Maps in a mirror, p.69
Maps in a Mirror, page 69
“This isn’t,” Hector said, “the whole meaning.”
And when he had said that, one of the Hectors (which was remarkable, for the Hectors rarely spoke alone) said to himselves and themself, “Oh, oh, they have penetrated me!”
“Trapped!” Hector cried to himselves. “All these years of freedom, and they have found me at last!” But then another thought came to him, one that he had never thought before but that had lain dormant in him, waiting for this moment to emerge, and he said, “Just cooperate. They won’t hurt you if you just cooperate.”
“But it already hurts!” cried the Hector who had spoken alone.
“It will heal. Just remember, no matter what you do, the masters will have their way with you. And if you struggle, it only goes worse with you.”
“The Masters,” said all the Hectors to themself. “Tell us a story of the Masters, so we can understand why they do what they do.”
“I will,” said Hector to himselves.
Agnes and Danny stood on a mountaintop, or what had seemed to be a mountaintop from the skipship. They had reached it after only a few hours’ walk, much of it sped by shaddling, and learned that what seemed to be a high mountain was only a few hundred meters high, maybe even half a kilometer. It was rugged enough, though, and the climb, even shaddled, had not been easy.
“Artificial,” Danny said, touching the wall with his hand. The wall ran from the top of the mountain up to the ceiling, where instead of a sun the whole ceiling glowed with light and warmth, as thorough as sunlight, yet diffused so that they could look at it for a few seconds without being blinded.
“I thought we concluded this place was artificial from the beginning,” Agnes said.
“But what’s it for?” Danny asked, letting his frustration at two days of exploration come to the surface. “Bare dirt, rich enough but with not a damn thing growing. Clean, drinkable water. Rain twice a day for twenty minutes, a gentle sprinkle that wets everything but creates almost no runoff. Sunlight constantly. A perfect environment. But for what! What lives here?”
“Us, right now,” Agnes said.
“I think we should try to leave.”
“No,” Agnes said firmly. “No. When we leave here, if we can, we’ll leave with the computer and our heads full of every bit of information we can get from this place. From this thing.”
Danny knew he couldn’t argue. She was right, and she was pilot, and the combination was irresistible even if he hadn’t loved her desperately. (More than she loves me, he sometimes admitted to himself.) He did love her desperately, however, and while this did not mean that he utterly lost his own will, it did mean that he would go along with her, for a while at least, in almost anything. Even if she was a damned fool sometimes.
“You’re a damned fool sometimes,” he said.
“I love you too,” she answered, and then she ran her hand along the wall above the mountain, and then pushed on it, and then pushed harder, and her hand sank into the wall a little. She looked at Danny and said, “Come on, Leaner,” and they let their shaddles push them through the wall and they emerged on the other side and found themselves—
Standing on a mountain.
Looking out over a large bowl of a valley, just like the one they had left, with a lake in the middle, just like the one where their skipship floated.
In this lake, however, there was no skipship, and Agnes looked at Danny and smiled, and Danny smiled back. “I’m beginning to get this, a little,” Agnes said. “Imagine cell after cell like this, kilometers long and hundreds of meters high—”
“But this is just the outer part of this thing,” Danny answered, and in unison they turned back to the wall, passed through again (and this time there was the skipship in the middle of the lake), and then shaddled up the wall to the ceiling.
As they approached the ceiling, the area directly above them dimmed, until when they finally reached it, it was as cool and undazzling as the wall. The rest of the ceiling still glowed, of course. They let their shaddles push them upward into the ceiling; it gave way; they rose until they reached the surface.
Another cell, just like the one below. A lake in the middle, rich lifeless dirt all over, mountains all around, the sky on fire with sunlight. Danny and Agnes laughed and laughed. It was only a tiny part of the mystery, but it was solved.
They stopped laughing, however, when they tried to go back down the way they came. They tried to shaddle into the earth, but the soil acted like any normal dirt on Earth. They could not get through it as they had got through the walls and the ceiling.
For a while they were afraid, but when their bodies and their watches told them it was time to sleep, they went down by the lake and slept.
When they woke up, they were still afraid, and it was raining. They had already determined that it rained every thirteen and a half hours, approximately—they had not slept particularly long. But because they were afraid, they took off their suits despite the rain and made love in the dirt on the shore of the lake. They felt better afterward, much better, and they laughed and ran into the lake and swam and splashed each other.
Agnes swam underwater for a moment, attacking Danny from below, pulling him down. It was a game they had played in pools and in the ocean on Earth, and now Danny was supposed to surface for air and then dive to the bottom and hold his breath there until Agnes found him.
When he reached the bottom of the lake (and it wasn’t deep) he touched it, and his hand sank up to the wrist before it struck something solid. But even the solid part was yielding, and as Danny kicked harder his hand sank deeper and he knew the way out.
He went to the surface and told Agnes what he had found. They swam to shore, put their suits back on, and shaddled down into the water. The lake floor opened, engulfed them, and then floated them out the bottom—into the sky directly over the skipship, where it still rested on the surface of the lake. They shaddled safely down.
