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April 2007
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Gene Wolfe

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NEXT MORNING, over coffee and a single-pouch self-heating breakfast, March pondered strategy. Would it be better to arrive promptly, or to give Kit more time to prepare?
    Prepare what? What preparations were possible? She might try to coach Robin on ways of dealing with men, but Robin had been as unteachable as anyone he had ever known. Granted, Kit was probably a better teacher, and Kit was certainly better positioned to teach.
    If he waited for Redd to come and get him, he could achieve the maximum possible delay—but only if Redd actually came. What if Redd waited until ten, then jetted over to Kit's hopper alone? What if Redd didn't wait, for that matter? It might be best if he went to Kit's hopper now and waited for Redd there.
    He glanced at his watch. It was already nine fifteen; he suited up and jetted to Redd's hopper. Three raps on Redd's airlock elicited three answering raps from inside. He opened the airlock, entered the tiny chamber, and shut the hatch behind him. In half a minute, the second hatch opened. "You're early," Redd told him.
    March nodded. "I thought we ought to talk about what we're going to do when we get there."
    "If you mean discuss it, there's nothing to discuss. I can tell you straight out. Want some coffee?"
    It would have to be found and microwaved. March said he did.
    "Sit down. Espresso? Cappuccino?"
    "Just coffee, thanks. Whatever you have."
    "One espresso doppio and one caffè Americano. I'm a coffee snob. I bet you'd never have guessed."
    "You'd win."
    "My family's in ice cream. One of these days I want to open a coffee shop. There's a hell of a lot of coffee shops, and the coffee stinks." Redd put two bulbs into a microwave that looked older than he did and shut the door. "Ready before you can fart. I'll sell coffee and Dad's ice cream. Con him into putting some money into it. I could make it go."
    "I'm sure you could," March told him.
    "Damn right. Arabica, the real thing, roasted and ground in my kitchen that morning. Made right, in clean equipment. Most guys have never had a decent cup of coffee."
    "What are you doing now? Got a good job?"
    "Pretty good. I'm a sound man at UDN. Or I was, before I quit to look for her. Same place Robin works. You used to work there, too."
    The microwave buzzed.
    "I'll get it. Sit tight."
    It was good coffee just as Redd had promised. March sipped and sipped again, finding that the flavor improved with repetition.
    "That's arabica. I filled the bulbs before I left and froze them. Robusta's what you've been drinking. Arabica's better, smoother, more complex. Less caffeine, but you can't have everything."
    March smiled. "It takes a long time for some of us to learn that."
    "Her, you mean. Robin. You're right, she hasn't. Nobody's good enough for her. You weren't and I'm not either."
    "But you can bring her around just by talking?"
    "You watch. You wanted to know what we'd do when we got there. Only last night you wouldn't say she was there. She is and I know it. You wouldn't be acting like you are if she wasn't."
    "I never refused to tell you that." March set his bulb on the wheezing old vacuum table. "I wouldn't tell you who owns the big hopper. You never asked about your wife."
    "I'm asking now."
    "And I'm answering. Yes. She's in there, staying with the owner."
    "You out here trying to get her back?"
    "Hell no." March rubbed his big jaw. "I'd spit on your floor, but you'd try to break my nose for it and it's been broken twice already. You can have her. Anybody can have her as far as I'm concerned. And if you'll just take her to a town that I've never heard of on some God-forsaken island, I'll go dancing down the street."
    Redd tossed his empty bulb to the table surface. "That's good. I'd fight you for her, and I'd beat you. Only I like you and don't want to. Couple more questions before we go? These might help me."
    March glanced at his watch. "Sure."
    "Why wouldn't you tell me who owns the big hopper?"
    "Because she's a woman and I was afraid you'd go over there and push her around when I wasn't looking."
    "But I wouldn't push around a guy? Hey, I've pushed around quite a few."
    "I believe you. I thought you might be more careful, just the same. Wait for me to take you over this morning."
