s parents passed. I’d been living with the gang for almost seven years now but before that there’d been a church orphanage filled with elderly faces I can’t remember. I don’t have any true memories of my parents, just a few hazy images of a man with green eyes and a woman with blonde hair, but I’m half-sure I made those up anyway.
I stood up and walked to the edge of the roof, wandering along the border while digging the food cube back out of my pocket. I could hear Tino pulling out his set of mini-tools and applying one after another to the disk’s surface, humming the Pocket Song while he worked. A soft breeze blew towards me, bringing the smell of tired dirt and dry grass, and the faintest smell of rain. Not the good kind. Acid rain is pretty common, but sometimes we get nice rain that’s clear enough to drink if you have too. I can always tell which is which by the smell. Acid rain smells a bit like the bathrooms in the city at the end of the day after they’ve been cleaned. Clean rain smells like good earth. Like the garden exhibit I snuck into once when Tino and I were exploring the City Museum. It’s one of my favorite smells in the world.
The breeze picked up a bit, making the broom straw grass around the building whip around like crazy, and causing the two spindly trees by the road to bend and crackle. I lifted my arms and let the wind blow my huge shirt around my body and flip my ponytail around my shoulders. I giggled.
I looked back at Tino, who’d stopped humming. He pointed at my hand where I’d tucked my food cube. A selfish part of me wanted to hide it from him, tuck it back in my pocket where only I knew about it. But I couldn’t do that to Tino. The rest of the gang sure, but not Tino. I turned around and showed him the crumpled paper and shiny blue cube.
“No way! You got a blue one?”
“I’m borrowing from Jojo.” He sucked in air between his front teeth, making them whistle.
“You’re gonna get caught one day. They’ll beat you the way they did Wink.” I winced. Wink had got caught trying to take chips from the gangs’ stash. One of the lieutenants told the boss and he got jumped by all five lieutenants at once. Wink was fifteen and big, but the lieutenants were a lot older and a lot bigger. By the time they were done he was barely breathing.
“I’ll be fine, I’m a lot better at this than Wink was.” Which is true. Pick pocketing is how I paid my member fees every month. Since younger kids couldn’t do big jobs for the gang, like running drugs or jumping rival gang members, we had to be useful in some other way. That meant we were money collectors. One of the older girls likes to juggle and do flips on a corner in the city for tips; I wait until there’s a big enough crowd and walk through, taking wallets and whatever else people have in their pockets. I’m fast and I’m small, and as long as I don’t make a lot of noise no one notices.
“What’s it taste like?” Tino may have liked to play by the rules, but that didn’t stop him from being curious whenever I broke them.
I sank my teeth into the cube, shattering the shell and yanking off a piece. I concentrated on the flavor.
“Figured it’d taste sweet.” The way he was staring at it, eye’s as big as teladisks, I couldn’t help but offer him a bite.
We shared the cube back and forth, both of us taking a bite at a time. When we’d finished, the rooftop had grown darker and the blue crumbs were all over our hands and shirts. Tino was the first to stand up.
“I’m gonna go look around down stairs some more. I think I saw some spare parts that might still work. Wanna come?” I nodded and followed him down the hole. We lowered ourselves down slowly until we felt the shelf that sat directly beneath it.
Whatever this place used to be, it was completely trashed now. All of the windows had been busted out, broken shelves and cracked monitors were all over the floor. One chair looked like it might have survived more or less intact but based on the holes in the cushions something was probably living in it. Tino started digging around in a pile of tech junk while I wandered around, poking things with my shoe and peeking under shelves and tables. Tino paid his fee by fixing and selling old tech. He tried to teach me how the stuff works but I could barely understand any of it. Most days I just followed after him on his digs like a bodyguard and helped carry the stuff back. Too bad it doesn’t really sell for much.
Since Tino is skinny and short, he gets picked on by some of the older kids a lot. That leaves it to me to look after him. I might only be an inch or two bigger than him, but I’m strong. I can hold my own in a fight.