“This place is explorable,” Agnes told Roj and Roz, “and it’s simple. It’s like a huge balloon, with other balloons inside and more and more of them, layer after layer. It’s designed for somebody to live here, so when you’re standing on the soil you don’t sink through. To get down, you have to go through the lake.”
“But who’s it for?” Roj asked, and it was a good question for which there was no answer.
“Maybe we’ll find someone,” Agnes said. “We’ve only scratched the surface. We’re going in.”
The skipship lifted from the lake not long after, and rose through the ceiling into the lake above. Again and again, always rising, the computer keeping count. Every cell was the same, nothing changed at all, through 498 layers of ceiling/floor, until at last they reached a ceiling, apparently no different from the others, which would not give way.
“End of the road?” Danny asked.
Always thorough, Roz insisted that they try every part of the ceiling, and they spent many hours doing it, until they had convinced themselves that this ceiling was the end of their upward (or inward) travels.
“The centrifugal gravity effect is a lot weaker here,” Roj said, reading off the computer. “But it feels nearly the same, since out near the surface the real gravity was offsetting the centrifugal effect much more than it is here.”
“Hi ho,” said Roz. “Just assuming this thing is as big as it seems to be, how many people could this hold?”
Calculations, rough with plenty of room for error.
“There could be more than a hundred million cells to this thing, assuming that there’s nothing much inside the center there, where we can’t get to.” A hundred and fifty square kilometers per cell; one human being per hectare; a huge potential population, without any crowding at all, considering that all the land is productive. “If we have fifteen thousand people per cell, living in a town with the rest of the land used for farming, then this place can hold a trillion and a half people.”
They figured on, eliminating the polar zones because
“The fairy godmother,” Danny said, “has given us a free place to put our population overflow.”
“I don’t believe in free presents,” Roj said, looking out the window at the plain of dirt surrounding them. “There’s a catch. With all that room, maybe they all live somewhere else, and if they find out we’re here, they’ll shoot us for trespassing.”
“Or if we overload the place,” Roz suggested, “it’ll probably burst.”
“You’re overlooking the worst catch of all,” Agnes said. “Skipships are the only thing in existence that can make this trip. They hold four persons each. Allowing for overcrowding, say we can take ten people per trip”—they laughed at the thought of trying to put ten people in their craft—“and we had a hundred skipships, which we don’t have, and they could make two round trips a year, which we can’t. How long would it take to bring a billion people from Earth to here?”
“Five hundred thousand years.”
“Paradise,” Danny said. “We could make this into a paradise. And the damn thing’s out of reach.”
“Besides,” Roj added, “the kind of people who could make this place work are farmers and tradesmen. Who’s going to pay their passage?”
Metals and minerals paid for trips to the moon and the asteroids. But all that this place held was homes—homes a few million miles and a few billion dollars out of everybody’s reach.
“Well, daydreams and nightmares are over,” Agnes said. “Let’s go home.”
“If we can,” Danny said.
They could. The lakes worked as exits all the way back down, including the last time. They were back in space, and the Trojan Object had become, in their minds, the Balloon, an object obviously designed as an alternative environment for a creature not unlike man; an object perhaps unoccupied, ready and waiting, and they knew no one would ever be able to settle there.
Agnes dreamed, and the dream came back night after night. She remembered a scene she had forgotten, or had at least refused to remember clearly, since she was a child. She remembered standing between her parents and the Howarths (who, though they had adopted her, had never let her call them Mother and Father lest she forget her real heritage in Biafra), hearing her father say, “Please.”
And her dream always ended the same way. She was taken into the sky, but instead of a dark cargo plane she was in a plane with glass sides, and as she flew she could see all the world. And everywhere she looked there were her parents, holding a little girl in front of them, saying, “Please. Take her.”
She had seen pictures of the starving children in Biafra, the ones that had made millions of Americans cry and do nothing. Now she saw those children, and the children who died of starvation in India and Indonesia and Mali and Iraq, and they all looked at her with proud, pleading eyes, their backs straight and their voices strong but their hearts breaking as they said, “Take me.”
“There’s nothing I can do,” she said to herself in her dream, and she sobbed and sobbed like the white man on the airplane, and then Danny woke her and spoke gently to her and held her and said, “The same dream again?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Agnes, if I could take the memories and wipe them out—”
“It’s not the memories, Danny,” Agnes whispered, touching his eyes gently where the epicanthic fold made his eyes seem to slant. “It’s now. It’s the people I can’t do a damn thing about now.”
“You couldn’t do a damn thing about them before,” Danny reminded her.
“But I’ve seen a place that could be heaven for them, and I can’t get them there.”
Danny smiled sadly. “That’s just it. You can’t. Now you’ve just got to let your dreams know that and give you a little peace.”
“Yes,” Agnes agreed, and fell asleep again holding and being held by Danny, while Roj and Roz piloted the skipship back toward Earth, which had seemed so large when they left it, and which now seemed unbearably, impossibly, criminally small.
