"Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived at Gypsum." The pilot's voice drifted over the cabin of the transit container. One of the passengers stood, took a small suitcase out of an overhead storage tray, and walked to the front. He stopped at the exit door and waited for the pilot to tap a keypad on his control panel. The captain tapped the keypad and said flatly, "Enjoy your stay."
"Enjoy?" the man wanted to reply. "I'm not here for pleasure. If this Stanford isn't a good place to live for me, I'm going to have to give up what I like and do what I hate. I'll have to hire myself out to a megacorp, or start making commercials. This is my career on the line, here!"
But he didn't say all that. Instead he exited the container and walked off the hyperspace platform. He stopped at a vid-stand a few meters away. As the man touched the map button on the vid-stand's screen, the container disappeared in a blue-green haze.
A message flashed on the screen, echoed by a smooth artificial voice. "Please choose a planetary map, a Springfield city map, or a special map."
It was always tempting to tap "special map." The man didn't have time for such an indulgence. He called up a planetary map. The voice returned the instant the map was displayed. "If you'd like to download a copy of this map, please connect your perscomp now. If you'd like information about Springfield and its accommodations, please press 'Info.' If you'd like information about the many shops and services available, press 'Shop.'"
How do I get you stop asking me if I want more data? the man wondered.
He opted for downloading the map. When he was done, a button labeled "Audio Requests" appeared on the screen. The man tapped it, and asked for the nearest car rental agency. Naturally enough, the nearest was only three blocks away.
The city was similar to every planetary capitol he'd visited over the past few months. In downtown he found the usual fast-food outlets, chain restaurants, specialty stores, and an Omni-Mart. The city's architecture was routine early-Twenty-First Neo-Futuristic. The rental agency was another franchise, offering large, medium, and small e-cars in tasteful colors. He chose the smallest size and hit the highway.
Better get used to that sameness, a voice in the man's head warned him. Your career is about to be a litany of sameness. You'll have to sell out.
The man, Doug Nyren, tried his best to ignore the discouraging voice. It was late in the morning when he'd arrived on Gypsum. His destination was a tiny village three hours away. He would have a long ride, but he felt comforted by the fact that he wouldn't have to resort to manual operation at night. He stretched out in the driver's seat and watched the scenery pass by. There wasn't all that much to see for the first two hours. Open farm fields slowly changed to rolling range land. Trees were plentiful at first, then sparse.
Doug let his mind wander. He thought back over the towns he'd already been to. Would Stanford be like the artists' colony he was trying to escape? Would it be filled with people wanting him to be famous, or wanting to be famous themselves? Would it be so obscure he'd have to struggle to maintain what he'd built? Or would Stanford be the place for him to preserve the video career he'd chosen?
I'll find out soon enough, I guess.
The thought wasn't much reassurance, but he was running out of such sentiments. The world that he'd been working on had become overrun with an odd mix of fame-seekers and nose-in-the-air "artistes." They were driving him away with their desires and opinions. He wanted a place to create his net-movies without having to sell-out or sink to snob-appeal.
But so far his search had turned up nothing ideal. Each place on each world had some flaw that kept him from choosing it as his creativity's new home. There was too much commercialism, or too many highbrow types, or not enough other creative people to understand him and what he did. The world was flooded with tourists, or so isolated as to be nowhere. He now wondered if he'd actually have to give up the career path he'd chosen, and compromise his art to fit where ever he ended up.
It was not a comforting thought.
A couple of hours into his trip to the village of Stanford the scenery changed dramatically. Where there had been rolling prairie, now there were tree-covered hills rising sharply around the highway. Winding creeks passed under the road, some with clear currents and white foam. Partial fall foliage created wild patches of brown, orange, and gold among large swatches of green.
The highway ran just north of the town. He took control and turned his vehicle onto the rough street into Stanford. The street crossed only three others before it entered downtown, passing by several modest homes. The "downtown" consisted of two stone and three other business buildings; all appeared occupied. The three other buildings housed a gallery, a gift shop, and the city office. One of the stone buildings was a one-story affair; an elaborate sign across the top read "Stanford General Store."
The other stone building was the largest in town, two stories tall. A metal canopy covered the entrance. It was newer than the wrought-iron posts that held it up, but the posts were in better shape. Above the second-story windows "Stanford" and "2183" had been carved onto the face. A more recent sign hung from two of the posts proclaiming it as "The Stanford Hotel & Restaurant." The driver pulled up to it and turned the vehicle off.
He took a moment look around. The town was quiet. The buildings were in good shape, neither decaying nor appearing too alive. The signs over the businesses had personality, but didn't reek of it. The town made a pleasant low-key impression. So did the last two, the man thought. They weren't as pleasant under the surface.
The man walked to the restaurant. It was vacant, but traffic had clearly just slacked off minutes before. An average-looking man who seemed to be in his mid-thirties was clearing plates off tables. A woman about the same age was behind the counter washing. The man noticed the driver walk in, and invited him to take a seat.
"Am I too late for lunch?"
"No, not at all. Let me get you a menu." He snatched a blue piece of folded paper from a holder. "Hope you don't mind this," he said. "We don't have the power, or the time, for compu-menus. I'm Stan Davis. The cook and boss is my wife Mary."
"Call me Doug."
"Okay, Doug. What can I get you?"
Doug looked over the menu. The lunch section offered a fairly normal array of sandwiches and salads. "I'll try the club sandwich, with potato fries, and water to drink."
"Great." Stan jogged to the kitchen.
Doug looked around the room. The tables and chairs weren't in too bad a shape but worn. Stretched across almost the whole right side of the room was a long counter, in front of which were twelve silvery barstools. Behind the counter were two long mirrors separated by a stack of short shelves. A soda fountain rested on the counter between the groups of stools. An ancient cash register, but probably not an antique, sat on the far end of the counter.
Nothing too strange, Doug mused, but it seems to have character. But could I get used to this place? Could they get used to me?
Near the back of the dining room a staircase shot up to the second story. The elaborate railing on both sides of the stairway appeared to be iron. There was a door under the stairway; a hand-lettered sign on the door read, "Kitchen." Stan came through those doors every now and again, clearing plates and reassuring Doug. The fifth time, Stan carried a full plate.
The meal, while not the greatest he ever had, tasted quite good. The sandwich was piled high with meats, cheeses, lettuce, and tomatoes. The fries were the fat restaurant kind, not the old, fast-food style. The water was clean, cold, and always available. There was even a bit of garnish on the plate.
Doug noticed Stan and Mary take up expectant positions behind the counter. As he stood up, Stan asked, "How was it?"
"Fine." Doug walked to the counter. "I liked the fries. Your recipe?"
Mary shook her head, smiling. "Sorry, no. Pretty standard, actually, although my seasoning mix did come from my old boss."
"Then, you aren't from here?"
"Oh, heck no," Stan said. "Marion City, back on Clark."
Doug handed over his deb-card. "What's a couple like you doing here?"
"I wanted my own place," Mary answered. "I wanted to stretch my talents, but not have to keep up with the trends. I can play around with the basics, and still try Deneb flying eels."
"The locals are our staple," Stan added. "Most of our non-locals don't mind the basics. Those that do, we give 'em a menu and ask 'em to come back on specials night."
"And do they?" Doug asked. "Come back?"
"No flaming emails."
"We're never so busy that we're scrambling," Mary said, "and we're not so dead that we have serve burgers twenty-four-seven." She returned Doug's card, then asked, "What brings you here?"
Doug considered an honest answer, but thought better of it. His jury was still out on Stanford. "I'm on planet for business," he said. "Saw your town's site, thought it was interesting, so I decided to spend some time looking around."
"Well, you picked a good day. Wednesdays are pretty quiet, even during the summer. Weekends, though,..."
