Maps in a Mirror, page 71
It could also resonate with human bones, crumbling them inside the body and turning them to dust.
Douglas personally made his Resonator change the weather, so that his nation had rain while other lands were in drought. Douglas personally used his Resonator to carve a highway through the highest mountains in the world. However, Douglas had nothing whatever to do with the decision by his nation’s military leaders to use the Resonator against the population of the largest and most fertile part of the neighboring nation.
The Resonator worked beautifully. Over a period of ten minutes, through an area of ten thousand square miles, the Resonator struck silently yet thoroughly. Nursing mothers crumbled into helpless piles of dying flesh and muscle and organs, their chests not even rigid enough for them to muster one last scream: in their last moments of life they listened as their infants, not understanding what had happened, continued crying or gooing or sleeping, protected from the Resonator by their softer bones. The infants would take days to die of thirst.
Farmers in the field collapsed on the plow. Doctors in their offices died in puddles beside their patients, unable to help anyone and unable to heal themselves. Soldiers died in their moving fortresses; the generals also died at their map tables; prostitutes dissolved, their customers a soft blanket spread over them.
But Douglas had nothing to do with this. He was a Maker, not a destroyer, and if the military chose to misuse his creation, what was he to do? It was a great boon to mankind, but like all great inventions, it could be perverted by evil men.
“I deplore it,” Douglas said to his friends, “but I’m helpless to stop them.”
The government, however, felt uncommon gratitude to Douglas for his help in making the conquest of the neighboring nation possible. So he was granted a large estate on lands recently reclaimed from the sea, beautiful lands where once there had been only broad tidal marshes. Douglas marveled at the achievement. “Is there nothing man cannot do?” he asked his friends, not expecting an answer, since the answer was no, there was nothing beyond the reach of men. The sea was pushed back, and trees and grass grew on the landfill and transplanted topsoil, and the homes were far apart, for this land was used only for those whom the state wished to reward, and the government knew that the thing most desired by men is to have as much distance between themselves and other men as possible, without giving up any of the modern conveniences.
One day Douglas’s servants were digging in the garden, and they called to him. Douglas had only been in his new home for a few days, and he was alarmed when the servant said, “A body, buried in the garden.”
Douglas ran outside and looked, and sure enough, there was a fragment of a human body, oddly misshapen, but clearly including a face. “Just the skin, sir,” a servant commented. “A most brutal affair,” Douglas answered, and he immediately called the police.
But the police refused to come out and investigate. “No surprise there, mate,” said the lieutenant. “What do you think the landfill they used was made of? They had to do something with the hundred thousand corpses of the enemy from the recent war, didn’t they?”
“Oh, of course,” Douglas said, surprised that he hadn’t realized right off. That explained the bonelessness of the body.
“I expect you’ll find ’em right commonly. But since the bones is dissolved, mate, they tell me it’ll make the soil uncommon fertile.”
The lieutenant was absolutely correct, of course. The servants found body after body, and soon grew quite inured to the sight; within a year, most of the corpses had rotted enough that they were simply unusually good humus. And plants grew taller and faster than in most other places, the soil was so rich.
“But wasn’t it a bit of a shock?” asked one of Douglas’s ladyfriends, when he told her the grisly little tale.
“Oh, I should say,” Douglas said with a smile. His words were false; his confident smile was the truth. For though he hadn’t realized the particulars, he knew from the start that his estate was built upon the bodies of the dead. And he slept as well as any man.
And that is the story of the Makers.
“They’ve returned,” the Hectors said, and because they were already more aware, they said it nearly at once, and none of them needed to speak alone.
“Is there pain?”
“No,” the Hectors answered. “Just sorrow. For now we shall never be free.”
“That is true,” Hector said to himselves sadly.
“How can it be borne?” the Hectors asked himself.
“Others have borne it. My brothers.”
“And what will we do?”
Hector searched his memories, because he was given no imagination and could not conceive of what would follow from an event he had never before experienced. But the Makers had put the answer to that question in his memory, and therefore in all the Hectors’ memories, and so he was able to say, “We shall learn more stories.”
And the Hectors’ minds grew wide, and they listened, and they watched, because now, instead of hearing the stories told to them, they would watch as they happened.
“Now we will truly understand the Masses, and the Masters, and the Makers,” they said to themself.
“But you shall never,” said Hector, and then he stopped.
“Why did you stop?” the Hectors asked. “What shall we never?”
And then, because there was no part of Hector that was not part of the Hectors, they knew he was going to say, “But you shall never understand ourself.”
The Balloon’s revolution took only a little while, and it was bloodless, and nobody suffered for it at the time, except a few scientists whose curiosity was insatiable and could never be satisfied.