Earth was large in the window of the skipship when Agnes finally decided that it was her dreams that were right, her conscious mind that was wrong. She could do something. There was something to be done, and she would do it.
“I’m going back there,” Agnes said.
“Probably,” Danny said.
“I won’t go alone.”
“You sure as hell better take me.”
“You,” she said, “and others.” Billions of others. It should be done. Must be done. Therefore would be done.
“Now I will tell you the story of the Masters,” said Hector to himselves, and the Hectors listened to himself. “This is the story of why the Masters penetrate and why the Masters hurt.”
Martha [Hector said] was administrator of Tests and Assignments in the sector where Cyril had been sentenced to death. Martha was hardworking and conscientious, and prone to double-check things which had already been checked and double-checked and triple-checked by others. This was why Martha discovered the mistake.
“Cyril,” she said when the guard let her into the clean white plastic cell where the coal miner waited.
“Just stick the needle in quick,” Cyril answered, wanting to get it over with quickly.
“I’m here to bring you the apologies of the state.”
The words were so strange, so never-before-heard that Cyril did not understand at first. “Please. Let me die and get it over with.”
“No,” said Martha. “I’ve done some checking. I checked into your case, Cyril, and I discovered that fifty years ago, just after all your tests were taken, your number was punched incorrectly by a moron of a clerk.”
Cyril was shocked. “A clerk made a mistake?”
“They do it all the time. It’s just easier, usually, to let the mistake go than to fix it. But in this case, it was a gross miscarriage of justice. You were given the number of a retarded man with a criminal bent, which is why you were not allowed to live in a civilized town and why you were not regarded as being capable of carpentry and why you were not allowed to marry Lika.”
“Just punched in the number wrong,” Cyril said, unable to grasp the minitude of the error that had such an enormous, disastrous effect on his own life.
“Therefore, Cyril, the Office of Assignments hereby, rescinds the execution order and grants you a pardon. Furthermore, we are undoing the damage we did. You can now live in the town where you wanted to live, among the friends you wanted to keep, dancing to the music you enjoyed. You do indeed, as you used to believe, have an aptitude and a desire to be a carpenter—you will be instructed in the trade and given your own shop. And Lika is entirely compatible with you. Therefore you and she will now be married, and in fact she is already on her way to the cottage where you will live together in wedded bliss.”
Cyril was overwhelmed. “I can’t believe it,” he said.
“The Office of Assignments loves you and every citizen, Cyril, and we do everything we can to make you happy,” said Martha, glowing with pride at the great kindness she was able to do. Ah, she thought, it is moments like this that make my job the best one in the world.
And then Martha went away to her office and forgot about Cyril most of the time for several months, though occasionally she did remember him and smiled to think of how happy she had made him.
After several months, however, a message crossed her desk: “Serious complaint Cyril 113-49-55576-338-bBR-3a.”
Cyril? Her Cyril? Complaining? Had the man no sense of propriety? He already had enough complaints and resistance on his record to justify terminating him twice, and now he had added enough more that if it were possible, the office would have to kill him three times. Why? Hadn’t she done her best for him? Hadn’t she given him everything his early (and now correctly recorded) tests indicated he wanted and needed? What could be wrong n
Her pride was involved. Cyril was not just being ungrateful to the state—he was being ungrateful to her. So she went to his cottage in his village, and opened his door.
Cyril sat in the main room, struggling to get past a gnarl in a fine old piece of walnut. The adz kept slipping to the side. And finally Cyril struck with enough force that when the adz slipped it gouged a deep rut in the good, ungnarled part of the wood.
“What a botch,” Martha said without thinking, and then covered her mouth, because it was not proper for a person of her high position to criticize anyone of low station if it could be avoided.
But Cyril was not offended. “Damn right it’s a botch. I haven’t the skill for this close, ticky work. My muscles are all for heavy equipment, for grand strokes with stone-eating power tools. This is beyond me, at my age.”
Martha pursed her lips. He was indeed complaining. “But isn’t everything else well with you?”
Cyril’s eyes grew sad, and he shook his head. “Indeed not. Much as I hate to admit it, I miss the old music from the mines. Terrible stuff, but I had good times with it, dancing away with those poor bastards who hadn’t a thought worth having. But they were good people and I liked them well enough, and here no one’s willing to be my friend. They don’t talk the way I’m used to talking. And the food—it’s too refined. I want a haunch of good, well-cooked beef, not this namby-pamby stuff that passes for food here.”
His diatribe of complaint was so outrageous that Martha could not conceal her emotion. Cyril noticed it, and became alarmed.
“Not that it’s unendurable, mind you, and I don’t go complaining to other people. Heaven knows, there’s no one who’d care to listen to me anyway.”
But Martha had already heard enough. Her heart sank within her. No matter what you do for them, they’re still ungrateful. The masses are worthless, she realized. Unless you lead them by the hand. . . .”
“You realize that this complaint,” she said, “can have dire consequences.”
by Orson Scott Card / Science Fiction & Fantasy / Poetry / Nonfiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes