THE LONE AND LEVEL SANDS
By L. Neil Smith
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandius, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandius”
The guard said, “Pardon me, Miss Ngu, may I please have your autograph?”
Llyra stood on the slowly-moving slidewalk with her husband Morgan and their three children, taking in the amazing sight of the famous Leaning Monument of Washington. The guard—who was no more than a ticket-taker, in point of fact—had apparently run all the way from his glass booth at the entrance of the Mall to catch up with them. Now the man bent over, hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath, as well.
By special arrangement with the Seaboard Weather Control Company—a holosign over the entrance had informed them—the onetime capital city of the Old United States and East America was kept authentically hot and humid all year round. As a result, all of them—including the guard, it appeared—felt authentically sticky and uncomfortable.
“Sure,” Llyra told him cheerfully over the alarming sound of his wheezing. “Are you all right? Do you have something for me to write on?”
He levered himself upright again, looking flushed. Except for a fringe of reddish hair above his ears, he was totally bald, and bright pink from his chin almost to the back of his neck. He needn’t have been bald, of course—practically nobody in the rest of the Solar System was these days—old-fashioned laws forbidding genetic therapy had long since been repealed, or were simply ignored, but the East American people largely remained prejudiced against “fooling Mother Nature”.
He fished around in his antique gold-buttoned blazer—a patch on the breast pocket displayed a System-famous company logo surrounded by the legend, “EjTofz Entertainment Enterprises”—producing a scrap of paper.
“I’m okay, thanks, Miss Ngu,” he told her, looking to her husband, as well. “I’m originally from Flagstaff, see? Old Arizona? Eighteen years I’ve lived and worked in the D.C.and I’m still not used to the damn artificial climate.” He glanced down at the children. “Pardon my French.”
Morgan laughed. “That’s okay—Fred.” He’d looked at the man’s nametag. “We speak a lot of French, ourselves.” In his way, Morgan was just as illustrious a personality as his wife, but she was the one who got asked for her autograph and he’d long since grown accustomed to it.
Llyra spoke up. “Sorry, Fred. Where are my manners? My husband, Morgan Trask, my son Emerson, my daughter Julia, and our baby daughter Ardie in the pram.” As she spoke, she signed the paper scrap, dating it July 2, 2145. A sudden wave of nausea and foreboding swept through her, as it did sometimes—she’d had another hijacking nightmare last night and awakened shaken and sweaty—but she struggled to ignore it.
“It’s very nice to meet you all.” said the guard, shaking hands with the couple’s eight-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. “Thank you, Miss Ngu. You know, we see quite a few celebrities here, but … ” He held up the autograph. “Well, my wife will be so pleased.” He departed at a considerably more leisurely pace than he’d arrived.
They all looked up at the monument again, sitting about a hundred yards away. The only thing holding the tower up seemed to be a pair of structural carbon cables, stretching from the pyramidal top, against the direction it was leaning, and anchored in the ground. They were smaller, but similar, Llyra realized, to the big cable, over 22,500 miles long, that they’d ridden down on from synchronous orbit this morning.
It was hard to believe that, in times past, thousands of groups—military veterans, racial minorities, trade organizations, labor unions, animal rights advocates, and environmentalists like the Sierra Club, All Worlds Are Earth, and the Mass Movement—had rallied here, sometimes by the millions, to state their case and make their demands. Now it was just a huge empty space Llyra and her family had, almost to themselves.
“EjTofz Entertainment Enterprises must be too cheap to spring for antigravs,” Morgan observed. He’d pronounced the name “Eye-Tovs”. Llyra thought it must be Hungarian or Lithuanian or Serbo-Croation or something. The company had just bought the entire city—everything inside the legendary Beltway—intending to make a theme park out of it.
“They’re still relatively expensive,” Llyra replied. “And power hogs.”
“Yeah, but if nothing is done to prevent it, someday this monument will collapse, leaving a long, broken line of rubble—the Washington Wall.”
Between them and the monument, a life-sized hologram in quaint early 19th century clothing politely introduced itself as Parson Mason Weems. It spoke of General Washington, about the monument itself, and apologized for an apparently famous untruth it had once told about a hatchet and a cherry tree in its biography of the first American president.
“Just think.” Llyra said. “One little fib, not quite three and a half centuries ago and he’ll be apologizing for it until the sun burns out.”
“When Washington retired after two terms,” the hologram continued, “He—”
“Be quiet, now.” Llyra’s husband told the hologram. “And please go away.”
The hologram promptly vanished.
Morgan Trask was tall by nearly anybody’s standard, six feet nine inches. Although he was heavily muscled and in excellent condition, strangers usually thought of him as skinny, owing to the proportions involved. He had strong Nordic features—although most of his ancestors were Irish—and long blond hair presently pulled back in a ponytail. He wore what served as casual street clothes in the Moon’s largest city, Armstrong (to natives of Earth they looked like pajamas or surgical scrubs) and a small, potent plasma pistol on his right hip.
Born and raised in what might as well have been an interplanetary colony, a village built under an atmospheric dome east of L’Anse Aux Meadows on the northernmost tip of the Great Northern Peninsula of the Unanimous Consent Confederation of Newfoundland, Morgan had been the Solar System’s Olympic champion in men’s figure skating a dozen years ago.
Now he turned to his wife, catching the eye of his two older offspring, as well. The third, baby Ardie, was in her stroller, more or less oblivious to anything except her toes. “Somebody told me once that when Washington was a Revolutionary general, the Continental Congress put him on an expense account, rather than paying him a salary, which he used to buy livestock for the farm he shared with Martha.”
The baby began to fuss a little, interrupting her father’s story. Increasing the flow of the air curtain that protected her child from the climate and flying insects, Llyra raised her eyebrows. “Is that true?”
He shook his head. “Don’t know—just what somebody told me. When he got elected President, he wanted the same deal but they turned him down.”
“Gosh, I wonder why.”
Twenty-eight year old Llyra Ngu Trask was nearly as tall as her husband, six feet seven inches, and similarly muscled, although with all of the curves appropriate to her sex. She, too, had been an Olympic gold medalist, in women’s figure skating, at the age of sixteen. Blond and fair, with just the faintest hint of her Asian forbears in her hazel eyes, her height was nothing extraordinary where she came from. She’d been born and brought up on the terraformed asteroid Pallas, at one twentieth of a standard Earth gravity. It had taken her years to work up to skating on Earth, but in the end, she’d been the first female to perform a quintuple Salchow in a one-gee field.
For the past ten years, she and her husband had been coaching young Olympic hopefuls, as well as future show skaters, at the Robert and Virginia Heinlein Memorial Ice Skating Arena—”the Heinlein”—in Armstrong City in the Moon. The waiting list for their services, famous from Mercury to Pluto, was long and those on it would now be disappointed.
They had returned to Earth with their three small children for what could possibly be the last time, to see a few sights they thought were important. After Washington, their plan was to visit a handful of other North American cities and pay a visit to Morgan’s parents in Newfoundland, before heading for Egypt. Next month they would board the C.C.V. Prometheus, bound for an ancient alien interstellar jump device recently discovered at the edge of the Solar System. It would take them to another star system and the beautiful Earthlike planet, Paradise.
Those who wished to retain a sense of perspective had named the planet’s single extraordinarily dark and smooth-surfaced moon “Parking Lot”.
One sight they wanted their children to see was the former capital of the former United States of America, the last government of any consequence on Earth, and the end of eight or ten thousand years of dismal coercive history. EjTofz Entertainment Enterprises had begun its renovation of the mostly abandoned city by restarting the famous moving walkways that took visitors from one point of interest to another.
As they’d seen, holograms of important biographers acted as guides to the various monuments and memorials. Cameras, computers, and other electronics were welcome in the park (in a city that had once required a police permit for a camera tripod) but only at their owners’ risk. Uncountable trillions of electronics-eating antisurveillance nanites were still active from about a century ago, when people finally grew tired of being scrutinized and eavesdropped on constantly by the government.
“Mommy, what’s that?” Emerson asked suddenly.
“Don’t point, dear, it’s not polite. Anyway, your eyes are better than mine. I can’t quite—why, I think it looks like somebody in a hoverchair.”
The instant the whole family turned to look, the figure took a right angle and vanished behind a statue of Hillary Rodham Clinton that, in the style of her times, had been made from crushed aluminum cans.
“Maybe somebody from your neck of the woods, Honey,” Morgan suggested. “Somebody who can’t tolerate the new treatments for gravity.” All five of them had suffered numerous injections, tests, physical therapy, and other indignities to be here, including the baby.
“Maybe,” Llyra answered. There was something unsettling about that figure, but she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. “Let’s go have some lunch, shall we? I saw a little cafe over by the Schwartzenegger Pavilion.”
“You think there’s bugs in there?” Llyra’s five year old daughter Julia asked as they approached the next memorial on their itinerary, a site mostly known, these days, for its appearance on antique coins and currency.
Not all such collectibles were rare. During its final days, the East American government had cast this particular president’s likeness into a thermoplastic five million dollar coin, circulating enough of them, went an old joke, to fill one of the smaller Great Lakes. In the end, the vast majority of them had been shipped to West American thermal depolymerization plants where they’d been broken down into petroleum.
Emerson gave his sister a nasty snicker.
“This is a good climate,” said Morgan, “for all kinds of nasty bugs.”
They’d seen some of the city proper, before coming to the Mall. So far they’d visited the apartment building where Wesley Snipes had supposedly lived in the twentieth century movie Murder at 1600, the basement parking garage where “Deep Throat” had met reporters Woodward and Bernstein, and a Catholic girls’ school where the barricaded twenty-first century President Horton Willoughby had finally been persuaded to surrender and resign from office over the Martian scandal.
There was still a military tank—long since rusted and inert—standing at every important intersection of the city, left over from the turbulent final days of the Homeland Security era. It was difficult for Morgan and Llyra to keep their 8-year-old son and 5-year old daughter from climbing them—it looked like fun for adults, as well.
Later this afternoon they planned to visit the Hall of Fictional Presidents, with its host of robotic and holographic images from Raymond Massey to Harrison Ford, Gene Hackman, Ronny Cox, and Martin Sheen.
“And snakes!” Emerson added excitedly. “I wanna see some snakes!”
One of the few drawbacks to living in the Moon was that the Trasks and other children like them could only see wild animals by going to the zoo. The boy devoured everything he could read and watch on the subject. He was especially interested in predatory mammals. That had been one of many reasons Llyra and Morgan had decided to head for the stars, and a new planet. On Paradise, the kids could climb mountains, run through the woods, paddle through swamps, and see new life very few children—or adults, for that matter—had ever seen. There was some danger in that, of course, but pioneers like Arctic colonists and Pallatians welcomed it, for the freedom and opportunity that came with it.
The monument before them was a gigantic rectangular building entirely surrounded by columns. Inside, one of the presidents sat on what was unmistakably a throne, looking down at the visitors who came to see him. The monument, however, was overgrown with semitropical weeds and vines, beneath which two centuries of grafitti had left not a square inch of stone unmarked. One of the columns at the entrance was broken, leaving a gap like a missing tooth in the face of a street tramp.
Before they came within fifty yards of the memorial, another holofigure appeared before them, both of its arms extended, palms outward.
“I’m sorry,” said the hologram. “The public may not enter this structure, as it’s overrun with dangerous insects, snakes, rats, and bats.”
“Bats!” exclaimed both older children at the same time, Emerson with excitement, Julia in apparent horror. In that moment, Llyra felt that same nameless dread wash through her again. It had been like this for half of her life, ever since her ill-fated journey to Mars. She shook it off, as she always did, and concentrated instead on the hologram.
“I was Thomas DiLorenzo,” the figure wore an early twenty-first century jacket and tie, “one of Abraham Lincoln’s last biographers. Over the past century or so, the man’s image and place in history have become somewhat tarnished, as it has become clearer what he did and why. Fundamentally, he allowed six hundred twenty thousand individual human beings to die violently—and many more to be wounded, raped, and impoverished—in order to preserve an artificial political construct.”
“But he freed—” Llyra began. Earth history wasn’t her strong suit.
