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A RUSTIC BRIDGE crossed one of several small lakes. The young woman paused halfway across to point out their reflections in the water. "Look there, Mr. Wildspring. See how good-looking you are?"
He did, seeing a grimly handsome man with abundant brown hair and finely chiseled features; this flattering reflection wore what appeared to be a day-glow orange military spacesuit. The young woman beside him was clearly the young woman with him. He raised an arm; the reflection raised an arm as well.
"Aren't we an attractive couple?"
"Yes," he said, "we certainly are."
"If you were to take off all those clothes, would you just throw them away?"
"No. No, Penny, I certainly wouldn't want to do that. If I were to take them off, I'd want a safe place to put them, a place I could find again without much trouble. I'd want to be able to get them back in a hurry if I needed them."
"That's good." The young woman looked thoughtful. "He might want to send you out. He does that sometimes. They can come back later, I think. But they have to go if he says so."
"He runs this? What's his name?"
"I don't know, but there's a big statue of him in a park. We could probably find out there. Everybody just says 'he.' Everybody knows what it means."
"I'd like to see that statue and take some pictures." March indicated his digicorder. "But first I'd like to go on across and get a few of you posing in the middle of this bridge. It should be a lovely shot. Can I do that?"
"It sounds like fun." She smiled. "Just tell me what poses you'd like."
"I will. You're not afraid I'll run off on my own?"
She cocked her head, looking more charming than ever. "Are you going to?"
"That's good. Strangers need somebody. A guide. That's why we do it. But you wouldn't have to trick me. Anytime you want to go, you can do it. I'll go back to the gate and wait for you."
"All right, I'll remember that. But wouldn't he have sent somebody else to watch the gate by now?"
"I suppose. I guess so. How'd you like me to pose?"
"Sitting on the railing, I think."
"So you can get my legs. You're right, I've got good legs. How's this?"
It was fine, her long, smooth legs out over the water, one delicately rounded calf resting on the rail, the foot of the other leg hooked around one of the supports, and her gossamer skirt hiked halfway up her thighs. He backed down the bridge, passing a sleeping man and shooting as he went, stopped his digicorder briefly to note the precise number on its whirling dial, and shot more from the bank.
When he rejoined her, he said, "That was beautiful. I've got a couple of questions now. No, three questions. All right if I ask them?"
Her smile would have melted stone. "If I can't answer, we'll find somebody who can."
"First question. If this were Earth, people would've cut their names into this rail. Hearts, with MW plus KC. All that kind of stuff. Nobody's carved anything in this one. Why is that?"
"On Earth we do it so people will remember." The young woman said slowly, "and so we'll remember ourselves. We think maybe it will never happen, he'll dump me or I'll dump him. But years from now when I've almost forgotten, maybe I'll see this. I'll think, oh yeah, he wasn't good-looking or talented, but he had the best heart. If things had gone a little differently.…"
March said, "I didn't mean to hurt you."
"You didn't. I was just thinking. It's all different now. Different here. That's what I think. We know we're going to remember this place and the people we love here. Remember everything about it forever and ever. What's hard is remembering how it was before we got here. Like, I used to have a little apartment back on Earth. It was just two rooms and a bath, and nothing in it could be very big at all. There was a cabinet I couldn't open that had been built into a corner a long time ago and painted white. The white paint had stuck the doors shut."
"I understand." He laid a hand on her shoulder.
"I was pretty sure there was nothing in there, but I always wondered. Now I'm here, and it feels like it happened a long, long time ago to somebody else. Somebody in a show I saw one time, and I wish she'd broken that cabinet open."
The young woman slid from the railing, cocked her head, and smiled. "That wasn't a good answer, but I don't think I can answer any better. You said three questions."
"I did." March sighed. "Here's the next. There's no litter on the lakeshore and no junk floating in the water. There aren't even any cans for garbage. Why not?"
