James R. Muri
For and to Kristine, for both our reasons.
The beach was coming up fast, the whiteness a slash across the base of the reaching coconut palms. He checked right, saw he was still ahead of the curl. Good, no broken necks today. He shifted his feet, dared a quick look for her.
There she was, there on the bench. Boldly he leaned, moved, angled the board across the wave face, steered to her. Things were getting dicey now, breakers forming, the curl crumbling around him -
He looked up at the sky, the lovely blue frame around her head. Her hair, golden shade, framed her face, tickled his chest. Concern in her eyes, a half smile on her lips as she saw his eyes scoping her out.
"You idiot. Why do you do that anyway? I thought you got killed this time for sure!"
"Do what, Caroline?"
"Surf, clown. Why do you do it? At your age!"
He sat up, shook his head. "I used to surf to find you," he explained with a grimace at the ache throbbing at the base of his neck.
She looked down very briefly. Then back up, chided him affectionately. "Well, you've found me. So why do you keep doing it?"
"I do it to be with you," he explained. And she knew exactly what he meant then.
"What do you do for fun?" The climb was tough, cold. The air there at 18,000 feet was thin, making talking difficult. Economy of air, she was thinking. We take it so for granted back there in Vermont. But when it gets scarce -
"This isn't fun?" He grinned past his zinc-oxide coated nose, his eyes invisible behind the black lenses. But she knew what was in them. She felt far wiser than her years.
"You know what I mean, Mountain Man. Back in the analog world where real people do real things."
"We aren't real people, Snow Angel? And aren't we doing something?"
"You know perfectly well we've invented each other, Dave. Just like we've invented this mountain, the beach, wherever we go next - all inventions. All unreal." Devil's advocate, she thought. I'll play it for awhile. Maybe we'll stop, rest, catch our breath before we make our run at the peak.
He stopped a moment, took up some slack in the rope. As she approached she noticed the oddest faint blue glow coming from him, almost as though there was a fluorescent light inside, leaking out a little. It brightened as she approached.
Her glow was golden, and when they were face to face he reached out to her slowly, lightly touched her mittened hand. The bright electric green arc snapped and sizzled in the thin atmosphere, bonding extra oxygen atoms to already stable oxygen molecules to form ozone.
Hope for the ozone layer after all, she thought.
"This isn't real, Caroline? Didn't you actually feel that?" He certainly had, and was careful not to get so far away from her that the green arc that sizzled between them was threatened.
She nodded. It had certainly seemed real, all right. She looked around. Here we are, less than a thousand feet from the top, the temperature some indeterminate depth below zero, sparking. That's what he'd called this, that time. Sparking. On a cyber mountain. Real?
The sails were taut, the starboard rail under water. Close-hauled they raced, taking the sea in their teeth, getting soaked to the bone in these tropical waters. Caroline risked a quick glance down at herself, saw she was solidly planted on her bare feet, the wheel in her hands letting her control their destiny. Her bikini was soaked, but that was fine, because that's what they were made for. She glanced up at Dave there on the top rail, saw him smiling at her. Well, she revised to herself, that's part of what they were made for.
She smiled back at him.
Dave was just euphoric in his happiness. Look at that! Look at her handle the helm of this beast, this wonderful sled to anywhere. How she fits, right there!
"I wrote about this," he shouted. "In my book, there's a scene almost exactly like this!"
"That's great," she shouted back, thrilled to be here like this, "But in your book did you mention the simple things, like how they managed to get any sleep, or go to the bathroom even?"
He laughed. He made a small gesture with his fingers.
His Americano was still too hot to sip. He watched her licking the whipped cream off her Almond Cappuccino. He pointed. "Lady's room over there," he said. She glanced over there, back at him. She was beginning to understand.
"My turf now, right? Right back home here, in Muddy Waters. What a trip! Where have we been?"
"I thought you had to go to the bathroom, Cyber Doll. Otherwise we'd still be biting salt water off the coast of Tasmania."
