“Smile for the people, Angel. Let them know everything will be okay.” Sam and Alanda sat at a very visible table in the dining area.
She smiled, but her heart wasn’t in it. “Samuel. Are you sure?”
He leaned back with a cigarette dangling in his fingers. “I’m so sure, I’m starting to wonder what tobacco will taste like after all these menthol puffs.”
He nodded toward the near table where a man and two women were struggling to avoid staring. After three days, Flick had neither confirmed his finding, nor denied it.
“Don’t you think we owe people a little peace of mind?”
She shook her head, whispering, “But what if Flick’s images are correct?”
He cocked his head. “Then these people will spend their last few days in blissful ignorance. If the asteroid were coming, there’s nothing they could do about it anyway.
“But I am right. Flick faked the images for some reason.”
“Flick would never do anything like that. You keep thinking of it as a man. Flick is a machine. It never lies. The world would never put its fate in the hands of a dishonest caretaker.”
Sam merely smiled. Sam’s version that she had stepped out of the tower in the dark and tripped on a branch was immediately confirmed by Flick. The machine would gladly lie to keep from distressing one of his charges.
“If I weren’t heading back to San Francisco as soon as the asteroid deadline passes, I’d give you a good argument. As it is, I can’t stay and you can’t go with me. Your place is here. You need to take your Grand Tour, do a little growing up, and be a good Elder.”
She looked down at her bowl. “I wish that you could stay.”
He shook his head. “This is no place for me.” He waved his hand. “No tobacco. No crime. And an dictator so powerful I’m surprised I’m still alive. Once the asteroid fails to appear, I just hope your Flick is as honest as you say he is.”
The entire population of the Ninth City was at the western windows on the day the asteroid was due to hit. Flick’s final calculations put the impact point within twenty miles.
Sam lounged in one of the window chairs, puffing the last of his menthol cigarettes. “See anything yet?”
Griditch shook his head.
“You need to lighten up, Griddy.”
“Samuel, I fail to see anything to lighten my spirit. If you are wrong, I die. If you are right, then Flick is in error—and that may be the worse of the options.”
“You don’t need to worry. I’m sure Flick will take care of it.” His smile, which had graced his face all morning, dropped for a moment.
Alanda sighed. “I wanted to believe you, Samuel, but I couldn’t. Not until a few minutes ago.”
“Oh, what changed your mind?”
She smiled, “The asteroid should be close enough to see without a telescope, and even where it is night, no one is reporting a sighting.”
“Good girl. Trust your eyes. Griddy, how’s the time coming.”
“Almost ... almost ... Now!”
The sound of millions of voices shook the walls. No impact. Their lives would continue.
“Flick? Oh Flick? Can you hear me?”
The image appeared beside him. “Yes, Samuel.”
“I think it’s time to pay up.”
The massed voices, still loud, became puzzled. Some were angry.
Flick nodded. “The sooner the better. You are a disruptive force.”
Sam stood and dismissed his chair back into the ground. The party of four, one of which was an illusion, headed toward the transport. Several other parties, who were heading home after the non-appearance, stopped in their tracks to allow the dignitaries first access.
Sam led the way, his face in a forced smile. “Where are we heading?”
Flick said, “The time travel station is close by.”
“And my pay?”
The transport door closed behind them, and a map appeared.
“Samuel, in the years just after your time, a metal called uranium will become very valuable. Marked on this map are the top three locations where uranium ore was found. You need to memorize their locations and, to the limits of your ability, purchase these lands while their worth is still unknown.”
Sam peered at the map closely. “I wish you had the roads marked.”
Alanda looked over his shoulder. “Can you memorize that?”
He shrugged. “Well enough. In my line of work, a good memory is gold.”
Quickly, they arrived.
Sam gave Alanda a kiss, and before she could say anything, he strode quickly through the door.
“Flick. Where is this? Why is it dark?”
“This is the time travel chamber. You will be home shortly. I just wanted to say one thing. You were right about the asteroid, but wrong about my part in it. I believed my data as much as any of my people did. I had no reason to distrust my inputs.
“But now it appears that there are forces at work attempting to distort my perceptions of reality.”
“Like you distort everyone else’s?”
“I believe you understand why that is necessary.
“In any case, your visit here has been very informative, and I wish it were possible for you to stay longer. You might be very helpful in helping me locate the forces acting against me.”
“Fat chance. I’d more likely join them.”
“Possibly. But you won’t have that option.”
“You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?”
“That isn’t necessary.”
The small chamber around Sam’s artificial body hummed slightly. His eyes went unfocussed. The supports that grew out of the wall quickly took up his weight as his body collapsed. His body was slipped into a storage chamber and filled with a preservative solution.
The temperature began to drop rapidly.
An old hand, shaking from the degeneration of muscle and nerves, the skin spotted from near-cancerous growth, tapped the screen.
“Griditch! Why did you halt the simulation?” Her voice was hoarse from a throat ravaged by time. Like all of them in the chamber, Alanda’s body had stopped responding to the regeneration treatments.
“There’s nothing more to be learned. The FLC is defective, as we suspected.”
