Epitaphs of Glass
No one had come to the gravemoon for millenniums. Untold days had slipped away for the abandoned android that tended the tombs but it never ceased its duty. It would polish the headstones of those long since forgotten, fuel their candles so they could burn forever, and see to generation after generation of gardens so it was a resting place that would eternally be in bloom. Over the years, its once bright spark of consciousness had dwindled in a fog of routine. An existence of mindless chores blended and every moment was indistinguishable from the next. But one night, its reverie lifted.
The sputtering hisses of an engine sent the android’s gaze to the night sky. A ship slowly streaked across the stars, its silhouette seeming to swallow them as it soared. It descended to hover over the grove and the android stood up from polishing a headstone, tucking its stained rag inside its suit to stand at attention. Finally, it thought, another mourner has come.
The battered relic landed gracelessly atop of several headstones, crushing them into dust as the android gasped in horror. Wheezing engines cut off with a splutter. As the hatch opened and the landing ramp fell to the ground another tombstone was destroyed, mortifying the android further. Emerging from the dented vessel was a man who seemed to have seen as many rough years as his ship, but he looked younger as a grin spread across his face. He wore paint dappled clothes, and a grey flat cap, with an easel and canvas tucked under one arm whilst he cradled bundles of paint tubes in the other. He breathed deep the perfumed air of cut grass and his smile broadened.
“Sir, I am sorry for your loss,” called up the android hesitantly, “but please move your vehicle and park in the designated zones.”
The old man looked down to the android and shrugged, his grin ready to break into a laugh at any moment. “I’ll move it soon enough my chrome friend, don’t tangle your circuits over it.”
It wanted to argue, but through the fog of years came ancient memories. The mourner is always right. The android’s eyebrow twitched. “As you wish, sir. If I can be of assistance please don’t hesitate to ask. No ceremonies are due to start but I can direct you to a grave.”
The smile broke into a wheezing chuckle. “I think you have me confused with a corpse.” At this the old man coughed and his whole body convulsed. “A fair mistake, but not yet. Not yet.” With a limp to his step he made his way down the ramp.
“As you wish, sir, I will direct you there when you are ready then. In the meantime, is there anything else I may assist you with?”
“No, I’ve already found the spot. Actually,” the man looked to the sky and to the faint light of the encroaching dawn on the horizon, “how long until sunrise?”
“Fifteen minutes and seventeen seconds.”
The old man nodded and began down the path, carefully holding his painting supplies.
His duty to the mourner finished, the android went back to the headstone and resumed polishing it. All the while it muttered to itself about the time it would take to replace the headstones. After a few wipes the sound of coughing, the clatter of falling timber, and forceful cussing caused the android to turn around. Scattered around the painter’s feet was his equipment. The android felt itself drawn to help and walked over quickly to assist him.
“Here,” it said, tucking away its rag, “allow me to carry them for you.”
“No, no, I’m fine,” said the visitor as he bent over, placing a hand on his back as he did so. But his back could only bend so far and he pawed at the dropped supplies impotently. He sighed as he stood. “Alright, thank you. I’m not as young as I used to be.”
The android found this statement odd. “Well, no one is, sir.”
A wry smile crossed the old man’s lips. “You’re right I suppose,” he said, eyeing the lines of graves that surrounded them. “It’s this way, follow me.”
The android picked up the painting equipment and rushed after the old man.
“I spied it from above,” said the man proudly, puffing from the exertion of climbing the hill, but his limp had lessened to nearly allow a spring in his step. “A lake surrounded by trees, with a gap in them to allow the rising sun to glimmer on the water. It’s going to be gorgeous, a one in a trillion view and it only took half the blasted galaxy until I found another one. Ha,” he boomed triumphantly.
“Yes, the gardens were designed to be so. Such perfection in nature is rare so we have ensured that sublime views are all over the moon. Only the best for your passed loved ones, sir.”
“Oh,” was all the old man managed as his smile faltered. He limped the rest of the way in silence.
As they made it to the top of the hill the sky glowed. “Such a view,” said the painter, looking over the graveyard before giving the android a wink, “it’s a shame the dead can’t see it.”
“If that is your belief so be it, sir.” It looked over the same scenery, but the android saw no beauty. All it saw were headstones that needed polishing, trees that needed trimming, and flower petals that needed scooping from the lake.
The sun began to crest.
“Stunning,” said the old man breathlessly. “Are those headstones made from real gems?”
“Coloured zirconia, sir, but this allows for greater and cheaper customisation for the deceased and stops the threat of grave robbing.”
“The way the sun catches the glass,” said the old man in awe, “it’s like a kaleidoscope.”
The android did not see the resemblance, the only similarity it could perceive from its definition of the word was light and glass.
“You can set it down here, my friend.” The android began to set up the easel next to the old man. “What trees are those? The ones with the foliage that matches the dawn. I’ve never seen their like before.”
