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  • Designing Paradise

    by Mike Combs

    [email protected]
    Copyright © 1997

            The Christians had it all wrong when they said Hell was a lake of burning fire. Hell, Wendell Drake had decided long ago, was being stuck in a Chicago traffic jam in the middle of December.

            Wendell held one hand up to block the orange rays of the setting sun, and looked with dismay at the vast river of snow-covered cars before him. Snow, lifted from the hood of his car, darted across his windshield at a sharp angle, indicating the ferocity of the wind outside. He felt an occasional shudder as the winds rocked his car.

            It was the only movement he had felt in some while. At quitting time there was always a traffic jam even under the best of conditions. When the roads grew icy and slick, and drivers continued to maneuver like jack-asses, there were the inevitable pile-ups. You could be home an hour or more late when that happened.

            Now it seemed like there was some movement up ahead. Wendell turned up the window defogger in anticipation of actually driving again. The low sun lit every fog-spot on his windshield with a bright orange glow. Wendell was one of those unfortunate souls who lived West of his place of employment. This ensured two daily commutes spent staring straight into a sun right at the horizon.

            Wendell was unlucky in several respects. Afflicted with both a receding hairline and the persistent paunch of a desk-bound worker, he was already well into his mid-life crisis at forty seven. He was a Computer Aided Design (CAD for short) architectural engineer, but designing yet more shopping malls for MallWorks had ceased to be fulfilling many years ago. His career seemed to be heading nowhere, mostly because he just couldn't work up any enthusiasm for the gaudy palaces of consumerism his supervisors required of him.

            But Wendell didn't get his kicks from his job. In his spare time, he was designing Paradise.

            Now coming up the street where he lived, Wendell was once again driving into the sun. He made the mistake of trying to flip his visor back down again while simultaneously turning into his driveway. Distracted, he had taken the turn too fast for the icy conditions. Now he slid toward a neighbor's car parked in the street much too close to his driveway. He could only see the car now that it had eclipsed the setting sun, and it was far too late to avoid hitting it. Wendell bounced off the steering wheel, wincing.

            He got out, sadly looked the damage, and did the right thing by leaving a note with the parked car. Wendell then pulled into the driveway, and reluctantly proceeded into the house.

            His wife, Lonnie, was watching some talk show. Lonnie was a tad overweight, with hair no particular shade of brown.

            "I dinged the neighbor's car on my way into the driveway."

            "Oh, Christ," said Lonnie. "That's the third accident with that car this year. If you don't quit having accidents like this, we won't be able to have collision insurance of any kind."

            Wendell briefly considered pointing out that the previous two collisions had been with her behind the wheel, but then thought better of it. In addition to being broader than Wendell, Lonnie was a bit taller too. She could be most intimidating when she stood glaring at him, her fists perched on her wide hips, her lengthy nose pointed squarely between his eyes.

    * * *

            That night, Wendell rushed through dinner, and retreated to his sanctuary, the den with his computer. Well, it wasn't his computer, exactly. MallWorks held the lease. But it was still his baby. He booted the system, loaded the RealCAD program, and pulled up his Paradise One drawing.

            Lonnie poked her head in the door. "What the hell is it you're so anxious to do in here almost every night?"

            "Come on in, Honey, and I'll show you," said Wendell, pleased she had shown an interest.

            "I'm designing a new model of space habitat. It's actually a hybrid design. It's mostly based on an MIT study, although I'm trying to combine the best features of several different space habitat models."

            "Space habitat?" Lonnie said skeptically. "You mean for actually living in outer space?"


            "I thought you futurists said we were going to go live on Mars or somethin'."

            Wendell's lips tightened a bit. "Well, there turn out to be quite a few advantages to living in orbit over living on a planet," he said pleasantly. "Like 24-hour-a-day availability of solar energy, and freedom of movement. Living standard has always been related to energy usage. Since people in high orbit will have a cheap and inexhaustible energy supply... the sun... the living standard is expected to be correspondingly high."

            On the computer monitor was an engineering drawing labeled "Space Habitat - Paradise One Model". The habitat was composed of two cylinders connected together side-by-side. One was shown in cut-away cross-section. The cylinders were shaped like short, stubby cold capsules. On one end of each cylinder was a shape resembling the flash reflector on an old-fashioned camera.

            "The habitat is two counter-rotating four-mile-diameter cylinders, a la Gerry O'Neill's Island Three design. But unlike an O'Neill cylinder, this design has stationary, parabolic mirrors. I honestly don't think a mirror which rotates with the habitat could be made to work properly. To that I add external rings for agriculture like what's on a Bernal Sphere. I really think this design combines all the best features of several different models."