"Well, not crowds, really."
"Even controversy at city hall doesn't bring out a crowd," Stan said.
"Yeah," Mary said, "I'd say that everyone is... occupied on the weekends. Nate and Jeni have a steady stream of people coming through. Barry takes plenty through his nature preserve. And us and the store have at least a few customers every hour. Not crowded, but too busy to chat, y'know?"
"Sure," Doug said. "Well, I'd better get moving. I don't have that much time to look around."
"Then go to Barry's first. Nate and Jeni might not be in right now, but he will."
"Okay. Thanks." Doug waved, then left.
Nice couple, he thought. They seem like they might be good neighbors. Interested enough in you, but not nosy. True, there are lots of people like that around. That doesn't make this town ideal for me. Well, I might as well move on to this "nature preserve" and see what more I can learn about Stanford.
The "Stanford Nature Preserve" was a block from the hotel, so Doug walked. He headed for a very small white home. As he approached he passed by a vacant lot planted with flowers. He couldn't identify the types of flowers, but he could appreciate the sight. The owner had planted according to color, with small blocks of specific plants creating larger blocks of yellow, red, blue, violet, and so forth. Between the larger blocks were dirt paths framed by old boards. Even though the bloom was off some plants, the arrangement was still attractive.
Doug walked up the porch steps. He heard a muffled bell go off. A tall man opened the door a moment later. His dark hair was streaked with flecks of gray. Doug noticed a light in his blue eyes. The corners of his mouth seemed to say, "I smile alot."
"Uh, yeah, the Davis' said I ought to come here, before I go over the gallery and the gift shop," Doug said.
"Oh, you'd like to look around?"
"If you have time."
"Sure." The man stepped outside. He offered Doug his hand. "I'm Barry, Barry Sandmore. I'm kinda the tourist guru around here."
"My name's Doug."
"Pleased to meet you. Follow me." He led Doug through his yard to the flower garden. "You just passing through?"
"Great. Are you into gardening?"
"Okay. Usually when people stop by during the week, it's because they want to ask gardening questions. See, not all the species here are rated for this climate. I've put in a mix of early and late bloomers. I've arranged some by size, number of petals, that sort of thing."
Doug stared at the flowers. He slowly caught on to what Sandmore was talking about. Some of the varieties ranged small back to large. The plants with fatter petals were behind thinner. There were also patches of anomalies designed to cover dead spots. "Must require lots of work," he said after some minutes of looking.
"You must get lots of visitors."
"Oh, heavens no. Most people who stop look for a while, then move on. Those who stop longer are gardeners looking for tips."
Sandmore shook his head. "Gardening's a pretty labor-intense hobby. Not as many people are into it as there used to be."
Doug glanced at the man. "This isn't your job?"
"Oh, no. I suppose I could make money off it, but it's too much fun right now."
"So, what do you do?"
Sandmore smiled warmly. "Remember the 'Starship Squirrel Show,' a few decades ago?"
Doug paused to think. "I think so. Kids' show, puppets, during that mid-Twentieth retro fad?" He pointed at Sandmore. "You were on that show?"
Sandmore nodded. "I was one of the three puppeteers. I also did some vid work, before and after. Nothing major, but I made enough to save. That's what I live on. I also spent time on some of the amusement worlds."
"Oooh. You have my sympathy."
"You worked on them, too?"
"No, but I have friends who did. How'd you end up here?"
"Well, my folks came from Springfield. I returned about fifteen years ago. I needed a cheap place to live." He nodded at his house. "I got that for nine grand."
"Course, houses aren't that cheap around here anymore, but you can still find a place for fifteen or twenty." Sandmore leaned closer. "If you can find a vacant home."
Doug frowned. "Not a lot of new development around here?"
"No, thank goodness. Oh, since the tourists started coming ten years ago, we've had the planners blow through. Nobody's interested. It's those guys who almost killed the town."
"The colony planners thought that people wouldn't mind living out here, since it was a three-hour commute to Springfield. At first nobody did mind. But over a few decades some folks started to mind. They moved away, and we were almost depopulated. See, when Stanford was founded, it was on both sides of the highway."
Doug had to think back to when he arrived. He hadn't seen anything to indicate that people lived across from the present town. I guess nature's reclaimed that land, he thought. Must have reclaimed it quite a while back.
"Well, anyway," Sandmore said, "I came, we got our pride back, and the rest you know. Some developers still zip in, with their three-D full-color CAD designs, but we tell them to get back on the platform. We like the quiet, the small size. It suits us."
He turned to Doug. "Would you like to go on the forest walk? It's safe. I've put up animal deflectors. The worst that'll happen is you get bit by a mosquito."
Doug shook his head. "Actually, I don't have time today."
"Okay. Come back sometime."
Doug shook hands with the man, then said goodbye. As he walked from Sandmore's to the gallery, his spirit lifted. They don't seem to want lots of people coming through, he thought, but they don't want to hide in obscurity either. Maybe I could fit in here. I don't mind a little publicity now and again, but I don't want to be so high-profile that I have to deal with big budgets and bigger egos.
Still, I'm going to have to talk to an artist. I need to know what it's like to be here and create. One last make-or-break stop, for me and for Stanford.
The gallery's formal name was the Enabled Gallery, a rather obvious play on the artist-proprietor Nate Able. The artist was a husky man with a strong voice. He welcomed Doug inside, then apologized for only have a couple dozen paintings out. "I had to send some of my stuff to New Manhattan for a show," he explained.
The subjects of all the works were railroads. Not the modern, mass-transit kind on the major worlds, but the trains that crossed North America during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. There were paintings of freight trains, passenger trains, steam locomotives, and diesels. They were all detailed, vivid, and appeared realistic.
Doug noticed an unframed work to one side. It was a view of Deneb, with the twin suns rising over a green ocean, scarlet birds diving on blue-white fish. "When did you do that?"
"Oh, a month ago," Able said. "Jeni and I took a trip to Deneb this spring. I took some cool shots, but that's the first picture I've done from them."
"It's good. Are you going to do any more?"
"I doubt it. Alien worlds, sci-fi stuff, it's a dime a dozen these days. Doesn't matter how much you break your ass on 'em, they still sell for almost nothing. But trains? Hell, I get one done, I can sell it in two days, and make enough to live the whole month on."
"There's that much demand?"
Able let out a big laugh. "Hell, there's maybe five or six of us chasing a few ten thousand railroad fans. But ancient photos are almost impossible to come by without ordering them from museums, and they don't let just anyone get a copy. Paintings are the next best thing. And if you can't afford the painting, I'll sell ya a print."
"How'd you get into this?"
"My grandad and his ancestors worked for railroads, either the real thing or the tourist trains. My dad worked for transit systems on New Manhattan, Arcadia, a couple others." Able smiled. "His girls inherited the mechanical talent, and his boy got the artistic skills.
"I tried sticking close to the family. Even if I wasn't an employee, Dad still supported me. But I was too close to the platform. Too many visitors to get what I wanted done. I may not be near trains anymore, but I can get my work done in peace. And living here is cheap enough to let me enjoy what I earn from the art."
Doug nodded. "I hear that." Boy, do I hear that. This place isn't too far off the main routes. Unlike that Elk Hollow village; so far out that it cost a fortune to transit in groceries. No wonder they all grew their own food. I want quiet, but I couldn't deal with complete isolation.
Doug glanced around the room again. He noticed a small object on a short shelf. He stared: a brass thumbtack was stuck into a block of wood, and covered by a long, thin piece held up by two supports. "What is that?"
"A tax shelter," Able said.
"Cute. Where'd you get it?"
"Jenilyn. She runs the little gift shop next door."
"She do okay?"
"Yeah, pretty much. She is happy that her regular customers are smart enough to get her jokes."
Great, Doug thought. The people who live here and visit here appreciate creativity. Traffic is light but it exists. The people seem happy to be low-key but not nowhere. I think I've found a place to keep my career as I want it to be.
Doug spent a few more minutes in Abel's gallery. As he left he asked who he would need to speak to about buying property in town. Abel pointed at the general store, and told him to ask for Ed Payne. Doug walked to the store, found Payne, then asked if he could speak to him in private.
Payne, a round man with a toothy smile, led Doug to the back of his store. He motioned for Doug to sit down in front of the desk tucked away in a rear corner, behind the fruits and vegetables. "So, Mr. Nyren, what can I do for you?"
"Call me Doug."
"Okay. Call me Ed. Or Mr. Mayor, if you feel like flattering me."
"Sure. Well, Ed, I don't know if you've heard of me. I make net movies."
"No, I haven't. And I try to catch all the latest..."
"Oh, I don't make big hits. I like small stories, without effects or name faces. I don't have to make many compromises, and my life isn't completely ruined by publicity. Anyway, I'm looking for a new place to live and make my vids. I have to leave the artists' colony I'm in now. It's about to be bought out by this talent agency."
"And you want to move here?"
"Yeah. You've got a nice little town. People appreciate creativity around here. I've had to do a lot of traveling to find that."
Payne shook his head. "I don't know if we could handle having a vid-maker..."
Doug leaned forward. "I want a home that's off the main platform lines. Where people like their neighbors to have ideas, to make things, to be artists and dreamers. But I also want a home where nobody wants me to be some big vid-net auteur. Where no one wants me to have a big coat, much less coattails to ride on."
"Still, it would be quite a bit for us to absorb."
"I get the impression that your people want to be themselves. They don't wants lots of tourists. Neither do I. They don't want to be famous. I've never courted fame. I want to make my flicks my way, in peace but not in total obscurity."
"You promise not to do anything that might hurt what we've got here?"
"Not at all. I like what you have here. It fits with my view of my career. I've never wanted to sell out. But if I can't find a new place to live, I may have to sell out. For me, it's Stanford or some huge multi-world studio."
"It's that important to you?"
"And those are your choices?"
"Unfortunately. I've found nice places that are so far off the lines that I might as well not try to distribute my work. I've found places desperate for the next big thing. And I've found nice places to life that view creativity as some sort of threat to public order. Those aren't the places for me, Ed."
"And there's not other place in the whole universe like us?"
Doug smiled. "I've spent the last three months looking. So far, this is it." He leaned back, and opened his arms. "If you want my friends to vouch for me, I'm sure they will."
The young woman Payne had left to watch the counter stuck her head through the doorway. "Rosie wants to place an order, Mister Payne."
"Oh, right. Hold on." He turned to Doug. "I'll be right back. Okay?"
While the man was gone the dissenting voice crept back into Doug's mind. Are you sure this is the place, it asked him, and are your sure these are the right neighbors?
Doug had to admit that he wasn't sure. He'd only been there a few hours. What if he was wrong? What if they didn't want him there? Had he spent enough time looking around? There were other places on his list. Maybe he should visit a few more before making up his mind.
Which might not accomplish anything, he told himself. It might be a waste of time. I'll visit, and find out this is the place I want to settle down in. Besides, there's something about this little town, the people I've met, and what I've seen. It feels right. It feels comfortable.
It feels like it will fit me.
He heard Payne returning. Now to see if I will fit this place.
"Sorry about that," the other man said as he sat down again. "She's new, and hasn't yet got the hang of our old order program. Now, where were we?"
"I was offering to let you contact my friends, to vouch for me."
Payne smiled and raised a hand. "Oh, I don't think that'll be necessary."
"Thanks." Thank you more than you know, Doug thought.
Payne tapped a few keypads on a desk computer. "Let's see what we have available. You like fixers, Doug?"