“I wanted to see more!”
Boden, the Spokesman of Elders, spoke gently to the grand old lady of the chamber. “Lady Alanda, we all enjoyed seeing the younger vigorous versions of ourselves. But that youngster wasn’t you. She may not ever be you unless we find a way around the FLC defect.
“We have to make a decision. The populace is clamoring for us to activate the immortal bodies. Many are dying as we speak. Some of us...some of us in this chamber will not survive the delay required to engineer a new FLC.
“Do we proceed with the existing FLC, or try again? Dummont?”
The voice was mechanical, for Dummont had lost the power of speech two hundred years earlier.
“This FLC did well. For thousands of years, the populace was stable and happy. Even when we added the asteroid test, the FLC showed great creativity in getting the world past that trial.”
Griditch spoke, “I disagree. Had we simulated a real asteroid, rather than a sensor ghost, the world would have died.”
“Possibly. Perhaps if the FLC’s fictional man from the past were faced with the reality of the asteroid, he would have come through with a creative solution to that problem, just as he solved the sensor ghost problem.”
“That still ignores the real problem. The FLC, in its absolute power, gradually muted everyone’s personality, feeding a false reality to keep the populace in line. In my case, my ability to sculpt was dimmed to extinction as too disruptive to the populace.
“Do I really want eternal life as an FLC controlled manikin, with my real personality extinguished?”
“But do you want to die tomorrow, either?”
Boden interrupted. “Elders, we have heard this argument many times before. Unfortunately, we have a decision to make.”
Dummont was firm. “We must adopt the immortal bodies now, or we won’t be here to correct the problems.”
Griditch disagreed. “Once the FLC controls our personalities, we will make no more decisions.”
Boden nodded, “It is a shame that all must change, or none. Every simulation of a split populace, mortal and immortal, leads quickly to war. It would be useful to have a guardian over our caretaker, to keep it honest.”
Lady Alanda’s voice was clear in the chamber.
“We could ask Samuel.”
“Samuel? Can you hear me?”
Sam blinked and struggled to his feet. Two very old people in mechanical chairs faced him.
“What’s going on here? Who are you people?”
“I am Griditch.”
“And I...” she coughed raggedly. “I am Alanda.”
Sam grit his teeth. “What did Flick do to you?”
“Calm down, Samuel.” Griditch gestured with his hand. “Have a seat. I need to explain some things to you.”
Sam looked at them closely. Alanda’s pale blue eyes, shiny in a wrinkled, but familiar face, finally convinced him.
He sat. “Okay, but it had better be good.”
Sam pursed his mouth, as if he had eaten something sour. “So, I never existed?”
“Correct. Time travel is impossible. All that is left from the Twentieth Century are a few classic novels and a couple of history books. The simulated Flick created a pre-compiled personality based on the character of a detective novel which he installed in a customized artificial body. That and the content of the history books were all that you needed.”
“But I can remember my friends, my office ... I can remember the case I was on.”
“Not really, they were all phantoms. When you try to recall anything, the memories are created from history modeling. I suggest that for now they are just an exercise in futility. The only thing you really have is your personality.”
Sam looked at Alanda again. “And the time I spent in the future is false too?”
Griditch nodded. “A simulation of a time when the FLC has been in control for thousands of years. The Griditch you spoke with was not me, but a simulation of how I might become.”
Alanda spoke. “And I’m not your Alanda. I’m the old hag D’sonna hated so much.”
“And you were just a simulation also. This body you now wear was created just a few hours ago. We pulled your pattern from the instant when Flick deactivated you.”
Sam nodded, “When he betrayed me. I expected that.”
He looked at the two of them. “I didn’t expect to wake up again like this. What do you need? And what are you willing to pay?”
Alanda laughed, although it sounded more like a croak. “I see what my ... ‘daughter’, liked so much about you.”
Griditch adjusted his chair, raising his torso. “We do have a problem.”
Sam grilled trout while watching the bright green tower grow slowly out of the mountainside. Very soon now, with his customized body and brain, he would be the only person who could live outdoors, the only person who didn’t need Flick to live. He intended to take full advantage of that.
He had reviewed the simulation. Flick would be a benevolent dictator for thousands of years yet, only becoming deceptive in reaction to a human race that never really learned to behave itself. There was a lot he had to learn, but he knew what to look for, and when to act. And when that time came, he had the keys that would control Flick.
“You’ve got your guard dog,” he had told Griditch. “But there’s no one to watch me. Are you sure you trust me that far?”
Griditch had frowned, “Not really, but I have no choice.”
Alanda had shushed her fellow Elder. “I trust you, Samuel. Are you sure you want to vanish so early?”
“It’s best this way. You fixed it, you say, so Flick’ll never notice I’m different. But I was raised more cautious than that. In a billion people, everyone gossips about the Elders—and the people that hang around them. I need to drop out of sight for a while.”
Sam pulled the trout out of the fire and gingerly pinched off some of the meat. The splashes of the brook and the trees rustling overhead were his alone.
“And I’ll be watching you too, Angel. I’ll wait for you, no matter how long it takes.”