            Lonnie was regarding him blankly. "I don't have the slightest idea what the hell you're talking about." She looked back at the monitor. "Why did you draw this little city here at the top upside down?"

            "Oh, each cylinder is rotating so that centrifugal force can substitute for gravity," Wendell explained. "'Up' or 'Down' depends on where you're at inside."

            Lonnie's eyes were nearly crossing. "MallWorks actually pays you money to come up with shit like this?"

            "Well, no, actually. I'm just doing this in my spare time."

            "What?" she shrieked. "All this time I thought you were bringing work home with you! I thought you were doing something to further your career! I should've known better! You don't ever want to do anything that might help you get ahead in this life!"

            Lonnie left the room, continuing the invective without pause as she waddled off through the house. Wendell sat, staring at his design impassively. A minute or two later, he began to fiddle with the heat radiators a bit.

    * * *

            The next day was Saturday, and it found Wendell seated before the computer, still working on his design.

            Wendell heard Kay walking up the hallway. His daughter was five years out of college, and was still living at home. She didn't seem to be any good for very much in this life, mostly because nothing in this life was of much consequence for her. While in college, Kay had joined up with some goofy new kind of religion. The couple of times she had tried to explain it to him, it had struck Wendell as basically a re-tread of Hinduism, although UFOs seemed to figure in it somehow.

            "Hey, Puddin'! Come into the den, and see what Dad's working on."

            Kay entered the den. Today she wore mauve with a pink scarf. Her blonde hair was down, hanging past her waist. Her face showed the calm serenity of someone forever freed of the burden of having to think for oneself.

            "What is it, dad?"

            "It's my new design for a space habitat. I call it Paradise One."

            Kay looked at the screen with a modicum of interest. "I thought you space-enthusiasts always dreamt of living on Mars."

            Wendell's lips briefly tightened a bit more. "Locating in space itself might be better in terms of the living conditions. For example, whenever we settle a planet, we'll have to deal with the weather that's there. In an artificial habitat, on the other hand, the weather could be perfect if you wanted it to, because you make it yourself. Wouldn't it be nice if you didn't have to put up with the kind of winters we have here in Chicago?"

            Kay shrugged noncommittally.

            "Each cylinder points continuously at the sun. The sunlight is gathered by this external parabolic reflector, and focused at this secondary reflector, which in turn projects the light in a parallel beam through this window, and down the spin axis of the cylinder. At the center, this smaller parabolic mirror bounces the light throughout the interior.

            "Since weather is related to the amount of sunlight you get, and since here we would control the sunlight, we control the weather."

            "But what makes you believe that the people you're going to put into space are going to be happy?" Kay asked him.

            Wendell paused a second. "I'd be happy if I didn't have to scrape the ice off my car every morning," he said to no one in particular.

            "You're trying to address the physical needs of people. But people's problems stem from spiritual neglect, not from the physical environment," she explained.

            He could see where this was headed. "Make no mistake, Puddin', I'm not saying I know how to solve people's personal problems. And people living in space are going to have personal problems. But if this represents the next step upwards in the standard of living, isn't that a goal worth pursuing all by itself?"

            "Father," Kay said, shaking her head sadly. "Whether you realize it or not, you're still laboring under the outdated notions of your Judaeo-Christian indoctrination. You've given up hope of actually going to a real heaven, so you're trying to build one in outer space instead. Look at the name you've given this: 'Paradise One'. It's so obvious."

            Kay then launched into a lengthy sermon on finding the strengths within our own spirituality to sustain us, which Wendell only half-listened to. Apparently she thought he was wasting his time, as the Space Brothers had already designed the perfect way for us to live, if only we will accept it when they come. When she ran out of doctrine, Kay smiled at her father warmly, and left.

            Wendell sat, looking at his design dejectedly. Then he tweaked the mirrors a bit.

    * * *

            The following Sunday, Wendell was nearing completion of his design. Only there was something wrong.

            Half-way through the design process, Wendell had increased the number of agricultural tori from eight to twelve. It had always been his intention for each agriculture torus to have a growing season which was staggered relative to its neighbors, ensuring fresh fruits and vegetables year-round for the colony inhabitants. He had whimsically decided to have exactly twelve rings, with the seasonal progression running January, February, March, etc.

