Washed by a Wave of Wind
M. Shayne Bell, editor
You Can’t Go Back
D. W. Worthen
[p.111]I sat alone in the small iron chapel, remembering. There was a porcelain Jesus on the cross on one wall and a Star of David on the other. On the polished iron wall near Jesus were pictures of eight saints with tables and candles for each one; several of those candles had been burning at each place when I entered, and I lit one more in front of the Christ for Gus. Then I’d gone to sit in one of the pews. Like nearly everything else here on The Rock, they were made of iron.
It had been Gus Anderson who’d given me a reason to stay on Vesta, and if you look at the big picture, he’d probably kept me from eventual death. Granted, a position at a mining station wasn’t exactly upwardly mobile, but there were jobs and free housing. I wasn’t alone here. Jobs and housing had been scarce on Earth for a good three decades.
The problem was that when I’d been on The Rock long enough to find what it was really like, I’d decided—wrongly, I suppose—that even Earth was better. Never mind that the average temperature there was at least twenty degrees higher than a century ago, never mind that you had to wear sunglasses and cover your body to protect you from the UV during the daytime. Never mind the Hot Places from the Eight Hours War.
Never mind that my parents were dead and most of my friends had gone to Mars or Ganymede. Never mind that I’d be giving up free housing and a good job to be homeless and unemployed when I got there.
The grass is always greener, I guess.
[p.112]Even if there really isn’t much grass left.
Gus had been a First Class, which meant essentially that he didn’t have to be here if he didn’t want to—he’d earned enough points with the Company for subsidized transport to Earth and Full Retirement. It also meant that he’d probably been mining on The Rock for over twenty-five years. He’d been here for almost my entire life, and for some reason I could not imagine, he’d elected to stay here. Gus had made First Class over three years ago.
He first came to my attention as I was monitoring computer use—part of my job. He’d been using more and more space, and I couldn’t figure out why any miner, First Class or not, would want that much space. I was the only one on The Rock who really had a decent reason to be using anything close to my allotted space.
Computer storage is the one thing found in abundance here, and it’s a free benefit to all Company employees—which means everybody. That and the liquor and the hookers—male and female. These services provide lots of things to do when you’re not actually doing the work you’re contracted for, as well as keep your mind off the fact that the Company is screwing your brains out by not paying you half what you’re worth.
Few people ever come remotely close to using all of their computer space. Those who did were either slowing down the machine by resaving their played-out computer games or were doing something they shouldn’t, which is where the cop aspect of my job began. Lately we’d had instances of hacking that might have cost the Company lives or—worse—money. Large numbers of files sometimes indicated that kind of thing.
So when I got back to my office one day, Gus’s name was flagged on my “Things to Check” directory screen. I’d installed a subroutine to let me know when someone got close to using all of their memory. The idea was to check the files to see if what they were doing merited the allocation of more memory space or if they were doing something else.
Gus was coming close to using all of his storage.
I jacked into the computer and waited while it scanned my brainprint. It asked me if I wanted the operating system displayed in virtual-reality mode, semi-virtual (which would still allow me to interact with the outside world), or screen. I wouldn’t be working with text or [p.113]numbers, so I said, “Full virtual. Vocal input, textual response.” I preferred that the computer respond in writing. Even though text could get kind of awkward in virtual·reality mode, for some reason it really bugged me when the damn machine talked to me. Call it neurosis.
As my small, metallic office faded from view to be replaced by the geometrical, semi-realistic world of virtual reality, I wondered if “full virtual” wasn’t an oxymoron.
I was in a small, light blue room with a huge wall screen full of menu choices. I knew exactly what I wanted. “Computer Allocation Directory,” I said. “List files, Anderson, Claudius A., SSN 259-67·8927-45.” All his files appeared on the screen; most had names like Provo.L, Orem.L, AmericanFork.L, PleasantGrove.L, Springville.L, and so on, and each file occupied hundreds of thousands of megabytes. The “.L” indicated that the files were linked together.