“A claim,” the hologram went on, “was often made that Lincoln ended slavery, but not only did his Emancipation Proclamation free nobody, all throughout the war, Washington’s capitol dome was being renovated—by slaves. Lincoln stated frankly that if he could have preserved the Union by keeping slavery in place, he would have done so. What he did, instead, was to spread it everywhere across America, by introducing military conscription and income taxation, the two most pernicious forms of slavery, ones that continued for another hundred and … “
The hologram’s voice was overpowered by a roaring noise overhead. They all looked up to see one of the new antigrav shuttles—its underbelly polished like a great curved mirror—clawing its way into the midday sky, headed for the Moon, or possibly one of the Lagrange positions.
Some people still preferred spaceships to the orbital elevator the Trask family had ridden down on. Those like the vessel overhead were faster and more direct, but a great deal more expensive. The Trasks had taken a small space hopper from Armstrong City in the Moon to the pinnacle of the nearest space elevator—there were now six of these, altogether, every one of them built by Llyra’s father, who had also terraformed Ceres—and ridden it to Fernandina in the Galapagos Islands on the Earth’s equator. From there, a hypersonic atmospheric cruiser had flown them to Baltimore in East America. After visiting the system-famous H.L. Mencken Shrine, they’d taken an almost empty hoverbus to what had been the capital of the world’s most powerful nation.
Antigrav technology, a leftover, archaeologically, from some ancient civilization gone for a billion years, had come back from the stars with Mankind’s first interstellar exploratory vessel, the Fifth Force. The shuttle overhead was lifted by antigrav, but driven by fusion engines that human beings had invented all by themselves. The lower portion of the vessel’s hull was reflective because, for a great many years, the dying East American government had taken to using tactical lasers to shoot down aircraft it believed had violated its airspace.
Eventually one of them—a freighter full of frozen buffalo meat from Omaha, Nebraska bound for Langrange Five—had been shot down and crashed, wiping out the town of Bricktown, New Jersey. Several heavily armed parties of West Americans had infiltrated the laser installations and destroyed them. Now the lower hulls of spaceships were polished, partly as decoration, but partly as a reminder and a warning.
The hologram continued its lecture through the ragged noise of the swiftly climbing vessel, but it was a movement in the corner of her eye that suddenly captured all of Llyra’s attention. “Don’t look now,” she told her family quietly, “but that person in the hoverchair is back.”
The apparation was closer now, less than a hundred yards away. The chair was big and bulky, technology at least a century out of date. Despite the temperature and humidity, the figure in it was swathed in a heavy blanket, with a scarf over its head and a muffler around its neck.
Once again, as Morgan and the children turned, the chair lurched abruptly to one side and vanished behind a commemorative stele dedicated to Helen MacClellen Willoughby, sometimes known as the “Fist Lady”.
Llyra discreetly checked the weapon she carried under her short jacket, a hypervelocity .11 caliber electric pistol. She’d been one of several hundred victims aboard a hijacked spaceliner when she was younger. Half a lifetime later, she was still having nightmares about it and had solemnly sworn that she would never let herself be disarmed again.
Although she and Morgan strove to live as normal a life as they could, especially for the sake of their children, they were both as famous as any figure skating champions had ever been, and they were accustomed—and tried to stay prepared for—odd behavior from the public. Llyra had experienced trouble before with innocent but overly enthusiastic fans, and even genuine stalkers, although learning that she could handily defend herself and her family usually discouraged them.
“Next on your itinerary,” said the hologram, “is the monument to one of the last Chief Executives of the United States—although by then, most people called it East America—President-for-Life Maxwell Promise.”
The Trask family had not lingered long at the Maxwell Promise “memorial”. It was a grim, windowless cube, one hundred old-fashioned meters on a side, constructed of welded and riveted metal at least six inches thick. Nobody seemed to remember anymore what was on the inside. One small door apparently required a special electronic ID card to open it, but such cards had not existed for decades. In the open, there were surveillance cameras every couple of yards around the perimeter, gutted long ago by technology-devouring nanobots. There were doubtless many hidden cameras and microphones, as well, equally non-functional.
The sides of the huge, imposing building were scorched and scored by firebombs and grenades, pocked-marked by bullets. The holographic guide to Promise’s life and time, an exiled historian who had lived in the Moon, had taken perverse delight in describing the way the man’s lifeless body had been dragged through the streets by his bodyguards, to demonstrate to the public beyond question that he had finally been deposed.
Gratefully, the family shook the dreary hologram off and skipped ahead to the monument dedicated to the best-remembered of the American presidents, Thomas Jefferson, whose ideas and ideals had finally triumphed after nearly three bleak centuries of shrinking human freedom.
“It could never have happened,” opined Jefferson’s holographic biographer, one Albert Jay Nock, a man dressed in early twentieth century clothing, “without the other Settled Worlds to preserve his memory and his ideas, to practice what he preached, and, eventually, to bring it back home to Earth. Jefferson had his predecessors—his close friend Thomas Paine certainly influenced him strongly, as did Trenchard and Gordon, the authors of Cato’s Letters—and he had his successors, but he was the very first to tell a king where to get off.”
“What about William Tell?” said Emerson, irreverantly.
Perhaps she was biased, Llyra thought, but it was a beautiful building, sparkling white, circular in floorplan, with a graceful domed roof supported by columns, and a classic stoa or covered porch. Three short flights of gentle steps led to the entrance. Inside the center of the monument, a bronze statue of the third president stood—there was no throne in this place—under his own words, inscribed high on the wall above him: “I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of men.”
a small group of individuals was busy sweeping the floor, cleaning the walls and columns, gently polishing the coppery brown statue of the author of the Declaration of Independence. “Any of the workers you see around you,” explained the holographic biographer, Nock, which had followed them inside, “represent Thomas Jefferson clubs from all over North America, the planet Earth, and even the Solar System, who, since the collapse of the East American government and Park Service, have taken it upon themselves to clean the monument and maintain it in good repair.”
“That’s kind of nice,” said Morgan.
“Unfortunately,” added the hologram, “those groups, at least here in North America, seem to be dwindling in number and enthusiasm. It’s feared this monument may eventually begin to decay like all the others here.”
A cool, mildly swampy-smelling breeze blew in from the front of the monument, off a small body of water called the Jefferson Basin. Turning to look out over the water, Llyra saw one of the strangest sights she’d ever seen. It was that mysterious hoverchair person again, and the chair was somehow climbing on a dozen mechanical legs, awkwardly and haltingly, up the lowest tier of steps leading to the monument.
She’d known that such a thing was possible, but had never actually seen it before. Among the other Settled Worlds, individuals who were seriously injured or ill depended on medical technologies that had often been outlawed on Earth, relying, as well, on gravity that was only a fraction of the Earth’s to help them recover. What was more, on Pallas, sick and healthy people alike commonly used so-called “flying belts”.
“I’m going to see what this is all about,” she told her husband, sweeping away the feeling of dread and panic that had arisen in her. He put out a hand and brushed her arm, but didn’t try to stop her. Instead, as she descended the two flights of stairs, he watched her back.
The person in the chair had seen her coming. As soon as the chair reached the landing between the first and second flights, it pivoted and headed back toward the basin again. Before Llyra could catch up—a scattering of other tourists on the steps looked at her oddly—it had reached the slidewalk and sped away on a cushion of compressed air.
Morgan and the children joined her on the landing.
“I don’t know,” she told her husband, sitting on the steps. “Maybe it’s just me. But this business is giving me the oddest, unsettled feeling.” Something about it kept reminding her of her girlhood ordeal.
“It isn’t just you, kiddo. We’re definitely being followed by somebody with what my old psychology professor at Memorial called an ‘approach-avoidance’ problem. You know we could skip the rest of this, and go back to Baltimore. I’m having a hankering for a big seafood dinner—stuffed red snapper, maybe, or broiled lobster. What do you say?”
She shook her head. “It goes against my grain, is what I say. If we do that, I’ll always wonder what it was all about. Wouldn’t you, too?”
Sitting down beside her, he laughed. “Other people can have all the psychological problems their little hearts desire, my love. They’re absolutely free, and the supply is endless. All I give a damn about is you and these street urchins we seem to have picked up somewhere.” He touseled the hair of his son, who looked up at him with trusting eyes, then hugged his older daughter. “I’ll be happy just to get them—and you, too—away from this pathologically civilized planet.”
“Spoken like a true Newfoundlander,” Llyra said. He laughed again and began whistling “The Star of Logy Bay”, his favorite Newfoundland song.
