A transparent barrier marked the end of Pine Street. Street’s end, world’s end. Every terminal street was separated from The Wall by a curb and a gentle hillock decorated with artificial turf and plastic shrubbery. Atop the berm, an artist’s easel displayed a small, unfinished painting. It had been there for nearly an orbit, awaiting the middle of each sleep-rotation for its artist to return. It was in no danger of being stolen. The penalty for theft in The Towns was swift and brutal. Beyond stretched a bright gray landscape pocked with craters and high-contrast shadows; and across the void, the sacred subject of the polyester canvas.
A metallic whine of descending chromatic notes verified the silence. The 1 a.m. Electram was arriving at Pine Street Station with its only two passengers. A gangly girl, just past adolescence, stepped out onto the platform. Her dog-slave was at her side.
At nearly six feet, she was tall even for a townie. And those of her rank would’ve been obliged to say she was beautiful. But Baara saw nothing exotic in the mirror, only a slightly feminine version of her father.
The dog, in contrast, was a narcissist; and often fickle—true to "master" when he thought prancing and grooming might earn him a treat, but just as apt to bolt if the leash was dropped. At fifty planet-years old, his belly sagged a little. ("A result of having his own bedroom," Baara’s mom often quipped... Their town forbade yard dogs.) But his teeth were still decent. Few of the other "high-breds" lived to see their twenties. But his was a hardy breed. He was a full head taller than the girl, just under the height restriction for dogs on the tram. His arms and legs were sculpted in the ropy muscles of a worker, and his dark skin never burned.
“Come on, Skylax,” she said. “Maybe I’ll finish this morning, and then you can start sleeping in again.”
She could just see her easel at the end of the block, backlit in blue by the glow of The Earth. Earth: a word you were allowed to think, but to speak it was blasphemy. "The Planet" was the legal vernacular in public. In church, you called it "Heaven."
She walked, then skipped down the street, slowly gathering momentum. At full speed, a fit person could travel twenty feet with each stride. Skipping was the preferred gate of the young.
Skylax raced ahead for a moment, but quickly returned to her side. Something had his attention, and their pace slowed. On the left loomed a two story ranch-style skirted with faux-stone and sided in vinyl of pastel greens. Two wire-legged flamingos guarded the walkway. It was the house The Pastor and his wife. Skylax whimpered. He made no secret of the fact that he was sweet on the dog who lived there. They had been seen together on more than one occasion and made quite the pair: old Skylax and Goody Floyd’s seven-foot Giant Russian (who was not allowed on the Electram).
“Come on!” she said. “It’s the middle of the night. You can visit your girlfriend some other time.”
“Fine,” he growled. When Skylax spoke, it was always self serving. They passed the Royal Grocer, a few more houses, and finally her old school. Baara had attended Jonneff Kennedy Primary for the 45 orbits mandated by her caste. Her father had insisted on it. It would not do for the daughter of one of the Bailiff's councilmen to go elsewhere. It was highbrow and stuffy, just like her parents. But at least you could take art classes there.
She reached the end of the street and was climbing the hill just as the first pebbles of a meteor shower started bouncing off The Wall. She studied her painting. Each time she returned to it, it seemed a little different than she remembered. Often better. She opened her rucksack, produced seven vials of costly pigment, and got busy.
It had been Midday for the last few sleeps, and The Planet was half-lit and stunning. She blessed the sun. In fourteen more sleeps, Twilight would come, and The Planet would be but a crescent. For the serfs in the far away Villages, Midday would bring barely a planet at all.
The shower continued. And as she worked, the lullaby of the constant but irregular tapping set her mind adrift. She thought about The Villages. She had been to one once at Midday, and remembered there being something wrong with the roof over that part of the world. It had been a Church mission. She had taken pleasure in the sunburn she got there, and had been punished for it, forced to recite from The Book of Sins. Baara’s color was the pale pink reserved for the purest lineage. But sometimes, she envied the serfs their ruddy tone.
She had been much younger on that trip. The other kids had yet to learn "The Cycles" at Jonneff, and were shocked to find The Planet nearly overhead and almost totally dark. Straining to gaze brought unwanted attention. But here, at the lonely end of Pine Street, it always hung just off the horizon.
Its white smudges and swirls were ever changing. Sometimes, they were absent altogether, and the shape of the landmasses was revealed. Her version would show a bit of mountain, a bit of coastline; the way a prostitute might let the strap of her gown fall.
That’s where people go when they die—the word of God says so in the Book of Hereafters.
Funny how the mind works... A brief ecclesiastical thought, and she instantly imagined she could smell Pastor Floyd’s cologne. But then came the soft sound of footfalls on the turf behind her, and she knew the stink was real.
“Why hello there,” said the sugar-sick voice.
She turned and instinctively tried to hide the painting with her body. Skylax dashed away yelping.
“Don’t bother, sister Baara,” he said, feigning sympathy. “I’ve been watching for a while. You’ve got quite a talent there young lady.”
“It’s ju... It’s just a painting.”
“Oh, I know, I know. And a fine painting at that. Even if you are out here working on it after curfew bell.”
She visibly trembled.
“There, there, little’un,” he said. He had been trained in the preacher-speech—simple words had too many syllables—and even practiced it away from the pulpit. "There" sounded like They-ah.
Baara watched her own shoes make circles in the plastic grass and hated herself for it. Look him in the EYES! He has no REAL POWER!
“But you’re old enough to know better,” he continued, his voice darker. “Images of Heaven are for The Church alone to make.”
His cologne was dizzying. She looked up, and he was now close enough for her to marvel at the enormous dandruff flakes fossilized in the grease of his pompadour. “We wouldn’t want your father to find out,” he said.
She imagined his next words... "But maybe we can find a compromise..."
And had they been his next words, they would have been his last words. Baara would have killed Pastor Floyd right there on the berm. Her expensive school had also included self defense courses. She was already pre-visualizing. See the end of the battle before it starts. She could kill him. She knew it. With one vertical leap, she could kick his head four different ways before she landed. But what then?
“You know what I think?” he said looking upwards and stroking his over-shaved neck. “I think it’s not your fault, Baara. I think your young mind is being polluted by that Pharisee instructor of yours. What’s his name? Nathan?”
He clutched her shoulder as she reached for her painting. She twisted and tore away. “Wait, Baara...” he said. She leapt and hit the pavement at a dead run.
“Bye now!” the pastor called after her. “Tell Nathan I said Hellooo!”
Nathan Paskowitz lived alone in a modest bungalow on Pine and 3rd, two blocks away from The Wall. The place had an unused, almost abandoned look. Some former inhabitant had gone to great expense to paint the porch posts and scalloped dormer. Now the color was cracked and faded in many places, a drab sort of dirty yellow. Nathan did not believe in flower boxes.
His yard was similarly unadorned. Apart from the required flamingo, the only decoration was the occasional detritus that accumulated during scheduled wind events. About once an orbit, the neighbors would complain, and he would have to vacuum the lawn. A second complaint, and The Beadle would come calling.
He lived in the town of his birth, and he hated it there. He was a serf at heart, and he would have surely ended up in a Village (or worse) were it not for his good name... and the drive of his secret obsession: the thing just outside the glass at the end of Willow.
A tap on his back door yanked him from another alien dream; a dream of water falling from high cliffs under a blue sky. He rose and groped for the light switch. The grimy old plastic venetian blinds that hung over his bedroom window were closed. He preferred darkness for sleep—26 and still young at heart. But lately, Nathan had been keeping the shades drawn all the time.
“What the hell?” he said, his voice gravelly. He glanced at the clock and bounce-floated over the junk on the kitchen floor.
Bang, Bang, BANG!
He turned the knob. The door flew open, forcing him to shield his eyes from the glare. To his amazement, someone stepped across the threshold, slammed the door, and pushed past him carrying a stretched canvas.
He squinted at his guest, letting his eyes adjust. “Oh, it’s you,” he said finally. He watched her peek through the blinds that covered the little window over the kitchen sink. “Good evening Baara. Or is it good morning? The kettle’s just starting to sing.”
“What?” she huffed and gave him a staggered look. She was panicky, out of breath.
“Will you be having English Breakfast or Darjeeling with your biscuits?”
“Please! No gibberish talk Mr. P,” she said. “I think we’re in trouble.”
“I thought we decided you were going to call me Nathan. Especially in my house."
Her face lit up with the beginnings of a smile. “My mother thinks what her pills tell her to think.”
“Ohhh,” he said. And his comic expression made her smile widen.
“Nathan,” she began.
She had been in love with this man for a planet-year, and had known it for six orbits. To address her former teacher with his common name, in his own home... The sound of it...
It was a lovely, forbidden sound.
It had sounded dangerous and offensive when she whispered it into her pillow. But now, in the quiet of his kitchen, the sound was velvet and gunfire. She stood silent, considering ambience; and for a moment, forgot the peril at hand.