"Because it's ours. This whole place is ours. He gave it to us. We're his, and we own this. It's where we live. On Earth everything belongs to the government, really. In America it does, anyway. They pretend it's yours, but do something they don't like and you'll find out. This really is ours. We can cut down the trees and pick the flowers, but we don't want to. Not mostly. If there were more people, it might be different."
"He sends some away, you said."
Looking pensive, The young woman nodded. "He might send me away someday. I hope not."
"They go back to Earth?"
She nodded again.
"What do they do there?"
"I don't know, and that's more than three. All right, I do. They do whatever he's asked them to, and when they get it all done they get to come back."
"Those weren't my third question," March said, "just follow-ups. Here's the third. When I jumped and looked around, I could see little houses, and when we were up on the bridge I could see two and a tent. Do they have vids in there? Any of them? You had a vid in your room at the gate."
"I'm not sure, but I think that anybody who wants one gets one. Some people don't. Is there something you want to watch?"
"Yes. I used to work for UDN, and—well, it's kind of complicated. But there are things I want to see. Maybe even things I want to show you. There's no hurry, though. Let's go look at his statue."
It was large and imposing, but not at all what March had expected. An elderly man, bald and rather fat, knelt. His enormous bronze hands were held out to those who had followed a narrow and seemingly aimless path through a wilderness of flowers. They seemed to shelter a sleeper at his feet.
"He looks like my father," March murmured.
"Like my grandfather," the young woman said. "I've never been here. I'm new, and I hadn't gotten around to it. If I'd known how beautiful it was, I'd have come sooner."
March retreated to the path. "I'm going to pan the gardens and stop on you, looking at the statue. Look up at it while you count to ten, normal speed, then turn and look at me and smile."
She did. When he appeared to have stopped recording, she said, "I've found a little notice that tells you about it. The statue's twelve feet high, and the figure of the Founder would be twenty-three feet high if he were standing up. The bronze is eight inches thick. Most statues like this are thin, it said, but they could make this one almost solid because its base sits right on the solid rock of this asteroid. Is it an asteroid? That's what they said."
"I suppose. Does it give his name?"
"Let me see. 'It is composed of copper, tin, and gold, the proportions being fifty, forty, and ten; all three metals were mined during the excavation of the perfect world in which you stand. The sculptors worked from photographs and digivid recordings made during the last years of the Founder's life. The ancient lost wax method was employed to create the statue, although it required wax brought from Earth. His body has perished, but his mind lives on and is your god.' No name. It doesn't name the artists, either."
"It would be an interesting thing to know," March said. "I'm going to keep trying to find out. How many people are there in here?"
The young woman shook her head. "I have no idea."
She hesitated. "I'm going to say five hundred. About that."
"I would have said fewer. Half that, maybe. Even if you're right, it should be possible to ask all of them."
"About this girl Robin Redd?"
"No. I know where she is, Penny. The name of the Founder's going to be harder, I think."
"I don't, because I don't believe you know where that girl is. You couldn't."
"I do." March sounded as tired as he felt. "You—"
The statue spoke, surprising them both. Its voice was deep, resonant, and kind. "I am pleased—oh, wonderfully pleased—to announce that we have been joined by four this wake. That is the highest total since the five of December twentieth and surpasses the three of February third. Our newest lovers are Robin Redd, Katarina 'Kit' Carlsen, March Wildspring, and James Frankie Redd. Welcome, all!"
March could only stare.
"My dear children," the statue continued, "this wake has wound to a pleasing end. The time of rest is upon us. Repose with me in your humble homes, and repose with whom you like. Sleep, and I promise you that all your dreams will be pleasant ones.
"Though nightmares stalk the dark, if you sleep they cannot trouble you."
The young woman said, "I don't know about them. I guess I've been asleep."
"If they can't hurt sleeping people, how bad can they be?" March was conscious of a slight dimming of the light; the meter built into his digicorder confirmed it.