    Redd grinned. "Okay, I've waited. Finish your coffee and let's go."
    March was still in his suit when Redd stepped from Kit's airlock and took off his helmet. "Here he is," March said. "Kit, this is Sue's husband, Jim Redd. Jim, this is Kit Carlsen. You've probably seen her at work."
    "Other places, too." Redd hesitated, then smiled. "The lady with the big knife."
    "That's me," Kit told him. "Back then, we hadn't been properly introduced, Jim. Now we have. Shake?"
    "Sure." He opened his suit and pushed it toward his knees. "Pleased to meet you properly, Kit. Only I want to say Ms. Carlsen, because that's what we had to call you while you were hosting Kids' Klassics."
    "You worked on that?" Kit tilted her head.
    "Great body language, Ms. Carlsen. Nobody in the business does it better."
    "Thanks, but I still don't remember you."
    "I filled in for Don Ayres when he was on vacation or sick, Ms. Carlsen."
    "He's a sound tech," March explained.
    "Like Robin?"
    Redd nodded. "I taught her while we were together. I thought she could get a job at the network and make us a little extra. She waited till she got on there and dumped me. She's a good dumper. Ask March."
    Kit nodded. "He's told me already. She dumped you, but you've come way out here where people don't belong to get her and take her back to New York."
    "To talk to her so she'll come back with me willingly. Right. I'm not a kidnapper, Ms. Carlsen, no matter what Robin's told you. With a couple of witnesses, I'm sure as shit not a kidnapper."
    "You wouldn't hit her?"
    Redd kicked off his suit and stowed it in a locker with his helmet.
    "Would you hit her?" Kit repeated. "I'd like to know."
    "I know you would, and I had to think it over so I could give you an honest answer. I want to be honest with you, Ms. Carlsen. I don't want to lie to somebody I admire so much. I want her to sit down and listen to me. No jumping up screaming. No yelling about cops or bad things she said I did. Things I really didn't do, by the way. You won't believe that, but it's the truth. They're lies she made up so she could dump me, and she's said them over and over to me and everybody she's ever talked to until she practically believes them herself."
    "I hear you."
    "Only if I had to bat her a couple of times to get her to sit down and shut up, I'd do it. Nothing she wouldn't get over in a day or two. So will I smack her? I don't want to, but I will if I have to. You want to tell her to come out, Ms. Carlsen? If you don't, I'm going to go looking for her."
    March said, "She's not here. I know you won't believe me, but she's not. Tell him, Kit."
    Kit shook her head. "He won't believe me."
    "Yes, I will, Ms. Carlsen. Tell me."
    March picked up his helmet, replaced it, and began to screw it back on.
    "Windy—that's Mr. Wildspring to you—told me you were here looking for Robin and that the two of you would come here this morning. I woke her up and told her about it. I said we wouldn't let you force her to do anything she didn't want to do. She wanted me to go to the tomb Windy calls Number Nineteen with her. She said we could hide in there until you went away. I told her hell no, Robin, you're out of your mind. We talked about it for a while before we went back to bed. When I got up this morning, she was gone."
    "Merda! La fica stupida!" Redd slammed his fist into his palm. "If that isn't just like her."
    March added, "Her suit's gone, too. She may actually have gone into Nineteen. If so, she's probably dead. You'll want to search this hopper before you do anything else. I know the memorials. You and Kit don't. Give me your word you won't hurt Kit, and I'll try to find Robin."
    Kit said, "You can look anywhere you want. I already have. Just don't make a mess."
    "To hell with that!" Redd jerked open the fiberglass locker door. "I'm going with March."
    "You mean you trust me?" Kit looked—and sounded—slightly stunned.
    "If she's here, she's safe." Redd was climbing back into his suit. "She's safe, and I'll catch up to her sooner or later. If she's in some crazy graveyard out in space, she could die. She doesn't have sense enough.…"
    March closed the airlock behind him and heard no more.
