Saturday, December 29, 2007

Chapter seventeen: No one ever saw or heard from him again

Previous Chapter

It was a small dinner, just the four of us, and elegant, befitting the social standing of our host. The dining room to the Low residence was at the topmost level of Sky City, with a transparent ceiling and side walls that gave us a panoramic view of the City below and the Skyhook stretching up as far as the eye could perceive. The furniture was solid, not inflatable, but well designed for both comfort and appearance. The table itself was a transparent glass. The settings were fused crystal, so thin that they looked like soap bubbles, and the food was delicious, delivered unobtrusively to the table by servants, each of whom Marjori referred to as "James."

I told the tale of my bloon fall and glider ride, and the two women were suitably impressed. I explained that I had no idea who had perpetrated the deed, and considered the likelihood that I would find out who did it to be slim to nonexistent. Nor did the adventure give me any new insights into the murder investigation, damn the luck. Fumio was concerned about whether Joey might have to answer any more questions, and I told her, 'no.' She seemed relieved.

Beyond that, I was unwilling to talk about an investigation in progress, especially with one of the witnesses present. Not that this had stopped me from going to bed with her, I noted to myself.

I was so tired by this time that I was beginning to slur my words. Marjori picked up on it and turned the conversation to Lewis, asking him polite questions of his background and expressing her fascination at the concept and history of Stochasticism. Apparently it was somehow related to her mother's religion of Experiencialism, but I never got that part straight. I struggled to stay awake while Lewis talked; Stochasticism had, after all, saved my life, if you cared to look at it that way, and that seemed worth keeping awake for.

"I'm not really sure how serious it was when it started out," Lewis told us. "Oh, there's been a lot of woo-woo mystical stuff written about quantum physics over the centuries, usually half-assed and more of an excuse for some other religious ideas." He looked at us with a grin. "You know. Bullshit.
[T]he Founder, we never refer to him by name, by the way, 'cause he used so many of them that nobody is sure what his real name was.

"Personally," he continued, "I've thought sometimes that it was just a good excuse to run casinos under the guise of being a Church. There've been a lot of places and times where that was a good dodge.

"But the Founder, we never refer to him by name, by the way, 'cause he used so many of them that nobody is sure what his real name was. Anyway, the Founder wrote some sort of pamphlet about a hundred and fifty years ago, called 'The Moral and Religious Implications of the Everett-Wheeler Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.' History says it had quite a fashionable following among tech folks, especially on Luna, where the Founder lived. It also caused some sort of schism among the Bobists, but I'm not too clear on that, and it appealed to some Unitarian communes also." He looked at Marjori. "That's where it collided with Experientialism, I think, but a Church historian would know more than I do about it.

"Anyway, the Founder followed up the original text with a lot of commentary, some lectures, letters, most of it is collected in our main book called Dice Doctrine. The Church grew to considerable size, then there was some sort of backlash by the Lunar Authorities, who didn't like all the gambling. The Founder set up some independent biospheres on Luna about that time, but there were some financial scandals. You know, the usual. Membership leveled off, then declined quite a bit as some of the personality conflicts began to show."

Lewis took another sip of wine and wiped his mouth on a silk napkin. He continued. "This would all be, what? A hundred and thirty years ago? Maybe more. Then on one particular Chancing on Luna, the Founder got a weird set of dice and card runs and he announced that he'd been chanced to immigrate to Venus, and that all his loyal followers should toss the dice and either follow him or leave the Church.

"Well, you can imagine the ruckus that caused. There were maybe about a thousand hard-core followers left, and I dunno how many fringe folk. Among the truly devout there were families split up, lives yanked out of socket, you name it. But six months later, about five hundred Everites left Luna for Venus, which was a bare backwater at the time. The bloons had just been introduced, but the ecology hadn't stabilized yet. The only way for immigrants to get down was by full velocity orbital entry, and it was pretty much a one-way ride. The only way off of Venus was the Planetary Exploration Vehicles that the research satellites ran, and there weren't many of them and they didn't take passengers. So the whole thing was quite a long shot."

"What happened to the ones who stayed behind?" Fumio asked. "Did they all just -- what do you call it? -- excommunicate themselves?"

"Not all of them," he said. "Some of them must have worked out what we call 'fingers crossed' options on the dice. There is still a small sect of Stocasticists on Luna, and we exchange messages frequently. We also got a few new immigrants 'way back around the aftermath of the Plague hitting Earth."

"What was the reaction to that?" Marjori asked. "I can just imagine, the dice give you a message to get out, just before..."
"Some of them must have worked out what we call 'fingers crossed' options…

"Well, it wasn't immediately before the Plague; there was about ten years between the Migration and the Plague. But when it happened, there was another big wave of converts, that's for sure. Until the big post-Plague migration from Luna, right after the Skimmer showed up, Stochasticism was the biggest religion on Venus. Even after the Skimmer there were a lot of conversions from the immigrants, right up until the time the Skyhook came down."