I was nearly on the other side of the room when I heard Tino squeal loud enough to wake the dead. I started running back, terrified that something might have gotten my best friend.
“What happened?” My fists were clenched, ready to pound someone if they were messing with Tino. Thank God that wasn’t what was happening. Tino was clapping his hands excitedly and dancing around a circular piece of metal he’d unearthed from beneath the pile.
“What’d you scream for?” I yelled.
“I found it!” he whispered, pointing. “I found the holobase! I gotta get the disk and try this thing out!” I didn’t quite get what he was talking about but it probably had something to do with the thing he’d found earlier. He started whistling his song while he dug for the disk, which could take a while. Tino’s pockets are bigger than mine and hold twice as much stuff. I knelt down next to the ‘base’ and sure enough, there was a tiny insert slot about the size of the disk he’d found earlier with a small button beside it. Tino laughed like an idiot and dropped down beside me, gently pushing the disk into the base and hitting the button next to the slot. The thing started making weird ‘whirring’ sounds and sputtering before shorting out. Tino cursed and banged it a couple times before pulling out a screwdriver and popping open the control panel. A few swears and an adjusted wire later, we started to hear a steady chug. Tino pumped both fists in the air in victory as an image started to appear above the holobase.
An old, black man formed. He was stooped over with glasses hanging on a chain around his neck. He looked like those professors we’d see in the city going in and out of the university, receding snow-white hairline included. Tino looked like he was gonna cry tears of joy as the hologram stretched and yawned before looking down at us.
“Hello, I am the Virtual International Reading Guide and Librarian, or VIRGL. How can I help you?” His voice shifted while he talked, switching between a computerized voice and a nasally old man’s voice. Tino grabbed my arms and started shaking me.
“It’s a Virgl, Pip! A real one! These guys used to teach people when the public schools got shut down. My grandpa learned how to read from one of these things before they shut down the program.” Tino was babbling, but I just stared at the hologram, awestruck, still not able to believe that it actually worked.
“Correct, young man.” He tilted his head and squinted his eyes like he was trying to pull information from somewhere in the back of his head. Finally, he set his glasses on the tip of his nose and continued. “This library and many others used the Virgl program to teach children whose parents couldn’t afford the private school fees. The program was shut down by the Board of Education a decade after its conception.” He adjusted his holographic glasses before continuing. “They gave various excuses, but the most prevalent one was the same one they gave for shutting down the public schools, that it was too expensive.”
“Why are you still here?” I asked. If this thing was really that old it should have been broken or in a museum. Virgl turned to me looking confused.
“Virgls belong in libraries, Miss Pip. Why would I be anywhere else?” I started to say something but Tino cut me off.
“Can you still teach people to read like you did back then?” He was practically bouncing around. Virgl looked around like he was checking something before looking back at us.
“It appears that this function of my programming has remained intact, along with most of the rest of my program. I believe that I am capable of teaching the two of you, if you would like.”
“Sure! Pip, you wanna learn too? My gramps tried teaching me but he was so blind we never got anywhere.” I thought about it for a second. Not being able to read never bothered me much. It’s not like I used it for anything now, but Tino looked super excited about it. He was vibrating on the ground next to my hip.
“Pip, we can read about Mars and I can write letters to my gramps!”
I thought about all those people I’d seen sitting in cafés reading their screens or a menu, sometimes smiling at whatever they’d just read. I once saw some girl crying while reading a book screen. It might be nice to learn. I nodded at Virgl.
“I guess so.” Virgl clapped his hands.
“Wonderful, Miss Pip, Mister…” He looked at Tino expectantly.
“Very well, Mister Tino. I will see the both of you here tomorrow morning.”
“We can’t start now?” I asked, a little disappointed. Virgl smiled.
“Wonderful enthusiasm, Miss Pip, but I have some program damage that must be addressed if I am to teach you properly. Good night.” The hologram image faded out and the chugging noise stopped. Tino jumped up excitedly.
“We’re gonna get to read, Pip! Isn’t that great?” He was so happy that I couldn’t help but get excited too. I smiled back.