“What the hell could this old man possibly be doing?” I whispered to myself. The computer was bigger and more powerful than hell, so these huge files were perfectly feasible, but what would be the purpose? Even game files that contained their own worlds weren’t this big. Even the ones that were big were chains of smaller files. This was a chain of outrageously big files.
I scanned the files again. A couple of the names sounded like cities or towns. Deciding to check this, I said, “Library Encyclopedia access.”
Another big screen zoomed into view to occupy a position to the left of the one I was looking at. It had the company logo at the top, and below that, in big Helvetica letters, “LIBRARY ENCYCLOPEDIA.”
I said, “Cross-reference the following words: Provo, P-R-O-V-O, Orem, O-R-E-M … “I read off the rest of the names in Gus’s file list, except for the obvious ones, things titled “Journal,” “Books,” and so forth.
A window appeared at the bottom of the encyclopedia screen. “Names given are all names of cities and towns in Utah and Wasatch Counties, Utah, extant before the Intercontinental Nuclear Strike (aka the Eight Hours’ War). Two of the smaller towns, Heber and Midway, still exist to some extent. No effort has been made to rebuild the others. Is further information requested?”
“No. Close Encyclopedia.” The Encyclopedia display and its window faded away into the distance until it disappeared.
So Gus was naming files after old towns in central Utah.
[p.114]Just then, the “Provo.L” file turned bright red, indicating that it was in use at the moment.
“File ‘Provo.L,’” I said. “Source of program activation.”
Another window. “Terminal 3199A. Location, room 3199, quarters of Anderson, C. A.”
I wasn’t surprised; I’d just needed confirmation. Now that I had it, I could make my next move. “Run program SPY,” I said. “Password: GOLDFINGER. Target: terminal 3199A. Filename: Provo.L.”
The text in the window changed. “File locked under personal password. Bypass?”
“Yes, bypass,” I replied.
The text was replaced once again. “File is a representation of a virtual ‘world.’ Do you wish to observe or participate?”
At this point I thought it a better idea to remain invisible to the participant or participants in the file, so I said, “Observe.” This would allow me to view the file without projecting my icon-my virtual self—into it. I would be able to see myself, .but Gus and anybody else using the program would not.
My windows and room all disappeared, and I found myself standing on the street corner of another world. Forty feet in front of me was Gus Anderson. And now I knew why his files were so big. I also had a pretty good idea of why and how they were linked, and I was now fairly certain that Gus’s files were harmless.
I was looking at another place, another time, and the reproduction was flawless. I saw a street with a number of small shops. All the shops had common walls, and most had two stories. I got the impression that the storeowners—at least some of them—lived above the shops. The street was divided, and on the median was a third sidewalk. On either side of this sidewalk were parking spaces-yes, in the middle of the street. Parked in these spaces were some fine classic cars. I saw a BMW 320i which must have been from the ’90s, maybe even earlier. There were a couple of VW Beetles, a really nice old Honda, some Chevys, a Ford pickup, the latter being one of the most well-preserved old trucks I’d ever seen. All of them had gas engines. I hadn’t seen a car with a gas engine since a classic car show I’d gone to in New York back in ’42.
I looked up at the sky. It was a perfect powder blue—the color the sky must have been before the Eight Hours—with wisps of cloud here and there. And there were birds, sea gulls, I think. There was a hint of pollution near a horizon that was lined with the most beautiful moun-[p.115]tains I had ever seen, brown peaks with skirts of green around the bases. One of these mountains had a huge “Y” painted on it.
I couldn’t get over the perfection. Usually in a computer-generated “world,” the backgrounds are either non-moving—scanned in from photographs to save space—or else just quick sketches with a few details. In this “world,” it was like really being there. I could look in store windows and see people moving around, shopping and talking, and I was sure that if I were to go into one of those stores, I would hear a perfectly normal conversation. Passing cars had exhaust fumes. I could see an antique water fountain down the street spewing water into a basin. There was another across the street that seemed not to be working.
Everything had a shadow. Somehow I knew that if I came here on another day, it might be cloudy or rainy, and the shadows wouldn’t be there. The details would all be different, but they would be equally perfect. I was here, in this small town, fifty or sixty years ago. I could understand why these files were so big, and why they were growing: the detail. Gus probably had a subroutine to keep varying the possibilities, and likely another to keep creating more possibilities.