“Maples and cherry blossoms, sir,” the android said over its shoulder, as it placed the canvas on the easel. “In each grove, we ensure that we use plants from the deceased’s homeworld, genetically modified to always be in their most vibrant state of colours. A shame we are out of plots, otherwise I would direct you to our sales office.”
“Egh, I wouldn’t have the money to be dead in such a fancy plot of earth. I’d settle for a bag and to be thrown in that lake.”
“It would not be possible, sir,” said the android aghast. “That is quite unhygienic.”
The old man shook his head and stepped over to his canvas. He began to open tubes of paint and begun preparing colours for the landscape. “Thank you for your help and the company my chrome friend.” He turned to smile at the android. “If it’s no trouble I’ll ask for it again tonight and tomorrow morning.”
“Of course, it is no trouble at all, sir.” The android pulled out its rag and began to clean a nearby headstone, curiously watching the painter as he began to perform his craft.
As the days stretched to a week, the android found itself giving undue care to the graves closest to where the man painted. The shrubs and trees outside the painter’s grove began to grow from the confines of their perfect pruning and the headstones were beginning to accumulate the faintest traces of dust. For the fifth time that day it polished the same headstone next to the old man’s easel which caused the painter to chuckle.
With a false sigh, he turned to the android. “Here,” he said, holding out his brush, “take it and paint something. I can’t do my best with your eyes on my back all day. I’ve ruined this piece anyway, so you may as well add your mark to it.”
“Sir,” it said in surprise, “I could not. I have duties to attend. I still have hedges to prune, candles to fuel, not to mention all the graves. I have been most lax in my duties. Now I think of it, I really cannot spare another second.”
“Just take it,” he said, forcing his brush into its hands. “I’m sure the dead won’t mind a few smears on their headstones.”
“I am not programmed for this, sir,” it said quickly. “It would not be any good anyway. I should get back to what I am meant to be doing. Oh, what a state I have let my groves become. Just look at that pathway over there, strewn with leaves. What would our mourners think? I really need to….”
The man grabbed the android by the shoulders and moved him in front of the painting. From behind he took the androids arm and lowered it to dip the brush into the paints, mixing together white, orange and purple to create the shade of the sakura. Gently, he lifted the androids arm and began to dab at the branches to add the petals. Soon the android continued without his assistance.
“Perhaps … I could do this. Maybe not as well as you, sir. Your depiction of the scene is quite accurate.”
“Even though every petal is not perfectly aligned to its position in reality…. It is still an impressive attempt. I do not see how you ruined it, sir.”
The old man smirked in response.
“But if you were to place them here and here,” the android’s hand became a blur as it painted an exact canvas replica of the foliage, “and there, much more accurate.”
The old man’s jaw hung loose. “Damn naturals,” he muttered, as the android continued dabbing the petals. “Well, I have lots of spare canvases and I’m sure I have another easel somewhere. Why not join me again tomorrow?”
“But I could not poss…”
“Why not work harder tonight, and I’ll see you in the morning?”
“I suppose that could be possible.”
That night, the android rushed through its chores. It ran from tomb to tomb to polish, it quickly raked the leaves and scooped the petals from the lake. But it was soon nearing sunrise and there were still acres of the graveyard untouched. Feeling guilty but not reluctant, it promised it would work twice as hard the next night as it abandoned its chores to make its way to the painter’s ship.
It stood at the base of the ship’s ramp eagerly waiting. It looked at the leaves of the surrounding trees, envisioning capturing them on canvas as they swayed in the gentle breeze. The old man poked his head out of the door, dressed in a nightgown but still wearing his soft cap. “My, you’re eager. I haven’t had breakfast yet so come on in.”
The android walked up the ramp and into the ship, where it froze in wonder. The walls of the cabin were lined with landscapes. An icy tundra hung before it, made golden by the sun. An endless plain of red desert with the bones of giant beasts. Obsidian monoliths framed with stars. Dozens of windows to worlds the android did not know existed or could have possibly imagined.
“What do you think?” The old man emerged from the adjacent room with a steaming cup of coffee.
“I do not even know how to describe these places, sir. I never knew anything like them could exist. Are these the worlds that exist amongst the stars?”
“Yes, and I wonder how much more is out there,” he sat at a table covered in sketches in the middle of the room. There were drawings of trees, birds, graves, and a metal face that looked so familiar but the android could not place. “So,” he took a sip of coffee, “are you ready for today?”
“Yes, sir. May I paint the petals again?”
The old man laughed. “There’s a bit more to it than just the petals.”
“Oh, but I am quite good at the petals. I can leave the rest to you and just assist you with them.”
“I think you might have an eye for more than the petals. I’ll teach you the rest. There’s a lot to learn.”
The android looked to a painting of a towering waterfall and a moon that filled the sky. “I do not think I could learn enough to be capable of any of these.”
