“I don’t think we’ll ever find out where she comes from, or when,” replied Cyrene. “At least let’s get out into the fresh air; the only way is to visit the shop and tell her personally that we can’t stay for very long, and we can eat on the way.”
They walked onto the outer edge of a pedestrian belt that spiralled down to the grounds of the school, and stepped to the faster-moving centre of the strip as it merged at ground-level with a route that took them into the main stream travelling alongside the river with its parks and esplanades, its zoological gardens and small pavilions, its viewing galleries and secluded walks, and booths and tents catering for everything from snacks to full meals, guides, and descriptions of flora and fauna.
Stopping at one of the smaller tents that catered for those people only requiring a light meal or something to eat slowly and with a minimum of fuss as they strolled through the park and its environs, Cyrene, Deea, and Gram paused to select some dishes of finely sliced vegetables dipped in spicy sauces, with crystallised fruit as desert, holding the moulded tray in one hand and using their fingers to eat with as they walked slightly slower than before, occasionally passing titbits to one another and wiping their hands on cleansing tissues, then discarding the remains at the nearest incinerator chute as some of the drifting lights began to brighten in response to the increasing gloaming.
Real torches flickering in sconces shaped after the fashion of leaves and flowers lit an avenue of ancient and modern statuary that the children passed through as they left the belt and took a short-cut across a bridge of coloured glass to meet the north-bound strip on its way to Rovalian Pave, thence to the area of narrow streets and winding passages that surrounded the mysterious antique shop where it nestled in the middle of the oldest part of Veldahar.
“Along here,” Cyrene directed them to the furthest end of the street they wanted, having arrived at it from the opposite side of the city than before, and as on their previous visits the door stood closed before them, offering no sign of invitation or habitation.
“I wonder what she’ll have this time?” Gram smiled as he pushed at the darkened wood. This time, it did not yield beneath pressure but remained shut, and he grunted in surprise at the refusal. “What…?” he looked up at the sign, still hanging as it had been when first he saw it a few days ago, but now the lettering on it was virtually illegible, lying as it did under dirt and grime completely uncharacteristic not only to the city as a whole, but also to the area in which they were, for though the buildings were neither new nor maintained in pristine condition, to ensure they always blended with their surroundings regardless of changing styles, still the façades and engraved and embossed details were kept clear and definable so as to present the views the architects intended. “I don’t think she’s here,” he said. “I mean really not, not this time, and why do things keep changing? Can’t she keep things the same, just for a day or two?”
“I’ve no idea,” Cyrene shook her head slowly, “but… no, it can’t be.”
“What?” prompted Deea.
“I was just thinking: if what Airn said on the Grand Express, about her not wanting to change but having to, because of what she is; if that’s happening to her now, and if she can affect the things around her as well… I was just wondering how much of what we’ve seen is real. Not the psychedrama, I mean here,” she swept her arm to indicate the bowed frontage of the shop. “She can create her own environment, can’t she? in a way: by subtracting things from here and adding things from there.”
“You can’t,” Gram’s tone was emphatic, yet implied an unvoiced question. “She can’t, not even her.”
“If we knew what was here before,” said Deea, “then at least we would have somewhere to start. Did you learn anything else?” she asked the other girl.
“Nothing more than I’ve already told you; there were some things about leases and vacancies, and a list of names of the proprietors, but it didn’t make any real sense. As far as the city is concerned, she only exists as a name and a few vague references: it’s rather eerie.”
“She’s playing with us!” Gram declared with annoyance, and, at seeing the expression of hurt that crossed Cyrene’s face, added, “Well, either that, or she’s so forgetful.”
“Not playing,” replied Deea. “She told us when we first met her that she wanted to make an adventure out of everything, to make us curious and want to know more. Perhaps we’re supposed to do something.”
“What?” he wanted to believe the idea, but was finding it difficult. “No message has been left, has it?”
“How do we know!” Cyrene’s eyes glittered with triumph as she turned the query into a statement of realisation. “We know she’s not on the grid, so we can’t see her, but we are, aren’t we?” She took from her small purse her chronophone and touched the button that would play any messages addressed to her, but as a priority code had not been attached, as might happen should she be out later than expected and her mother or father wanted to contact her, the phone had not signalled to her its receipt of a message. “Here’s something,” she listened to Kyra’s voice, and read the words as they formed shifting patterns on the small screen, that would normally show the caller, “‘Kyra LeDanthayan has great pleasure in extending an invitation to Cyrene TuFoille, in the hope she will attend a showing of the second and final episode of the Myridium fair adventure, due to begin at one hour before midnight on channel 8, in which will be revealed further wonders and causes of delight, as well as horror, in that world and its environs. RSVPs are not necessary.’”
“You were right,” Gram was pleased. He, too, checked with his chronophone, and received an identically-worded invitation, save for his name. “What’s an RSVP?”
“I’ve no idea.” She looked at another part of the display, “We’ve less than twenty minutes to get home; that’s all right, it’s only a dozen miles or so, but our psychedramas won’t be as detailed as hers, and hers was incredible! wasn’t it?”
“It was also very tiring,” said Deea. “I felt as if I’d been on one all day, instead of just for an hour or so. In fact,” she mused, “now that I think about it, it’s the first time that the experience hasn’t happened in real time; it was expanded to take in the extra depth and clarity, but it didn’t feel that way, did it?”
“That’s probably why she said that short sessions were advisable to begin with,” Cyrene replied as they walked away from the empty shop, heading back the way they had arrived a few minutes previously.
Another belt took them up to an intermediary level some hundred yards above the virtually deserted street, and sitting in a shelter watching current art programmes they waited a few minutes for the next bus to dock at the end of the embarkation platform, and so it was that in less than ten minutes, during which they flew through majestic canyons formed by the tall buildings with their galleries and staggered tiers of balconies and promenades, they arrived at the lower entrance to Cyrene’s apartment.
Her parents greeted the children, offering them something to eat or drink from the autochef from which they had so recently eaten their own meal, but they explained they had already supped, and after a short conversation retired to the eldest girl’s bedroom and study where she had her own extension to the main psychedramatic receiver situated in the lounge, which in turn was fed from the building’s own direct link to the broadcast stations.
“I wonder why Kyra is doing it this way?” Deea asked idly as Cyrene told the unit to switch itself on and select the relevant channel, “and why 8? It’s usually historical things like politics, isn’t it? and that’s something I’m not looking forward to when we start next year.”
“It can be interesting,” said Cyrene as she lounged back into a variform chair and wriggled to make it bend around her body a little more, “but most of it’s quite silly. I don’t really know,” she answered the other girl’s question, “but some of the programmes we’ve been told to watch have been on 8, and they were… well, different, if a bit on the long-winded side; but they can’t be any other way, really, because of what they are.”
“This is it,” said Gram.
He hastily found a place for himself on a couch as the station logo materialised in mid-air and, operating simply on a visual level, coalesced into two intertwining spirals, one of silver, the other of translucent white, whose sinuous movements curled and formed the numeral 8, seeming to be two spheres, the lower representing a bleached map of the Earth, and the upper an enlarged-scale image of the Moon, which was also receiving the broadcasts.
The planet and its satellite faded, to be replaced by the introducer, and as he told the children and the many millions of other people who were switched in to that channel what the programme was to be about, each sensory aspect of the psychedrama was gradually increased in strength until the usual operating levels were reached; simply because on all but the visual and aural inducers they were receiving virtually nothing, Cyrene, Deea, and Gram felt an air of expectation such that when Kyra’s image appeared in the middle of the room, they thought she was actually with them because of her skills, but despite the induced dramatic experience they did not forget the fact it was not an alternative reality, as had almost occurred on Kyra’s own machine.
“The story you’re about to experience,” she said, “is one that many of you may not credit, I think, but I can assure you of its truthfulness, for I was present, and it was… oh, less than half a century ago as you measure time. All but a very few of you watching this programme will not know of me, but I’ve been invited by the City of Veldahar to introduce this last in the series of debates concerning an historical perspective of choices regarding modes of freedom because of my… gift, you might call it, and the fact the arguments presented here are of a refined nature somewhat related to that of this world in the crisis you observed in the previous instalment, when it was threatened by annexation from the self-styled Federation of Free Worlds, which as you learned contains within its very title an irreconcilable contradiction.
“And so,” she looked down, and seemed to smile directly at Cyrene before swinging her gaze across to Deea and Gram, “for you all, and especially three children sitting at home in the Myaleau district of Veldahar, who know of what went before, here is…”