Gus! I’d forgotten about him! I looked around, but could not immediately see him. I finally found him moving away from me down the street. He was a good block away from me.
I raised a finger that was mine and yet not mine and indicated him. “Computer,” I said, “flag this icon for future reference.”
A small window appeared in midair to my right. In the upper left-hand side it said “SPY,” and there were menu items across the top that I could choose from if I so desired. In the middle it said, “Icon flagged.”
“Close,” I said absently, and the window vanished.
As I said before, I was now fairly certain these file were harmless, but I had to see more. I told myself then that I needed more proof that there was nothing funny going on, but I know now that I was just looking around; I guess I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was fantastic.
Gus walked down the street, looking in store windows, and occasionally waving at someone he knew. Then he turned a corner, walked a little further and leaned into a doorway. Surrounding this doorway were little cafe tables. There was a large awning over them. He said something I didn’t catch to somebody inside, and then came out and sat at one of the tables.
[p.116]I smiled and shook my head. But I was also impressed. The detail was incredible. If he were to sell these files to one of the game companies, Gus Anderson would be set for life. Only one way to find out. I didn’t want to invade his privacy, so I decided to wait and talk to him live. He’d be at the commissary with everyone else.
“Shut down program SPY,” I said.
The next day at lunchtime, I went to the commissary to ingest my second daily share of indigestible garbage. What wasn’t recycled was brought in freeze-dried from Earth. I usually tried to get as much of the freeze-dried stuff as possible, because even after ten months here, the very thought that I was eating my own recycled vitamin-enriched excrement completely turned my stomach. Occasionally I even remembered that my body wasn’t the only body here on the Rock, and that usually sent me running for the toilet to provide more raw material for the food reprocessors.
I looked around and didn’t see Gus, so I shrugged and found a seat. After about ten minutes, I saw him come in. He looked more or less like his icon: late sixties, full head of grey-white hair. His features were sharp and his back was straight, but he looked tired, as if he’d been mining for maybe one or two years beyond his capacity. His eyes tended to stare a bit, and he coughed a lot. I watched as he went through the line, got his food, and sat down by himself at the end of one of the long, common tables we all used to share our “lunch.” I decided to ask him if I could join him. The worst he could say was “no.”
Surprisingly, he said “I guess so,” and I couldn’t wait any longer. I blurted, “Mr. Anderson, why are you mining here when you could sell your files? You could get out of here and set yourself up for life!”
He smiled. He looked like somebody’s grandpa. “Who are you, kid?”
I stuck out my hand. “Gene Richards. Computer Monitoring Office.” He shook my hand. Then he continued eating. I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I waited. We ate. It got uncomfortable after a while, but Gus seemed simply to be enjoying his lunch. I couldn’t see how, considering what it was made of. After he finished he put his elbows on the iron table, one hand on the other, and said, “Well, Gene Richards, not that it’s any of your business, but I don’t want to go back to Earth. For any reason. Y’see, you can’t go back. All you got is the here and now. Besides those files are special to me. I don’t want them commercialized.”
[p.117]He stood up.
“If there’s nothing else … ?” he asked. I shook my head. “Then I expect you’ll be leaving me alone. There’s nothing about those files that needs to concern the Company or your office, Mr. Richards. I have to go back to work now,” he said. “The iron doesn’t come out of The Rock by itself.”
And that was it.
Several days later I was working on the monthly reports—keyboard input—and a note came onto my screen in the upper right-hand corner: “Provo.L file activated.” I had told the computer to inform me whenever Gus ran the file. I couldn’t leave it alone. He had invented a near-perfect virtual world. Why wouldn’t he market it? I double-checked my temple jack to make sure the connection was clean, and exited the word processor I had been using. Then I entered virtual and used the Spy program to get into his file and interact with him there on a participating basis.
When I appeared in his world, I found him sitting on a bus bench on a street corner in a residential area. On the backrest of the bench were three stylized letters on a blue background: UTA.