He paused, looking for comprehension in our faces, perhaps. "The Skimmer travels at orbital speed," he explained. "So entry was still pretty much like the older meteoric entries. Of course, with the Skimmer, they could pick you up again with a drop line, so that was an improvement.

"But even with the Skimmer, the best they could do was to lower a line, then let you drop. Then it was drop, drag, and hope your balloon inflates. Then you had to link up with someone down below to transfer to a bloon. And comm technology on Venus was pretty precarious in those days. Before the Skimmer, it was risky as hell, sort of a case of catch as catch can."

He rubbed his chin, trying to remember old lessons, no doubt. He said, "Almost all the first group made it, though. Of the five hundred who started out, over four hundred and fifty of them made it to living bloons at the other end. There were somewhere between a dozen and a hundred other political and religious groups who migrated to Venus at about the same time, nobody quite knows for sure. The ones we have records for averaged something like twenty five percent mortality. One group of fifty was lost entirely because of some defective equipment.

"But the first Everite group lost less than ten percent. Some of those died on the voyage out, too, so the entry loss was 'way low, the lowest of any group that came to Venus at the time, or at least that's the way the Church teaches it. There may be some dissenters.

"One of those who were lost, though, was the Founder. His entry trail was tracked on radar until the plasma sheath stopped reflecting. The known trajectory should have put him within easy reach of the pickup crew. But no one ever saw his drag chute open, and his transponder never came on line. His balloon didn't inflate either. No one ever saw or heard from him again."

# #

I drifted off to sleep sometime in the middle of dessert. Some time later, they woke me, to my mild embarrassment, and made it known that Fumio and Lewis were returning to the hotel. "Since you are to be at Police Headquarters early tomorrow, I told them that you would spend the night here," Marjori explained.

I hugged Fumio goodbye and whispered to her that I would take care of any room expenses for Lewis, fully expecting the full-throated chuckle that this provoked. Okay, so Lewis wasn't going to need to rent a room for the night.

Lewis shook my hand and winked, a gesture that could have been salacious, but which seemed entirely innocent and friendly. The guy had class, I had to admit. Maybe four or five generations of life on Venus living by rolls of the dice had achieved something profound, damned if I knew what.

Then they left. Marjori had to almost prop me up as we walked to her bedroom. "I'm not much use tonight," I apologized and she squeezed my arm.

"Yes, you are," she told me.

I don't remember anything after that. Presumably we reached her bedroom and someone removed my clothing. Maybe she did it or she had one of the James do it. At any rate, my next memory comes from near the next clock morning.

It was pain that woke me, nothing intense, just the protest of muscles that had exceeded their specs by a considerable margin during my little airfoil ride. I awoke stiff and sore to a semi-darkened room, and I had a little feeling of panic before I remembered where I was.

"Hello," Marjori said from where she lay beside me, propped up on one elbow. "It's not quite morning yet, but you've still had quite a slumber."

I found my voice and asked, "Have you been awake long?"

"A while," she said. "I was watching you as you slept. I hope you don't mind."

"No," I told her.

"At one point you had a bad dream, I think," she said. "You tossed a little and your mouth moved, like you were saying something. But there was no sound."

"Curious," I replied.

I didn't tell her that it was a conditioned response. When I sleep there is a paralysis block on my vocal cords, and most of my other muscles, too, though bits of movement do sometimes get through. Another little set of mementoes.

"I like watching you while you sleep," she said. "I can pretend that I'm your protector, your guardian angel, keeping the devils away. But it's only pretend, isn't it? The devils come anyway."

"I don't remember any from tonight," I told her. "That's something. Quite a lot, actually. More than I usually get."

"Do you have the dreams often?"

"Often enough," I replied. "Far too often in fact."

"What are they about?" she asked. "No, wait, don't tell me that. Forget I asked that question. It was impertinent."

"Not impertinent," I said. "But it is not a question that I answer."

"I understand," she said.
"I can pretend that I'm your protector, your guardian angel, keeping the devils away. But it's only pretend, isn't it? The devils come anyway."

I wish I did, I thought. But I said nothing. Instead I embraced her.

"You make an old lady feel very appreciated," she said after a bit.

"Don't," I said.

"Don't what?" she asked. "Don't refer to myself as an old lady? But I am, darling. Maybe not old enough to be your mother, but old enough to know better. And old enough not to care, I suppose."

"I meant don't say ordinary things," I said. "What you're saying is very ordinary. It's beneath you. You're extraordinary, so don't say ordinary things."

She rolled her eyes a little bit, but she smiled. She snuggled closer and put her hands to my face. "You're really good, you know that?" she said.

I moved still closer to her, feeling the warmth from her body alongside mine. I grinned. "Once you learn how to fake sincerity," I told her, "The rest is easy."

She laughed out loud as she moved to kiss me.

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