"Just sleeping people who are inside somewhere." The young woman looked frightened. "That's what I think. We need to get inside."
"You don't know?"
"No! Let's go. These people are nice. Somebody will take us in."
The light had dimmed again, very slightly.
"Can you jog, Mr. Wildspring? I can, and I think we ought to jog until we find someplace that will take us in."
March shook his head. "Not wearing this. No, I can't jog and won't try."
"Well, take it off." The young woman's fear was almost palpable.
"I won't." March caught her arm. "In a minute I'm going to let you run if you want to, but I need to say something first. If you decide you want out, just look me up. I'll get you out if I can. Understand?"
The young woman nodded and tried to smile. The smile was a pathetic failure.
"Fine." March released her. "You jog ahead and find a place to hide."
His suit felt heavy now even in the slight gravity of Number Nineteen. His wristwatch told him that only six and a half hours of the day had passed for him. The knowledge did nothing to relieve his aching shoulders; he was hot and tired.
"We have seen the founder's statue," he told his mike, "and learned that this asteroid contains copper, tin, and gold. Those metals—the last, particularly—no doubt financed much of the building of this memorial. We have learned two other things of considerable interest. I have, at least, in the course of walking over several miles of it." Some time ago, he had removed his gloves and pushed them under his utility belt. Now he employed a forefinger to wipe his sweating forehead.
"First, this is the only memorial I am aware of that actually enlists visitors to serve its agenda, which we may assume was that of the Founder. As you have heard, some of them are returned to Earth. We can only speculate as to their purpose.
"Second, it seems at least possible that the Founder's accomplishments included one of the holy grails of physics, the creation of artificial gravity. You may recall that our guide told us the gravity here was a combination of mass and spin. Real gravity—gravity from mass—pulls us inward. Spin forces us outward. The two are antithetical, in other words, and cannot be made to act in concert. I would estimate the gravity I feel here to be about one quarter that of Earth. I doubt that a core of heavy metals could provide that much gravity to an asteroid this small, and this asteroid is certainly not spinning fast enough. If it had been, it would have thrown me back into space when I landed."
Beyond the flowery border, a rolling green landscape displayed two neat white cottages some distance apart. The light had diminished twice before March reached the first.
His knocks brought a remarkably handsome, angry, and suspicious man who answered all March's arguments with "We don't let anybody into our home."
Total darkness came before March reached the second cottage. It was a night without stars, and without the least attempt to counterfeit them. The day sky had been a passable imitation of Earth's: a blue dome traversed by a single bright light, wispy clouds that might, perhaps, have been steam. By night, the cavern was plainly that. The air was cool, and soon grew cooler still.
"March? March?" The voice was plaintive, sad, and old.
"That's me," he said. "Who are you?"
"You left me to die, March. You left me alone in that hospital so you could go off to some meeting. And I died, March. I died alone, abandoned."
"Mom?" His free hand was fumbling with the flashlight on his utility belt.
A child's voice said, "You don't know me. You'll never know me, March. You'll never know me because I was never born. I'm March Wildspring, Jr. I'm the son you never got."
"Uh huh." March's fingers had found the switch. "I'm going to turn this on now, son. You might want to cover your eyes. It's a lot brighter than a helmet light."
He did, and there was no one there. For two minutes and more, the glaring beam probed the darkness in search of the other white cottage he had seen; there was no such cottage, and it began to rain.
Sighing, he returned the flashlight to his belt, resumed his helmet, and switched on his helmet light.
"I sat beside you, March. Beside you in home room, and behind you in history. You let me copy your answers once, March, and I thought you liked me. I liked you and tried to show you I was yours for the asking. You were in all my daydreams, March. Other things changed, but you were always there."
He said nothing, plodding wearily forward. His helmet light showed no one.
"Remember the time I touched your hand? You pulled away. I loved you, and you pulled away."