            The problem was the habitat was a bit longer now. When he started out, it had been neatly centered on the sheet. Now it was off-center, offending his sense of symmetry. Wendell used the mouse to draw a selection box around the entire design. Each "entity" of the drawing, which is to say every dot, line, and arc, was now tagged. He then attempted to drag the whole affair over so that the drawing was properly centered.

            He got an error message which read:

    Error #53
    Insufficient memory for this operation

            This made him scowl. He might have to update the file copy on his bigger machine at work in order to do this.

            Wendell banished the error message from his screen, then sat and stewed. So what if this machine couldn't hold two copies of all the coordinates in its puny 32 MEG pea-brain at once? Couldn't it just take the existing coordinates, and add a certain number to each one, one at a time? All he wanted to do was shift everything over by about an inch.

            'Help' was no help. He began searching though the menus for something that might enable him to do what he wanted. It was on a seldom-used menu near the right of the screen that he noticed a command called 'Dimensional shift'.

            Well, wasn't that what he wanted to do? Shift every dimension in the drawing over by a certain amount? He clicked on it hopefully.

            What was happening now was weird. Expecting a dialog box, Wendell instead got strange color changes on the background of the screen. But wait, the foreground colors were transforming as well. The effect was building, and growing, and beginning to resemble a cross between a very clever screen saver and a very bad acid trip.

            This simply couldn't be. Now it seemed the psychedelic colors were extending beyond the edges of the screen, escaping the confines of the monitor. Strange lobes were pushing outward, throbbing and spinning, green on their trailing edges, and purple on their leading. It was something like a time-lapse movie of a blooming flower, only with the color scheme gone riot. The strange, motley maelstrom spread out around Wendell, engulfing him. He felt a peculiar sensation of being gently pulled forward.

            Wendell Drake was standing in the forest.

            How he had gotten there, he could not say. Had he suffered some kind of memory loss? Was he dreaming?

            Everything seemed clear and real enough. A thick canopy of tree branches full of green leaves covered up the sky. The sunlight came down only in small, scattered pools of dazzling illumination. Wendell could feel the damp humus, springy beneath his feet, and could smell the earthy scents of the life flourishing here. In fact, the profusion of green life all around was very pleasant and lovely. It was hard to be frightened in such a spiritually-uplifting place as this.

            If this wasn't some incredibly-vivid hallucination, and instead amnesia was the answer, he must have lost a great deal of time. It had been the dead of Winter, and even though he was shielded from the sun by the forest, Wendell was comfortably warm. And he was reasonably certain there weren't forests anything like this anywhere close to Chicago.

            He began walking. There was no point in being concerned about getting lost, since he had no idea where he was anyway. In time he came to a modest walking trail. Wendell followed it.

            Shortly, there were sounds of a conversation coming from up the path. There was a young couple heading his way. At last, maybe some answers.

            "Where am I?" Wendell asked the couple.

            The man looked him up and down, his expression making plain his estimate of Wendell's mental condition.

            "You're in the forest, you space-goof!"

            The couple kept on going, giggling to each other.

            "Well," Wendell thought to himself, "That was a hell of a lot of help." He knew he was in the forest. But which forest?

            He walked a bit further, and soon convinced himself there was more sunlight ahead. Wendell hoped he was nearing the edge of the woods. Soon he was breaking free into a large clearing.

            Beyond the clearing, there was more forest. The forest arced upward. Where there should have been a nice, sane horizon was only more forest, continuing to climb upwards. Wendell lifted his gaze. Now he was seeing the tops of the trees. The forest continued to curve upward...

            vertical... !

            overhead... !

            behind the sun... !

            and back down the other side behind him.

            He was in a giant cylinder. It was several miles across, judging from the blue, washed-out appearance of the more distant extents. There was basically a blue sky overhead, just that there were more lands on the other side of it.

            Wendell was in a space habitat.

            And it wasn't just any old space habitat. It was definitely his own Paradise One design. He stretched up one hand to cover the sun. With the glare now gone, he could see, faint with distance, the outlines of the bell-shaped parabolic mirror which evenly distributed the sunlight throughout the interior.

            At either end of the cylinder were the hemispheric end-caps. They were not as brilliantly-lit as the cylindrical portion of the giant structure, but still could be plainly seen. In the middle of one of the end-caps was an enormous, open rod-shape pointing directly at the central mirror, and of the same diameter as the mirror. Wendell did not have to see inside of it to know that the giant pipe surrounded a window through which sunlight entered the habitat. He had put that structure there out of concern birds might suddenly and unwittingly fly into a zone of highly-concentrated sunlight at the axis, much to their detriment. Or people too! Near the spin axis, people could fly just like birds.