The truth was that, coming from the tiny town of Curringer on Pallas, she shared his feelings on the subject completely. She’d grown up flying hundreds of miles by herself, over an untamed wilderness haunted by dangerous animal predators, just to skate on a frozen pond, and she longed for her children to be able to thrive in such an environment.
“So what do you say,” Morgan asked, “shall we shuffle back to Baltimore?”
“I believe that’s ‘shuffle off to Buffalo‘, my dear—and not on your life. There’s a mystery here of some kind that has to be solved before we move on, Morgan, or I’ll never feel right about it.” She put a hand on his arm. “And I need you to back my play, all right?”
“He’s sunk,” Emerson stage-whispered to his sister. Julia nodded, giggling.
Morgan straightened his back, attempting to regain some dignity. “Unaccustomed as I am to thinking of myself as anybody’s sidekick—even yours, darling girl—when have I ever failed to back your play?”
“Very well, let’s go on with the tour and see what happens.”
Morgan was the first to notice and comment on the fact that the automated slidewalks seemed to be taking them from monument to monument in a pattern that made no sense. Washington’s tipsy obelisk was at the opposite end of the Mall from the weed-grown Lincoln Memorial. Promise’s scorched metal cube was on the opposite side of Jefferson’s gleaming memorial, which was all the way back, around the Basin.
“I’ll bet I know why, too,” Llyra suggested. “Millions of people used to come here. Some centralized computer somewhere is running a program designed to prevent too many tourists at a time from visiting any one of the memorial sites. Each time we stop somewhere and start again, it takes us to the least-crowded site that we haven’t seen yet.”
Morgan grinned and nodded. “All that, and she’s good-looking, too.”
“But there’s hardly anybody at all here today, Mommy,” Emerson protested.
“That’s right, dear,” she told the eight year old. “But the system isn’t quite smart enough to realize that, so it keeps shifting us all over the place as if it were a hundred years ago and there were still thousands of people sightseeing on the Mall.” Llyra looked to her husband. “I guess that’s sort of a parable about government in general, isn’t it? Or a metaphor. Govern, and if there’s no real governing to do, then govern anyway. I’m glad we Pallatians gave it up.”
“You gave it up before you had it,” he agreed. “And we Newfiesheaded north to get away from it. Though not before the Canadian federal government raped the outports.” It was an old story and a bitter one that began with the seal fishery being outlawed at the behest of a handful of Hollywood stars—throwing thousands out of work—and nearly ended with a formerly proud, hardworking, outdoor people being into the fetid capital city of St. John’s and put on welfare.
Until the northern colony movement began in protest.
Now the family came to the Ronald Reagan Memorial, probably the most photographed object in North America, a hundred-foot titanium statue of a western-style rider on horseback, with the traditional high-heeled, pointed-toed boots and spurs, broad-brimmed hat, bib-front shirt, calfskin vest, and fringed leather chaps over his jeans.
About the former president’s waist in an elaborately tooled belt, he wore a pair of giant single action Colt .44/40 revolvers. There was a colossal Model 1892 Winchester, presumably chambered for the same cartridge, in his saddle scabbard. The alloy had turned purple over the years—or had been that color to begin with—but in a triumph of art and science, both of the horse’s front feet were high in the air.
Unfortunately, the monument was thickly covered with decades’ worth of bird lime, and there were nests in the cowboy hat, the saddlebow, and the lariat coiled on the saddle horn. There were also the inevitable grafitti, and everything on the stature below eye level looked as if it had been pounded on and dented with a thousand sledgehammers.
Llyra wasn’t certain what the monument was supposed to signify, and Morgan, who grasped it intuitively, was at a loss to explain it to her verbally. Emerson shouted “It’s a cowboy!” which seemed enough explanation to him. He loved western movies and was looking forward to having his own horse—or some alien equivalent—when they reached Paradise.
Julia, perhaps with her grandfather Adam’s instinctive eye for engineering, wanted somebody to tell her why the horsie didn’t fall down.
“Cantilevers,” her brother told her smugly.
“Why can’t it lever?” she asked.
Emerson peered at her suspiciously. She returned an innocent look, but was not too young, not in this family, anyway, to make atrocious puns.
“What do you know about this guy Reagan?” Llyra asked. Morgan was from what had once been Canada, and might not be expected to know about this man, but all she knew about Earth history herself was that her ancestors had left the planet to avoid seeing any more of it being made.