“Yes,” he prompted.
“Pastor Floyd just caught me with this,” she said, and showed Nathan the painting.
The Pastor crept back into his house. Nikita heard the click of the deadbolt and floated over to greet her owner. She would have barked, but Floyd enjoyed his secret after-curfew activities. A Vocal Cordectomy at the vet's kept the dog silent, and the goody none the wiser.
He slipped off his shoes and went to the kitchen. He opened a cabinet and brought out a box of Puppi-Choos—little bone shaped snacks made of hardened protein paste. They were manufactured in The Villages and marketed to wealthy townies. Floyd giggled at the dual hypocrisy: The serfs hated all forms of slavery, especially the idea of "human dogs." And The Church maintained that any alteration or misuse of The Sacred Paste was sacrilege.
“My flock would disapprove,” he said to Nikita and held up a treat, making her beg. He pulled her close. “But we know how to keep secrets, don’t we?” he added in a whisper.
Melissa had wanted one of those twelve-fingered mongrels you had to push around in a stroller. All the other goodwives had them. But when he told her that The Beadle had located a much rarer Giant Russian female, she had squealed. "Talk about bragging rights! Those bitches will be jealous!" she had said, literally singing that last word. The pastor had only smiled at his wife. She never suspected that her husband was planning far better uses for the dog.
He pulled her face down to his level and kissed her. “Later,” he said, pushing her away. She gave a hoarse moan and sulked back into the living room. She knew what "later" would bring.
Floyd reached for the phone and dialed a number from memory. Two rings... Three... “Pick up, you s.o.b.”
“Mornin’, Beadle,” Floyd said.
“Uh, good morning, R.J.”
“I got it.”
A pause. Then the sound of a phlegmy throat clearing. “You got evidence?”
“Yah, I just got video of his apprentice painting a very naughty picture. Looks like she might not make it into their highfalutin’ Artist’s Gild.”
Another pause. “When?”
“Give me a couple sleeps,” Floyd said. “I have to present it to the Bailiff for approval. In the meantime, oil your rifle.”
“I thought Pascowitz was a freeman, you know, due process and all that bullshit.”
“Doesn’t apply in heresy cases.”
“I don’t know, Ronnie,” said The Beadle. “Do you know how old these bullets are? What if I miss?”
“If you miss, he’ll run! Who cares! Somebody’ll give a hue and cry, and he’ll be tackled from all sides. You know how bloodthirsty people are. He’ll have his fifteen minutes in court, and we’ll watch him spark. Either way, just do your goddamned job!” He loosened his tie. His doctor had spoken to him about anger and strokes. And The Beadle had a way of putting him right in the red zone.
“Okay, okay... Take it easy... What about the girl. Should I kill her too?”
“No, you idiot. Bill Davis is a good man, one of my deacons. Besides, once the dust settles, Daddy will probably make her wish you would’ve.” They both laughed, and The Pastor hung up. He never said goodbye to anyone on the phone.
“Nikita, get in here!” he called.
Nathan stared in wonder. He reached for it, carefully, as if it were some precious and brittle thing. “Where did you get this?” he asked softly.
“I painted it,” she said. “Or at least I’m painting it. It’s not done yet. Careful, it’s wet.”
“You painted this?”
“Yes!” she said, noticing that his look of astonishment had swung a degree or two towards doubt. “It’s for you... for your birthday.”
“Oh, Baara... It’s, it’s beautiful.” He stroked his stubble and left his palm over his mouth. Whether it was a look of amazement or of horror, Barra could not tell. “But my god, why? Why The Planet?”
Her smile vanished. “And I thought we decided we were both going to call it The Earth, that it wasn’t a cussword.”
Nathan took a turn peeking through the blinds. His expression was unmistakable now: panic, and a fair amount of anguish. “Fine, why The Earth then?”
“He’s after us, isn’t he?”
“No Baara... just me. And The Pastor isn’t the only one. He’s barely a pawn in the game, in fact.” He sighed. “I guess you’d might as well know. I have secrets that have been found out. It was inevitable. And now I’m a wanted man. But I never wanted to involve anyone else...” He examined the painting once more and then looked up, seeking her eyes. “Especially you. What would’ve made you pick this subject?”
“Oh come on, Nathan! Think about it... All that talk about life on other worlds, all that time you spent in The Villages, and the stories of what you did there. Did you think I wasn’t paying attention?” Her voice was raspy, and tears clung to her lashes. “And back in school, when we were outside at recess... how you gazed at The Earth, mesmerized by it. Nobody noticed. But I did... I noticed!”
