Dryly the driver said, “You didn’t mention it at Precipice, that’s for sure. We grow up on it in school. Ask Brad Compton the librarian to show you our first edition.” He applied the brakes. “Coming up to Mean Free now!” Mean Free Path was indeed a path, winding among shrubs, trees and—houses?
They had to be. But they were something else, too. Yes, they had roofs (although the roofs were never four-square) and walls (what one could see of them through masses of creeper) and doubtless doors, none of which happened to be visible from where they had left the railcar… already out of sight and sound despite its leisurely pace, lost in a tunnel of greenery.
“They are like the farms,” Kate breathed.
“No.” He snapped his fingers. “There’s a difference, and I just figured out what it is. The farms—they’re factors in landscape. But these houses are landscape.”
“That’s right,” Kate said. Her voice was tinged with awe. “I have the most ridiculous feeling. I’m instantly ready to believe that an architect who could do this…” The words trailed away.
“An architect who could do this could design a planet,” he said briefly, and took her arm to urge her onward.
Though the path wound, it was level enough to ride a cycle or draw a cart along, paved with slabs of rock conformable to the contour of the land.
Shortly they passed a green lawn tinted gold by slanting sunshine. She pointed at it.
“Not a garden,” she said. “But a glade.”
“Exactly!” He put his hand to his forehead, seeming dizzy. Alarmed, she clutched at him.
“Sandy, is something the matter?”
“No—yes—no… I don’t know. But I’m okay.” Dropping his arm, he blinked this way, then that. “It just hit me. This is town—yes! But it doesn’t feel like it. I simply know it must be, because…” He swallowed hard. “Seeing it from the railcar, could you have mistaken this place for anything else?”
“Never in a million years. Hmm!” Her eyes rounded in wonder. “That’s a hell of a trick, isn’t it?”
“Yes, and if I didn’t realize it was therapeutic I could well be angry. People don’t enjoy being fooled, do they?”
“Therapeutic?” She frowned. “I don’t follow you.”
“Set-destruction. We use sets constantly instead of seeing what’s there—or feeling or tasting it, come to that. We have a set ‘town,’ another ‘city,’ another ‘village’… and we often forget there’s a reality the sets were originally based on. We’re in too much of a hurry. If this effect is typical of Precipice, I’m not surprised it gets so little space in the guidebook. Tourists would find a massive dose of double-take indigestible. I look forward to meeting this poker Horovitz. As well as being a builder and a sheriff I think he must be a…”
“A something else. Maybe something I don’t know a word for.” The path had been a path. The square proved not to be a square, more a deformed cyclic quadrilateral, but it implied all the necessary elements of a public urban space. It was a great deal bigger than one might have guessed. They found this out by crossing it. Part of it, currently deserted, was paved and ornamented with flower-filled urns; part was park-like, though miniaturized, a severe formal garden; part sloped down to a body of water, less a lake than a pond, some three or four meters below the general level of the land, from whose banks steps rose in elegant curves. Here there were people: old folk on benches in the sun, two games of fencing in progress amid the inevitable cluster of kibitzers, while down by the water—under the indulgent but watchful eyes of a couple of teeners—some naked children were splashing merrily about in pursuit of a huge light ball bigger than any two of their heads.
And enclosing this square were buildings of various heights linked together by slanting roofs and pierced by alleyways but for which they would have composed a solid terrace. As it was, every alley was bridged at first-story level and every bridge was ornamented with delicate carvings in wood or stone.
“My God,” Kate said under her breath. “It’s incredible. Not town. Not here. This is village.”