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Cathedral of Marble Strands
Richard Stewart lay stretched out on the cool stone. His handsome, youthful face was relaxed into a slight smile, eyes closed lazily. Richard's hand played unconsciously with his long black hair lying on the reddish surface . . .
"Four slices of lemon . . . four cubes of sugar. . . and a straw," thought Richard, and pictured the glass in his mind. Without opening his eyes, he reached out and felt it in his hand. It was cool, and the droplets that condensed from the morning mist made it slippery. He raised his head off the ground and brought the straw to his lips. He took a long, slow draft, letting the taste settle in. It was slightly too sour to be perfect, but Richard didn't mind. One day he would discover the ultimate lemonade, but he was in no hurry. He lay there drinking it for a long time. Lemonade doesn't have to run out in heaven.
Richard lay on a narrow ledge about five hundred feet up the face of a cliff. Above him, just under the low hanging clouds, a pair of eagles circled, wings motionless. Beneath, a green valley lay shrouded in the morning fog. The clouds concealed the sun and gave the valley the cool gray feel Richard wanted. Near the foot of the cliff, the valley was grassy, with an occasional shrub clinging to the rocky soil here and there. Blue flowers growing in sparse islands shone dimly where the easy wind blew away patches of fog. A wide stream slid from around the base of the cliff. It began somewhere in the mountains behind Richard and disappeared in the denser fog at the deeper part of the valley. There, where not even the tops of the trees were visible, an airy structure of white marble stretched its spires almost as high as the cliff Richard lay on. Four great arches rose, flanked a spiderweb of smaller ones, and met in a cluster of domes, towers and spires. Richard liked to call it the Cathedral. Beyond, the valley lost itself where the whiteness of the sky met the fog on the ground.
Richard stretched the hand that held the glass of lemonade over the edge and let it slip away. He listened for it's fall, but it went too far down to hear. He relaxed his mind, waiting for some idea to come to him.
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Richard widened the ledge so it would be big enough for two and stretched an expecting hand out along the rock surface. But his fingers touched a deathly cold. It rushed up his arm and Richard shivered violently. He leapt to his feet and opened his eyes. A young man was sitting on the ledge, his legs spread and his head resting languidly against the rock wall behind him. He had brash, blue eyes and a complicated haircut that hung over his face like a mesh of black icicles.
"Dad." Said the apparition, "I need five hundred bucks."
Richard looked at the apparition and the world around him grew dim. Gone were the youthful body and handsome face he had a minute ago. He stood on the ledge in a business suit and thin, graying hair fell down on his eyes. This was a common visitor; all the words spoken now have been spoken many times before.
"Son," he replied slowly, with all the dignity he once had, "Is this another gambling debt?" He tried to contain his anger the best he could.
"Oh come on dad, you helped me out last time!"
"Son, I told you the last time," here Richard paused and looked into the kid's eyes with all the severity he could muster, "I told you last time that it was the last time. You have no job, you spend your time with . . . whores. I don't know where I went wrong, but you leave me no choice. Leave this house. You have until tomorrow morning."
The young man's lips curved into a sorrowful grimace, but his eyes shone with the same impetuous light. This wasn't the first time that Richard had made a threat like this.
Oh how he hated that expression!
"You're nothing but a spoiled brat! It was all your nitwit mothers' fault! What the hell are you going to do when I die? I hope you aren't expecting anything from my will!"
But the face of the young man remained blissfully smug and Richard's lips were beginning to shake. When he was ready to plunge backwards into the abyss, a wave of warmth rushed through his body, and the face of his son vanished . . .
He awoke looking up at the great ceiling of the cathedral. It was carved with exquisite sculptures: angels, horsemen, kings, maidens. He had chosen the ceiling himself; and now, as he slowly emerged from the warmth that overtook him on the cliff, he peered into the figures. There was a knight with his spear raised, driving his stallion onto the pikes of the footmen. The knight was doomed; already the dwarfish soldiers have surrounded him, already they squint at him from behind their shields and from under their flat-topped helmets. Already the tips of the pikes are near his heart. And yet, thought Richard, he fights on, despite the inevitability of his demise. Not like a cornered animal; there is no fear, no desperation in the hand that calmly aims the spear for the final strike. Richard always thought that the knight must be smiling beneath the visor of his helm.