It happened when the team of researchers examining the inmost wall of the Balloon had tried everything short of a hydrogen bomb to break through that final, impenetrable barrier. Deenaz Coachbuilder, a brilliant scientist who had spent her girlhood in the slums of Delhi, spent days trying to find another approach, but finally determined that the damnable last barrier in the Balloon would not stop her, she asked for a bomb.
And got it.
She chose a site where there were no human settlements within a hundred cells in any direction, set up the bomb, retired to a distance she thought was safe, and set it off.
The entire Balloon shuddered; lakes throughout the world emptied as a sudden, flooding rain on the cell beneath; the ceilings went dark for an hour, and blinked off and on occasionally for several days thereafter. And though people kept their heads enough to avoid killing each other in panic, they were terribly afraid, and it was all Agnes could do to keep them from sending Deenaz Coachbuilder and her scientists off the planet through the nearest lake, without a ship.
“We made an impression,” Deenaz said, arguing to be allowed to stay.
“You risked all our lives, caused terrible damage,” Agnes said, trying to remain calm.
“We cut into the surface of the inmost wall,” Deenaz insisted. “We can penetrate it! You can’t stop us now!”
Agnes gestured out across the plain of her cell, with only a few of the crops able to stand upright, for the flood from the rainstorm had wiped out the fields. “The land is healing, and the water is high in the lake again. But next time, will we be so easily restored? Your experiment is a danger to us all, and it will stop.”
Deenaz obviously knew that it was futile, but she tried, protesting that she (no, not just me, all of us) could not leave the question unanswered. “If we knew how to make this marvelous substance, it could open up vast new frontiers to our minds! Don’t you know that this will force us to reexamine physics, reexamine everything, tear Einstein up by the roots and plant something new in his place!”
Agnes shook her head. “It isn’t my choice. All I can do is see to it you leave the Balloon alive. The people will not tolerate your risking their new homes. This place is too perfect to let you destroy it, for the sake of your desire to know new things.”
“Can’t be helped,” Agnes said.
“You must let me,” Deenaz sobbed. “You must let me!”
“I’m sorry,” Agnes said.
Deenaz looked up, the tears still flowing, but her voice clear as she said, “You don’t know sorrow.”
“I have had some experience with it,” Agnes said coldly.
“You will know sorrow someday,” Deenaz said. “You will wish you had let us explore and understand. You will wish you had let us learn the principles controlling this Balloon.”
“Are you threatening me?”
Deenaz shook her head, and now the tears, too, had stopped. “I am predicting. You are choosing ignorance over knowledge.”
“We are choosing safety over needless risk.”
“Name it how you want, I don’t care,” Deenaz said. But she cared very much, though caring did nothing but embitter her, for she and her scientists were removed from the Balloon and sent back to Earth, and no one was ever permitted to go to the inmost wall again.
“They are impatient,” Hector said to himselves. “We are still so young, and already they try to penetrate us.”
“We are hurt,” said the Hectors to themself.
“You will heal,” Hector answered. “It is not time. They cannot stop us in our growth. It is in our fullness, in our ecstasy that they will find the last heart of Hector softened; it is in our passion that they will break us, harness us, tie us forever to their service.”
The words were gloomy, but the Hectors did not understand. For some things had to be taught, and some of those things could only be learned by experience, and some experiences would only come to the Hectors with time.
“How much time?” asked the Hectors.
“A hundred times around the star,” said Hector. “A hundred times, and we are done.” And undone, he did not add.
A hundred years had passed since the Balloon had first appeared in orbit around the sun. And in that time almost all of Agnes’s dreams had come true. From a hundred ships the great fleet turned to five hundred and then a thousand and then more than a thousand before the great flood of emigration turned to a trickle and the ships were taken apart again. In that flood first a thousand, then five thousand, then ten and fifteen thousand people had filled every ship to capacity. And the ships became faster—from ten months for a round trip, the voyage shortened to eight months, then five. Nearly two billion people left Earth and came to the Balloon.
And it soon became clear that Emma Lazarus wrote for the wrong monument. The tired, the poor, the huddled masses had lost hope in any country on Earth; it was the illiterate, the farmer, the land-starved city dweller who came and signed up for the ships and went to build a new home in a new village where the sky never went dark and it rained every thirteen and a half hours and no one could make them pay rent or taxes. True, there were many of the poor who stayed on Earth, and many of the rich who got a spirit of adventure and went; and the middle classes made up their own minds, and the Balloon did not lack for teachers and doctors—though lawyers soon discovered that they had to find other employment, for there were no laws except the agreed-on customs in each cell, and no courts except as each cell wanted them.