Morgan said, “I know my granddad used to go on and on about him. He gave people an illusion of liberty, an illusion of progress, an illusion he was getting government off their backs, while all the time it grew larger and freedom shrank. He was proof, to Granddad, that politicians are all evil, no matter what they mean to be. That’s why civilizations fall and this place is a ghost town. It reminds me of Palenque, somehow, a deserted Mayan capital I visited when I was a teenager.”
“That’s pretty harsh, don’t you think?” She winked at him.
“Reagan and his administration made possible every government atrocity that happened to Americans afterward. He shifted their war on drugs into high gear and destroyed the Bill of Rights. That’s what’s harsh, not telling the truth about him. This monument to him is a joke.”
Llyra shook her head. It took a lot to make her husband lose his sense of humor. Then again, his grandfather had been close to him and still was. He had taught Morgan to fish and hunt and survive in the Arctic.
In many of the same ways that Morgan’s grandfather had mentored him, Jasmeen Khalidov, a second generation Martian colonist of Chechen extraction, had been Llyra’s girlhood companion and role model, part time sister and, at need, part time mother, as well. Everything Llyra knew about figure skating she had learned from Jasmeen, or they had learned together on the long, hard road from Pallas’s one twentieth of a gee to Earth. Only a few years older than Llyra, the two had more or less grown up together, especially during the dark ordeal that had been the highjacking of the spaceliner Newark by environmental terrorists.
No one had been particularly surprised when Llyra’s older brother Wilson had proposed to Jasmeen, married her, and carried her off with Tieve, his daughter from a previous tragic relationship, to his large and growing fleet of asteroid-hunting ships which had recently begun to work the previously unexplored Kuiper Belt region of the Solar System.
Now the two were talking seriously about following Llyra and Morgan to the stars, to the system Paradise was a part of. There were asteroids there, too, to be hunted, captured, and mined, and planets in need of protection from them. Jasmeen would be so surprised—and delighted, her former protege hoped—to learn that the fourth child Llyra had been carrying for eight weeks so far would be named after her.
Llyra shook her head. Woolgathering again, she scolded herself. This pilgrimage seemed to be engendering entirely too much of that kind of thing. They were about to leave for the next stop on the tour, when the figure in the hoverchair appeared again from around one end of the Reagan monument, where it had been concealed by an outsized hoof.
This time the apparition bore straight for them. Morgan put all three children behind him and laid a hand on the plasma weapon at his waist, while Llyra stood to one side, well prepared to set up a crossfire.
The figure raised both its hands, crossing them and waving them, as if to say, “Don’t shoot!” Then it reversed itself and disappeared around the horse once more. By the time the Trasks followed it, it was gone.
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial lay on the opposite side of the Basin inlet from the Jefferson Memorial, as well s the opposite side of the political spectrum. Instead of a single great structure, it was composed of a series of low outdoor “rooms” full of bronze sculpture and relief carvings, each of which had been intended to commemorate a distinct phase in Roosevelt’s presidency, from the Great Depression through the Second World War, and formed a sort of half-maze along the shore. At one time it was said to have been the most popular of the attractions along the Mall. I was empty and neglected now.
Weeds grew up between the paving blocks.
Dry waterfalls and fountains gathered leaves that had obviously been there for years, rotting and turning into black soil. Again, grafitti defaced the monument, blotting out the former president’s famous sayings that had been inscribed there late in the twentieth century.
“Look, Mommy and Daddy, a doggie!” It was Julia who was excited this time, rushing to the oversized bronze replica of Roosevelt’s famous Scottie Fala, not noticing the dramatically cloaked president sitting to its left. Llyra thought it didn’t look quite as cute once the scale was established. The expression on its face seemed rather menacing.
Roosevelt struck her in much the same way. Whoever had created this memorial had imagined the man as benevolant, but Llyra knew—because Morgan had told her—that, imitating several of his predecessors, his policies had actually prolonged the economic crisis for twelve years. In the end, to bail his failed administration out, the man had done all he could to precipitate an unnecessary war that killed sixty million people, worldwide, and left Europe and Japan in ruins.
That was what Morgan said, anyway.