He set the painting on the counter and enveloped her in his arms. “I’ve hung on your every word since fifth grade!” she said with a muffled bellow. Her tears bled through his tee shirt.
“I know... You’re right... And I’m sorry. I just wish I had more time.” He held her at arm’s length, finding her eyes again. “I’m going to break your heart today.”
He led her up the stairs to a cramped finished attic. It looked like the rest of the house, bits of paper strewn everywhere; some of it scrawled with rudimentary art, most of it blank but yellowed. His curriculum required a lot of paper, and although the school could afford the expensive factory recycled stuff, Nathan wouldn’t use it. He refused to buy anything from the Royal Factories. To him, they were just another exploitation of serfs. So the kids in his class never got to keep their work. When they turned in assignments, he tacked them to his roof to sun-bleach so that someone else could reuse the paper. During Midday, the process didn’t take long.
He suddenly squatted and launched up to the underside of the roof peak. As he floated down he showed Baara the key he’d hidden up there. He unlocked a door at the far end of the room and revealed an even smaller unfinished section. A plank walkway crossed over exposed joists to a gable wall. The window was covered by a heavy curtain, but the room was full of natural light nevertheless. He had cut a jagged hole in his roof. Bits of plywood and shingle still lay where they had landed.
Illuminated, as if by a spotlight, was a long black cylinder. Its wider end was held up to the hole by an aluminum tripod. “It’s called a telescope,” said Nathan. “You look through it, and it makes things appear closer... a lot closer.” He walked over to it and started tinkering, eventually putting his eye up to the small end. “Ah! Crystal clear day in Western South Dakota.”
“Is it... legal?”
He held a small keypad that was connected to the underside of the telescope by a curly cable. He chuckled as he entered some final data into the pad. “Come over here and take a look... and tell me if you think it’s legal.”
Baara approached the contraption. She could tell from its angle just what thing the telescope was magnifying. She mimicked Nathan and looked into the eyepiece. “Now that I’m probably committing an unpardonable sin, what exactly am I looking at?” she asked.
“You’re looking at the top of George Washington’s head. You can see his nose, and his big collars are really clear. The other one is Thomas Jefferson. There are two more men, but they’re harder to make out.”
“And you named them, did you?”
“No, I didn’t. And are you gonna be surprised when you find out who did.”
She fished a broken stick of pastel from her front pocket, reached up, and scribbled something on a nearby truss. “What’s this?” she asked, pointing to her creation.
“A smiley face?”
“No, it’s a curved line and two circles drawn inside a larger circle. Your subconscious mind interpreted it as a face. That’s called ‘pareidolia.’ We all do it. People who hang out at The Wall see faces out in the gray all the time—I’ve even done it myself.”
She paused and looked back into the eyepiece. “But I’m afraid... that if The Lords were so inclined...” she said and looked back to Nathan. “They could roll out an even bigger telescope and prove that George Jefferson is actually nothing more than rocks and shadows.”
“I’m impressed. Your education continues. But here’s what amazes me more:” He took the pastel from her, and as he continued, erased the smile from her doodle and replaced it with a frown. “You’ve been taught that what seems like the truth can actually be a lie; there’s even a fancy name for it. But no one bothered to mention how the telephone works, or the electram... or the gun. Everything’s explained in church with just two sentences: ‘It’s always been here. Ask no further questions.’ Oh, and by the way, they wouldn’t try to prove anything.”
“Right, I know... If you were crazy enough to spread this around, they’d just put you in the stocks.”
Nathan laughed and took her hand. “Come on. I’ve got a lot more to show you.” He led her back across the attic. At the edges of the room, the sloped ceiling was connected to a three-foot knee wall. He crouched and began to run his fingers along the paneling. There was a springy click. He slid back a portion of the wall to open a secret crawl space. He reached in, and with some effort dragged out a long, heavy box.
They sat on the carpet next to it, and Baara casually kicked off her shoes. She had never taken her shoes off in his house before and wondered if he would even notice.
She helped him open the lid. A cloud of styrofoam packing peanuts escaped, and she started trying to collect them out of the air. “Never mind,” he said. “I’ll get the vacuum later.” Inside the box was a row of large books. The words "Collier’s Encyclopedia" were embossed in gold along the length of every black spine. But on one end of each was a different numeral printed within a narrow red band. She gasped as she counted them. There were twenty-four in all.