            He had put that structure there. Wait a minute. This couldn't be reality.

            Wendell looked around some more. The interior of the habitat was not entirely given over to forests. There was one big city (nearly straight overheard and upside-down from here!), several smaller villages, rolling green fields, and one fairly-impressive lake. The water of the lake curved, hugging the inner surface of the cylinder.

            One thing was missing from the curving landscape all around: large factories with spewing smokestacks. Like any sensible space settlement designer, Wendell had put all heavy industries outside of the habitat proper. They all wanted access to 24-hour-a-day sunlight, zero gravity, and high vacuum anyway. The farms also resided outside of the main habitat, located in external tori. After all, there was more than one kind of air pollution.

            Wendell walked along the edge of the clearing in a daze (albeit a thoroughly-pleasant one). Eventually he came to an elderly gentleman sitting on a park bench, feeding some squirrels.

            "Excuse me, sir," Wendell began. "I'm a... new arrival in this... place. Is there anywhere I can go to find out more about it?"

            "Sounds like you want a public data terminal," the old man answered. "I think I saw one that way, next to the highway."

            Wendell set off in the direction indicated, looking for a highway. He soon found it. The "highway" was a four-lane bicycle path. Along came someone on a bike. Actually, it was more like a moped, only it gave off no rackety roar, only a soft, electric hum. After a few second, along came another rider.

            "These people have no cars," Wendell thought to himself. "They have no need for cars! These people have never been in a traffic jam in their lives!! These people have never even heard of such a thing as a 'traffic jam'!!!"

            He began to giggle. He chortled. He threw back his head, and joyously laughed out loud. A third cyclist passed him, giving him the same kind of look the guy back in the forest did before.

            Wendell rejoiced.

            Wendell jerked his head up with a start. He was sitting in the den, in front of the computer. Paradise One glowed at him in the synthetic light of stimulated phosphors.

            He must have worked to the point of exhaustion, and fallen asleep at the monitor. It had all been a dream.

            But God, what a pleasant experience it had been. Wendell thought about getting a book about lucid dreaming, wondering if he could make himself dream once again about being in his space habitat design.

            He saved his work, and turned off the system.

    * * *

            Monday morning Wendell prepared to return to work. He looked sadly out the window at his car sitting in the driveway. It had been freezing rain last night, and his car now had a slick, rippling coating of ice.

            He turned to Lonnie. "Since I have to leave earlier in the morning than you do, is there any way we could park your car in the street and my car in the garage? It's just that most of the ice will have melted off of your car by the time you're ready to leave."

            Lonnie continued watching the television, pretending not to hear. Wendell decided not to press the point.

            He headed out to the car. First, he couldn't get his key in the lock. Then, when he finally managed to do this, he couldn't get the door open. After many fitful tugs, it finally wrenched free.

            Wendell got out his ice-scraper, pried up the windshield wiper blades, and then began attacking the tough coating. The cold made his fingers so numb that he was clumsy and inefficient. But somehow, at the same time, the chill seemed to amplify the pain signals in his hands, so that every little bump and mishap was agony. After several minutes of intense effort, he had carved out a modest little hole. Wendell supposed he could hunch over and peer out through this. He proceeded to work.

    * * *

            Once at work, Wendell brought RealCAD up on his computer system. He was fairly sure the mysterious "Dimensional shift" command would be here, too. He had installed both setups from the same diskettes. Sure enough, there it was. The "Help" screen here seemed as ignorant of this command as the one at home. The RealCAD manual had not a single word on the topic.

            "Hey, Wendell, how's it hangin'?" came over the wall of his cubical. It was Jimmy Burroughs, his neighbor at work.

            "Hey, Jimmy," Wendell said. Wendell was almost tempted to tell him about the incredible dream he had Sunday, but then decided against it. Jimmy would probably only laugh at him.

            Wendell decided to call the RealCAD hot-line to ask about the "Dimensional shift" command.

            "I don't recall hearing of it," the man at the hot-line told him.

            "It's under the 'Properties' menu," said Wendell.

            "Ummm... I don't see it. What version of RealCAD are you running?"

            Wendell pulled up the Information screen. "v22a."

            "Hmmm... I think you must mean 2.2"

            "No, it definitely says '22'. No decimal."

            "What?!" the man exclaimed. "Are you sure it's RealCAD you're running there?"