    Had Number Nineteen been on the farther side of Jupiter, it would have been necessary to hop, making certain that the speed of the hopper was sufficient to keep it in or near its new orbit when the hop was completed. Number Nineteen was not, but close by—threateningly close to someone who suspected it as deeply as March did.
    Back on his own hopper, he cast off from Kit's. Once inside, he hooked up his lifeline, edged the hopper within a hundred feet, and looked down at his utility belt. Its adjustable wrench, its long black flashlight, and its multi-tool had gotten him out of danger…? He tried to count them. Three times? No, five. Five at least.
    "One more," he whispered. "Just once more, please. After this I'll go home and never come out here again. I swear to God."
    God was everywhere, or so they said. If so, God was on his utility belt just now. Certainly he was praying to his utility belt. He smiled at the thought.
    And God was in Number Nineteen. A dark and vengeful God, perhaps.
    There were multiple entrances to Number Nineteen. Six that he could recall, although he had never counted them. His orange lifeline would show Jim Redd which he had taken, if it did nothing else.
    Would show Redd, that is, if Redd actually came.
    No trailing lifeline revealed the way Robin had gone; she had used none, obviously. One entrance was as good as another; and she might have chosen another memorial in preference to this, no matter what she had said to Kit. She might actually be hiding in Kit's hopper, for that matter.
    Passing through his airlock, he stood alone with God in the inhuman desolation of space. Overhead, where he had to crane his neck to see it, spun the huge, semi-spherical rock that might be Hell.
    The entrance he chose conformed to no architecture with which he was familiar, a wide, circular port whose smooth black sides might have been metal or polished stone. With his digicorder rolling, he jetted cautiously into it.
    "Welcome to paradise." The voice was female, warm, and friendly; it seemed to come from nowhere in particular.
    "Thanks." March spoke into his mike. "I've always wanted to go there."
    "You're here." The voice giggled. "Well, just about here, anyway. You have to go through our airlock. I'll bet you never thought paradise would have an airlock."
    "Or an angel to greet me." March was looking for the airlock and for the source of the female voice.
    "It's got both. I'm a watcher. That's what we call people like me. My name's Penny."
    "Shouldn't it be Angela?"
    "Nope. Penny the Angel. Angela's the blonde. We take turns, us angels. It's my turn, so you're mine. What's your name?"
    He told her, and she said, "Well, you're looking too close, March Wildspring."
    He switched on his helmet light. The airlock was deeper in and several steps up, by far the largest he had ever seen. "That looks like a whole room in there."
    "It is—we've got gravity here. Did you notice?"
    "I've noticed I settled to the floor."
    "Right. And you can walk to our airlock, if you're careful not to bounce. Part of our gravity really is gravity like you get on Earth. This rock's real big. It's bigger than the moons of Mars and dense. There's lots of iron in the rock, and that makes it heavy. There's a lot of something else, too, that's heavier. Come in and I'll show you."
    March had not moved. "You could tell me now."
    "No, I can't. It's against the rules. There's other things—a whole lot of them—you have to see first. The rest of our gravity's turning, only it's not real gravity. It just feels like it. When you were outside you must have seen how fast this rock turns."
    Certain by now that she could see him, March nodded.
    "He turns it. So it doesn't feel exactly like Earth, but there's enough to keep our bones strong. You know what happens to people who spend too much time in hoppers."
    "It's called osteopor'sis. Your bones lose calcium and break easy. Only it won't happen here. Won't you come in? It's paradise, and you don't have to stay."
    "That's good, assuming it's true."
    "Only everybody does. Everybody wants to stay. I did. You will, too."
    March cleared his throat. "Before I come in, I want to ask one question. Just one. Answer it, and I'll come in. Did a girl calling herself Robin come in a few hours ago?"
    "Ouch." The young woman sounded genuinely unhappy. "I wish I could tell you, only I can't. There's seven gates. Each gate gets a watcher—we take turns. When somebody comes like you just did, the watcher goes around with them to show them, and the new watcher takes over. I've been on this gate for three sleeps, so she didn't come in through Number Four. But she could have come in through one of the others. I wouldn't know."
    "Is there any way to find out?"
    "Of course." The young woman's voice was serious. "You can come inside and look. You know what she looks like, don't you?"
    "Yes. Would you like me to describe her?"
    "It wouldn't do any good. I can't leave this gate till somebody comes, and she'll look different anyway. Better. Everybody looks better in here."
    "Are you saying I wouldn't recognize her if I saw her?" March found he was walking toward the airlock. He wondered just when he had begun, but kept going.
    "No. No, I'm not. Not really. Only it might be a while before you knew it was her. Everybody looks better. Sometimes a whole bunch better. We still look like us, but older if we're young and younger if we're old. Prettier, too. You know."
    "No," he said. "I don't."
    "You will. Come in and you'll see."
    "So you can leave your gate." He had stopped in front of the airlock.
    "No, not a bit. It's nice here. You'll see that, too. Besides, my friends come around to talk and bring me stuff. Nobody minds being watcher. Nobody minds anything here."
    "That's good."
    "Except one thing. I'll tell you about that later, after you've seen. I've never done it, but I guess it can be icky."
    "I can leave whenever I want to?"
    "You won't want to. Just climb in, and I'll shut the big door for you."
    "But I can?"
    "Naturally you can. Only the people who leave don't want to. That's the thing I said could be bad. Leaving. I'll tell you all about it later."
    He mounted the few steps, and the hatch swung swiftly shut behind him. This airlock was the size of a small room. There were chairs, pictures on the walls, and a fireplace, complete with fire. He walked toward it for a better look, and discovered that the hatch had severed his lifeline. "Hey!" he said.
    Then, "Penny? Are you still there?"
    There was no reply.
    The fireplace was real and so was the fire. The logs, however, were not. Some flammable gas with a small feed of oxygen, March decided.
    He heard his air supply switch over, and thought of returning it to suit air but did not. The new air he breathed smelled better, a clean fresh smell as though it had known a windswept meadow by the sea. Walking around the airlock quickly, he found that he was not dizzy and was not blacking out.
    "This," he told his mike, "is surely the strangest of all the memorials, as well as the biggest. If Penny's not a real and living person, her voice certainly conveys that impression."
    A wall of the room swung back. "Welcome," the girl standing a foot beyond its arc told him. She sketched a curtsy, lifting a diaphanous scarlet skirt. "Welcome to paradise, Mr. March Wildspring. May you remain long and return soon."
    "Thank you." He stepped down from the airlock, and discovered that he was smiling. "Okay if I take off my helmet?"
    "Oh, yes! Aren't you sure there's air here? If there wasn't, I'd die."
    "I know there is." He unscrewed his helmet. "You'd die if you're real. Are you?"
    "You betcha!" She giggled. "Want to touch?"
    "Sure. Give me your hand."
    "You can't feel much through that glove. I know. I used to have a suit like that, only mine was white and not so big. I kept wanting to take the gloves off."
    "Your hand."
    She held it out. "It doesn't have to be there. You could touch other places. I wouldn't mind."
    Leaving the airlock, he took her hand. "You're not a hologram."
    "Of course not. I'm a real live person. Not exactly like you because of the sex thing. Only real close. How do you like me up top?"
    "Good." He nodded thoughtfully. "Nice molding."
    "I'm not molded! I grew up. I'm a real person, too. Kissing would prove it. Want to kiss?"
    "Later, maybe. Right now I'd like to see paradise."
    "That's good. Take off your suit. I'll put it in one of these box things for you."
    "I'll keep it on. I'm holding onto my helmet, too."
    "That way everybody will know you're new, March. It'll be a lot of trouble. You'll see."
    "But I can keep it if I want to?"