“This amount of paper is worth as much as your house,” she whispered, her eyes wide.
“More, actually. But the value’s not in the paper.” He lifted one out from the middle. As he opened it, his face warmed at the sort of crackling noise the binding made. He turned pages until he came to a place that was marked with a satiny red ribbon. “Here,” he said and handed her the book.
“Mount Rush-more Na-tional Memorial... a sculp-ture carved into the granite of Mount Rushmore near Keystone, South Da-kota,” she read. After a moment, she glanced up and saw confusion on his face. “What? What’s the matter?”
“Nothing... only... You just read something written in the old-style, almost flawlessly. I can’t even navigate all those extra letters. Not that well.”
Baara shrugged her shoulders. “I guess we’re both full of surprises tonight. What the heck are these? Where did they come from?” Then she pointed to the image on the page. “And what is this? Are you telling me this is an image of what I just saw through your telescope, only from the side—somehow drawn on paper?”
He slapped his palm to his forehead. “Oh, yah! How could I forget? There’s so much you don’t know,” he said. She could tell he was enjoying himself. “Never mind Mount Rushmore, you’ve never even seen original paper. And the only photographs you’ve ever seen are on TV screens.”
He took the book from her, closed it, and put it back in its place. He retrieved another, this time from near the beginning of the collection. She got a better look at the cover: #2 Collier’s Encyclopedia amen to artillery.
“How long have you been apprenticed to me?” he asked her as he thumbed more pages. “Eight years? You’re a Journeyman as far as I’m concerned, and something as good as your Earth could’ve been your masterpiece. In fact, I don’t personally know a master who could’ve outdone it. But hold on to your socks.”
He did notice my shoes were off... But, what does that mean?
Again, he handed her a book. Baara spent the next several minutes lost in a dreamy chronology of master painters: Giotto, Da Vinci, Michelangelo... all of them were breathtaking, but all of them somehow reminded her of Sunday morning. Bosch in particular made her think of The Pastor in a disturbing way. Toward the end of the article she smiled at examples of Picasso and Jackson Pollock, but winced a little at Salvador Dali’s "Soft Construction with Boiled Beans." Finally, she turned back to the middle to gaze again at the Impressionists. They inspired her. And it came to her that they must have been thinking for themselves, that no one told them what they could and couldn’t paint. She had been considering the melancholy work of Claude Monet when Nathan broke the silence.
“You’re wondering what a haystack is,” he said quietly. “Part of you is wondering why the sky behind every subject is blue instead of black. And part of you knows the answer.”
She looked at him in awe.
“Like I said, I wish I had more time, but I don’t. I’m going to have to speed this up and tell you everything I’ve wanted to tell you for years.” He grabbed another book and opened it to a ribbon marker. “This is where we are, Baara,” he said. On the page was a bright circular shape in a sea of blackness, its texture the same as the cratered landscape she saw outside The Wall every day. Nathan pointed to the ceiling. “But that’s where we came from. That’s where we belong.”
He closed the book and gripped it tightly. He caressed the cover with his thumbs. “I’ve spent years reading these things,” he said. “Inside these ancient books are answers to questions you didn’t even know you had. For instance, ever wonder why you needed darkness to sleep when you were little? It’s because our sleep cycles are timed with The Earth’s rotation.”
“Yah, I’ve noticed. I guess I’ve been paying more attention to The Earth lately than most people do.”
“And trust me, a lot more than The Church wants you to. But The Church told you the truth about one thing: It is paradise there. There were literally millions of different kinds of creatures. There was weather and seasons and lots of other things you couldn’t even begin to understand. But the thing is, we were messing it up, the whole planet. We were polluting the air and the oceans. We were warming the climate and killing off all the other life forms. So I think somehow we just... came here... to give The Earth a chance to heal itself. But from what I can see through the lens of my telescope, I’d say it’s alive and well now. We’ve been here long enough. It’s time for us to go back, to go home... But we’ve forgotten the way.”
“You really believe that?”
“Yes I do. And I think you do too. Haven’t you wondered, Baara? Hasn’t an uncomfortable feeling been creeping into your heretic’s soul? That maybe there’s more to the story, maybe a lot more? The original Bible says we kicked ourselves out of paradise once. Maybe we did it again.
“But that was then,” he continued, calming himself. “Let’s talk about now for a minute. If we came here for a reason, why is it that we’ve been allowed to forget that reason? Tell me, how does the whole thing work? Government, society, law, all of it... Sum it up for me.”
“You know all that stuff,” she said.