His contemplation was interrupted by the light footsteps and laughter of the serving girls. They brought him wine and a big bowl of fruit to eat. They asked him how he was, speaking with softly ringing voices, and he replied with the usual smile. He drank the wine, and it warmed his body. His mind relaxed, and the laughter of the girls blew away contemplation. Richard barely remembered ever being on the cliff now, much less the visitor who so unsettled him; he just laughed along with the girls. He reached out and touched one on the arm; she blushed and spun lightly away. But her smile said that he could have her if he wanted.
Richard laid himself back on his low couch and almost accidentally caught a glimpse of the sculptures on the ceiling. His face grew contemplative once more and he whisked the girls away. The knight still aimed his scornful spear at his teeming enemies. But across the marble arch that curved inward along the dome a feast was held. A satyr played his panpipes, and a maiden danced to the music. Her outstretched hands flew around her as she circled, and the squinted eyes of the satyr watched her every move. And around her, marble flakes that were golden maple leaves flew, and the cool wind whipped her skirt about her. It was the feast of autumn.
Richard liked that girl on the ceiling; liked her because she seemed to be alive, fresh--yet soon the slick satyr would get to her, and then her autumn would come and she would fall with the leaves of her youth. There was immediacy about her, that now or never feeling, that Richard so longed for sometimes. Sometimes, too, he wondered why he had picked those pictures. He remembered walking along endless hallways, hung with plans, designs, pictures . . . castles, cathedrals, skyscrapers, temples . . . There were statues, paintings to choose from; all of the masters of history were assembled there, and many more were designed just for this occasion. He walked along, overwhelmed by the flood of emotions about him; and those things that touched something inside him he chose, without thinking what they might mean. He would not have been able to if he tried -- he was far too busy in his life to understand art. But some of the things on the way made him pause. Even now, he knew that if he removed the statues that disturbed him on occasion he would miss them. He sighed, shook his head, and took a long drink of the wine.
He could hear the distant laughter of the girls coming from the gardens outside the cathedral. He rose and walked briskly through the halls to find them; the marble stonework was fading from his mind. He approached the terrace, where rays of sunshine pierced the foliage and made little dancing spots on the white marble floor. No trace of mist remained, save for a whiff of morning freshness that still hung about the shadowy corners of the terrace and chilled the floor beneath Richard's bare feet. He took off and ran into the park, along the paths of fine gravel, leaping over streams, rolling in the soft grass of the meadows, laughing at the alarmed shrieks of the colorful birds. And the laughter of the girls grew closer . . .
Richard didn't notice a pile of plastic toys beneath his feet. He tripped and flew head over heels, landing painfully on cracked concrete. He groaned and turned over on his back. Ahead, he saw the old oak tree that grew in the yard of his old house. On a rope swing sat a man who could not have been more then thirty yet looked twice his age. His face was swollen and his skin rumpled like dirty tissue paper. He was badly dressed, and his old suit was too small for his bulging stomach. His hands clung to the ropes of the swing like two lumps of cottage cheese. The man was breathing heavily, looking around at the piles of colorful plastic toys scattered about him.
Richard rose to his feet. He found himself once again clad in a business suit, this one even better fitting and more expensive than the one he wore for the last encounter. And once again, a familiar scene was in front of him, played out so many times before. For a second he felt tired; but the anger proper for the scene gave him strength.
"Jerome, what do you think you're doing here? How'd you get that junk out of the attic?"
"Dad, these must have been worth a fortune . . ." said the man on the swing, still looking at the toys. Then he raised his eyes to Richard. "Seven hundred dollars, dad. It's all I need. These toys must have been worth ten times that."
"Everything that's ever happened to you, Jerome, is your own fault, you lazy, good for nothing. . . Get off my property before I call the cops!"