    "I guess so." She sounded doubtful. "I've never done this before. Watched a gate. This is my first time and they never said anything about suits. So I guess you can. Or if you can't, somebody will tell us. Only I'll be in trouble."
    "I'll explain that it was my fault."
    "Thanks." She led him past the wall-mounted lockers and the benches on which newcomers presumably sat to take off their boots, and into a wide and apparently sunlit room. A well-remembered face pontificated about politics on a digivid there, too proud to notice the incomplete jigsaw puzzle on the floor before him. A dozen plates held half-finished food, and dolls and a teddy bear occupied comfortable-looking chairs; on the farther side of the room a wide arch opened out onto what appeared to be a sunlit garden on Earth.
    He hurried to it, then stopped to stare.
    "Isn't it pretty?"
    Slowly he nodded.
    "How about me? You can see me better in this light. Aren't I pretty, too?"
    Turning, he studied her. "You are. You're really quite beautiful." It was the truth.
    She laughed, delighted, and smoothed her lustrous coppery hair with both hands.
    "Is it all right if I jump?"
    "You better not. People turn around funny sometimes. Come down on their heads."
    "I'll risk it." Gathering all his strength, he sprang into the air, rising to a height of twenty feet or more. The garden spread as far as he could see, its low hills dotted with little sunlit lakes, trees, tents, airy cottages, and fountains. A quick sweep of his digicorder took it all in—or so he hoped. Skillful manipulation of his suit jets landed him on his feet.
    "You're good at it," The young woman told him.
    "Not really." He grinned. "I'm wearing a lot of heavy gear and not as young as I used to be. In a way that was an advantage. I knew I wouldn't come down any faster than I had gone up."
    "Want something to eat? Or just walk around?"
    "Just walk around. I'd like to talk to some other people."
    "In your orange clothes?" She giggled. "You will."
    They had not gone more than a thousand yards when they were surrounded by a crowd. More than once, he had found himself in crowds of actors at parties, and the feeling was much the same. Not all the men were tall, but most were handsome; those who were not, were attractive without being handsome, with kind, honest faces suggestive of good humor or sparkling wit.
    The women were cute. Or pretty. Or beautiful. All of them.
    He raised his hands for silence. "I'm looking for a missing woman. Her name's Robin Redd, and I think she ran in here because she thought a man named Jim was going to kill her. I'm not Jim. I'm a friend.…" He let his arms drop.
    "Not a friend." The speaker was a silver-maned man who looked as though he might once have been a judge—or played one on vid. "Who are you, then?"
    "I used to be her husband, sir."
    "If she's in here she's safe, son. Perfectly safe."
    A score of voices seconded him.
    "Why do you want to take her back to a place of danger?"
    March drew a deep breath—air so clean and pure it might have come from a mountain top. "I'll take her back only if she wants to go, sir. If she wants to stay here, that's fine. But I want to know where she is, because she may need help if she's not here. Do you know?"
    The silver mane was shaken. "I do not, but I'll try to find out. What's your name, son?"
    "March Wildspring."
    The young woman said, "Marchy hasn't decided to stay yet, Barney. How can I talk him into it?"
    Someone in the crowd asked, "Just talk?" and there was laughter.
    The silver-maned man joined it with a throaty chuckle. "When he's seen a few more like you—"
    Quickly, the young woman raised an admonitory hand. "That's enough of that. Please! He'll think I'm easy. I'm not, Mr. Wildspring. Don't let this dress fool you. Nobody wears much in the way of clothes in here."
    A beefy man with a likable grin pointed to March. "Nobody but you, that is."
    It got another laugh.
    "Folks!" March raised his voice. "I'm looking for Robin Redd. I don't want to hurt her." He scanned the crowd though the viewfinder of his digicorder. "If any of you know her, will you please tell her March is looking for her? She can stay here if she wants to, or I'll take her back if she'd prefer to go."
    That raised the biggest laugh of all.

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