Terror. What I felt was pure terror. I couldn't get out of the train!
Verity was on the platform, on the other side of glass too thick to break, running alongside the train tearstreaks on her face shining in subterranean light and the doors wouldn't open for me, and I could not, could not leave her behind. I would tell her everything that was happening to me--the blues, Alma, everything, and that would heal us, bring us through all these changes so that we could connect with one another again, just as if she might be Mother Ann, the Being I always told everything to, a new sort of Mother Ann--
Mother Ann, made from nan, Mother Ann, made from nan, ran through my mind as she vanished backwards into the absurdity of it all, the way I had run into this trap, the god damned newness of me, the way the train rushed into a tunnel of streaming lights and a woman's voice filled the air with "We are now beneath the Mississippi River"-- beneath! beneath!--called forth laughter and tears until I was little better than a maniac, screaming "Verity!" as the voice said, "Please take your seat until we reach cruising speed, sir."
Acceleration rather than volition pushed me into the seat. It was soft and covered with silver leather and as I was pressed back into it a more intimate voice in my ear said, "Welcome to first class service to Los Angeles aboard the Western Zephyr."
Well, now I'd done it. I'd severed myself from all that was even remotely familiar. I was moving like an arrow of light into unknown territory so fast it almost took my breath away. Not only that, the train was eerily empty. Everyone in Cairo, apparently, thought this a bad idea.
I jumped up though speed pressed me against the back of the seat and looked around. My guitar!
I was looking backwards thinking I may have put it on the floor between the seats and it slid that way when someone tapped me on my shoulder and my heart nearly jumped out of my chest.
I whipped around ready to kill and saw my guitar, held by a man in a suit so white it almost gleamed. I looked up into his eyes which were blue and strangely blank. "Sorry to startle you, sir. My sensors are not working properly and to get a strong enough sample I had to touch you. You left this on one of the seats up front."
I grabbed it from him and barely refrained from hugging it. "What sensors?" I asked.
He tapped his nose. "My met processor. At one time I could get a more than sufficient sample from the air. I only needed one part per million. And I could sort very quickly! Now . . . " he shrugged and looked at his hands.
"Yes, sir." He dropped into the seat next to and his eyes were now earnest as well as blank, if that is possible. I realized that the eyes of most people are framed by a constantly shifting musculatory landscape, which he lacked. I swallowed hard as my throat was suddenly quite dry.
"Metapheromones." He brushed the guitar with his fingertips and then showed them to me. They glimmered with a complex pattern of color, mostly purple and gold. He touched me with his other hand and displayed both of them. His fingertips looked identical. "I'm sorry. It's roundabout, I know."
"I'm the only person in here anyway, aren't I? I mean, besides--you." I didn't mean to be rude. But I couldn't really think of him as a person. I didn't know what other category to put him in though.
"Oh, no, sir, not at all."
I wasn't sure how to take that. "Where are they?"
He held up one finger and smiled. "Five cars back. I must go see to her." He patted my shoulder lightly. "Don't be sad."
"Sad?" I asked, startled.
He glanced at his hands, and added, "Or melancholy, or bereft. He stood. "Why not order your dinner?" He strode off behind me.
"When can I get off?" I shouted over my shoulder, but the door at the back of the car was sliding shut and I was alone.
Numbers of light at the front of the car, just above the door, hovered around 74 MPH. Although this was faster than I had ever moved, I thought that it must be slow for this kind of train. We had long ago emerged from beneath the river and I was sorry that I had let the attendant distract me from the moment. I was on the train now, I might as well experience it fully. Exhilaration washed in and lapped loneliness until I was suffused with an odd mixture of both. As I leaned toward the window the interior light above me dimmed so that I could see out.
Twilight deepened the sky and the landscape was one of green rolling hills, low and clothed in young pines with long needles which caught the sun's last rays. Indeed, we moved past them so swiftly that it was more of a panorama than I had expected, and when I glimpsed a white house down a lane I wondered if I had only imagined it, so short was that instant.
Behind us the sky was black and lightning played through the clouds every few second, connecting with Cairo, now just a small low prickle of lights. Then I could not even see that and instead stared into the final orange glare of the sun beneath lowering clouds and then that too was swallowed by a v in the low hills and a spectacular greenish twilight gave way to indigo gleaming with stars. It was strange to be separated from the weather.
"Would you like a drink?" the voice asked, interrupting my thoughts. I looked around, but it seemed to be coming from the air.
"I'm not thirsty."
"Dinner is served in the dining car in fifteen minutes," said the voice. "Do you wish to order?"
That was choose. I knew that. "How?"
"Do you wish to have an appetizer?"
"Oysters on the half shell, crayfish chowder, fois gras."
I was starting to get tired of asking questions. "Oysters?"
"Blue point or Olympia. I apologize for the limited selection but we have experienced a minute disintegration in our programs for Point Reyes 33 and do not feel as if they are up to our high standards."
"Real crayfish fresh from Cairo, sir. Loaded less than three hours ago. Highly recommended."
"What was that other thing?"
I'd eaten plenty of goose livers in my life and didn't especially see the need to have any more. "Crayfish," I said.
"Excellent choice, sir. You may order the rest of your dinner when you arrive in the dining car."
"How do I get there?" I asked, but there was no reply.
I pulled my guitar strap over my shoulder and headed toward the back of the car.
Some of the seat backs had little colored pictures playing across them. One caught my eye--some flower city. But as I watched, the colors flowed swiftly upward and changed into a pattern wild and entrancing, like dancing flames of yellow and violet which shifted gradually through the spectrum. I felt as though I could watch that cycle for hours and for that reason walked on swiftly and did not allow my eyes to rest on any of the other screens.
A door slid open as I approached the end of the car and I crossed an interface which contained the noise of wind but which was otherwise silent and walked into the next car. This was arranged differently. I was in a narrow corridor punctuated every few steps by doors. I wondered what was inside them but continued on until I heard a voice say, "Sir, this is your compartment. Would you care to freshen up before dinner?"
I stopped. A picture of myself hovered on the door and I found myself studying it as if it were the image of a stranger.
As it was. But not completely. We had no mirrors at Shaker Hill, and, eerily, this was not one. But I'd seen myself on plenty of occasions. Verity and I often cavorted in Kaleen's Elegant Dresses in downtown Miamisburg, in clothes we belted around ourselves with gleeful derision. The selection in the small shop was limited, but we dared brave the mall only once, with lightsticks, as it was huge and always dark. The QUEEN had mirrors aplenty but I had been too busy to pay much attention to myself.
My eyes were staring, green and wide and ingenuous. My skin had darkened somewhat but was still rather pale and there were freckles all over my cheekbones, which stood out. My red hair was shot with gold, from the sun I presumed, and swirled outward like a lion's mane. A curly thick beard covered my lower face completely and I was pleased about this: vanity. Seeing my mouth reminded me of Verity's kiss, so desperate and intense. I wanted another.
"Well, open up then" I growled, and when it didn't open I kicked it a few times and then looked down to see an indentation glowing and touched it. The door slid open.
A small neat bunk to my right had been made up. Below it was a low, comfortable looking couch.
"Would you like us to prepare any reading material for this evening?"
I didn't like the voice coming from everywhere. "Like what?"
"Your choice, sir."
How does one choose from infinity. I remembered the book I had left behind on the boat. I kept wanting to read it again. "Huckleberry Finn," I said.
"Very good, sir. It is now receptor-ready."
"I have no receptors."
A short silence. "We will need to remedy that before arrival, sir. The cost will be $7,492.15 if you lock in now."
"No thanks." I pushed my guitar back and put my hands beneath the faucet and splashed my face with the cool water that flowed into them. "Please get me a real book," I commanded as I left the room, determined to avoid awe if possible.
My determination evaporated as I came to the end of the car and was suddenly surrounded by open country.
The horizon still glowed orange from sunset but the sky overhead was fiercely black and the whiteness of the stars was just as fierce. The moon was low and huge and golden. Trapped inside that clear tube as I was I'm not sure why something I had seen since childhood newly moved me but it was so. Perhaps it was the small green numbers glowing above the door membrane which read 200 MPH.
We were moving fast, and dark shapes close rose and fell in a kind of rhythm, jerky, like some blues. I was moving. I was going. I was heading out.
Out into the Territory.
I wished it were not night, or that the train would stop and resume at dawn so that I would not miss a mile.
"Stop the train!" I said.
"Is it an emergency?"
"Describe the nature of the emergency."
"I need to see everything slowly."
"That is not an emergency."
"It seems like one to me."
The voice was silent. The train barreled on.
I passed through two more cars of empty seats and finally arrived in the dining car.
About twenty small tables were lit by soft membranes which glowed on the wall in the shapes of various flowers. I did not appreciate the additional decorative touch of small glowing bees, one about every foot in a straight line between the flowers. Each table had a white tablecloth and was set in anticipation of a full train of hungry passengers. To my surprise, a woman sat at a table midway in the car and she raised one hand in a languid wave.
"Join me," she said, as I approached.
The chairs were green wicker with white cushions. I settled my guitar in the chair next to me and sat.
Her hair was cut very straight, just below her ears. Her eyes were black and her face quite pale. She smiled faintly. "Hello. My name is Masa. What's yours?"
"Blaze," I managed. She wore a simple turquoise scarf of sheer fabric around her neck, and a white dress which showed her collarbones angling down below her pointed chin. Her lips were red and so were her cheeks. She looked exquisite.
I must have been staring, for she laughed. "You look pretty strange yourself," she said and I said, "It's not that--"
She patted my hand and said, "Look, here come our appetizers. I was rather disappointed with the selection tonight, weren't you?"
"What did you want?"
"This is your first time on the train, isn't it?"
I nodded. "Not yours?" Her clothing was not all that strange, but its very simplicity was not midwestern.
She shook her head, a slight smile playing around her lips.
Excitement was an explosion in my chest. "Where are you from then?" In my eagerness I think I stuttered. "Where have you been?"
She displayed an open hand halfway across the table and looked at me expectantly. After a few long seconds, she withdrew it and slipped it into her lap, hunched her shoulders, and looked down at the table. "Sorry," she muttered. "We have just met." Her words were clipped and short.
"What are you sorry for?" I asked. "I only asked where you'd been."
The same attendant brought our food. Well, I actually didn't know if was the same one or not, really, but he looked identical. "I guess those are oysters," I said, as her plate was set in front of her. Small gray blobs on iridescent crescents. Fragrant steam rose from my soup; it was rich and delicious and filled with small meaty chunks. Something in it made my mouth burn in a pleasant way. Masa took a small bottle from the side of the table and sprinkled something over her oysters. Then she picked up one shell and let the oyster slide into her mouth. I don't think she chewed. She did that six times, jerking her head so that her hair fell back, revealing ears oddly small.
The man returned and said to me, "Have you decided yet?"
"Decided on what?"
"Dinner," said Masa.
"I want dinner. The soup was good. It was all edible."
Her laugh fluttered upward. "Of course. And though I'm terribly bored by the vat-grown beef, if this is your first trip you might like it." She nodded expectantly. "Go ahead, try it."
"All right," I said.
The attendant still stood there.
"And wine," said Masa. She was cheering up. "Shall I choose?"
"Go ahead," I told her.
She pressed one finger on one of the bees next to her and nodded. "Wild River 2031. Quite lovely. I'm sure you'll like it."
The man turned and left with our dishes. Masa looked at me for some reason much more friendly now. "You don't have any seps, do you?"
"No," I said. "And I don't want them."
Her eyes become darker and more intense. "I've never met a naked person before."
"Is that what you call people without receptors?"
"What's it like?"
"What do you think?" I retorted sharply, aware that she found me incredibly primitive. "Absolutely normal." I buttered a feather-light roll and ate it slowly, determined to enjoy myself despite her. The butter had none of the pungency of our own butter, made from the milk of our own cows, but was light and bland. For a second the thought that I was probably eating nan crossed my mind and I snorted.
"Nothing." I buttered another roll, even more lavishly. The man brought a salad and at least I recognized about six varieties of lettuce, leaves red and spiky, or spring-green and innocently smooth.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"Oh, look!" she said, and pointed out the window. It was dark, and I saw only our reflection, and that of the table.
"Where can I get off? The train won't answer me."
"Los Angeles," she said, and hunched her shoulders a bit more.
"But the train goes back to Cairo?"
She brightened. "Oh, yes. It turns right around. Actually, it doesn't really turn around. There's an engine on both ends. My, what an interesting few days I've had. First the girl, and now you. If I were superstitious I'd say that something's going to change. I haven't seen so many passengers since--"
The waiter arrived and showed her a bottle of wine. I anticipated it eagerly. I'd never had any wine, much less fine wine. She nodded and he extracted the cork and poured us each a swirling red glass. "Of course it's just right" she said, sipping. "We'll have a different one with dessert. I apologize for being so remiss. I ought to have ordered for each course. And this will be your only dinner."
She nodded as the waiter set our dinners before us. My beef was quite red and tremendously aromatic.
"We'll be in Los Angeles just after lunch tomorrow." She began to shovel her food down like--well, like a farmer. She glanced up and smiled. "I'm hungry," she said.
"Have you ever been in Los Angeles?"
Her fork paused midway to her mouth. Her eyes became bleak. "Of course," she said. She resumed eating, but now she was frowning. I was sorry I'd asked, but I had to ask more questions as well. I supposed that I could ask the train all that I wanted, but the train struck me as being somewhat prejudiced, unreliable, and out of touch.
And I was positive that she hadn't gotten on the train in Cairo.
"When was the last time the oyster program worked?"
She threw her fork down on her plate and it bounced off onto the floor. The waiter appeared immediately and proffered a new one but she ignored it. She stood, flung her crumpled napkin on top of her food, and stormed up the aisle. Her white dress was cut low in the back. I wondered what Verity would look like in it. For a brief instant I saw her again, capering around the clothing store in something quite similar, but much more baggy on her fourteen-year-old body, as we collapsed in gales of laughter. "I'm sorry!" I said, leaving my fine dinner. I suspected I could get another whenever I pleased. I hurried up the aisle behind her. She turned and her face was contorted. She was crying and her fists were clenched.
"Why do you have to ruin everything? Why can't you just enjoy--(hiccup)--this lovely--(hiccup)--TRAIN!!" Then to my amazement she flung herself at me and there was nothing for me to do but embrace her while she sobbed in my arms and I thought, of course, of Verity.
If this happened every time I asked a question, I'd need every minute between here and Los Angeles to get any answers.
"The oyster program has never worked," she said, sniffling.
"Why are you on the train?"
"I don't have to answer all your questions! Just leave me alone."
"No, of course you don't," I said. "I'm just curious, that's all."
"Well, then, what are you doing on the train?"
I told her everything. During the next hour we drifted back to a car with soft, luxurious seats which folded down almost flat. She touched something which made the top and sides of the car transparent--she wanted the floor clear too but I begged her to leave it alone--and I told her everything. All about Russ, and John, and Shaker Hill, and Verity. I told her about Alma and the blues and the radio stone and the plague. Whenever I talked about the plague she'd close her eyes and scrunch up her face like it hurt. After a while I realized that she'd fallen asleep while stars burned all around us. She had succeeded in telling me nothing.
I rose and wandered back to the dining car. All the tables were empty, and the silver glowed in the moonlight. I sat down next to a window and turned the chair toward it and watched.
The waiter came and poured me some wine. It was different wine than the one Masa had ordered. The train had begun to climb. "If you would like a guide, press that bee," the waiter said quietly as he poured another glass.
"You have chosen to take NAMS' deluxe over-the-Rockies route," said the voice, infusing the words with a strangely artificial enthusiasm. "We know that you will appreciate the fact that it takes a bit longer than going under the mountains, as you will be rewarded with rich vistas."
"Why don't you schedule it so that it goes this way during the day?" I asked.
"This NAMS train runs every four hours. For a complete schedule press twice."
"Never mind," I said.
Silent moonlight drenched a panorama of jumbled cliffs, huge jutting pines. My heart was in my throat as we crossed a black gorge; we were suspended on a thin thread of steel. I could not see where the track was. I'd never been so high in my life. And we climbed higher. I prowled from one end of the car to the other. I shouldered my guitar, picked up my glass, pulled the bottle from its ice bath, and made my way to the back of the train. I came to Masa, still sleeping, her face silvered by moonlight. I pulled the blanket the attendant had covered her with up to her chin and she stirred sleepily. I wondered what sad story she held within. Were there no normal people anywhere? I was beginning to realize that there might not be. Everyone I'd ever know, everyone I met, was troubled and disturbed by the great changes wrought by nan. I wondered how quickly these changes had come about. I realized how very little I knew.
