Aaron spent the whole day mingling with the faithful of the Living Dream movement in Golden Park’s vast plaza, eavesdropping on their restless talk about the succession, drinking water from the mobile catering stalls, trying to find some shade from the searing sun as the heat and coastal humidity rose relentlessly. He thought he remembered arriving at daybreak; certainly the expanse of marble cobbles had been virtually empty as he had walked across it. The tips of the splendid white metal pillars surrounding the area had been crowned with rose-gold light as the local star rose above the horizon. He had smiled appreciatively at the outline of the replica city, matching the topography surrounding Golden Park with the dreams he had gathered from the gaiafield over the last . . . well, for quite some time. Golden Park had started to fill up rapidly after that, with the faithful arriving from the other districts of Makkathran2 across the canal bridges, ferried in by a fleet of gondolas. By midday there must have been close to a hundred thousand of them. All faced the Orchard Palace, which sprawled possessively like a huddle of high dunes over the Anemone district on the other side of the Outer Circle Canal. There they waited with badly disguised impatience for the Cleric Council to come to a decision—any sort of decision. The Council had been in conclave for three days now. How long could they possibly take to elect a new Conservator?
At one point that morning he had edged his way right up to the Outer Circle Canal, close to the central wire-and-wood bridge that arched over to Anemone. It was closed, of course, as were the other two bridges in that section. Although in ordinary times anyone from the ultradevout to curious tourist could cross over and wander around the vast Orchard Palace, this day it had been sealed off by fit-looking junior Clerics who had undergone a lot of muscle enrichment. Camped out to one side of the temporarily forbidden bridge were hundreds of journalists from all over the Greater Commonwealth, most of them outraged by the stubborn refusal of Living Dream to leak information their way. They were easily identifiable by their chic modern clothes and by faces that obviously were maintained at peak gloss by a membrane of cosmetic scales. Not even Advancer DNA produced complexions that good.
Behind them the bulk of the crowd buzzed about, discussing their favorite candidates. If Aaron was judging the mood correctly, just about ninety-five percent of them were rooting for Ethan. They wanted him because they were done with waiting, with patience, with the status quo preached by all the other lackluster caretakers since the Dreamer himself, Inigo, had slipped away from public life. They wanted someone who would bring their whole movement to that blissful moment of fulfillment they had been promised from the moment they had tasted Inigo’s first dream.
Some time in the afternoon Aaron realized that the woman was watching him. Instinct smoothly clicked his awareness to her location—which was an interesting trait to know he had. From then on he was conscious of her: how she casually wandered in order to keep an easy distance between them, how she never had her eyes in his direction when he glanced at her. She wore a simple short-sleeved rusty-orange top and knee-length blue trousers of some modern fabric. A little different from the faithful—who tended to wear the more primitive rustic clothes of wool, cotton, and leather favored by Makkathran’s citizens, but not contemporary enough to be obvious. Nor did her looks make her stand out, though she had a flattish face and a cute button nose; some of the time her slim copper shades were across her eyes, but often she had them perched in her short dark hair. Her age was unknowable; her appearance was locked into the biological mid-twenties like that of everyone in the Greater Commonwealth. He was certain, with no tangible proof, that she was well past her first couple of centuries.
After they had played the orbiting-satellites game for forty minutes, he walked over, keeping his smile pleasant. There were no pings coming off her that his macrocellular clusters could detect, no active links to the unisphere or any active sensor activity. Electronically, she was as stone age as the city.
“Hello,” he said.
She pushed her shades up with the tip of a finger and gave him a playful grin. “Hello yourself. So what brings you here?”
“This is a historic event.”
“Do I know you?” His instinct had been right, he saw; she was nothing like the placid faithful shuffling around them. Her body language was all wrong; she could keep tight control of herself, enough to fool anyone without his training—training?—but he could sense the attitude coiled up inside.
“Should you know me?”
He hesitated. There was something familiar about her face, something he should know about her. He could not think what for the simple reason that he did not have any memories to pull up and examine. Not of anything, now that he thought about it. He didn’t seem to have had a life prior to this day. He knew that was all wrong, yet that did not bother him, either. “I don’t recall.”
“How curious. What’s your name?”
Her laughter surprised him.
“What?” he asked.
“Number one, eh? How lovely.”
Aaron’s answering grin was forced. “I don’t understand.”
“If you wanted to list terrestrial animals, where would you start?”
“Now you’ve really lost me.”
“You’d start with the aardvark. Double A; it’s the top of the list.”
“Oh,” he mumbled. “Yeah, I get it.”
“Aaron.” She chuckled. “Someone had a sense of humor when they sent you here.”
“Nobody sent me.”