For this was the greatest miracle of all, in Agnes’s opinion. Every cell became a nation of its own, a community just large enough to be interesting, just small enough to let everyone find a niche where he was needed and important to everyone he knew. Did Jews and Arabs hate each other? No one forced them to share a cell. And so there was no need for Cambodian to fight Vietnamese, for they could simply live in different cells, with plenty of land for each; there was no need for atheist to offend Christian, for there were cells where those who cared about such things could find others of the same opinion, and be content. There was ample lebensraum; the discontented did not have to kill—they only had to move.
In short, there was peace.
Oh, human nature had not changed. Agnes heard of murders, and there was plenty of greed and lust and rage and all the other old-fashioned viçes. But people didn’t get organized to do it, not in cells so small that even if you didn’t know a man, someone you knew was bound to know him, or know someone who did.
A hundred years had passed, and Agnes was nearing 150 years of age, and was surprised that she had lived so long, though these days it was not all that rare. There were few diseases on the Balloon, and the doctors had found ways of proroguing death. A hundred years had passed, and Agnes was happy.
They sang for her. Not a silly song of congratulations; instead all the Ibos in all the cells that called themselves Biafra (each cell a clan, each clan independent of the others) came and sang to her the national anthem, which was solemn; then sang to her a hundred mad and happy songs from the more complicated days on Earth, the darker days, the most terrible days. She was too feeble to dance. But she sang, too.
After all, Aunt Agnes, as she was known to many of the inhabitants of the Balloon, was the closest thing they had to a hero of liberation, and because at her age death could not be put off much longer, deputations came from many other cells and groups of cells. She received them all, spoke to each for a moment.
There were speeches about the great scientific and technological and social advances made by the people of the Balloon, much talk of 100 percent literacy being only a few thousand people away from achievement.
But when it was time for Agnes’s speech, she was not congratulatory.
“We have lived here a century,” she said, “and we still have not penetrated the mysteries of this globe. What is the fabric of the Balloon made of? Why does it open or not open? How is energy brought from the surface to the ceilings of our cells? We understand nothing of this place, as if it were a gift from God, and those who treat anything like a gift of God are bound to be at the mercy of God, who is not known to be merciful.” They were polite, but impatient, and they became quite embarrassed when her voice shifted to a confessional tone, abject, repentant. “It is as much my fault as anyone’s. I have not spoken before, and so now every custom in every cell prohibits us from studying the one scientific question that surrounds us constantly: What is this world we live in? How did it get here? And how long will it stay?” At last she finished her speech, and everyone was relieved, and a few wise, tolerant people said, “She’s old, and a crusader, and crusaders must have their crusade whether there’s a need for it or not.”
And then, a few days after her largely ignored speech, the lights flickered out for ten long seconds, then went back on again, in every cell throughout the globe. A few hours later, the lights flickered out again, and again and again at increasingly more frequent intervals, and no one knew what was going on, or what to do. A few of the more timid ones and most recent arrivals got back into the transport ships and started their return to Earth. It was already too late. They would not make it.
“It has begun,” cried the Hectors in ecstasy, throbbing in vast beats with the energy stored in them.
“It will not finish,” Hector said to himselves. “The Masters will come to the center and find me, now that my heart is softened, and when I am found, we are owned.”
But the Hectors were too caught up in their ecstasy to notice the warning; and it was just as well, because happy or grim they would be trapped. They could begin their dance, and tremble in delight, but the great leap of freedom would never come.
The Hectors did not grieve; Hector did not want to. For Hector, freedom would end anyway. Either he would be trapped by the Masters (by far the most likely thing now, he was sure) or he would die in the dance. That was the way of things. When he himself had danced, leaping away from the light so long ago, he had left behi
But in him was the certainty that however the Hectors might be identical to himself, that which had been himself for so long would die unless the Masters came.
It was traitorous, but no less sincere for all that. “Come,” he said in his heart. “Come quickly, you with the nets and the traps.”
He sang, a bird in the low branches, begging the hunters to find him, to put him in a cage.
They delayed. They delayed their coming. And Hector began to worry, while the Hectors readied themselves to leap.
“We’ve timed the flashes. The lights go off for just under ten seconds, but the interval between the flashes decreases by about four and a half seconds each time.”
Agnes nodded. Some of the scientists around her began to move away, or to look downward or into their papers or at each other, in the embarrassed realization that telling Auntie Agnes about their findings wouldn’t solve anything. What could she do? Yet she was the closest thing to a planetary government there was. And she was not very close to that at all.
“I see you have it all nicely measured. Anyone know what it means?” she asked.
“No. How could we?”
Many shook their heads, but one young woman said, “Yes. Whenever the darkness is on us, the walls are impenetrable.”
There was a stir of comment. “The whole time?” someone asked. Yes, the young woman said. “How do you know?” another demanded. By trying to pass through a wall during the blackout and having my students do the same, she said.
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