Warning: This piece is intense and contains some things that might be upsetting to some. The setting was a site of combat in a recent war, and suffered mass casualties (mostly non-combatants) and extensive damage and destruction over a wide area from an event described in preceding demifiction. This event is referred to, although not graphically, and most of the story takes place at sites dedicated in memory of the event. Please consider your reaction to events and locations of these natures before reading.
We were sitting with our backs against a mound of rubble which still held some of the day's warmth, basking in the late afternoon sun as it peeked through the clouds. A paper bag containing most of a stack of plastic drink cups and a half-empty bottle of brandy lay between us. "What did you say this stuff was?", I asked, before taking another sip.
"Linstock Reserve. I was surprised to see a bottle there. It was made by a distillery set up by some people who didn't fancy any of the synthesized brands, and wanted to see what they could make out of local products. There's some good land for grapes up Touchhole Highway in the foothills. A couple of the families who were farming the area knew from wine, and weren't doing enough business with either the locals or the military to make a business out of it. But they enjoyed sharing what they made with friends, and one of the friends knew someone at the distillery. They never made more than a couple hundred bottles a year, and sold almost all of it at the distillery. I wonder if some scavenger found a bottle out in one of the wrecked houses, and made a deal."
"Doesn't matter -- it's what I needed, wherever they got it from. Cheers!" We touched our glasses, and I drank again as I surveyed the surroundings. "So how did you say this project got started? The assault and the Massacre got a lot of attention, and legends have grown up around the poem and the change of government that followed, but everything else just got lost in the noise from thousands of inhabited worlds. I had no idea the place actually still existed -- or that the locals cared enough about it to preserve it."
"Well, all the 'help' the rest of the Arm's been sending -- hell, the rest of the planet, too -- makes us feel like they'd rather see the Brakeworm site and Cascabel disappear, rather than keep making excuses for it or having it pointed out as an example of why their fantasy of continuing to fight over control of the Lacuna is a bad idea. There isn't anyone saying, 'Hey, we lived here. We died here. And we're still here.'
"Anyway, someone must have decided one day that having something that would last longer than the original paint would help. This pile we're sitting on was a building supply store that took too many hits from the lightning bolts caused by the plasma burst. It was full of stuff we needed to rebuild, so a bunch of crazy folks went in and cleaned the store out before it caved in. The stuff that was intact went to whoever could use it, and the leftovers got spread out in the parking lot.
"Hardly any of the breakables survived the blast and lightning. There was a big hole in the wall over where the tile department was, though, so it got cleaned out for the sake of making it easier to get the big stuff out of the building. That left a big pile of mixed-up broken tile.
"One morning, someone coming over to grab some stuff for fixing up where they were living noticed some spots on the wall that looked a little shiny, and went over for a closer look. Someone had taken some of the broken tile, found a place it matched, and stuck some on the wall. Whoever did it had some idea of what they were about, 'cause there was a tub of Sure-Bond and several containers of grout in different colors over by the broken tile.
"It just took off from there. Nobody ever saw anyone working on it, but somehow, every day, a few more pieces of tile wound up on the wall. After about a month of that, a few folks started showing up and laying out likely-looking pieces of tile in the right areas, and other folks started sticking a few of them on sometimes. Once we got new relay satellites up to replace the ones that had gotten knocked out in the assault, a panoramic multiple exposure of the wall that you could zoom in on got put up on InfoGrid. It didn't take too long from there for someone who must have been sticking tile up to write a layout app where you could point your terminal's camera at a piece of tile, and it would show you a place on the wall to put it up, and tell you when you'd gotten it on right. Some instructions on how to set tile -- it's easy enough to learn -- got added, and pretty soon anyone who passed by with a few minutes to spare could contribute -- and did.
"Now, the whole neighborhood -- that is, anyone who prefers building a new community here rather than leaving for an established community elsewhere -- has become part of the project. And tiling the wall is part of what makes the community. Anyone who comes here to live passes by here at some point, and gets invited to help. The ones who do, wind up staying. The ones who don't, if they don't wind up leaving, eventually wind up getting involved, and get welcomed in."