Wow. "Where else, Mr. Breathless? Wait - I think I know. The mountain was Orizaba -" he nodded, smiling - "and the beach was Belize - that beach I told you about. Right?"
"Yep. Too bad none of this is real, huh?" He watched her eyes, waited to see the lights go on again. He loved seeing that happen. He sipped his Americano. Better now. No blisters.
She considered the scope of that question. He was right. All this was just their imaginations, working together across the Net. They've never met, never seen each other, not even pictures. She knew about him, that he was over fifty, and he knew about her, that she was sixteen. But what was real, she wondered?
Was it real that they would probably never even have said hello to each other in the analog world? Yes, that was real. God, to think people miss this sort of relationship because they have to deal with seeing each other before they start to communicate! It startled her to think that there was a basic flaw like that in simple human communication. She looked at him, thought. Reality. Was the Net real? Was the communication they shared real? Yeah, she thought, those were real.
He watched her think. Good. Now, if she will go to the logical conclusion of the discussion she's having with herself . . .
. . . faceless and bodiless, nonetheless real personalities and imaginations. And what is human communication, really? Ideas, hopes, dreams, thoughts. Nowhere in the description of communication was there any mention of appearance or anything analog. Well, she thought looking at him, except for body language. And his is positive, even over the net.
Nice guy. For an old geezer. Nice to be able to have someone to snuggle up with in front of a digital fireplace and not have to worry about all that - stuff. Nice to be able to be comforted without a touch, to be able to say what's on my mind without fear.
She's getting there, he thought. She's figuring it all out.
He set to work on a time machine, Caroline handing him tools and offering technical advice. Maybe next email posting, he thought. Or maybe I'll just wiggle my fingers and make everything just the way I want it. He looked over at Caroline.
"So what are you going to do with this time machine, Dave? Why are we building it?"
Dave was a little startled. He thought she knew. "Well, isn't it obvious? Look at these equations." He offered her a piece of scratch paper, and she looked over the doodles.
"I see that if this works like these numbers say, you'll be -" she picked up a pencil, did some scratching, looked up and smiled - "eighteen. Again."
"Yeah, ain't Cyberland wonderful?"
She smiled. Then she popped the question. "That's fantastic! I wonder if you'll have lived all those other years, then?"
He stopped work. He sat. He thought. He looked up at her again, eyes sad. He wiggled his fingers.
"Where are we?" Caroline looked around, aware that this was familiar somehow, but she couldn't quite place it. Of course she recognized Rodin's 'The Thinker'.
"When I was a freshman in college, or maybe I was a sophomore, there was a program on TV called "The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis" - or maybe it was "Many Loves", I don't remember. Anyway, whenever Dobie got confused about things he'd come to this park, wherever it is, and try to figure things out."
Caroline gestured to the statue. "And he got help from this guy, I suppose?"
"Yeah. Lots, apparently. But he never stopped getting in trouble."
"And now we're here to try to figure something out?"
"This reality thing. I don't think we're finished with it."
She came over to the bench, sat beside him. He had his chin on his fist, just like the statue. She did her best to not laugh. The whole scene was almost funny.
"Caroline, when you're not on the Net, are things real?"
She frowned. "Of course they're real. Not always as much fun or as interesting, but real. You already know the answer to that."
"There are people out there in Cyberland, Caroline, who trade away their tans and good health in the analog world for whatever they imagine themselves to be in the digital world. The price for that is that they turn into pasty-faced twinkey and pizza eaters, existing to stare into their monitors and live in an imaginary world. I know, I've heard of them. I've read about them. Heck, I even know some of them."
"How do they find the time," she asked rhetorically. She knew of such people too.
"It's like a drug, I guess. So they make the time. They steal it away from those they should be spending it with. From those that need them. From those they live with in the analog world. To give to strangers, to people they'll never meet, owe nothing to."
