They sat on a bench by the gray river, holding each others' hands. The temperature of the air was so neutral as to be nonexistent, the ground the same under their feet. The river had left them in unremarkable clothing and barefooted. Katy looked around- fog rolled off its surface, but otherwise, she could see into the hazy distances of the flat landscape. They were the only two people in sight.
“This isn't heaven,” she confirmed.
“Hah,” Simon laughed. “No. But it's not hell either. Want something to eat?”
She watched as he leapt off the bench, kicked around one nearby bush, then another. “It's usually around here… Damn. Oh- look!” He pulled a basket from behind a plant, removing from it a glass bottle of lemonade and what looked like a sandwich.
“Where did that come from?” Katy asked, arms wrapped around her knees.
Simon shrugged. “It's not as though you really need to eat, but it's like in a dream. If you want to eat, food appears. If you want to sleep, you can find a bed. The- weather, I guess- doesn't change. It's like this all the time. There are other people, but…” He shrugged.
“I think everyone leaves here, too. It's not the last stop, you know, final destination, everybody please disembark the vessel. I've talked to people, all of them left eventually.” He pointed to a house near the end of the river, downstream. “Everyone goes through there.”
“But you waited. For eight years.”
“Yup.” He bobbed his head. “The, uh, place, is designed so that you don't linger for too long. Things you build disappear after a while, you know, stop you from settling down. But I could watch you from up here- I'll show you later- so… I stayed.” He looked down to the house at the end of the river, and said, with something akin to longing, “You know, we could go now…”
“No,” Katy said, quickly, curling up to him on the bench. This fuzzy world, this peaceable desert, appealed to her. Simon said nothing, and folded her in his arms.
After a while, she asked, “Where are all the other people?”
He shrugged. “Up and down the river. This is just our little part. The ones that haven't gone on- we can see them, if you want. There's your dad, all the guys from the old lab- Tristan, Lacey, Marc, Ellie… Though I'd watch out, she's still a little pissed of that she's dead.”
“And that I'm not. Of course. Who's she waiting for?”
“Her daughter.” The silence echoed down the desert hills, crawled under the four posts of the bench.
Simon jumped up, and Katy looked at him quizzically.
“But we can do other things,” he said. “It's not always boring. I've been exploring. There's some interesting stuff here. Do you want to check it out?”
“Sure.” In response to this, Simon grinned, and grabbed her arm, yanking her off the bench too.
“Follow me.” The two ran through the sandy grass easily, kicking dust up into plumes behind them.
Promotions were always sort of an odd time in Dr. Fleming's life. The last time he was promoted, it was after he had shot an enemy intruder- in self-defence, with a borrowed pistol. And the time before that- if you would go so far as to call it a promotion- was when he was first hired by the Foundation. Not what you would call a great record.
After the briefing with several figures in suits who didn't state their names, he had gone to the bathroom, and splashed cold water on his face. Then, he found his new office. While Knight's things had been filed out, the room still had a look about it like she had just left it- his boss's characteristic arrangement of computer and desk chair, perhaps, so that she was always looking at incoming visitors from the left. Still, they had cleaned away her stacks of papers, and her mug with the caffeine molecule printed on it, and her poster with an illustration of a fish, captioned “Queer Eye for the Sockeye,” which for some reason never failed to make her giggle.
The fact that all of was no longer there made it seem more appropriate for him to tiptoe across the carpet and slip into the rolling chair at the computer. He logged in and looked at his messages, where the second half of the briefing was waiting.
An hour later, he tipped the chair back, sighed, and stretched his legs under the desk, staring at the blank, dust-spotted white ceiling. He sat up, and drafted a letter to the security department, then a notice to the site at large informing them of the change. Then he checked his messages. He had to spend a few minutes rereading the latest one.
Send it on their way for prevention of disaster (THE AUROCH STAMPEDE) Will not stop will not walk WILL NOT WAIT
The message was referred through a series of addresses that meant nothing, and was not signed. He was puzzling this over when there was a knock on the door. It opened to reveal Johanna, a willowy doctor from Data Processing.
“Sir? It's 1006. It's doing something… unusual.”
The first house, Simon told her, was one of seven, and that the archaic word for seven was “pleiad”, as in the Pleiades, which was part of a legend about seven Greek girls, and that the Greek way of picking an archer with the best sight was if they could see that the star Mizar in Ursa Major was actually two stars that appeared as one, and also if they had gray eyes, and god, how he had missed her. It was true. He was always talkative, but she saw that he had been lonely for a very long time. God knew eight years had passed like decades to her. At least he hadn't been wasting it.