“Right, but just pretend we’re back in school. I know I was only your art teacher, but humor me.”
“Well let’s see... There are half a million people in The Kingdom, give or take. Dad used to be a census taker, and he says there are more people in The Villages than we think; they don’t always follow the reproduction laws.”
“No, they don’t,” he said. “But they die a lot faster than we do. Go on.”
“Okay, so... The Citizens and their children live in The Towns; some people call them The Suburbs. You have to be a member of one of The Gilds to become a Citizen. That’s why we go to school and become apprenticed.” She beamed at him in a sarcastic way. “Like I’m apprenticed to you!”
“Right,” he said. “Keep going.”
“And... The serfs live in The Slums or The Villages. The Lords make the laws. And every Town has a Bailiff and Reeves and Beadles and so on to enforce the laws. Oh, and The Church runs The Church, I guess.”
“Is that it?”
“Yah, that’s pretty much it.”
He shook his head. “See what I mean? The history lessons at school ignore everything but the most recent minutiae. Other than that, there’s nothing to know. ‘We’ve always been here. Ask no further questions.’ But some of the serfs have kept a calendar. We’ve really only been here for a little over four hundred planet-years. And in the beginning, everything looked like The Suburbs.” He opened yet another volume. “And everybody had soil and seeds,” he said. “What can you get down at the Royal Grocer?”
He passed the book to her. “Not that you’ve ever tasted a fruit or a vegetable in your life, but that is what a grocery store looked like back on Earth. What does the one in your neighborhood sell?”
She looked at the picture. “Sacred Paste,” she said in a distant voice.
“Yummy. But in the beginning, the paste was free, and everybody had access to it. It was their only food while they awaited the first harvest. But the weird part—the part I haven’t figured out yet—is that just like today, nobody knew where it came from. But they did know where and when it would arrive. And I think that’s what started the war... Someone decided to take control of it.
“By the time the shooting stopped, the people had divided into two separate classes. And much of the world, including the crops, was damaged. The upper class got to live in the areas that were unaffected, while the serfs were confined to the areas that were ruined. You call it The Slums—an old Earth word by the way. Wanna know what they call it? ‘The Promised Land.’ Can’t say they don’t have a sense of irony.
“The victors dubbed themselves ‘The Lords’ and immediately seized the guns and the paste. They rewrote the Magna Carta, and The Church rewrote The Bible; both of them designed to hide the truth. Any use of seeds is illegal; any talk of The Earth is immoral. The Lords own your stomach, and The Church owns your soul. And still, nobody knows where the paste comes from, or the fresh water, or where any of it goes after we flush it.”
“You have an interesting version of history for a teacher,” she said. “We were always told that The Villages were shitty because the serfs had no pride.”
“The Villages are shitty because every time a Citizen needs a new window, or a new patch of turf, or a new coat of paint, or a new pair of shoes... everything from Floyd’s cologne to your mom’s pills... It’s all recycled out of their homes, their clothes, their streets, their schools! Their lives, Baara.”
She closed the book, and after staring at its cover for a moment said, “But we’re good to them too. I’ve been on Church missions.”
“Missions... you pass out paste and prayer books, but they’ve got better sense than that. They know you’re really passing out collars and leashes. You can’t convince them that all of this just magically sprang from the dust. If anybody knows that there are no natural resources here, it’s them. When I’m gone, and the new denizen of this house wants to fix the hole I put in the roof, some serf gets a new hole in his. It’s that simple.”
A knock at the front door.
Nathan snatched the encyclopedia from her and threw it back in the box. Together, they pushed the box into its hole, and Nathan closed the secret door. “Stay up here,” he whispered. He glided silently down the banister and was soon out of Baara’s sight.
“It’s only your dog-slave,” he said after a breathless moment. “Maybe he needs his collar tightened.”
Skylax barked and rushed up the stairwell. He tackled Baara and licked her face. “Gross! GET OFF ME!” she shouted. Nathan topped the stairs, and Skylax looked back and forth between them, grinning and panting.
Nathan brought out the encyclopedia box again. “Perfect timing,” he said as he lifted out another volume. “So while we’re talking about serfs and their uses, what exactly is old Skylax there?”
“Uh, he’s my dog. He was my dad’s dog before I came along. He’s a South African Brown if you want to get technical.”