When he saw me, he said, “Mr. Richards. Why is it that I’m not particularly surprised to see you here?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Anderson,” I found myself saying. “I couldn’t let it go. I’m fascinated with this place you’ve created.”
He stood up and just looked at me. Right in the eyes, for a long time. I felt as though I were being appraised. Knowing Gus as I do now, I would imagine that’s exactly what he was doing.
I guess I passed the test, because he just said, “C’mon, then,” and turned and walked away. We walked for maybe three blocks, and then he turned to me and said, “Wait by the car,” which he indicated was in the driveway of the house he’d stopped in front of. Then he went up the walk and disappeared inside. It was a small house, traditional mid-twentieth-century red brick, the kind you find in small towns like this one. There were two trees in the front yard and a neat flower garden along the driveway side of the house. There was a little vegetable garden along the other side. From what I could see of the living-room through the front window, Gus had a lot of stuff. There were bookcases, all full, along the living room walls and little knickknacks and decorations everywhere.
Gus came out about a minute later with a set of keys in his hand. [p.118]He came and unlocked the door of the car. It was a red Mazda RX-7, late ’80s model, and he motioned for me to get inside. He got in on the other side and started the car. I’d never been in one of these before and was all prepared to enjoy the ride.
Gus started the car and began to drive.
He took us through the center of town and then turned left, taking us first through a university complex and then a high-end residential area. He tersely pointed out a landmark or two as we drove. For the most part he was silent. We finally came to the bottom of a longish, uphill drive. It turned off the main road and curved up the side of a hill. For a while we were promised a nice view of the surrounding area, but then the vegetation cut it off, and there was green all around, which was also beautiful.
The sun was going down, and it would get dark soon.
We got to a metal gate, which was standing open, and drove through. Shortly thereafter the road switched back on itself, and we were going up the hill in the other direction. Almost without warning the vegetation parted and we were at the top. The road continued past a little cottage and continued to circle through several manicured fields.
We passed the house, which I assumed to be a caretaker’s home, but no one was around, and continued through a field full of stone plates. Grave markers.
“Cemetery,” Gus said. “Want to show you something.” He drove for another moment. Past the field I could see that the cemetery ended in a sharp drop which gave onto a beautiful view of the valley we had just ascended out of. Towards the west the sun was descending in a blaze of reds, oranges and golds. Gus saw me admiring the sunset.
“Thank the steel mill for that. Without all their crap in the air, it wouldn’t be half that pretty.” He stopped the car. “C’mon.”
He walked closer to the edge and stopped. I just watched. He looked back up at me and said, “Well? I didn’t drive all this way just to strike a pose against the sunset. C’mere!”
I came, and saw what he was looking at. There were two metal plates on the ground. One read:
DAVID JULIUS ANDERSON
and the other
[p.119]LINDA GRAVES ANDERSON
Between the two was a small metal marker. It said
TWO CIVILIAN CASUALTIES
OF ONE OF MAN’S MOST ANIMALISTIC MOMENTS:
MAY 28th, 2023
The Eight Hours’ War. Utah had been a primary target, because of Dugway Proving Ground. Most of northern Utah was a radioactive desert. I had forgotten.
“My folks,” Gus said. “This place doesn’t exist any more except in the computer. I grew up here. I made the file for me. And for them.” He turned away towards the valley, sticking his hands in his pockets, then continued. “Give it to a marketing agency? No. I couldn’t do it.”
I followed the direction of his gaze. The colors were even brighter than they had been a moment ago, though the sun was now halfway below the horizon. Almost all of the valley was visible from here, because the cemetery was perched on a hill that formed a kind of promontory out into the valley. If you turned as you looked, you could see all the way to the south, the southwest, where the lights of a small airport were beginning to wink, the west, where the lake and the steel plant were, and the north.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “My grandfather was killed during the Eight Hours, too. I wouldn’t want to do anything to cheapen his memory, either.”
Gus nodded. “Yeah, I guess that’s it. I couldn’t really put it into words, so I had to show you.” He was silent for a minute, then said, “I guess we should go back.”