"You scared me," he told the disembodied voice. "I was one of the biggest boys in the class, and you were bigger than I was. You had those hungry eyes."
The old voice said, "You left me alone, March. You left me alone to die."
"You weren't supposed to die." His helmet light revealed no speaker. "There was a meeting I had to attend, a planning meeting for next year's schedule. They said you'd be home in a week."
A dog barked. It was a soft and friendly bark, and though it did not bark again he could hear its panting. "I'm sorry," he told the dog. "I didn't know how sick you were."
By the time he reached the second cottage, he was determined to get in at any cost. "I'm a new arrival," he told the handsome young man who answered his knock. For a moment he paused, sniffing.
"So are we." The young man made no attempt to conceal his naked body. "Get your own dump."
The air March's suit was utilizing now carried a whiff of tobacco smoke. "I'm out here with the nightmares, and I don't like it. I need a place to sleep, and something to eat, if you've got it."
The muscular (and very naked) young man tried to close the door, but March had stuck the toe of his boot into it. "I'll behave myself, and I'll be eternally grateful."
"You get the hell out!"
From behind the muscular young man, Kit's well-remembered voice called, "Let him in, Jim!"
The muscular young man snarled, "Shut the fuck up!"
March's shoulder forced the door open, throwing Jim backward. A split second later, March's left took him in the pit of the stomach. It was followed at once (perhaps unnecessarily) by March's right, which caught the side of Jim's neck.
He went down, March unhooked the flashlight from his belt, and Kit said, "Windy! Thank God." She was wearing the pink brassiere he remembered so well.
He had never tried to kiss anyone though his helmet before. Both laughed, he unscrewed the helmet, they kissed properly, and he picked Kit up and swung her around like a child.
"You shouldn't do that," she told him breathlessly. "I'm too fat. You'll hurt yourself."
"You're not fat, and there isn't much gravity here."
"I should lose ten pounds and you know it. Twenty would be better."
"You look great." It was difficult to keep his eyes on her face.
"Everybody looks great here. You look great, too."
"How did you know it was me? I didn't know you were in there until I heard your voice."
"I didn't, at first." She grinned. "I couldn't see you because Jim was in the way, and I didn't recognize your voice because you sound better here. It was just that you were a stranger, and maybe you'd protect me from him. He tore my clothes off, and I think I'm going to get a black eye."
By that time, Jim had picked up the flashlight and was trying to stand. March took it from him and hit him with it. Twice.
"Shove him out the door," Kit suggested.
March shook his head. "Not yet. I've got something to show you. If it's what I think it's going to be, I want him to see it, too. Hell, he's entitled to see it. Turn on that vid, will you? You can keep the sound off."
She did, and dancers as naked as Jim Redd capered across the projection area.
"I didn't know it was you," she told March, "until I saw the orange suit. The lights in here aren't very good."
"I've noticed, and I think I may understand that. Another thing I've noticed is that though whatever the Founder's got makes everybody else look different—"
"Better," Kit said.
"You look just the way you always did. You're still the most beautiful woman in the world."
"I look different, Windy, and you know it. You just won't admit it."
He shook his head. "You look exactly the same. You sound the same, too. When you couldn't see me, I couldn't see you, either. I heard your voice, and it was the most beautiful voice in the business. No different."
"I don't think I understand."
"Neither do I. That's how it was, and that's all I know." He was sweeping the room with his digicorder. When he finished, he found the remote and changed channels.
"Vid looks just the same as at home," Kit said. "I don't understand that either. Do you?"
"If you mean how the system here does that, no. If you mean why it does it, it ought to be pretty obvious. The people get reminded of how it really was back home every time they look at it. This place is the carrot. What they see on vid is the stick. It's what they'll be going back to if they try to leave. So they don't. Wait a minute. Is there a hand-mirror around here?"
"Probably. I can look."
"Do that," March told her.
Redd groaned. After a minute or two, he groped the contusions on his head.