I dropped into the seat across from Masa and watched the stars some more. They and the wine pulled thoughts from deep inside me, thoughts which jumped the black chasm of death and melded my Shaker past to this strange, new present, which had existed all around us when we were young, as if Shaker Hill had been the still, unchanging center round which whirled unimaginable terror and wonder. I felt the blues grow inside me, clamoring to burst forth. I grabbed the bottle and headed for the rear of the train.
There, as I had hoped, was a clear bubble with some chairs, though beyond was a door which stuck fast. I was even able to open windows and expected a great roar from the wind but there were some sorts of funnels or bumps which channeled the rushing air and tempered it to a quiet hiss. I could see that it was quite windy outside; the tall pines swayed and tossed, black silhouettes, and the moon made a path across three small lakes tiered away below me in the distance like three great teardrops. I asked the train for strong coffee and the tireless attendant brought it to me in a silver pot and another bottle of wine as well and a roast beef sandwich.
The guitar was still tuned. I plucked the strings in wonder; it had been through so much. I could untune it. But after a few minutes the strings regained their former tension. Alma had tuned it indeed . . .
I plucked one exploratory note; then another. I ran my fingers down the strings and distorted them and they cried out lonely as the moonlight. I saw a satellite flash across the sky and then another and then another and it occurred to me to wonder if they really were dead, or if it they could somehow be enlivened again. Even death had changed its nature. Humans had begun something, and then that change had expanded and grown on its own, re-infusing the humans . . .
As I thought, my hands moved. My fingers chorded up and down the neck of the blues guitar (I did not think that it would deign play a cakewalk or rag with me but later found I had badly underestimated it) and a song grew through me, growling and low and aching--all about following her to the station, and how hard it was to tell when all your love was in vain, and how the blue light was my mind.
It was the song of that Robert Hellhound Johnson, I knew, and his blues fell down on me like hail. My hands did not dance on the neck, on the strings, as they did on the keys of a piano. They moved deliberately, with strength and calculation, chorded to something deep within me, rising and falling in odd stuttering cadences, singing of distance and of loss and of pain. I drank but I did not eat. The swift troubled life of Robert Johnson flashed through me relentless and raw. I saw the long straight black dirt roads of the Delta fringed by endless fields of cotton superimposed on the Territory as I flashed past, a place I'd longed to be all my life, a place distant from Shaker Hill as Heaven, and now I was crossing it, singing and playing my guts out, smelling the whisky-soaked floors of the countless jook houses as I ducked into them from the hot afternoon sun; playing for the laborers whose fathers had been promised freedom by Lincoln, then had it taken away from them by reconstruction and I remembered then with complete clarity the last chapter of Huckleberry Finn, read as a child, when I wondered at the charade of Jim being repeatedly freed and imprisoned and finally understood it. The men and woman surrounding me, drinking and dancing and whooping, were feeling the only freedom they could in a world which had cruelly cancelled their participation and left them with ashes and grits. And music.
I sang as the train tilted downward and I sang as we rushed through dawn onto an amazing flat dry distance, brown and purple brushed here and there with green, and my fingers were raw and bleeding and I fell fighting into sleep staring straight into the sun so that the darkness would not take me ever again.
I woke with a start. My head was aching. My hands were puffy. It was horrifically early, as the sun was just inching above the horizon, but it was strong enough to hurt my eyes. Masa, still in her white dress, was grinning but it looked like a leer to me.
"Poor dear," she said. "I can help."
She immersed my hands in a bowl of water brought by the attendant in an ornate crystal bowl. Only there was something in the water because besides being cooling it healed my fingers. I felt the tips of the fingers of my left hand with my thumb. They were thickened somewhat. So were the ends of my right-hand fingers.
I was in the future and I had to accept it.
Hey, it wasn't all bad!
Masa ordered breakfast and I ate it. Hard boiled eggs, white toasted bread, that same bland butter, and little black fish eggs, caviar, crunchy and salty. My headache vanished as I drank champagne, bubbles exploding on my tongue and effervescing through the glass of the stuff. I felt tremendous.
"Where are we?"
"Near Salt Lake City."
"Salt Lake City! Oh! Will we stop?"
I was seized with tremendous excitement. Los Angeles was a distant, abstract blur. I knew nothing about it. But I'd grown up with Russ's tales of Denver, and Salt Lake City, during the early days of the Flower-Cities.