“Granted, there’s a lot to learn,” his eyes drifted to the same landscape, “I’m still learning. The best artists never stop.”
Paint stroke by paint stroke the android learnt and it slowly became attuned to the beauty of the world around it. It no longer just saw tasks, but now noticed the dance of falling leaves and the rhythmic swaying of the trees in the breeze, and for the first time it heard the simple music of its susurrus and the scoreless perfection of the perched bird’s song. In the months that followed, daylight would always find the painter and his student on the hill, trying to capture the soul of the gravemoon.
“I feel … energised by this,” said the android looking at its finished piece. “It has been so long since I have recharged and I do not feel the need.”
“That’s … perfect.” The old man stared at the android’s landscape in astonishment. It was an exact replica of the scene before them in watercolour.
“I have a good teacher,” said the android. “May I have another canvas? I would like to paint it again as the light is fading.”
They painted until the stars came out, and the light too faint to paint by.
“I would love to see them,” said the android, as the old man was packing away. It was looking up in wonder, past the swirling gas giant and the several slivers of moons that hung in the sky, all the way to the stars. “To see what you have seen, to … see even more.”
The old man looked up with the android. “Then, why don’t you?”
“Oh, I could not possibly do that. I have too much important work to do here.” The old man looked around at the now unkempt gardens. “Have you been to that star there?” asked the android, pointing to a bright star overhead.
“Maybe,” he said with a smile and a shrug.
“What about that one? Or that one?”
He looked over to the android. “It’s hard to keep track of which star is which. The sky changes everywhere I go.”
The old man began to laugh and for the first time the android joined him. They talked long into the night, and as they did the ever-burning candles the android had neglected began to go out one by one.
The next morning the old man did not meet his student. The android waited patiently, watching carefully, and taking note of the play of shadows as day became night. Then another day passed. Two wills began to rage in its mind, one that demanded it finally go back to work, and another that wanted a new canvas and to paint next to the old man and idly talk about the stars. It found itself wandering to the old man’s ship.
Night was falling as the android walked up the ramp to the vessel. As it entered, it noticed a new painting in the cabin. It was its own. The old man had hung it next to his and looking at it now the android could almost feel the wind of the gravemoon against its metallic skin. It felt something unlike anything before, something that tending the graves had never conjured. It felt proud.
A rasp from the next room drew its eyes away from the painting, and it hurried to the room where coughing emanated. The old man was in his bed, looking more like the corpses the android had buried centuries before than the smiling old man filled with life that it had spent the last months painting with. The android rushed to his side.
“What’s wrong, teacher? I … I know some first aid in case of emergencies. I am sure I can do something. Just let me…”
“Please,” the old man murmured, “just stay.” He held out his shaking hand to the android and hesitantly the android reached out to clasp it. “Your hands are freezing,” the painter said, but didn’t let go. “I envy you in a way my chrome friend. How long you must have before you. I only wish that I’d started my gallery years ago. I wish I’d had the time to fill it.” He held onto the android’s hand tightly as he suffered another coughing fit.
“Why are you here?” he asked the android sadly.
“Well, I ah, I’m here to ensure the resting place of the departed is maintained and to assist the mourners.”
“Is that what you want?”
“Well it is my purpose, my function. It is what I am programmed for.”
“I was….” The old man endured another coughing spasm. “I used to think that way too.” His coughing became more violent and he squeezed the android’s hand tightly. The android held on long after the painter’s hand had gone limp.
The android buried him on their hill. It seemed fitting it was on a day perfect for painting but the beauty made the android feel hollow. It pushed the legs of the easel into the soft earth and placed the painter’s soft cap on top, feeling this was a greater testament to the man it had come to love than a glinting grave ever would be. The android stood there for days, looking over the scene they had painted side by side, reliving the months of memories that meant more than the seemingly endless years before.
Reluctantly, it resumed its tasks again but its mind never left the hill. As it spent its days performing menial task after task it once more found the need to rest and recharge. As power surged through it in its sleeping state it dreamt for the first time and it began to loathe its rest as much as its labour.
One day as it shined a headstone to a mirror sheen it saw more than just its reflection staring back. In the etched glass, it saw itself. The android dropped its rag and returned to the hill it had been dreaming of, to stand before the old man’s grave.
“Thank you,” it said, taking the soft cap, and donning it as it turned on its heel to make its way to the ship.
It walked up the ramp and found its way to the helm. It knew it was not programmed to fly, but it felt like it could soar. As its hands familiarised themselves with the controls the sun was setting and, as it always did, the light caught the glass headstones.
The android remembered the old man’s smile as it stared at the graves. “Like a kaleidoscope.”
The engines came to life and gingerly the ship lifted into the sky. As the ship climbed from sky to space the chrome painter never looked back, only looked forward to the universe of possibilities that lay amongst the stars. It promised itself, it would fill its teacher’s gallery, for both of them.