The work being done on the wall made more sense to me now. The community was writing its own story, and working out their own way to try to keep it from fading into the past over time. I wanted to know more of the story.
"These people building back in -- are they the original owners? If not, what happened to them? Where'd they go?"
"No way anyone's ever going to know what happened. Online identities get spread all over the world; there's a little piece of it wherever anyone keeps information about people. But finding the person who goes with the identity is tough. Even if you assemble all the little pieces, you just get an image of the person. And to do anything that isn't online -- like, decide whether someone who says they own a house actually does own the house -- you've got to have the person, so they can prove they're the one that the image represents.
"Problem is, too many important parts of this identity matrix were lost when Brakeworm got taken out. When the local government tried to work out who owned everything from their remote data backups, there were a whole lot of cases where they didn't get just one answer. Too often, they got no answer; other times they could only come up with a description, but not enough for an identity. So, they decided that in order to prove you owned a piece of property, you had to personally come in and convince them that you were who you said you were, and you matched up with what they had well enough for someone to believe you. That was going to be really hard, because some of the people who had lived there were disintegrated, and lots more had lost everything that was theirs. So, in order to do something that would work soon enough to prevent the town from falling into ruin, the town asserted ownership of all properties that had not been matched with the people who owned them, and tried to set fair values for them. If you came in later, and said, 'Hey, that house was mine!', and managed to prove it, they'd pay you the value of the house.
"Now, the town owned a lot of empty houses. Some of them were in good shape, while many were damaged and a lot were just total wrecks. And they recognized that local governments shouldn't be in the business of owning property. So they said that anyone who filed an intent to occupy a house, fixed up the house to current local standards, and lived in it for five years would be granted ownership. They did something similar for apartments and commercial property. Finally, they gave first crack to people who had evidence they had owned the property before the Massacre, but couldn't prove it.
"Wow! Did that work?", I asked.
"Seems to. Within six months, over half the property in town that hadn't been leveled had someone either living in it or working on making it liveable. That was not quite a year ago. By now, just about the only property left is either a vacant lot or a total wreck that needs to be torn down and carted away. The town hasn't said they'll help with that yet. But sometime soon, they probably will -- and folks with the money to build something new will take advantage of their chance to help create something new and good.
"That's really what the work on the wall is all about. Everyone living here is someone who's decided to stay and create something out of what got destroyed. And the ones who are going to stay for the long haul know that they got their chance because of the people who lived here before them, and want to make sure those people are remembered by the future. There's a lot of tile over in the supply stacks from damaged houses nearby. Every piece of that which gets used is another memory like that.
"There's so much hope for a better future wrapped up in that wall. And that's what we're trying to say, by making those hopes into something that will last."
Indeed there is. From the unknown person who probably spent the last few days of their life crafting a memorable warning that wound up changing the course of history, to the ones who believed the message was too important to let vanish into decay, to the community that is defining their identity by cementing bits of the past into something that they want to see endure into the future, this is a memorial that represents hope. And, unlike the sterile monument I had visited the day before, this memorial seems almost alive -- like something that will grow with its community -- and one whose message is far more likely to endure. Instead of memories of death and destruction, this place is collecting memories of life and growth.
No government has declared this place to be a memorial site; the people here did that. And the memories it embodies are those of people: those who lived here once, those who survived the assault, and those who are building lives around it. It seems only fitting that this site become known as the People's Memorial, for its fate, appearance, and message were not decided by any person or select few for the recognition of having made that decision, but by people who figured out what needed to be done and started doing it before vanishing back into the faceless crowd.
As the sun neared the horizon, I got up and made my way over to a part of the wall where a half dozen people were working on a part of the wall with some space above the top line of text. Tile fragments matching the ornate text in that area had been laid out on a piece of paper on the ground. Two people were bringing fragments up to two more who were spreading adhesive on the wall and positioning the fragments. "Can I help?"