"We stop for five minutes," she said, and her eyes were strange. "But the doors never open."
"I find that very surprising," I said. "Can't you make them open? We--at least I--could get off."
"Then you'd be left behind!" Her eyes went wide and I saw fear.
I shrugged. "So what? And there's another train. I can just get on that one."
"There is no other train," she said flatly. She got up and left. I'd made her mad again.
I went back to my compartment, took a shower, put on the new clean clothes waiting for me. I could get used to this.
W, proclaimed small green emblems in the windows, on my mirror. W! W for West! The Territory! This land is my land! This land is your land! Oh, the music that bubbled through me. I ride an old paint. I lead an old dan. I've gone to Montana to throw the hoolihan. What's a dan? What's a hoolihan? And where the hell was Montana? I didn't care.
I heard a piercing scream down the corridor. I rushed out into it and hurried towards it source. When I got to the dining car, I saw that it was, of course Masa. The attendant had his arms around her. He was stroking her back and saying shhh, it's all right, it's all right.
Over her shoulders he looked at me and said, "It's all right sir, she'd always like this when we get to Salt Lake City." He turned and led her away. She looked frail and pathetic. I was a little afraid, but not much.
But then I saw Salt Lake City, out the window. That had to be it, at the foot of the mountain we were skirting, and I too was seized with terror. I fought it as best I could. It was not reasonable.
But there were those Flowers, those awful Flowers.
They were not, I realized, as we rapidly approached the city through a flotsam of abandoned communities where I saw absolutely no one on empty streets flooded with sunlight, like the Flowers of Cincinnati. They were stiff, unmoving. As we moved closer, I saw glints, and colors did not grow as I had expected.
Instead, they resembled nothing so much as the ancient abandoned machinery we had seen in the little town on the Ohio, but on a much more massive scale. The buildings were all metallic, and their interstices clear as water, giving it all a monochromal look. The flowers were not at all flowerlike but were instead spiked or curved nodes surrounding a central indentation. The buildings were copper, brass, stainless steel, aluminum. Or so it seemed.
Every once in awhile I thought I saw a golden glittery thing arise above the buildings, but couldn't be sure, and we descended then into a dark tunnel.
We were going very fast, and after a few seconds the interior of the train glowed with light and apologized for the delay. It announced our arrival in two minutes and told those debarking to gather their things.
I grabbed my guitar and hurried toward a door. But as we emerged into the station and stopped I saw an awful thing.
On the platform was a line of people. They all had guns. Their clothing was a ludicrous mix of pioneer garb, late twentieth century business suits, women wearing high heels or huge puffy colorful boots or long evening gowns. They all had weapons. Guns and big tubes bigger than guns. They raised them, pointed them at the train. I hit the floor. I heard loud explosions, muffled shouts outside, scuffling. A panel on the door blinked green. I raised my head to the window and stared down the barrel of a gun. I dropped back down. The train began to move. We were in the tunnel again. The attendant came through. He looked surprised to see me.
"Oh, sir, I apologize. I suppose you wished to debark?"
"Not really," I muttered.
"They are always there," he said. "Not all of them are real. I think that only a few of them are real. But Masa's brother thought none of them were real. She watched him die."
"How long ago was that?"
"Sir, I . . . " he blinked. "I am sorry. But I really shouldn't tell you that."
I grabbed his shoulders and shook him. He remained completely passive. His head whipped back and forth. Horrified at what I was doing I stopped and said, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry!"
"Years, sir," he whispered. Years."
I blinked and let him go. I stormed down the aisle, looking into compartments and yelling her name until I found her. She was lying on a bed. Her eyes were red. She sat up. "I'll be better soon," she said. The train banked but barely slowed, and began to climb.
"Why do you do this?" I asked.
"My brother and I were moving to Salt Lake City," she said and her voice shocked me: rather dreamy, calm, and distant. "Or Denver. Or anywhere viable. This was just the first place we got to. We were so excited. We'd been wanting to leave the dome for so long."
"Los Angeles. Don't interrupt," she said petulantly. "We planned it for a long time. It was the first step in getting out. An intermediate place."
Out? I wondered, but did not say anything.