"Stay flat on the floor," March told him, "or you'll have another one." He had opened his suit and taken out his wallet.
Kit returned with a mirror. "You know, this is really a pretty place. It's not big, but it's awfully nice. Our watcher explained that the couple that had it before had gone back to Earth. The Founder'd sent them there, she said. They might come back eventually, but we could have it until they did. All this was before Jim jumped me."
"She said she'd go back to her gate and sleep there, but she'd come by for us in the morning. I thought I could handle Jim—that was a big mistake—and this looked nice. It would give us a base to operate out of while I looked for you and Jim looked for Robin. So I said okay, fine."
"You saw my lifeline."
"That's right. So we knew where you'd gone, Windy. Only it had been cut in front of the airlock, and that worried the hell out of me."
"The door did it," he said absently. "The airlock door. When you look into that mirror, do you see a new, improved you?"
"That's right, and I look great."
"Now look at this." March held up his wallet. "Which you is this?"
There was a long pause before Kit said, "That's the old me. This isn't real, is it? I never thought it was."
"But it was fun to pretend."
"Besides, philosophers have argued for centuries over what we mean by 'real' and what we ought to mean. When I look at you, the physical body I see is composed of atoms that form molecules. That's what it really is, but I see a person. Which one's real?"
"Both of them," Kit said promptly.
"I agree, but not everyone does. I used to know a man whose wife cheated on him and bragged about it. He told himself it wasn't real because it didn't matter. What was real was the love he had for her, and the love he thought she had for him."
"I think I know him, too."
"Nothing mattered but that love, so only that love was real. It wasn't a lie he was telling himself, because he thought it was the truth. He'd convinced himself."
With an almost inaudible grunt, Redd sat up. Though still handsome, he looked sick; a few seconds later he spat onto the intricately beautiful Persian carpet.
March switched off his digicorder and took out the disk. "I want to play this. Let's see what we see."
What they saw first was a blue screen dotted with instructions and cautions printed in yellow. He pressed fast forward, stopped at a shot of Kit, and turned up the sound.
"No, Sarah. We'd like to hear about your cooking. It made you famous all over Southton."
The real Kit said, "That's the way, Windy. Hide those hips."
March hit fast forward again. "If only you knew what I feel every time I see them. Is Jim watching?"
He was, still sitting and looking only a little the worse for wear.
"Let's see if we can find Sue."
Robin appeared, simpering. Soon, March's voice said, "You are. You're really quite beautiful."
March's voice continued, "Is it all right if I jump?"
Kit asked, "Is that how she looked to you then?"
March shook his head and killed the sound. "She was lovely, and looked like nineteen or twenty. Did you notice the dolls behind her?"
"And the mess. There was a teddy bear, too."
"She wanted me to think she was a kid, twelve maybe, who looked older here. She tried to talk like that at first, but after a while she forgot and I noticed. She'd seen me coming, somehow, and gotten to the gate in time to talk the real kid into going out for coffee or something while Sue subbed for her. Presumably there's a place where you can watch like that, and Sue had found out about it fast, because she thought Jim here might come after her. So I came and was met by a gorgeous redhead who told me her name was Penny. Look at the screen."
It showed a vast cavern, with a floor of mud and water. Here and there grass struggled to live, its sallow blades ill-nourished by sunlamps high overhead.
"That isn't what I saw when I jumped," March said wryly. "It isn't even what I saw in the viewfinder. It's what the digicorder saw, just the same."
"I mean it's where we are. Right now."
Redd snarled, "You got me into this."
"If you're talking to me," March said, "I agree. I did. If you're talking to Kit, you and I are going to have words again."
"Without the flashlight?"
"Try it and see."
"That's what I want," Kit said. "I want to see. You were shooting when you came in here. I know you were. I want to see Jim and me, and I want to see what this place really looks like."
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Copyright © 1998–2008 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide