When a young art student falls for her instructor, she learns the secrets that are never taught in school—secrets kept by a twisted ruling class in a society where madness is the order of the day. [30min]
A transparent barrier marked the end of Pine Street. Street’s end, world’s end. Every terminal street was separated from The Wall by a curb and a gentle hillock decorated with artificial turf and plastic shrubbery. A small unfinished painting sat atop the berm. It had been there for nearly an orbit, awaiting the middle of each sleep-rotation for its artist to return. It was concealed by a color-stained rag but was in no danger of being stolen. The penalty for theft in The Towns was swift and brutal. Beyond stretched a bright gray landscape pocked with craters and high-contrast shadows, and across the void, the sacred subject of the hidden canvas.
A metallic whine of descending chromatic notes verified the silence. The 1 a.m. Electram was arriving at Pine Street Station with its only two passengers. A gangly young woman, just past adolescence, stepped onto the platform. Her dog-slave was at her side.
“Come on, Skylax,” she said. “Maybe I’ll finish this morning, and then you can start sleeping in again.” At fifty planet-years old, Skylax’s belly sagged a little. But his arms and legs were sculpted in the ropy muscles of a worker, and his teeth were still decent. Few of the other ‘high-breds’ lived to see their twenties. His was a hardier breed.
She could just see her easel at the end of the block, backlit in blue by the glow of The Earth. Earth: a word you were allowed to think; but to speak it was blasphemy. ‘The Planet’ was the legal vernacular in public. In church, you called it ‘Heaven.’
She walked, then skipped down the street, slowly gathering momentum. At full speed, a fit person could travel twenty feet with each stride. Skipping was the preferred gate of the young.
Skylax raced ahead for a moment but quickly returned to her side. Something had his attention. Their pace slowed. On the left loomed a two story ranch-style skirted with faux-stone and sided in vinyl of pastel greens. Two wire-legged flamingos guarded the walkway. It was the house of The Pastor and his wife. Skylax whimpered. He made no secret of the fact that he was sweet on the dog who lived there. They had been seen together on more than one occasion and made quite the pair: old Skylax and Goody Floyd’s seven-foot Giant Russian.
“Come on!” she said. “It’s the middle of the night. You can visit your girlfriend some other time.”
“Fine,” he growled. When Skylax spoke, it was always self serving.
They passed the Royal Grocer, a few more houses, and finally her old school. Baara had attended Jonneff Kennedy Primary for the forty-five orbits mandated by her caste. Her father had insisted on it. It would not do for the daughter of one of the Bailiff’s councilmen to go elsewhere. It was highbrow and stuffy, just like her parents. But at least you could take art classes there.
She reached the end of the street, and was climbing the hill just as the first pebbles of a meteor shower started bouncing off The Wall. She studied her painting for a moment and then produced seven vials of costly pigment from her rucksack. Time to get busy.
It had been Midday for the last few sleeps, and The Planet was half-lit and stunning. She blessed the sun. In fourteen more sleeps, twilight would come, and The Planet would be but a crescent. For the serfs in the far away Villages, midday would bring barely a planet at all. But here, at the lonely end of Pine Street, it always hung just off the horizon.
Its white smudges and swirls were ever changing. Sometimes, they were absent altogether, and the shape of the landmasses was revealed. Her version would show a bit of mountain, a bit of coastline; the way a woman might let the strap of her gown fall.
That’s where people go when they die, Barra thought. The word of God says so in the Book of Hereafters.
She felt someone standing behind her.
“Why hello there,” said The Pastor’s sugar-sick voice. She gasped and tried to hide the painting with her body. Skylax dashed away yelping. “Don’t bother, sister Baara. I’ve been watching for a while. You’ve got quite a talent there young lady.”
“It’s ju… It’s just a painting.”
“Oh, I know, I know. And a fine painting it is, even if you are out here working on it after curfew bell.”
She visibly trembled.
“There, there, little’un,” he said. He had been trained in the preacher speech—simple words had too many syllables—and even practiced it away from the pulpit. ‘There’ sounded like they-ah.
His cologne was dizzying. She looked up, and he was now close enough for her to marvel at the enormous dandruff flakes fossilized in the grease of his pompadour. “You know what I think?” he said stroking his over-shaved neck. “I think it’s not your fault, Baara. I think your young mind is being polluted by that Pharisee instructor of yours. What’s his name? Nathan?”
He clutched her shoulder as she reached for her painting. She twisted and tore away. “Wait, Baara…” he said. She leapt and hit the pavement at a dead run.
“Bye now!” the pastor called after her. “Tell Nathan I said Hellooo!”
Nathan Paskowitz lived alone in a modest bungalow on Pine and 3rd, two blocks from The Wall. The place had an unused, almost abandoned look. Apart from the required flamingo, his yard’s only decoration was the occasional detritus that accumulated during scheduled wind events. About once an orbit, the neighbors would complain, and he would have to vacuum the lawn. A second complaint would bring The Beadle calling.
A tap on his back door yanked him from another alien dream; a dream of water falling from high cliffs under a blue sky.
What the heck? He glanced at the clock and then bounce-floated to the back door.
Bang, Bang, BANG!
He turned the knob. The door flew open, forcing him to shield his eyes from the glare. To his amazement, someone stepped across the threshold, slammed the door, and pushed past him.
He squinted at his guest, letting his eyes adjust. “Oh, it’s you,” he said finally. He watched her peek through the blinds that covered the little window over the kitchen sink. “Good evening Baara. Or is it good morning? The kettle’s just starting to sing.”
“What?” she huffed and gave him a staggered look. She was panicky, out of breath.
“Will you be having English Breakfast or Darjeeling with your biscuits?”
“Please Mister P, no gibberish talk. I think we’re in trouble.”
“I thought we decided you were going to call me Nathan. Especially in my house, and especially at…” He looked at the kitchen clock to confirm the time. “At two-thirty in the morning… Aren’t you supposed to be asleep? What will Goody Davis think?”
Her face lit up with the beginnings of a smile. “My mother thinks what her pills tell her to think.”
“Ohhh,” he said. And his comic expression made her smile widen.
“Nathan,” she began.
She had been in love with this man for a planet-year, and had known it for six orbits. To address her former teacher with his common name, in his own home… The sound of it…
It was a lovely, forbidden sound.
“Yes,” he prompted.
“Pastor Floyd just caught me with this,” she said and showed Nathan the painting.
The Pastor crept back into his house. Nikita heard the click of the deadbolt and floated over to greet her owner. She would have barked, but Floyd enjoyed his secret after-curfew activities. A vocal cordectomy at the vet’s kept the dog silent, and the goody none the wiser.
He slipped off his shoes and went to the kitchen. He opened a cabinet and brought out a box of Puppi-Choos. He held up a treat, making her beg, and then pulled her close. “We know how to keep secrets don’t we?” he said in a whisper.
Melissa had wanted one of those twelve-fingered mongrels you had to push around in a stroller. All the other goodwives had them. But when he told her that The Beadle had located a much rarer Giant Russian female, she had squealed. ‘Talk about bragging rights! Those floozies will be jealous!’ she had said, literally singing that last word. The pastor had only smiled at his wife. She never suspected that her husband was planning better uses for the dog.
Floyd reached for the phone and dialed a number from memory. Two rings… Three… “Pick up you s.o.b.”
“Mornin’ Beadle,” Floyd said.
“Uh, good morning R.J.”
“I got it.”
A pause. Then the sound of a phlegmy throat clearing. “You got evidence?”
“Yah, I just got video of his apprentice painting a very naughty picture. Looks like she might not make it into their highfalutin’ Artist’s Gild.”
Another pause. “When should I do it?”
“Be patient,” Floyd said. “I have to present it to the Bailiff for approval. It could take several sleeps. In the meantime, oil your rifle.”
“I thought Pascowitz was a freeman, you know, due process and all that tossicock.”
“Doesn’t apply in heresy cases.”
“I don’t know, Ronnie,” said The Beadle. “Do you know how old these bullets are? What if I miss?”
“Just do your job!” He loosened his tie. His doctor had spoken to him about anger and strokes. And The Beadle had a way of putting him right in the red zone.
“Okay, okay… Take it easy… What about the girl. Should I kill her too?”
“No you idiot. Bill Davis is a good man, one of my deacons. Besides, once the dust settles, Daddy will probably make her wish you would’ve.” They both laughed, and The Pastor hung up. He never said goodbye to anyone on the phone.
“Nikita, get in here!” he called.
Nathan stared in wonder. He reached for it, carefully, as if it were some precious and brittle thing. “Where did you get this?” he asked softly.
“I painted it,” she said. “Or at least I’m painting it. It’s not done yet. Careful, it’s wet.”
“You painted this?”
“Yes!” she said, noticing that his look of astonishment had swung a degree or two towards doubt. “It’s for you, for your birthday.”
“Oh, Baara. It’s, it’s beautiful.” Whether his look was of amazement or of horror, Barra could not tell. “But my God, why? Why The Planet?”
Her smile vanished. “And I thought we decided we were both going to call it The Earth, that it wasn’t a cussword.”
Nathan took a turn peeking through the blinds. His expression was unmistakable now: panic, and a fair amount of anguish. “Fine, why The Earth then?”
“Think about it. All that talk about life on other worlds, all that time you spent in The Villages, and the stories of what you did there. Did you think I wasn’t paying attention?” Her voice was raspy. Tears clung to her lashes. “And back in school, when we were outside at recess… how you gazed at it, mesmerized by it. Nobody noticed. But I did. I noticed!”
He set the painting on the counter and took her in his arms. “I’ve hung on your every word since fifth grade!” she said with a muffled bellow. Her tears bled through his tee shirt.
“I know. You’re right. And I’m sorry. I just wish I had more time.”
He led her up the stairs to a cramped finished attic. It looked like the rest of the house, bits of recycled paper strewn everywhere, some of it scrawled with rudimentary art, most of it blank but yellowed.
The single window was covered with a heavy curtain, but the room was nevertheless full of natural light. There was a jagged hole cut in the roof. Bits of plywood and shingle still lay where they landed.
Illuminated, as if by a spotlight, was a long black cylinder. “It’s called a telescope,” said Nathan. “You look through it. It makes things appear closer… a lot closer.” He walked over to it and started tinkering, eventually putting his eye up to the small end. “Ah! Crystal clear day in Western South Dakota.”
“Is it… legal?”
“Come over here and take a look… and tell me if you think it’s legal.”
Baara approached the contraption. She could tell from its angle just what thing the telescope was magnifying. She looked into the eyepiece. “Now that I’m probably committing an unpardonable sin, what exactly am I looking at,” she asked.
“You’re looking at the top of George Washington’s head. You can see his nose, and his big collars are really clear. The other one is Thomas Jefferson. There are two more men, but they’re harder to make out.”
“And you named them, did you?”
“No, I didn’t. And are you gonna be surprised when you find out who did.”
She fished a broken stick of pastel from her front pocket, reached up, and scribbled something on the plaster. “What’s this?” she asked, pointing to her creation.
“A smiley face?”
“No, it’s a curved line and two circles drawn inside a larger circle. Your subconscious mind interpreted it as a face. That’s called ‘pareidolia.’ We all do it. People who hang out at The Wall see faces out in the gray all the time—I’ve done it myself.”
She paused and looked back into the eyepiece. “But I’m afraid… that if The Lords were so inclined…” she said and looked back to Nathan, “they could roll out an even bigger telescope and prove that George Jefferson is actually nothing more than rocks and shadows.”
“I’m impressed. Your education continues.” He laughed and took her hand. “Come on. I’ve got a lot more to show you.”
He led her across the attic to a long box sitting on the floor. They sat on the carpet next to it, and she helped him open the lid. Inside was a tightly packed row of books. The words ‘Collier’s Encyclopedia’ were embossed in gold along the length of every black spine. But on one end of each was a different numeral printed within a narrow red band. She gasped as she counted them. There were twenty-four in all.
“This amount of paper is worth as much as your house,” she whispered, her eyes wide.
“More actually. But the value’s not in the paper.” He lifted one out from the middle. As he opened it, his face warmed at the sort of crackling noise the binding made. He turned pages until he came to a place that was marked with a satiny red ribbon. “Here,” he said and handed her the book.
“Mount Rush-more Na-tional Memorial… a sculp-ture carved into the granite of Mount Rushmore near Keystone, South Da-kota,” she read. “What the heck are these? Where did they come from?” Then she pointed to the image on the page. “And what is this? Are you telling me this is an image of what I just saw through your telescope; only from the side?”
He took the book from her, closed it, and put it back in its place. He retrieved another, this time from near the beginning of the collection. “How long have you been apprenticed to me?” he asked her as he thumbed more pages. “Eight years? You’re a Journeyman as far as I’m concerned, and something as good as your Earth could’ve been your masterpiece. In fact, I don’t personally know a master who could’ve outdone it. But hold on to your socks.”
Baara spent the next several minutes lost in a dreamy chronology of master painters: Giotto, Da Vinci, Michelangelo. All of them were breathtaking, but all of them somehow reminded her of Sunday morning. Bosch in particular made her think of The Pastor in a disturbing way. Toward the end of the article she smiled at examples of Picasso and Jackson Pollock, but winced a little at Salvador Dali’s ‘Soft Construction with Boiled Beans.’ Finally, she turned back to the middle to gaze again at the Impressionists. They inspired her. And it came to her that they must have been thinking for themselves; that no one told them what they could and couldn’t paint. She was considering the melancholy work of Claude Monet when Nathan broke the silence.
“You’re wondering what a haystack is,” he said quietly. “Part of you is wondering why the sky behind every subject is blue instead of black. And part of you knows the answer.”
Her eyes were fixed on him, blank and bewildered.
“Like I said, I wish I had more time, but I don’t.” He grabbed another book and opened it to a ribbon marker. “This is where we are, Baara,” he said. On the page was a bright circular shape in a sea of blackness, its texture the same as the cratered landscape she saw outside The Wall. He pointed to the ceiling. “But that’s where we came from. That’s where we belong.”
He closed the book and gripped it tightly. He caressed the cover with his thumbs. “I’ve read them all, cover to cover,” he said. “And The Church is right about one thing. It is paradise there. But we were ruining it. We were polluting the air and the oceans. We were warming the climate and killing off all the other life forms. So maybe we came here—or were sent here—to give The Earth a chance to heal itself. But from what I can see through the lens of my telescope, it’s alive and well now. It’s past time for us to go back; to go home. But the way is being kept from us.”
“You really believe that?”
“Yes I do. And I think you do too. Haven’t you wondered, Baara? That maybe there’s more to the story; maybe a lot more? The original Bible—I have one of those too—says we were kicked out of paradise once. Maybe it happened again.”
A knock at the front door.
Nathan snatched the encyclopedia from her and threw it back in the box. “Stay up here,” he whispered. He glided silently down the banister and was soon out of Baara’s sight.
“It’s only your dog-slave,” he said after a breathless moment.
Skylax barked and rushed up the stairwell. He tackled Baara and licked her face. “Gross! GET OFF ME!” she shouted. Nathan topped the stairs, and Skylax looked back and forth between them, grinning and panting.
“Perfect timing,” Nathan said as he lifted out another volume. “What exactly is old Skylax there?”
“Uh, he’s my dog. He was my dad’s dog before I came along. He’s a South African Brown if you want to get technical.”
“Wrong!” Nathan shouted. “I’m not even going to bother with showing you South Africa, but this is a dog!” He thrust the open book toward her. “We had pets back on Earth. But we didn’t bring any with us, and we miss them. So, we decided to enslave the next best thing: each other!