“Wrong!” he shouted. “I’m not even going to bother with showing you South Africa... but this is a dog!” He thrust the open book toward her, prepared to savor a look of bewilderment that did not come. She scanned the photograph of a German Shepherd and gave Nathan a flat stare. “You’re still not getting it,” he said. “We had pets back on Earth. But we didn’t bring any with us, and we miss them. So, we decided to enslave the next best thing: each other!
“What you have there is known as a human being; the same as you and me. He is the product of selective breeding. Just like the those expensive Terriers the noblewomen carry around... They have twelve fingers and toes because they suffer from a disorder called polydactyly. It comes with host of other problems that plague their short, miserable lives. Back on Earth, we were trying to eradicate defects like that, or the marfan syndrome that will eventually kill Floyd’s plaything. But not here... Here, we encourage them, just so we can have something cuddly to dress up and take to the groomers.”
Baara looked at Skylax. He had fallen asleep. She looked back to the encyclopedias. “Where did you get these?”
“It doesn’t matter.” The room was quiet except for Skylax’s snoring and the tic of Nathan’s grandfather clock down in the hallway. “I got them in a village, Baara. I don’t remember which one. It was a very long time ago.”
Just then, the clock started its Westminster racket. “Four o’clock... Shit!” she said, putting on her shoes. She jumped and floated down to the landing, avoiding the stairs.
“Go out the back!” he called after her. “And steer clear of Floyd’s neighborhood! Don’t take the Tram! And come back TONIGHT!”
She closed the back door behind her. Walking home on strange streets might be a little tricky, but she would make it long before her parents woke up. She could feel her heart beat in her chest for a different reason: Nathan Paskowitz wanted to see her again tonight.
Baara came back the next night, and the next. She read about trees. She read about animals and microbes. She read about cars and airplanes and ships and rockets. She read about cities and nations, governments and wars, and the history of man on Earth. She read about water and snow. She read about love.
She always took off her shoes, and soon it seemed a normal thing. But when she entered his kitchen on the fourth night, Nathan said, “Leave them on. We’re going for a walk.”
“I want to show you what I’ve been promising. I want to prove to you that everything I’ve told you isn’t just an elaborate hoax.”
“I know it’s not,” she said. “I believe you now, Nathan. I believe it all.”
“Then it’s time to finish it,” he said and led her into the living room.
Shoved into one corner was a battered roll top desk. He pulled a drawer from it and rifled through some junk until he found a small envelope. “But first things first. Hold out your hand.” She did, and from the envelope he emptied into her palm what looked to be a small piece of grit.
“What is it?” she asked.
“The meaning of life... Or at least the power of creation. It’s an actual seed. And this is a ritual in The Slums.” He closed her hand around it. “May it bless you,” he said in a still voice and closed his eyes. “May you come to know its authority. May you come to understand that it must go the way of your heart, and break asunder; that it too will spill its life all around.”
His tone was somber, as if he were reading an epitaph.
It’s almost over, she thought.
She looked upon the seed for a moment and steeled her face. “Sounds like serf talk,” she said. She let it fall back into the envelope, and stuffed it into her pocket.
They left through the front door. He kicked his flamingo, and Baara laughed. They walked down 3rd to the next intersection, and then turned up Willow, heading toward The Wall. As they went along, they began to hear the familiar sound of tiny stones hammering the invisible roof. “Meteor shower’s starting in again,” she said. Other than that, they hardly spoke.
He held her hand as they climbed the berm. He pointed down to the ground just outside the glass. There, not three feet away, was a strange imprint in the dust. It was ovular in shape and crossed with thick parallel lines. There were several more just like it leading away in a regular path. They were footprints, made by heavy boots. There could be no doubt.
“Apollo 11?” she asked.
“17 actually. Those prints belong to either Schmitt or Cernan.”
tap... tap, tap, ping...
As she stood there, watching occasional meteorites kick up little clouds, she became suddenly astounded by the view she’d been intentionally looking past for so long.
“The Towns are situated mostly in the Taurus-Littrow Valley where they landed,” he continued. “And The Villages are all scattered out there; out in The Sea of Tranquility and beyond, as far as The Sea of Vapors. And I could’ve stayed there, safe from all this. There are vast gardens there hidden behind walls of junk. I could’ve stayed out there and lived happily.
“But, I had to come back here, to find this,” he said pointing to the footprints. “This was my proof. And it’s become my absolution. And so, here I am, teaching art to the heirs and heiresses of Township #97.
“And here is where they found me. They will take away the telescope, the books, my house... probably my life. And probably soon. But these footprints are yours now, and they will always be just beyond their reach.”