“Would you show me more of your creation?” I asked.
He turned and brightened but didn’t quite smile. “You’d really like to see it?”
Would I really like to see it? I was fascinated by this place! “I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t,” I said.
He drove me all around the valley, pointing out spots of interest, places where he had grown up, gone to school, lived his life. This time his comments were much less acerbic. I was fascinated. The details were almost indistinguishable from what the real thing must have been.
[p.120]I wanted to stay longer, but Gus said he had to go and we jacked out.
The next time Gus and I got together was about a week after that when he took me to an unfinished “world.” He said this one was a model of Salt Lake City. He’d just begun it, and had already set it up so we had to go to Provo first and, as with all the other files, access the Salt Lake file from there.
We’d agreed to meet in the operating system. I felt it was a little obnoxious to use my Spy program to force my way into his “world,” and though he never said anything about it, I had a good idea he felt the same way. So after jacking in and logging on, I appeared in my menu room. I waited until the system registered the activation of Gus’s terminal, and said, “Interface with terminal 3199A, quarters Anderson, C. A. Further request interface with virtual icon of Anderson C. A.”
A window appeared in front of me with the word “accessing …” After a moment, the words “Interface complete” flashed at me three times, and the system replaced the window with the image of a door in the wall of my menu room. I knocked. Gus answered. Or rather, his icon did.
“I’ll drive,” he said. “Open file Provo.L. Location: address Gus Anderson, front yard.”
The room faded, and we were standing in Gus’s front yard between the house and his RX-7. He again told me to get in the car, and I did. We began driving, and after a few minutes we were on the freeway. Gus was quiet while driving; he reached under his seat and pulled out a cloth packet. With one hand he fumbled it open, and inside was a pile of antique large-size CDs in their jewel cases. He opened one in a case marked Caress of Steel and pressed it into the CD player. The music began, old rock ‘n’ roll. After a while the city buildings around the freeway became sparse, though they never completely disappeared as we went.
After about twenty minutes we came to the northern edge of the valley to a place where a mountain rose on one side of the road, and the land dipped down into a valley on the other before rising again to become highlands. It was a pass from one valley into another, separated by that incredible blue sky.
“This place is called Point of the Mountain,” Gus began. “It’s the northern boundary of Utah Valley and the southern end of Salt Lake [p.121]Valley. More importantly,” he continued as we neared the summit of the upslope, “it marks the boundary between Bluffdale.L, which is complete, and Riverton.L, which is not.”
He went on to explain that all the cities and towns of Utah Valley were free-standing files, but all the Salt Lake City suburbs were each in a big subdirectory named SLC.L. The main reason they were in the subdirectory was that they were unfinished. As he finished we crossed the boundary. It was almost as if his speech had been rehearsed. Immediately most of the colors disappeared from the world. The dazzling blue of the sky turned to a stark white, the green on the mountainsides turned a neutral grey, and the tarmac color of the road a flat black. Also everything lost its texture. It was like driving in a picture, except that actually it passed by, like driving in the real world.
There were no buildings, no grass, no trees, no other cars, no lines on the road, no detail at all. Just outlines of mountains and a black strip of road running to what my eye interpreted as a black splotch far ahead. The entire scene gave me a headache to look at.
We drove for maybe another twenty minutes, and the splotch slowly resolved itself into the outline of a skyline, which was less painful to the eye. The buildings were a bit more detailed, but a bit flat. Not two-dimensional, but flat-faced, like pictures made three-dimensional. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to ask.
“How did you do it, Gus?” I’m a programmer, but I was never into world construction. My skills run more into operating systems and tying previously designed constructs into the mathematics. My specialty is non-virtual programs. 1 really haven’t followed the market for virtual stuff at all. I guess it stems from the same source as my neurosis against talking computers. “Did you use some kind of animated drawing program?”
He gave me a funny look, like 1 should know the answer to this already. He was right; any normal programmer would have. I’m a neurotic. Sue me.