“What you have there is known as a human being, the same as you and me. He is the product of selective breeding. Just like those expensive Terriers the noblewomen carry around. They have twelve fingers and toes because they suffer from a disorder called polydactyly. It comes with host of other problems that plague their short, miserable lives. Back on Earth, we were trying to eradicate defects like that, or the Marfan syndrome that will eventually kill Floyd’s plaything. But not here… Here, we encourage them, just so we can have something exotic to dress up and take to the groomers.”
Just then, Nathan’s grandfather clock started its Westminster racket. “Four o’clock… dammit!” Baara said putting on her shoes. She jumped and floated down to the landing, avoiding the stairs.
“Go out the back!” he called after her. “And steer clear of Floyd’s neighborhood! Don’t take the Tram! And come back TONIGHT!”
She closed the back door behind her. Walking home on strange streets might be a little tricky, but she would make it long before her parents woke up. She could feel her heart beat in her chest for a different reason: Nathan Paskowitz wanted to see her again tonight.
Baara came back the next night, and many more after that. She read about trees. She read about animals and microbes. She read about cars and airplanes and ships and rockets. She read about cities and nations, governments and wars, and the history of man on Earth. She read about a man named Shakespeare. She read about love.
She always took off her shoes, and soon it seemed a normal thing. But one night, when she entered his kitchen, Nathan said, “Leave them on. We’re going for a walk.”
“I want to show you what I’ve been promising. I want to prove to you that everything I’ve told you isn’t just an elaborate hoax.”
“I know it’s not,” she said. “I believe you now, Nathan. I believe it all.”
“Then it’s time to finish it.”
They left through the front door. He kicked his flamingo, and Baara laughed. They walked down 3rd to the next intersection, and then turned up Willow, heading toward The Wall. As they went along, they began to hear the familiar sound of tiny stones hammering the invisible roof. “Meteor shower’s starting in again,” she said. Other than that, they hardly spoke.
He held her hand as they climbed the berm. He pointed down to the ground just outside the glass. There, not three feet away, was a strange imprint in the dust. It was ovular in shape and crossed with thick parallel lines. There were several more just like it leading away in a regular path. They were footprints, made by heavy boots. There could be no doubt.
“Apollo 11?” she asked.
“17 actually. Those prints belong to either Schmitt or Cernan.”
tap… tap, tap, ping…
As she stood there, watching occasional meteorites kick up little clouds, she became suddenly astounded by the view she’d been intentionally looking past for so long.
“The Towns are situated mostly in the Taurus-Littrow Valley where they landed,” he continued. “The Villages are all scattered throughout in The Sea of Tranquility. And I could’ve stayed there and lived happily.
“But, I had to come back here, to find this,” he said pointing to the footprints. “This was my proof. And it’s become my absolution. So here I am teaching art to the heirs and heiresses of Township #97. The Lords will take away the telescope, the books, my house… probably my life. And probably soon. But these footprints are yours now, and they will forever be just beyond their reach.”
“I’m so sorry I made that stupid painting,” she said.
“Can’t you see what I’m trying to say? Yes… Here is where they found me. But here is where I found you, Baara… It doesn’t matter what happens now.”
Tap… Ting, Ping… The meteor shower was getting heavier, louder.
PANG… She instantly knew that the last one was different; that it had somehow struck the inside of the glass…
That its trajectory had led through Nathan’s chest.
She looked in the direction of the echoing CRACK of The Beadle’s gun. Standing with him in a grove of vinyl palms was The Pastor and Baara’s traitorous hound.
“Et tu, Brute?” she whispered. Skylax lowered his head and skulked away.
She touched Nathan’s face. They knelt together, and she leaned him against The Wall.
His grip on her hand relaxed as he began to fade. “Didn’t have time… time to tell you…”
She kissed him and tasted blood on his lips.
He closed his eyes. And gravity could no longer hold him.