“And yet it’s got the city implicit in it—the Grand Place, the Plaza Mayor, Old London Bridge… Oh, it’s fantastic! And look a bit more closely at the houses. They’re ecofast, aren’t they? Every last one of them! I wouldn’t be surprised to find they’re running off ground heat!”
She paled a little. “You’re right! I hadn’t noticed. One thinks of an ecofast house as being—well, kind of one cell for a honeycomb, factory-made. There are ecofast communities around KC, you know, and they have no more character than an anthill!”
“Let’s track down the sheriff at once. I can stand just so many unanswered questions at one go. Excuse me!” He approached the group around the fencing tables. “Where do we find Ted Horovitz?”
“Through that alley,” one of the watchers said, pointing. “First door on your right. If he’s not there, try the mayor’s office. I think he has business with Suzy today.” Again, as they moved away, they felt many curious eyes on them. As though visitors were a rarity at Precipice. But why weren’t there thousands of them, millions? Why wasn’t this little town famous the world around?
“Though of course if it were famous—”
“Did you say something?”
“Not exactly. This must be the door. Mr. Horovitz?”
“Come right in!” They entered, and found themselves in an extraordinary room at least ten meters long. Conventionally enough furnished, with chairs and a desk and sundry cases crammed with books and cassettes, it was more like a forest clearing bright with ferns or a cave behind a waterfall hung with strands of glistening vegetation than anybody’s office. Greenish light, reflected from wind-wavered panels outside irregular windows, flickered on flock-sprayed surfaces as soft as moss.
Turning to greet them from a carpenter’s bench that had seen long service was a stocky man in canvas pants with big pockets full of tools, laying aside a wooden object whose outline was at first elusive, then suddenly familiar: a dulcimer.
In the same moment something moved, emerging from shadow beside the workbench. A dog. A vast, slow-moving graceful dog whose ancestry might have included Great Dane, Irish wolfhound, possibly husky or Chinook… plus something else, something strange, for its skull was improbably high-domed and its eyes, deep-set, looked disturbingly uncanine.
Kate’s fingers clamped vise-tight on his arm. He heard her gasp.
“No need to be alarmed,” the man rumbled in a voice half an octave nearer the bass than might have been guessed from his size. “Never met a dog like this before? You’re in for an educational experience. His name is Natty Bumppo. Hold still a moment while he reads you. Sorry, but this is S.O.P. for any visitor. Nat, how do they rate? Any hard drugs—excessive liquor—anything apart from being a bit scared?” The dog curled his wrinkled upper lip and inhaled a long slow breath, then gave a brisk headshake and a faint growl. Elegantly he lowered his massive hindquarters to the floor, keeping his eyes on the newcomers.
Kate’s fingers relaxed, but she was trembling.
“He says you’re clear,” Horovitz announced. “I understand this poker pretty well, you know. Not as well as he understands us humans, maybe, but there it is. Right, sit down!” With a wave toward a nearby lounge; he himself dropped into an armchair facing it and produced an ancient charred pipe from one of his immense pockets. “What can I do for you?”
They looked at one another. With sudden decision Kate said, “We found our way here more or less by accident. We were in Lap-of-the-Gods and before that I’d been to Protempore. They can’t stand comparison with Precipice. We’d like to visit with you for a while.”
“Mm-hm. Okay… probably.” Horovitz gestured to the dog. “Nat, go tell the councilmen we got applicants, please.” Natty Bumppo rose, snuffed one last time at the strangers, and padded out. The door had a handle which he could open himself; punctiliously, he also closed it.
Following the animal with his eyes, Sandy said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you our names.”
“Kate and Sandy,” Horovitz murmured. “I knew to expect you. Polly Ryan said she met you on the rail-car.”
“You heard of phones, I guess. We have ‘em. Appearances to the contrary. Maybe you were reading up on us in that bad guidebook.” It was protruding from Kate’s side pocket; he leveled an accusing finger at it. “What we don’t have is veephone service. The feds have been on at us for years to link into the data-net on the same token basis as the other paid-avoidance communities, but to satisfy their computers you have to have veephone-sized bandpass capacity. They give all kinds of nice persuasive reasons—they keep reminding us of how Transcience was almost taken over by a criminal syndicate, and how nearly everybody in Ararat was fooled by a phony preacher wanted in seven different states for fraud and confidence-trickery… but we prefer to stay out and solve our own problems. They can’t oblige us to tie in so long as our taxes amount to more than our PA grants. So, on principle, no veephones. Don’t let that mislead you, though, into imagining we’re backward. We’re just about the size of a late medieval market town, and we offer almost precisely one hundred times as many facilities.”
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