She could hold her tears no longer. “I’m so sorry I made that stupid painting!” she cried.
“Can’t you see what I’m trying to say? Yes... Here is where they found me. But here is where I found you, Baara... It doesn’t matter what happens now.”
“Where did you get the encyclopedias, Nathan?”
Tap... Ting, Ping... The meteor shower was getting heavier, louder.
POW! She instantly knew that the last one was different; that it had somehow struck the inside of the glass, and that its trajectory had led through Nathan’s chest.
She looked in the direction of the echoing CRACK of The Beadle’s gun. Standing with him in a grove of vinyl palms was The Pastor and Baara’s traitorous hound.
“Et tu, Brute?” she whispered. Skylax lowered his head and skulked away.
Nathan looked at her, his eyes confused and questioning. She touched his pale face. They knelt together, and she leaned him against The Wall.
“They were my father’s... secret... He didn’t know I knew,” he whispered between heavy rattling gasps. “He doesn’t know I took them... Please don’t say... He doesn’t deserve...” His grip on her hand relaxed as he began to fade. “Didn’t have time... time to tell you... that... I love...”
“Hush, my darling,” she said. “You’ll have nothing but time now.”
She kissed him and tasted blood on his lips.
He closed his eyes. And gravity could no longer hold him.
A doe and her fawn grazed along the edge of a meadow. It was mid-morning. A gang of Red Eared Sliders sunbathed on a muddy bank—hypnotized by damsel flies and sunbeams—while a flock of Goldfinches pecked at thistle flowers nearby.
A covey of quail suddenly exploded from their hiding place in the sedge grass, sending the finches darting and singing over the water. The turtles disappeared into the murky depths of the pond.
The doe raised her tail and stamped. There were two strange animals lying over in the weeds. She knew their form from the legends that told of their evil. “Those are humans... Run!” she said and snorted. She stamped again. But the fawn, ever curious, took a step forward. The doe bolted and tore through the undergrowth beneath a grove of ancient beach trees. The fawn stayed, and listened, but understood little of what she heard.
“Awake,” said the woman to the man. She leaned over him and supported his head. He looked weak, like a newborn in the grass, dazzled by everything around him. He tried to rise, but couldn’t.
“So I’ve died then,” said the man to the woman.
“No. Your wound is healed,” said the woman. “And you will live long here. You have the knowledge, and I will leave you the books. They are rightfully yours after all.”
“I don’t understand,” said the man.
“I suspected you had them from the time of our first meeting long ago. But I had to be sure,” replied the woman. “And through them, you understand nearly everything. But know this: You have never left paradise by your own choosing. You have always been expelled...
“I took part in your final expulsion. I and my ilk have saved many worlds and will yet save many more. But yours was unique for me. For it was here that I gave my heart to a bit of plague. Now I’ve done so again, and in my pity have returned you unto the world that was purified of you. But you will not multiply, and in a breath of time She will be rid of you forever.”
Seeing that the man still did not understand, the woman continued, “Most of your kind perished on the day of cleansing, the day when we removed all of your poisons, your towers and machines, your chemicals and your trash... all of it... all that you had wrought. But there was a disagreement over what to do with the few of you that had survived. Some wanted to finish you off. But others said, No, put them on their moon, with the planet they so mistreated forever in the sky. See how long they can live without Her. Then there was the question of what to provide you. Let them have what they desire most, someone said. Money then, somebody jested. Little houses with yards of plastic grass, said another. One of them said, They must have water and protein... why not give them good dirt and fertile seeds? Then somebody said, Television! And a darker voice among us said, No... Give them guns.
“When at last I spoke, I raised my voice and said, ‘I will give one man a set of encyclopedias and a telescope.’ They thought me mad, but I insisted. I knew this man must go like the rest. But I knew also that he loved The Earth, and I wanted him to remember it. For I loved your ancestor... just as I have loved you.”
The man’s breathing was labored. He lay on his back, stunned as though he had fallen from a high place. “Stay with me,” he said.
“All that you have known of me was but a brief sojourn,” the woman said and smiled. “I needed to know what happened to my gifts. I needed to see if there were any left among you so wise and kind as the one I had once cherished. There is one at least. I find proof enough in your laughter. I needed to find my absolution, and I did... I never planned on having my heart broken asunder, but I did that too. And the seed of my heart will spill its life all around.”
She kissed him deeply and then vanished like pollen in wind.
The man opened his eyes fully to see the goldfinches return, and the beach trees beyond; and farther still, water falling from high cliffs under a blue sky.