“I used,” he began, staring out the windshield and driving down this roadway from a hallucinogenic nightmare, “a program called WorldBuilder. It lets you create worlds in as much or as little detail as you like. What you do is enter the program, and interface with an information source. In my case it was the Company Library Encyclopedia. You call up the maps for the area you want. If the place is imaginary, you draw it yourself. For the scenery, skyline, and other stuff, you import some [p.122]pictures. The software turns the maps and pictures into three-dimensional images.
“For the detail, you can get the computer to randomize color and detail or do the work yourself or use a combination of the two.”
“And you did the work yourself.”
He stared straight ahead.
“I used the combination on some places.”
He showed me some places in Salt Lake he’d nearly finished. The famous Mormon temple was almost complete, as well as the not-as-famous Catholic Cathedral of the Madeleine nearby. Gus said these were a combination of old photos, paintings, and memories. They were beautiful.
“Okay,” I said. “One more question. I saw you talking to some people in Provo. How did you do them?”
“Pictures and detail, the same way. The computer randomizes their actions, but looks for keywords in your speech to respond to in order to make simulated conversation. I’ve been trying to think of a way to make them a little more life-like.”
“AI,” I said.
He twisted towards me. “Huh?”
“Artificial intelligence. The Company has one here to run some of the heavier, more complicated equipment. If we could tie into it, we could bring your people to life.”
His eyebrows went up in a “that just might do it” expression.
It was again time to go back to Vesta, to work.
“You want to go home, don’t you, Gene?”
It was three days later, and Gus and I had returned to “Provo.L.” We were sitting at a pseudo-Formica table with aluminum legs in Gus’s kitchen. The kitchen was done in varying stages of white—all very clean, but some darkening with age. The old Whirlpool refrigerator had scratches on the front. The window above the table was open, and summer sunlight spilled its warmth over our chess game. Gus was winning—with the black pieces.
“Yeah, Gus. I really do. I’m sick to death of this place.”
He knew what I meant. The company treated all its workers the same. As with every monopoly the people at the top got fat, the people in the middle got by, and the people at the bottom—the ones who actually did the work—got shafted. The miners got a low wage and had to work [p.123]for years to save up enough points for free passage back. I was no different. Even though I had my own cubicle and was probably one of six people on the damn Rock who knew how to use a computer for anything other than keeping records, running machinery, or playing games, I was in the same situation. Lots of people depend on me for a lot, but the only thanks I get is a too-small paycheck. Nobody notices how much I bust my ass until something doesn’t get done according to their schedule.
“And where would you go, Gene?”
“Back to Earth, of course. Where else is there?” Actually there were Mars and Ganymede to consider, not to mention the L5 cylinder under construction in Earth orbit at one of the moon’s Trojan points. And the other asteroid mining stations.
“Gene, you’d die. Have you got a job waiting there?”
I shook my head. He knew damn well that jobs were more than scarce. Employment on Earth was at 24.2 percent, and computer programmers and analysts were a penny a thousand. He was right. I’d die of starvation. Or exposure. There was simply no place to stay—welfare housing was bulging, and without a place life could get deadly. The average temperature may be up, but it could still get plenty cold, and freak storms were getting more and more frequent. If I managed to live through those things, the street gangs or the scavengers would get me for my organs if not just for relief from boredom.
Going home would be suicide.
“I wanted to go home,” he said softly, “and here I am. It’s the only way to go back. When your home is gone and you can’t deal with the reality that is, I think it’s okay to create a reality that you can live with.
It’s better than insanity.”
“It’s not that I want to go home, Gus. I just want to get out of here—off The Rock. Earth is just about the only other viable alternative.”
“Is it?” he asked. “Is it really a viable alternative, Gene? The whole place is shot to shit.”
He reached for his rook. “Check,” he said. “Mate in three.”
He was right.
Two days later we hiked to Timpanogos Cave. The Library Encyclopedia had registered it as a small, rather unimpressive series of caverns that lay at the top of a trail consisting of just about a mile-and-a-half, maybe two miles of partially-paved switchbacks. These switchbacks [p.124]began just inside a thin canyon, so about all you could see from the trail until you reached the top was the face of the mountain opposite.