"We first had to condense," she said, and there she lost me completely. "That was the hardest part, we thought. Because no one seemed to remember how. We worked really hard to figure it all out. There's really no time there, or it's very different--more speedy, more jerky, but disconnected and not linear, just linked. And it never ends. So that's not really time, is it? But we worked our way back to DNA from binary code. We knew, of course, what we were. We were just so curious, so hungry. Our parents had done it to us. We were little kids when they did it. I could still remember everything. I really could. James said that I couldn't, but I did. Our living room in that house in the Hollywood Hills. We could go there any time, of course I remembered it, but I really remembered it, from before. He said that they must have put that curiosity in us for some reason, that there was some mission for us, that we had to work our way back. Not everyone had made it. Not everyone was translated after the loading. We didn't think that our parents had been. Sometimes glitches occurred. Read errors and such. We looked for them everywhere, with every search engine there was. He said that they could very well be in an identical living room somewhere, waiting for us, waiting and waiting. Or that our copies were there, and they didn't realize that we had divided."
I sat down. I listened.
"I wanted to see the real ocean, you know? I wanted to touch it. To have it all over my body. Not just a program of it. Not just an algorithm. But real." Her voice was low and intense now. I certainly believed her. I just wasn't sure what she meant.
"We thought the Flower Cities would welcome us. We'd learned so much about them. We'd evolved from them, in a way. We knew every aspect about how they functioned, of course. In there. Out here there isn't enough memory for that. I wish I'd known that before. I don't know why we didn't. We were so blind, so foolish. But we were young. We'd never known anything else. We thought we were so smart--passing through all the failsafes. Re-condensing. Waking in those cocoons. With bodies! Real bodies! Oh, it was heavenly, really it was. Almost worth it."
"But Salt Lake City is frozen and those people killed James when he stepped off the train." She started to choke. Her eyes got wild and darting and I took her hand. She breathed in great gulping sighs. "That's all," she said. She closed her eyes. She curled up and pressed her fists beneath her chin. She began to breath deeply.
"Come, sir," said the attendant. "I gave her something to help her relax. She always needs a sedative here. She'll sleep for a while."
I felt like sleeping myself but didn't dare. Out the window I saw only a vast, white, glittering plain and an old, empty solar road next to our track. Behind us--well, I glanced at Salt Lake City, but quickly looked away. The brown and blue mountains were much smaller now.
I went back to my guitar and hugged it. Music flared through me, distant at first, then nagging, then insistent. I had no choice but to play it--more of that Robert Johnson, about crossroads, and falling down on my knees, and asking the Lord to save . . . poor Masa, if you please.
It was Bob's plea, but it fit Masa and there was nothing I could do except sing for her, sing for her . . . to a Lord no longer there, unable to dispense a shred of mercy.
Just after lunch, she said. Just after lunch. Just after lunch.
As I stared out the window, there were mesas, strange red rock towers, broken and dry-looking mountains in the distance, and an occasional majestic peak. I was told that it was lunch time by some voices, but I ignored them. My stomach was knotted tight. We flashed through a great, flat desert. Distance. Shimmering places that looked like water but which I thought were not. Another rush up brown mountains, again the scattered pines, the lakes, round and unworldly green. Down, down, and then I saw it.
Beyond, the Pacific Ocean. The dome itself was not on flat land, but climbed the side of wrinkled brown mountains. I saw the tips of sunken buildings beyond it, beautifully filigreed, with strong, arresting crowns, glass unbroken and shining. The ocean was so clear that I could follow their forms down into it for a way with my eyes. White, frothing waves crashed around them; at least I imagined them crashing, like in books. From this distance the waves were just white lines etched on blue. The day was bright and fine; sunny and beautiful. I pressed my face to the window.
"Enlargement, sir?" He touched the window and everything was magnified.
White birds circled the tops of the buildings, settling and rising every few minutes in great clouds. The waves were indeed massive, licking up the seaward sides of the buildings for a story or two. On the upper balconies, palm trees waved in the wind and viny growths cascaded down the sides. I swear I thought I saw a person sitting on one of the balconies but it must have been my imagination, as was the small boat I might have seen bobbing in an enclosed pond which had once been a huge terrace.
Just south of this was the dome: curved, glowing, crisscrossed with interstices which hopscotched across one another in the sunlight. Small concave dishes spouted from it here and there; Peabody had taught me enough so that I knew that they were satellite dishes. What were they doing with them, I wondered, if the satellites were dead. What was the diameter of the dome? Thirty miles? Fifty? It was frightfully massive.