One of the people over by the fragments said, "Sure. Take my place. Each piece has a number next to it. When someone on the wall calls out a number, go get the piece and bring it to them." Turning toward the remaining people, who were having an animated discussion while clustered around a drawing on a table, they called out, "How's it going? What does it look like now?", and headed over to join the conversation.
Pointing toward the table, I asked the other tile runner, "What was that about?", as we headed back to the layout after delivering some fragments. "Three-oh-four!", "Two-one-five-two!", rang out from the setters at the wall.
"See the space at the top there? The author didn't put anything there, so they're trying to come up with something to go in the empty spot. Everyone agrees there should be something in the space that relates to the text, but right now there's a big argument over whether we should do it Brakeworm-style or whether it's OK to do some of it our way. If they want to do something different, they're going to have to convince other art teams that it's OK in general, and for this part in particular, so they've got to get that straight first."
We handed our tiles over, and returned to the layout. "Two-two-thirty!" "Three-one-one!"
Twilight neared, and the setters declared themselves done for the day. My companion from the earlier dedication came over, saying, "And now you share dinner with us." An informal collection of food was set out in front of some grills that had flared into life. What remained of our brandy bottle joined a growing collection on one table. "A lot of folks who aren't working on the wall on a particular day, and have a bit of time around their own work -- rebuilding or a day job -- bring down some food and make up a spread for the ones who were on the wall that day. You did some running, so you're invited."
"And just how do I get back to the other side of town after this? I didn't see anything about buses going that way, let alone anything keeping late hours."
"You don't. I've got a spare room with a futon, and a friend coming down with a load of veggies and some salvage headed south tomorrow. I checked, and she'll hand you off with the salvage to the driver she's going to meet up with who'll finish the trip. Long as you're willing to help transfer the salvage, you'll wind up in Astragal tomorrow evening. Are you in?"
"Sounds OK to me," I replied, and grabbed a chipped plate and a set of tableware that had seen better days before joining the crowd around the food tables. "What about you?"
"I brought some stuff along, in case I needed something while I went to the dedication. Dropped it off at the kitchen. Anyone who brings food or drink also gets to eat."
Plates full, we found some space at a table, no doubt from an abandoned, damaged house, that was once again being used as a dining table after it had been the center of one of the art discussions during the day. After introductions all around, I asked, "About the wrecked houses. I know there's government money available for demolition and reconstruction. Why didn't the town ask for some?"
"Mainly because of the Golden Rule," one of the others at the table replied. "The governments that had the gold were making rules intended for places that had been harder hit. The one the town couldn't stand was that if more than a certain percentage of buildings on a block were wrecked, the whole block came down. Most of our blocks that were over the threshold had a lot of people who'd already proven their ownership, and more who were homesteading. The locals understood that if those folks got kicked out and their homes destroyed, they'd never come back -- and that would destroy the town. And we had a lot of folks who were used to doing for themselves. They made the town and the neighborhoods special. So the town said, 'Keep your filthy money. We'll do it our way.' And that was more or less that. The only thing we wound up needing to tweak a bit was to add the bit about rebuilding to current code, to keep the regional government from butting in."
Left unsaid by everyone I talked with that evening, but present nonetheless, was the locals' pride in being part of a town that, despite being encircled by death, voted for life -- and on its own terms. Unlike the more commonly-seen civic pride of words -- "I live here. This town is great!" -- their pride is founded on deeds. Recognition that the town will only survive if every resident works for its survival is universal. Being part of the effort is statement enough.
Realizing that a cry for help, even if it were heard above the chaotic din of galactic civilization and attended to by a government with the resources to provide aid, would only engage a ponderous mechanism from which the promised aid would arrive too late to save them, this town and its people have chosen their own approach -- one that might succeed, when other alternatives would almost certainly have failed. If the approach does lead to success, we would all be wise to learn from its example. Our entire civilization will surely become stronger as a result.
(edited 2015.06.10: more clearly marked a couple of speaker changes in dialog sections.)