“Really?” She arched a thick eyebrow. “So you just sort of found yourself at this historic event, did you?”
“That’s about it, yes.”
She dropped the copper band back down over her eyes and shook her head in mock dismay. “There are several of us here, you know. I don’t believe that’s an accident, do you?”
Her hand gestured around at the crowd. “You don’t count yourself as one of these sheep, do you? A believer? Someone who thinks they can find a life at the end of these dreams Inigo so generously gifted to the Commonwealth?”
“I suppose not, no.”
“There’s a lot of people watching what happens here. It’s important, after all, and not just for the Greater Commonwealth. If there’s a Pilgrimage into the Void, some species claim it could trigger a devourment phase which will bring about the end of the galaxy. Would you want that to happen, Aaron?”
She was giving him a very intent stare. “That would be a bad thing,” he temporized. “Obviously.” In truth he had no opinion. It was not something he thought about.
“Obvious to some, an opportunity to others.”
“If you say so.”
“I do.” She licked her lips with mischievous amusement. “So, are you going to try for my unisphere code? Ask me out for a drink?”
She pouted fulsomely. “How about unconditional sex, then, any way you like it?”
“I’ll bank that one, too, thanks.” He laughed.
“You do that.” Her shoulders moved up in a slight shrug. “Goodbye, Aaron.”
“Wait,” he said as she turned away. “What’s your name?”
“You don’t want to know me,” she called out. “I’m bad news.”
“Goodbye, Bad News.”
There was a genuine smile on her face as she looked back at him. A finger wagged. “That’s what I remember best,” she said, and was gone.
He smiled at the rear of her rapidly departing head. She vanished quickly enough amid the throng; after a minute he couldn’t even spot her. He had seen her originally because she had wanted him to, he realized.
Us, she’d said. There are a lot like us here. That didn’t make a lot of sense. But then she’d stirred up a lot of questions. Why am I here? he wondered. There was no solid answer in his mind other than it was the right place for him to be; he wanted to see who was elected. And the memories. Why don’t I have any memories of anything else? It ought to bother him, he knew—memories were the fundamental core of human identity—yet even that emotion was lacking. Strange. Humans were emotionally complex entities, yet he didn’t appear to be. But he could live with that; something deep inside him was sure he would solve the mystery of himself eventually. There was no hurry.
Toward late afternoon the crowd began to thin out as the announcement remained obstinately unforthcoming. Aaron could see disappointment on the faces moving past him, a sentiment echoed by the whispers of emotion within the local gaiafield. He opened his mind to the surrounding thoughts, allowing them to wash in through the gateway that the gaiamotes had germinated inside his cerebellum. It was like walking through a fine mist of specters, bestowing the plaza with flickers of unreal color, images of times long gone yet remembered fondly; sounds were muffled, as if experienced through fog.
His recollection of when he had joined the gaiafield community was as hazy as the rest of his time before this day: it didn’t seem like the kind of thing he would do—too whimsical. Gaiafield was for adolescents who considered the multisharing of dreams and emotions to be deep and profound or fanatics like Living Dream. But he was proficient enough with the concept of voluntarily shared thoughts and memories to grasp a coherent sensation from his exposure to the raw minds in the plaza. Of course, if it could be done anywhere, it would be here in Makkathran2, which Living Dream had made the capital of the Greater Commonwealth’s gaiafield, with all the contradictions that entailed. To the faithful, the gaiafield was almost identical to the genuine telepathy the citizens of the real Makkathran possessed.
Aaron felt their sorrow firsthand as the day began to wind down, with several stronger undercurrents of anger directed at the Cleric Council. In a society where one shared thoughts and feelings, so the consensus went, an election really should not be so difficult. He also perceived their subliminal wish slithering through the gaiafield: Pilgrimage, the one true hope of the whole movement.
Despite the regret gusting around him, Aaron stayed where he was. He didn’t have anything else to do. The sun had fallen almost to the horizon when there was some movement on the broad balcony along the front of the Orchard Palace. All across the plaza, people suddenly smiled and pointed. There was a gentle yet urgent movement toward the Outer Circle Canal. Security force fields along the side of the water expanded, cushioning those shoved up against the railings as the pressure of bodies increased behind them. Various news company camera pods zoomed through the air like glitter-black festival balloons, adding to the thrill. Within seconds the mood in the plaza had lifted to fiery anticipation; the gaiafield suddenly crackled with excitement, its intensity rising until Aaron had to withdraw slightly to avoid being deluged by the clashing storms of color and ethereal shouts.