“When I—uh, when I designed this set of files,” Gus had begun when we were about halfway up that trail, “I changed a few things.” Gus and I were about the same height, so when we stood together, we generally looked eye to eye. When we walked together, we would at least make an attempt to maintain eye contact some of the time. Today he was staring straight ahead of him into the blue. If I followed his gaze, I could see a tiny patch of the town of American Fork through the thin notch of the canyon entrance. The sun would later sink down into that notch, creating some beautiful sunset effects. With the pollution haze on the western horizon, those effects would be positively spectacular. Either the encyclopedia had been wrong about what a hiker could see from here, or Gus had changed more than just a few things.
Gus coughed hard and went on. “The biggest changes I made were inside the cavern. Y’see, my parents were in the military before my dad retired here, so we traveled a lot. Before 1 saw the caves here for the first time, I’d seen some of the really big caverns—Luray and Skyline in Virginia, Carlsbad in New Mexico, the ones in Dakota, like that. So I was pretty disappointed when I saw these dinky things. I recreated them accurately in another file in a subdirectory somewhere, but what you’re about to see is not what was really in this canyon before the Eight Hours. If my caves had been in this mountain, it probably would have collapsed a long, long time ago. Just thought I should tell you.”
When Gus and I got to the cave entrance, we rested and went in. The whole time we toured the caves, Gus kept up a running monologue on what he had changed—what he’d borrowed or made up—and what he’d left alone. He made more noise than the tour guide, whom we weren’t really listening to anyway, and after a while Gus told the computer to shut him up. It was odd to see him continue mouthing the words of his lecture without saying anything- like a video with the sound turned down.
Gus’s caves were exquisite. As Gus took me through, 1 just looked at the colorful beauty he had assembled. There was a huge open cavern with a lake at one end, and we were completely dwarfed by it. It reminded me of what Gollum’s cave must have looked like. There was a series of smaller maze-like caves with strange glasslike growths in them that looked like upside-down crystal spiders. There were colorful rock [p.125]gardens with stones worn smooth. Apparently an underground river had once run through here.
At the end of the caverns—and Gus said he’d taken this part from the original Timpanogos Cave—was a simple set of passageways with traditional stalactites, stalagmites, and natural formations. They were grotesquely beautiful. I had wanted to go through Gus’s dream cave again, but it was approaching his shift time. We jacked out.
The weekend after Timpanogos Cave—or Gus’s version of it, at any rate—we went east. He loaded me into his car and started driving.
“Where are we going, Gus?”
Gus coughed, and said, “Just shut up and enjoy. This drive wasn’t made for talking.”
We drove up to Heber past Deer Creek Reservoir. He said he had doctored this one too, because as time went by and the droughts had gotten worse in Utah, the waterline had gone down, leaving boats high and dry and marinas inaccessible, so he had taken this canyon about fifteen or twenty years further back weatherwise. It was beautiful. The reservoir was high, and we could see boats everywhere, people sailing and skiing. The water was bluer than the sky. Looking up I saw a hang-glider silently following the air currents. On a nearby river there were guys in hip- and chest-waders standing out in the water fishing. On the way back we turned off the highway and went to a little place called Cascade Springs that was just gorgeous. We followed a little trail back to the springs and a little waterfall, and I saw more beauty that day than I had seen or even imagined since I had gotten to The Rock.
“You know, Gus, you’ve really made something here. This is just beautiful. These files could really save a guy’s sanity. Maybe even his life.”
He just kept looking at the road. “I know,” he said softly.
It was beautiful. A dream place.
“So what have you decided, Gene?” We were driving again, this time just around town.
“I’m staying on The Rock.” I grinned widely, looking straight ahead. “You can’t go back. Did you know that?”
“But you can be happy,” he paused as a violent fit of coughing took him. “You always have to find a place that makes you happy.”
He didn’t say anything for a while. We were going north on 500 [p.126]West which later became State Street when we got to Orem. In Orem we turned right on 400 South. This was an area where there was a mixture of different kinds of houses.
“What’s your favorite kind of house, Gene?”