Caroline thought, looked at him. He didn't look happy. She wiggled her fingers.
Slowly they rotated in the evening sky. Her golden glow and his blue one flashed alternately like lighthouse beacons. He looked down, glanced back at Caroline. His grin was wide, and clearly he was enjoying the situation.
"Thought we'd try for a new altitude record tonight, Dave." She approached him a little closer, and their rotation rate increased. A green arc flashed between them, settled into a buzzing rope, and steadied. It felt wonderful.
20,000 feet below the small town sparkled and glittered in the late evening twilight.
"How high we going, Sky Angel?"
They zoomed upward, upward. Soon the Earth was below, a discrete blue ball with white cotton lint scattered over it. They were at geosynchronous orbit altitude, about 23,000 miles high. The view was fantastic. Dave glanced over to his right, saw GOES 7 spinning away, staring down. He wondered whose reality this was.
They relaxed there for awhile, enjoying the view.
"So what's missing from this picture, Cyber Dream?"
Caroline knew where he was going. "We're all alone. There's no one else anywhere around. That's why we're here like this, isn't it? To make it obvious?"
"I thought this was your dream, Caroline. Is it mine?"
"We're both dreaming it, Dave. Each of us telling the other."
"An analog splinter in the butt from sliding down a bannister is more real than our correspondence?"
"No. Come on, Dave. We're real, although we've invented each other. We're both as we portray ourselves."
"Different realities, then?"
She thought. "No, not actually. One reality is a subset of the other."
"And," he went on for her, "has to be consistent with the larger reality. Which is why I can't finish that time machine."
That surprised her. "Why not?"
"Because I can't unlive the life I've already lived, Honey. Because despite all the trouble I've had in it, I don't want to unlive it. Maybe a part here or there, but not all of it. Or even most of it. It's mine, it's what makes me whatever I am today. Unliving it means I can't be who you're talking with now. I wouldn't be interesting to you, because I'd be a blank slate again. Unwritten upon, uninteresting. Right now I fascinate you a little, because of all the things I can talk about. I talk about things I've seen, learned. The result of over fifty years of mistakes and adventures. Take away thirty-four years, and who am I? Just another teenager. Just another guy who's confused and lacking answers."
"Just someone who I'd like to meet, Dave. Just someone with a heart I've seen into. Just someone I know is impossible, like I'm impossible to you." A little wistful, a little philosophical.
"In this subset reality, this Cyberworld, Caroline, where we share ourselves from time to time, I'm not impossible for you, and you're not impossible for me. I'd never have believed that two people stumbling over each other like we did on the Net, of such different ages and backgrounds, could ever have found a connection. I think we ought to leave things just like that, know that we both live in analog worlds that need us to be there, to be with real people we can see and touch and interact with, but know that there's a digital fireplace, a binary overstuffed chair, and a fine fire to curl up next to, wrapped in each other when we need that from each other. When we can't find a friend anyplace else, we can always turn to each other."
Caroline gazed down at her home, there about 23,000 miles below her feet. She wiggled her fingers again.
They sipped their Espressos in Muddy Waters. Finally Caroline looked up. "I guess I knew we'd have to talk about this one day," she said, "I just didn't really want to get into it so soon."
Dave was glad it had come out. "I'd like never to have thought about it, Caroline. There's part of me that would like to finish that time machine, then get to know you in a much different way. So I feel just like you do. But nothing is really changed. You're still my favorite critic, and I'm still that zoomy guy who wrote those weird stories. And you're still that writer of short stories I've read, and I'm still the guy who likes to read them."
"And we're each a lot more than that to each other, Dave."
He nodded, pleased with this final simplicity.
"My place is there for you, Caroline. That chair. No reservations needed."
"And my tree is there for you, Dave. When you need it."
He took her hand. The green arc crackled, the connection solid and high voltage.
Friends, in reality. Across generations, across a continent. They smiled at each other.
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