Custodian cover



Jeb’s best work was done after school, in the quiet time set for the deep cleaning permitted only in the children’s absence. Jeb’s tenure—watching three generations walk these halls, fill the classrooms in the five decades at this post, a needful, necessary one. Memories of seeing the children file in on their first day, freshly emerged from the toddler stage, memories of being the last to see them leave, launching into the unknowns of adulthood. Jeb was first and last, every day, every year. It was the children; it was always about the children, ingrained in his being, his purpose to exist, never missing a day, not one day in fifty-two years.

Tasks complete, last rounds made. No children will return in the morning; all of them gone away, the last few today accompanied by parents, or those who stood in their place. Several gave tokens, small gifts, a dozen brightly colored stickers from the first graders, a book of handwritten poems from the older ones, and photographs, stacks of images—remembrances. One girl gifted her hair ribbon, now tied about Jeb’s upper arm, a flag of surrender to events.

Colonization had been a lofty goal, a reaching out, a shared but not totally unifying effort by mankind to seed the solar system, stepping stones to the stars. Only one seed planted unless you count the moon. No families there, merely a waystation, never fully matured. Mankind dreamed of coming here since 1877 when Schiaparelli used a primitive telescope to see the canalli, followed by Burton’s first sketches of the Martian features. Now, mankind was giving up, turning inward, perhaps waiting for the future to make a faster approach, move closer, to deliver the dreamed promises of interstellar flight before stepping outward again.

Jeb held remembrance of his first day, Martian dawn breaking on the red sky horizon, blunt hills, long shadowed stretches, outlined in the weak yellow sunlight, a harsh but exciting place for men. To Jeb, this was a job well suited, one which involved high-frequency shrieks and laughter of the young ones, tears, spills to clean up, occasional tussles among the older students, hours of cleaning, making the classrooms and hallways sparkle, memories of carrying Robert Sanders to the medical station after he’d collapsed.

Today, once done, Jeb would have no further purpose, no other functions to perform, no one to serve, to watch over. Wait as long as possible, Jeb thought, standing by the lobby entrance, near the double doorway, looking through the glass at a landscape barely changed from human occupation. The Martian sun was setting, turning the eastern hills a bright red-orange, then a slow fade to rust-brown, and darkness. Finally, Jeb turned to go to the place assigned, home in the maintenance area, behind a door labeled Janitor Education Bot —the charging station. His processors calculated how long before the winds buried the school in red dust and drifting sand. Perhaps before the power pack failed, but probably not.