Sam’s sketch had been crude, once he had mastered the idea of drawing on one Flick’s images, but the finished telescope was a work of art. Griditch was unable to create anything that wasn’t beautiful.
Sam lifted his fingers from what appeared to be a finely polished brass tube, like a sea captain might have used. There were no fingerprints. He rubbed his nose and touched the surface again. Still no fingerprint.
“This looks like brass, but it’s too light weight, and it stays shiny.”
Alanda nodded absently. “Griditch wouldn’t use anything that would offend the eye.”
The two of them were waiting for the twilight to fade.
“May I take a look through the telescope?” she asked.
Sam handed it over. She held it clumsily, trying to focus on the nearest tower. “It is hard to see. Everything moves.”
“Yeah. We’ll need a tripod—something to support the weight of the scope.”
“Oh.” She nodded. She stepped back and one of the cushioned chairs rose up from the floor before her. She rested the tube on the backrest. “That’s much better.”
Sam watched, bemused, as she reported, “I can even see the people over there!” She moved the scope back and forth, but always aimed at the nearest tower.
Her face flushed, she timidly handed it back to him. “Sorry. I wanted to go visit there for years. I never got around to it.” Her lips compressed. “I thought I had all the time in the world.”
A couple of other people had stopped nearby to watch them. Sam looked their way, and they hurried off.
“What’s special about the silver tower?”
“The Eighth City? Nothing in particular.” She eyes drifted away for a second. “The population is nearly the same. They have a higher percentage of oriental genotypes. They have over twenty Buddhist temples, whereas there is only one here in the Ninth City.” She shrugged. “Each city is a little different. I had thought to take the Grand Tour someday—visit each of the Hundred Cities. Spend a year or so at each of them. An Elder should really have that kind of experience, don’t you think?”
Sam looked at her clear, unlined face, her simple smile. Her honest pale blue eyes were watching him.
“Angel, how old are you?”
She flushed. “Samuel, I don’t really know. Not in years of life. Some things are off limits even to me. It has been thirty years since my regression. Those are all the memories I have.”
Flick appeared beside them. “Samuel. Twilight should be over in another minute. You should be able to see the asteroid with your telescope now.”
Sam snarled, “Go away.” Flick disappeared.
He took Alanda’s hand. “Angel, what is regression?”
Another voice answered. D’sonna walked up to them.
“Regression is when a person decides to die, but is too timid to go through with it.”
Alanda’s face went pale. The older woman’s face was stern.
“Alanda, the real Alanda, was ancient beyond knowing. She had been everywhere, seen everything, and was tired of life. I was to have been her replacement among the Elders.
“Instead, she opted for regression. Flick erased all her memories and most of her personality. She was little more than an infant in that old hag’s body. Griditch took care of her, but she’s still no more than a child.
“She’s the biggest joke of the Ninth City. She’s the youngest of us all, and our esteemed Elder.”
Alanda’s eyes were wet. She hung her head and turned to go. Sam grabbed her arm. “Stay put, Angel.”
D’sonna stood tall, her nostrils wide, her eyes full of hatred.
Sam laughed. It shook her.
“D’sonna, in a whole world of sheep, you’re the only one acting like a wolf. No one I’ve seen has been rude. Not until today.
“Nothing you say shocks me, of course. I’ve seen worse every day of my life. But you’re one of these people.”
He nodded toward Alanda, still captive in his grip. “See this little one. It even hurts her, when I’m talking straight to you. And according to you, she’s an innocent in your battle with Flick.
“Why’d you turn into a bitch and go for her throat?”
D’sonna’s chin quivered a little. Sam could see she wasn’t any more immune to harsh words than any of them.
Her voice wasn’t as steady either. “We’re all going to die, aren’t we? When you’re as old as I am, you learn to be polite, because everything you say will come back to haunt you. But that’s all past now, isn’t it? You said there was nothing you could do to make a difference.”
Sam smiled like a wolf. “That’s what I said then. Perhaps things have changed. Of course, if you’d rather spend your last days making your enemies suffer. She’s right here. Do your worst.”
He pushed Alanda forward to face D’sonna. Genuine fright filled the girl’s eyes. Her persecutor looked from her to Sam’s grin, and then her bluster faded. She turned sharply away and stalked off.
Sam watched her go.
“Samuel? My arm.”
He released his grip. He took her chin in one hand and wiped away her tears with one of her sleeve scarves. “Now there, Angel. It’s better to face your enemies than run away. She’s done her worst now.”
Alanda rubbed her arm. “I don’t know who was worse, her or you.”
He nodded. “That’s the spirit. Tell me off. Tell her off if she comes back.” He looked thoughtful. “Alanda, ask Flick. How long ago was the last murder committed?”
Flick appeared in person. “That’s not necessary. You are right, Samuel. People don’t murder each other. Not anymore. Not for many thousands of years.”
“But the spirit is there,” Sam said. “I could see it in her eyes. How many people choose to die or ‘regress’ after being badgered into it by their enemies?”
Flick hesitated. “I cannot make a reasonable assessment.”
Sam waved him off. “It doesn’t matter.
“But now that you’re here. Give me a display of that star field. And darken this hallway. I want to see if I can find that asteroid myself.”
The long hallway went dark. Alanda took his arm in her hand. “It’s okay, Angel. There’s no need to be afraid of the dark.”
He propped the telescope on the chair back, and with coaching by the glowing image of Flick, he located the bright pattern of stars that surrounded the asteroid’s position.