As they walked up, he pointed out the vague style of architecture it was constructed in, how the plants lining the walkway didn't seem to be any particular species- just flowers. He paused as he started to open the door. “This might be a little weird,” he said, and he let her inside.
In the room, there was a long, silvery, glassy screen that seemed to stretch on for miles, out of sight, like a clouded aquarium. Strung out watching the glass sheet, were foggy humans: thousands, maybe millions of them. Some alone, some holding hands, some big family groups, all staring into the blank glass.
“What are they doing?” Katy whispered to Simon.
In return, he took her hand and pointed it so that it almost touched the screen. “Just look,” he said, and wrapped his arms around her from beside.
Katy looked. In the glass, a bright earth in space appeared.
“Think of somewhere you want to see,” he said. She thought of… her office. At the Foundation, at old Site 43.
The earth spun in, and abruptly she was looking through an invisible camera hovering above her old desk chair. Her salmon poster was gone, and Otis Fleming sat in her seat.
Bastard, she thought. They gave him my job.
She found, that with her mind, she could move around the room like a video game, like a ghost. She moved through walls, and left the office, and meandered down halls, but she turned back to watch as Johanna- that tall girl from Processing- scurried up to him, said something faded, and Otis listened to her, and said “Alright.”
She shook her head and pulled back, blinking at Simon. “Is this what you did all the time?”
“Some of it,” he confessed. “I watched you a lot. Did you get to hear anything?”
“Takes practice.” He nodded back towards the door, which was one of many, through which there was a slow but constant stream of foggy people, in and out. An Indian woman brushed by Katy, wiping her eyes.
Simon led her out. The world there was as empty as she remembered.
“You know,” Katy said, as they perambulated, slowly, towards the next building. She was beginning to realize that the distances between the buildings didn't matter, you just walked until enough time had passed. “It's odd. I spent the last… Eight years, ever since I lost you, working at the Foundation, working with these insane, mind-bending… well, magical things. I had a Level 4 clearance. I knew almost all of them. And none of them are here.” She paused.
“I guess you'd just expect that a few of them would have some… reach here as well.”
“It's a one-way gate, sweetie,” Simon said, shrugging. “Things don't go back there. You can't influence anything on the other side.”
They trudged across the sandy ground to a long, low, Roman-style building, where Simon knocked on the door. It swung open by itself to reveal a single room with a long, thin, gray pool of water.
“To tell you the truth, I'm not sure what this one does,” he admitted. He picked up a pebble- black, smooth- from the edge of the pool, and tossed it in. It skipped three times before sinking. “Stones skip on it, but apart from that, I think it's just water.” He knelt down and swished a hand in it to illustrate. “Kind of cold.”
Katy looked up and down its length. The wall on the far side had a monochrome mural of two dancing birds. “Even this place,” she continued. “There must be something here. Seven buildings in Death. Seven. Why this one?”
Simon got up and stood next to her, grinning. “Maybe this is just heaven for rock-skippers.”
She batted him on the shoulder. They went on to the next building as Katy's mind worked.
The third pleiad looked more like a house, though Simon said it was a museum. “As far as I can figure out, anyways” he added, gesturing for Katy to take the door. She did, and they stepped inside. The first room held a human skeleton, in the center of a sunny atrium, pristine and white.
Katy wondered whose it was.
“Again, I don't think many of the things here do anything either,” Simon said. They wandered through a labyrinth of rooms, with something in each one: a fake butterfly that moved from larvae to chrysalis to butterfly to chrysalis again, an oil lamp that cast shadows of hundreds of flying birds.
Katy shook her head. “You could see all of this on the screen in the first house. Birds, butterflies, any of that. Why is this place here? Why would they let people in? What are these?”
“Katy.” Simon shook his head. “You're- you're not working for the Foundation any more. You're not there. I get that you're a scientist, but you're dead. It's not your problem now.”
The late Dr. Knight sighed, and pushed open the next door. “Yeah, I know.”
“I think this one is my favorite,” Simon said, “Not because it's like the bird one, but-”
“Oh god,” Katy interrupted.
The little engine that sat beyond the door- running by itself, a coppery box with graying gears and a patina of green- looked incredibly familiar.