The Cleric Council marched solemnly out onto the balcony, fifteen figures wearing full-length scarlet-and-black robes. In their center was a lone figure whose robe was a dazzling white edged in gold, the hood pulled forward to obscure the face inside. The dying sun glowed against the soft cloth, creating a nimbus around him. A huge cheer went up from the crowd. Camera pods edged in as close to the balcony as their operators dared; palace force fields rippled in warning, keeping them back. As one, the Cleric Council reached out into the gaiafield with their minds; unisphere access followed swiftly, making the grand announcement available across the Greater Commonwealth to followers and nullifidians alike.
In the middle of the balcony, the white-robed figure reached up and slowly pushed back the hood. Ethan smiled beatifically out across the city and its adulating faithful. There was a kindness about his thin solemn face that suggested he was attuned to all their fears; he sympathized and understood. Everyone could see the dark bags under his eyes that could come only from the burden of accepting such a terribly high office, of carrying the expectations of every Dreamer. As his face was exposed to the rich sunlight, the cheering down in the plaza increased. Now the other members of the Cleric Council turned toward the new Cleric Conservator and applauded contentedly.
Without conscious intervention, the ancillary thought routines operating inside Aaron’s macrocellular clusters animated his ocular zoom. He scanned along the faces of the Cleric Council, designating each image with an integral code as the ancillary routines slotted them into macrocellular storage lacunae ready for instant recall. Later he would study them for any betraying emotion, an indicator of how they had argued and voted.
He had not known he had the zoom function, which piqued his curiosity. At his request the secondary thought routines ran a systems check through the macrocellular clusters enriching his nervous system. Exoimages and mental icons unfolded from neutral status to standby in his peripheral vision, lines of shifting iridescence bracketing his natural sight. The exoimages were all default symbols generated by his u-shadow, the personal interface with the unisphere that instantly would connect him to any of its massive data, communication, entertainment, and commerce functions. All standard stuff.
However, the mental icons he examined represented a great deal more than the standard physiological enrichments that Advancer DNA had placed at the disposal of a human body; if he was reading their summaries correctly, he was enriched with some extremely lethal biononic field function weaponry.
I know something else about me, he thought. I have an Advancer heritage. It was hardly a revelation; eighty percent of Greater Commonwealth citizens had had similar modifications sequenced into their DNA thanks to the long-ago genetic visionaries on Far Away. But having biononics as well narrowed the scope fractionally, putting Aaron closer to his true origin.
Ethan raised his hands in an appeal for silence. The plaza fell quiet as the faithful held their breath. Even the babble from the media pack was stilled. A sensation of serenity coupled with steely resolution issued out of the new Cleric Conservator into the gaiafield. Ethan was a man who was sure of his purpose.
“I thank my fellow Councillors for this magnificent honor,” Ethan said. “As I begin my tenure, I will do what I believe our Dreamer wanted. He showed us the way—nobody can deny that. He showed us where life can be lived and changed until it is perfect, however you choose to define that as an individual. I believe he showed us this for a reason. This city he built. The devotion he engendered. It was for one purpose: to live the Dream. That is what we will now do.”
There was cheering out on the plaza.
“The Second Dream has begun! We have known it in our hearts. You have known it. I have known it. We have been shown inside the Void again. We have soared with the Skylord.”
Aaron scanned the Council again. He no longer needed to review and analyze their faces for later. Five of them already looked deeply uncomfortable. Around him the cheering was building to an inevitable climax, as was the speech.
“The Skylord awaits us. It will guide us to our destiny. We will Pilgrimage!”
Cheering turned to a naked, violent roar of adulation. Inside the gaiafield it was as though someone were setting off fireworks fueled by pleasure narcotics. The burst of euphoria surging through the artificial neural universe was awesome in its brightness.
Ethan waved victoriously to the faithful, then gave a last smile and went back inside Orchard Palace.
Aaron waited as the crowd wound down. So many cried with joy as they departed, he had to shake his head in dismay at their simplicity. Happiness here was universal, obligatory. The sun crept down below the horizon, revealing a city where every window glowed with warm tangerine light, just as they did in the true city. Songs drifted along the canals as the gondoliers gave voice to their delight in traditional fashion. Eventually even the reporters began to drift away, chattering among themselves; those with doubts were keeping their voices low. Out in the unisphere, news anchors and political commentators on hundreds of worlds were beginning their somber doomsday predictions.
None of it bothered Aaron. He was still standing in the plaza as the civic bots emerged into the starlight and began clearing away the rubbish the excitable crowd had left behind. He now knew what he had to do next; the certainty had struck him as soon as he had heard Ethan speak. Find Inigo. That was why he was here.
Aaron smiled contentedly around the dark plaza, but there was no sign of the woman. “Now who’s bad news?” he asked, and walked back into the jubilant city.
From the Hardcover edition.