Sam stared intently into the eyepiece, and then checked his position against the projected star field again.
Alanda whispered. “Can you find it, Samuel?”
“Hmm.” He looked up from the telescope, frowning.
“Flick. Looking through this glass is still too limiting. I need to go outside.”
The image looked offended. “Nonsense, Samuel. There should be no appreciable front surface reflection, and the glass is perfectly transparent.”
Sam picked up the scope and slapped the chair. After a second. It started to retract into the floor.
“You picked me because you couldn’t predict what a Twentieth Century man might want to do. Well, this is it. I need to take this telescope outside under the stars and look for myself. If you can’t help me do one simple thing, then I have to ask, what’re you hiding?”
Alanda tugged at his sleeve. “Samuel. You can’t go outside! It would hurt the plants.”
He shook her free. “Be sensible! How many plants will die if that asteroid hits? If I can stop it by going outside, isn’t it worth that risk?”
The girl was clearly not listening. Sam turned to Flick. “Well, are you going to show me the door to the outside, or aren’t you?”
“It is a useless exercise.”
Sam just faced him, his fingers tapping on the shiny tube. A grin was slowly edging up at the corners of his mouth.
Flick shook his head. “Okay. I’ll do it. But there’s no sense in your actions.”
Across the way, a transport door opened up. Sam grabbed Alanda’s arm and headed for the opening.
“Samuel? I can’t go outside.”
“That’s okay, Precious. Just stay with me for as long as you can. That’s all I ask.”
Hesitantly, she agreed.
The transport dropped away, and Sam could feel her shivering next to him as they traveled on and on.
Finally, he felt the chamber come to a stop.
Flick appeared. “Go through the narrow hallway and stop at the end.”
Alanda had to be urged to take the first step. They walked together until the hallway ended at a closed double-door.
Suddenly another doorway closed behind them.
“Hey!” protested, Sam.
Flick’s voice came from somewhere above them. “Don’t be alarmed. This is just an airlock to keep the outside air from mixing with the inside air.”
The double-door parted, and Alanda shrank back as far away as she could.
Sam whispered, “It’s okay, Angel.” He stepped outside.
Trees had grown up next to the wall of the city tower. Familiar scents, pine and sweetgum, filled the air. Even in the dark, Sam could see their branches overhead and see the massive trunks. The ground was mossy and spongy, as if no step had trod this way since the dawn of time.
Half the sky was blocked by the tower. Sam looked up and shook his head. “The Empire State Building ain’t the champion anymore.”
Alanda’s face, lit by the interior lights was staring out into the darkness. “Samuel?”
“It’s fine, Angel. I’ve got to move a little farther to find an open place to see the stars. You just stay put.”
He found the Big Dipper and headed roughly north for a few hundred paces. A deer trail made the going easier.
“Flick? Can you hear me?”
There was no answer. Sam smiled.
He found the pattern of stars. Perhaps it was a constellation he had seen back in his own time, but he had never memorized them. A large rock gave him a place to steady the scope. He looked, and then checked his position in the sky to look again. He nodded to himself and pulled out a cigarette. He barely coughed before turning back along the trail.
“Samuel!” Halfway back, it was Alanda’s voice. He hurried.
In the darkness, he stumbled over her body. She was sprawled across the roots of a tree still in sight of the door.
“Angel?” She was warm, but totally limp. He felt for a pulse, but gave it no more time when he couldn’t feel it.
“Flick! Something’s wrong with Alanda.” He carried her the few feet into the hallway. The lights showed her eyes wide open, but unfocussed.
The machine’s voice came from the ceiling. “Did she go outside?”
“Yes! Do something. Get a doctor here.”
“It is okay Samuel. She will recover as soon as I send her an awake signal.”
“She isn’t breathing, and I can’t find her pulse.”
“That is normal.”
Sam got to his feet and faced the voice. “What are you talking about? What did you do to her?”
“I did nothing. I keep her alive. It is you who enticed her outside where she can’t live.”
“Explain yourself. But if you can help her. Do it!”
“It will take about five minutes for her to wake back up. She will be confused.
“Samuel. My people are not like you. In the past, they gave up their natural bodies for ones that could last. This is not something I did to them. It was their choice. I was created as a caretaker for them. The Hundred Cities are their world, and they cannot exist outside. The memories of thousands of years cannot be contained in a natural brain.
“When Alanda walked outside the skin of the tower, her mind quickly lost its regulation and her body collapsed. If she hadn’t been returned inside, I would have been unable to revive her.”
Sam checked her again. She was breathing softly. He felt for a pulse and was rewarded with a beat.
“Samuel,” asked Flick. “Are you done with your outside experiment, now? Can we get back to the real problem? Do you have any idea of how to avert the asteroid?”
Sam sneered. “Of course! There never was any asteroid, and you know it. This is just some kind of sick game of yours.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I looked up at the stars with my own eyes, and it wasn’t there. Oh, it’s there in all your maps and images, but it isn’t there in reality. You put it there.
“You are mistaken. My images are a synthesis of many instruments much more powerful than your telescope. They all report the asteroid.”
Sam taunted, “Yes, but I have my two eyes. You can’t fool me. There is no asteroid.”
Alanda stirred. He put his hand under her head. “Are you okay, Precious?”
“Samuel? What’s happening?”
The outer door slammed shut. Sam grimaced, but concentrated on getting Alanda to her feet.
“Nothing. It’s all right. Let’s get you back home.”