Masa joined me. She appeared rested; her simple, beautiful white dress as clean and fresh as if she had not worn it since I got on the train. Her face was serene.
"Are you going to stay?" she asked.
"How could I?" I asked.
"You could," she said. She pressed a pad next to us and a voice said, "The present cost of initiation is thirty thousand four hundred sixty-eight dollars and twenty-two cents if you lock in now. Now. Now. Now," it repeated, and then she pushed the pad again and it stopped.
"That really doesn't mean anything once you're in," she said.
"Would you do it?" I asked.
Her eyes were troubled. "Every time, I think that I will. I do it, almost. I could see James again. But then--I don't know. I'm afraid. It's like jumping off a high building."
"Why don't you ever get off in Cairo?" Years, the attendant had said. Years.
"James isn't there. He's here. I don't have to decide yet. I really don't. There's always another trip."
"Of course you don't," I said gently.
" Then why are you forcing me to?" she screamed and the attendant rushed in and gave me a disapproving look. The dome was much larger now and it had no openings at all. They couldn't see out. I couldn't see in.
"We'll get out again? Out of the dome?" I asked. "We won't get stuck in there, will we?"
"Why are you bothering me?" she asked crossly. She stood and started pacing back and forth across the small space. Her agitation grew until she was muttering in a small, fretful voice. We were approaching the dome at a tremendous speed.
"Look," I said desperately, suddenly terribly afraid, "if you stop the train we can go down to the ocean. The real ocean. I think I saw people--"
She gave me a single wry look. And then we were in.
"Oh," was all she said, her face and hands pressed against the glass as we rushed into a corridor of light. She began muttering. "Home. I'm home. James. I know you're here. I need you. But I'm afraid. So afraid." The same phrases, over and over again. I noticed the attendant hovering behind her.
It was pure light. The inside of the dome. There was nothing else there. The entire train became transparent, even the track, and we floated through light. It glowed all around us. Like heaven. And like heaven, there were high, singing voices. "James! I'm home! I'm really home. This time I will! I promise!"
"Come on, Masa," said the attendant, stepping forward.
"Leave her alone," I said, suddenly remembering the sedative.
I heard a tearing sound and glanced toward it. Masa was pulling the left side of her dress apart; apparently that's how it came off. She stepped out of it, completely naked, and kicked off her shoes. How beautiful she was! Her pale skin caught the light through the windows and she was utterly unself-conscious as I stared. She pressed her body against the glass again, her arms wide as if embracing the light.
She turned to the side, toward me, pressing against the glass with all her might, pushing with her legs, her face scrunched and frowning mightily. "Yes," she breathed, as if in answer to what the voices sang.
And then I saw a face outside the window. It coalesced there and followed the train along, re-forming constantly in the luminous field of twisting colors. Her face charged with wonder, eyes wide open, Masa placed both hands at the sides of the face, her eyes grave. She nodded again. "Yes. Yes. Yes," she whispered, in intervals, as if in answer to questions I could not hear. Then, "Upload. Now. "
I had already seen many strange things in my life. But I was not prepared for this.
She splayed herself out on the concave curve of the window, pressing the entire front of her body against it. An interface between her skin and the glass began to glow, and then her body began to glow as well, like that of a plague victim, golden. The glass seemed to melt and form around her and from the side I could see her face, lit with ecstasy, though her eyes were closed. This seemed to last an eternity, but was probably only minutes. I was in agony. Did I need to do something? Was she going to die? At one point I must have jumped up but felt the attendants' warning hand on my arm, his whispered, "It's too late, sir. You would damage her now." His hand was like steel and held me much too tightly.
Without warning, the membrane around her withdrew and there was no tension at all in her body. Her head jerked back and she slumped to the floor.
And, I swear, I saw her outside the train for an instant, waving at me. Then she was gone.
The attendant was sobbing. It took me a minute to realize it since the sounds were wooden, harsh; almost like an imitation of someone crying. But I could tell that his feelings were real enough. He stood over her body and glared murderously at me through his tears, which coursed down his oddly unaffected face. I was afraid.
Then the hate left his eyes. He said resignedly, "I knew it would happen someday."
He gathered up her body tenderly and carried it away.
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