This was an odd question, but I didn’t even have to think about it. I’d never lived in a house, but I’d always wanted to and had one all picked out in my mind.
“Four-bedroom colonial,” I replied. “Like the kind they used to build in Virginia and Maryland. White with two stories, a balcony above a central porch. Two Greek columns supporting it.”
We drove around some more and then went to his house and jacked out.
A day later Gus took me to the same area in Orem and showed me a white colonial with exactly the porch and balcony I’d described. We used the WorldBuilder program to flesh it out and furnish it. I put in early American furniture and downloaded all kinds of books from the library. They all went into hardback covers. The place looked like a library—the kind of place I’d always wanted to live in. I put in an antique-looking computer terminal. All the junk I’d ever wanted, I put into that house.
“Gus,” I said, turning to him after we’d finished. We were standing in the front room. “Thank you. This means quite a lot.”
He looked out the front window. The sun was setting.
“Don’t mention it,” he mumbled.
“Gene, there’s something I need to tell you,” Gus told me a few weeks after that. We were playing chess again, this time in a place called Kiwanis Park in the eastern part of Provo. We were sitting in a pavilion at an old wooden picnic table, and it was twilight. Gus was winning as usual.
“And what would that be?” I replied.
“Seriously, Gene. I have cancer.”
This got my attention fast. I had been reaching for a bishop, but my hand fell back to my lap empty. “How serious?” I whispered.
He looked me in the eye. “Serious. It’s lung cancer, and I’ve had it for a long time. They say I’ve got about two months.”
“You don’t look that far along, Gus.”
“I am though. People usually look better in virtual than they do in real life.”
[p.127]It was true. I’d only seen Gus in real life once, that first day at lunch, and he had looked bad then. Tired. He must look that way all the time and “doctor” his virtual icon to look better than his real self did.
“Listen,” he continued, “I want you to finish Salt Lake for me.”
“But I’ve never been there.”
He dismissed this with a gesture.
“Who cares about that. Do some research. Write some letters. Finish it for me. I want you to promise.”
I promised him. We spent as much of his remaining time off-shift together as we could.
The doctors had been right. They might not have a cure for cancer yet, but they can predict it pretty accurately. The last time I saw Gus, he had been in the hospital dying. It was all right, because we had a chance to say our good-byes; I was there when he died and attended his funeral but wished I hadn’t. They gave him a quick service and shot his body into space. A holdover, I guess, from those early days at sea when they buried sailors in the ocean. It was like watching one of those canned religious services on virtual.
I stood up. This iron chapel on The Rock was the wrong place to be remembering Gus, so I went down to my cubicle and jacked in. It took me only a few seconds to be recognized and select the proper file from the directory I had recently transferred to my personal allocation. Since Gus had no family, he had willed the files to me. His few other possessions went to his church back on Earth for their welfare program.
When I got to my destination, I was standing under cloudy skies at the foot of the uphill road with no sidewalk. I walked this time, and it took longer, but I didn’t mind. The gate was still open, and the caretaker’s house looked empty, as it always did. Today the lawns had been freshly cut, and the grave markers freshly polished. I walked to the edge of the hill, where the lawns became cliff. Even on an overcast day like today, you could see most of the valley. The lake was beautiful as usual, and the only thing that spoiled the view was the steel plant, belching fire and gushing smoke. Even so it looked as if it belonged there, and besides that smoke meant beautiful sunsets, so you couldn’t damn it too much. Gus loved this place. He was gone, but I had this place to remember him by. I had this place to go to when the pressures of The Rock threatened to cave me in.
[p.128]I looked down at my feet, beyond Gus’s parents’ markers to the new carved stone I had ordered from a monument company on State Street.
IN MEMORY OF
CLAUDIUS AUGUSTUS “Gus” ANDERSON
HE WANTED A PLACE THAT MADE HIM HAPPY.
HIS PLACE MADE OTHERS HAPPY.
THANK YOU, OLD MAN.
I’ll finish Salt Lake City. And I’m going to find a way to tie his characters into the AI. The hell with my neurosis. Call it therapy.