"Damnit Dad, we can't afford another kid! Seven hundred dollars is nothing to you!" The rope of the swing snapped, and the man fell heavily onto the concrete. Richard heard the suit tear somewhere as the body flattened itself. The man lay there, squashed, looking up at the sky. Richard knew that according to the script he should have turned away in disgust, but he could not bring himself to do it. He just stood there, and perhaps he would have even cried had a rush of coolness not come over him, washing away the hallucination. He turned to see a girl running away from him, the bucket she held the water in still in her hand.
He followed her to the distant pool that lay beneath a waterfall, and leapt into the cool, clear, soft water. He scattered the girls with a splash, then chased after them, and they splashed him trying to stay away . . .
. . . Then he lay on the bank, thinking of nothing at all and listening to their clear voices, still full of energy nearby. He rolled over to where his head hung over the reflective surface of the pool. He smiled at his face and let his long black hair cascade into the reflection. As the locks touched the water, a ripple ran over his face.
"Like a wrinkle," thought Richard. "God, I must be old."
He rolled back over to the bank and looked up at the sky. The voices and laughter grew foolish and distant as he tried to concentrate. The lightness he felt before was gone; there was something he had to remember. But the birdsong was too loud, and the sunlight that touched his closed eyelids was far too bright. Richard removed the birds, then the girls, the light, and even the grass beneath him--all were whisked away with a thought. It was difficult to put out the sun, though; it had felt so warm on his eyes.
Then he floated in absolute blackness, his mind filled with images and memories all trying to project themselves onto the world around him. There he was, running across a grassy field with the warriors of Sparta . . . flying an interceptor on Mars. . . playing chess with the shah. . . Richard curtailed them all, looking for a particular one. . .
* * * * *
. . . The building looked nice from the outside. Old fashioned reddish brick combined with modernistic curved windows surrounded by springtime greenery--the perfect setting for Pleasant Dreams Inc. Richard's attendant rolled the wheel chair toward the disabled ramp. They checked in at the door and moved through tall hallways decorated with scattered objects of modern art. The attendant knocked on the door of an office, and the door swung open. Richard was positioned in front of the desk, and the attendant left.
It was a spacious office, decorated by a small garden of potted plants that hung just inside the wall-sized green window. In front of Richard was a simple wooden desk, with nothing but an intricately curved brass lamp for decoration. A middle-aged woman with a soft face sat behind the desk.
"Hello, Mr.Stewart." Said the woman. "I'm Nancy. You wanted to talk about our offer?"
"That's right. I have seen your brochure, but it left much to be desired when it came to hard facts."
"Well, Mr.Stewart, I apologize for that, but there are far too many . . . possibilities for us to mention them all. And besides, the possibilities are up to you. We put you into a dreaming state, and what you dream is up to you."
"And anything I want will come true?"
"Anything at all."
"Is there any way to try this out?"
"I am sorry, Mr.Stewart, but the operations involved, both neuroelectrical and medical, are totally irreversible. However, we could show you a feed of what someone else is experiencing . . ."
"No, it's not that I don't believe you, Miss. It's just that it's quite a commitment . . . and how much did you say it cost?"
"It costs everything, Mr.Stewart. But isn't immortality priceless? . . ."
* * * * *
Two men in white lab coats walked along a hallway with glass walls. Each wall was made of a thousand transparent drawers, just a little bit larger then ones in file cabinets. The tops of bald heads with electrodes attached to them were visible through the glass. Suddenly, a red light flashed on one of them.
"Stewart again?" Asked one of the men with a tired voice.
"Yeah. Something's eating the old man. Think we should up the dose?"
"Yes. Give him 5 cc's of PD 650."
The other man crouched and pulled out the drawer with the blinking light. Inside lay the remnants of a human--the legs and arms were gone, and the stomach was caved in from the removal of most digestive organs. Thin plastic tubes penetrated the skin in several places. Electrodes were attached to the head; some wires went inside. The old face bore a strained expression.
The man in the lab coat slid out a tiny control panel and punched some numbers with precise motions. The face of the old man slowly relaxed into a slight smile.