by Fred Warren
John leaned over the edge of a little bridge to admire the crystal-clear water tumbling across smooth, round rocks and into a shallow pool, where orange fish with long, translucent fins circled lazily beneath the shade of broad lily pads.
Clean, clear, living water. He could even feel the moisture it lent to the surrounding air. When he’d seen inland water on dusty, gritty Eclectia during his infrequent visits, it didn’t flow like this. Mostly, it oozed. What lurked beneath the surface was best forgotten.
“Hmm. Missed a spot.” Jiro laid his hand on the bridge’s black-enameled rail, and its immaculate shine faded. A network of hairline scratches and tiny chips spread across its surface, exposing flashes of the pale wood beneath.
John pulled away, and the rail creaked at the release of his weight. “Why did you do that?”
“A private obsession. Natural weathering is difficult to simulate, but the garden seems cozier to me if things aren’t in pristine condition.”
“Wear and tear is a virtue in Paradise,” John murmured as he ran a finger over the bumps and gouges. “Interesting.”
“The ability to exercise complete control over one’s surroundings leads us to value odd things sometimes.” Jiro crossed the bridge and stepped off the path to inspect a patch of tiny yellow flowers. “You’ve been very quiet, Mr. Milton. It surprises me you haven’t asked more questions.”
“Isn’t this garden designed to promote silent contemplation?”
“Ah. Yes, it is. Perhaps I made it too well. It’s also meant to inspire satori, the seeing into one’s true nature.”
“Isn’t that a Buddhist concept? Not something I’d expect to hear from a Catholic priest, Father Sukahara.”
He shrugged. “Consider it another of my many contradictions.”
John spread his arms wide. “It’s just…I’m overwhelmed by this place. It’s as if I’ve stepped back in time, into one of the legends of Old Earth.”
“Thank you.” Jiro stood up and nodded, apparently satisfied with the condition of the flowers, and they continued their walk along the winding garden path. “I’m pleased you find it authentic. In time, you may discover you’ve grown more difficult to impress.”
“I’m mostly curious about the rules that govern this world.” John surveyed the sky, half-expecting to discover Anya and Vicky peeking out from behind a cloud.
Jiro followed his gaze upward, “I am at your disposal, and our conversation will remain private.”
“I haven’t yet noticed any perceptible difference between my virtual body and the real thing. Can I change my appearance?”
“You appear to others as you wish to appear. Others appear to you as they wish to appear.”
“So you might actually be a wrinkled old crone, and I’d never know the difference?”
Jiro smiled. “Yes, but we’ve found it’s best to stick with a true representation of ourselves. Emotional disturbances arise if we tinker unnecessarily with our avatars. Most of us indulge in a few minor cosmetic enhancements…a nip here, a tuck there, an inch or two added to the stature, a splash of hair coloring. Vanity is one deadly sin I doubt we’ll ever master.”
“What about the environment?”
“That is negotiable. Etiquette dictates the person who creates the space controls it, and guests may interact with the environment but may not change its properties. For example, I have invited you into my personal space, so you are free to move about it. You can pick up an orange from the bowl on the table beside my front door, toss it into the air, peel it, even eat it, but you may not turn it into an apple. I could grant you that privilege, but it’s typically reserved for joint projects. We might, say, be hosting a party next week and need to work together to create a unique venue for our guests.”
“How much am I allowed to interact with the outside world?”
“Not at all, for a while, and then only so far as your duties require. We must keep our activities clandestine to avoid complications that could threaten our security and cause disruption to the colony. Mostly, we watch. We try to let the colony develop in its own way. When we intervene, it is with small corrections and a gentle hand.”
“Moving the colony to another star system doesn’t seem very gentle.”
“Not all of us are in agreement regarding that course of action.” Jiro brushed cherry blossoms from the sleeve of his kimono with a sidewise glance at John. “You don’t approve? I was under the impression you favored relocating Avenir.”
Within the cherry tree’s pink cloud, the nightingale resumed its trilling.
“I was, but the more I think about it, the less certain I am.” They were beside the rock garden now, and John was silent for a few moments, tracing the spiral grooves in the sand with his eyes, failing to find either an origin or an endpoint. “Maybe there’s another way.”