The sculpture here was fascinating, though, she thought. Llyra’s mother, a scientist specializing in finding new uses for asteroidal materials, had taken to sculpture recently, using the iron, nickel, cobalt, and other metals so abundant in the Asteroid Belt. The sculptures in this place were of traditional material, but the long line of hungry men waiting to be fed, for example, was beautifully done, and the voluminously caped president looked like a fictional arch-villain.
“Mommy!” Julia screamed, pointing back the way they’d come. The five of them were suddenly trapped, hemmed in by the walls of the monument. Julia hid behind the outsized bronze dog. Emerson wedged himself behind the president, and Morgan pushed Ardie’s pram in with him.
The hoverchair was here again, headed directly for them.
Llyra drew her pistol, noticing that Morgan had drawn his own. The person in the chair seemed to bear an eerie resemblance to the figure of Roosevelt behind her. The chair drew up, almost to Llyra’s feet and stopped, without its occupant making anything resembling a threatening gesture.
There was a long silence, then, “Please don’t hurt me. I mean no harm.” It was a woman’s voice, a weak and quavery one at that. “All I want to do is thank you, and ask you to forgive me, if you’ll be kind enough.”
“Forgive you?” Llyra tucked her weapon away, counting on Morgan to protect her if she’d made a mistake. “I don’t even know who you are.”
The woman reached up slowly and unwrapped the muffler from around her neck. She then uncovered her head and face to reveal an aged but otherwise unremarkable countenance. “I’m sorry, I get so cold these days.”
Llyra blinked. Somehow the woman looked familiar, but the younger woman couldn’t place the older woman’s face. “Are you all right?” she asked.
“No, dear, I’m not all right. I’m very old and I’m very ill. But that’s actually the reason I wanted to thank you. You’ll have to excuse my earlier shyness; this isn’t an easy thing to do. But I read that you and your family are going to leave the Solar System, and I called in every favor I had left to track you down here before you go.”
“You may not recognize me. We never met. But years ago, when you were just a girl, I was the international director of the Mass Movement.”
“Anna Wertham Savage,” Morgan supplied. He holstered his weapon and stood beside his wife, putting a protective arm around her. “Your people claimed that by importing raw materials, agricultural products, and manufactured goods from the Moon and the asteroids humanity would change the mass—and therefore the motion—of the Earth’s crust, relative to that of the molten core, causing slippage and buckling that was sure to destroy civilization and maybe even all life on the planet.”
Llyra remembered hearing about this woman. It had been a violent splinter of the Mass Movement, Null Delta Emm, that had hijacked the liner. Several people had died on both sides. And now she wanted to apologize?
“I didn’t approve what was done to you, Miss Ngu—Mrs. Trask—even when I believed all that about the Earth’s fragility. And yet they went ahead and did it without my approval. They’re all dead now, and there is no more Mass Movement. I saw to that last, personally. Later, I acquired this degenerative disease I now suffer from, a very old-fashioned one that can be cured in a few hours most places in the System.”
Llyra began, “Then why—”
“But not in the former Commonwealth of Massachussetts, and most certainly not in the city of Amherst, where I have lived for most of my life. I was just supposed to remain quiet and die, slowly and painfully, because some individuals—I used to be one of them—loathe technology and loathe themselves, and all human life, even more.”
“What does all this have to do with me?”
“You showed me the way, don’t you see? You went from one twentieth of the Earth’s gravity to become a champion here. You survived a crime that nobody was supposed to live through, and you helped to turn the tables on the criminals. Now you and your little family are going to the stars. And if you can do that, young lady, then I can go to the Moon where, even as sick as I am, I’ll be able to walk again, and where they will soon cure what’s wrong with me and give me a new life.”
Llyra stepped forward and knelt down beside the woman’s powered chair.
“And you went to all this trouble—”
“I had to. Because no matter what they accomplish for me in the Moon, I wouldn’t feel right in myself until I did. They say everybody has at least on great leap in them. Let this be mine. I may never do anything adventurous or daring again, but at least I will have done this.”
Llyra shook her head. “I don’t know what to say.”
“I do,” Julia chirped. “Say, ‘You’re welcome.’”
Copyright © 2010 by L. Neil Smith
lneil (at) netzero (dot) com