            "Yes," Wendell insisted. "I use it every day at work. Why?"

            "Because the very latest version out is v3c!"

            For a reason Wendell was not entirely sure of, he hung up on the man. He sat and stared at the information screen. It had always said:

    Copyright © '96, '97

            Wendell had always assumed it meant 1996 and 1997. Now he wasn't so sure.

    * * *

            That evening, Wendell was once again sitting in front of his beloved drawing. He heard the front door bang, and knew Ruby was home from college.

            "Hey, dumplin'," Wendell called out. "Come into the den, and see what dad's working on."

            She entered the room warily. Ruby had close-cropped black hair. Today she was wearing a Greenpeace tee-shirt and faded jeans.

            "What's it supposed to be?" she asked, squinting at the screen.

            "It's my design for an orbital space habitat."

            "I thought all you tech-heads wanted to go live on Mars when you bail from the Earth."

            Wendell's lips grew tighter than rubber bands. "Studies have indicated that planets may not be the best location for extraterrestrial colonies.

            "Building additional living space in orbit," Wendell continued, "And using the resources of space combined with the limitless power of the sun will enable us to break free of the 'limits to growth' we face here on the surface of the Earth."

            Ruby clearly wasn't buying it.

            "The habitat is entirely solar-powered," he added, hoping this would appeal to her eco-consciousness.

            "You know," she began, "It's just like you technophiles to propose a technological solution to a problem brought about by your technology in the first place. We're not going to solve our problems with 'business as usual'. Your proposals to colonize space are nothing more than advocating we extend the same destructive practices we're presently using to destroy our Earth out into the rest of the universe."

            "But Ruby, wouldn't we be better off moving as many of our environmentally-destructive industries into space as we can? Wouldn't that be better for the Earth in the long run?"

            "Maybe nobody needs your environmentally-destructive industries in the first place," Ruby retorted.

            "Now dumplin', how can you say that? You can't have as high a standard of living as we currently enjoy without industries."

            "Oh yes, the 'standard of living'," she sneered. "The mantra of the industrial establishment. Next you'll be talking about the importance of a 'healthy economy'. Capitalist code-words for the rich getting richer while the poor suffer. What has your technology given us but nuclear bombs, deforestation, ozone-holes, oh yeah, and don't forget new strains of penicillin-resistant microorganisms?"

            Wendell wondered if she meant we would somehow be better off with no penicillin at all. But he knew that past this point nothing productive could come of this debate. He relented in silence.

            Ruby got up to leave. "Let's worry about fixing everything that's wrong here on Earth first. Maybe after we've put our own house in order, maybe then we'll be worthy of living in space."

            Wendell sat alone now, staring at the monitor. There wasn't anything else in his design that really needed adjusting. In fact, he had already sent the drawing off to the Space Studies Institute along with a paper for their next Space Development Conference in Princeton. The man he spoke to about it seemed to feel studies about large, Earth-like space habitats were a bit out-of-vogue nowadays (which greatly irked Wendell), but had promised it would be included in the next Conference Report.

            Wendell wanted to work on his design some more, but knew he shouldn't do any more fiddling with it until he was ready to commence on a Paradise Two model. He found himself beginning to wonder once again about that "Dimensional shift" command...

            Something seemed to be moving the pointer up to the menu where it resided. Wendell supposed his hand must be doing it. Now the pointer shyly danced around the mysterious menu-item.

            Wendell felt the pangs of someone considering a guilty pleasure. It was silly, really. Whatever this command was, it had nothing to do with that sweet, sweet dream he had.

            Then why was he clicking on the command?

            Once again, the monitor erupted with bizarre colors. The strange, blooming, multi-hued flower extended out at him, enveloping him.

            Wendell Drake was at the beach.

            But this was no typical day at the beach. The beach, and the waters that lapped upon it, curved upwards on both sides of Wendell. The body of water... he scarcely knew whether to call it a large lake or a small sea... extended over halfway around the circumference of the cylinder. Parts of it were nearly directly overhead.

            He was back in his paradise.

            Wendell settled back into the lawn chair he was apparently seated upon. There was an open pineapple with a straw in it on a nearby table. He picked it up and began sipping the juice.

            It was a glorious day. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. Wendell seemed to be dressed in a bathing suit, and the sunlight gathered from space by many square miles of mirrors bounced down on him, warming him to the core.

            He looked upward at the more-distant extents of this sea. He could see very tiny, white "v" shapes cutting through the blue of the water in various directions: the wakes of far-off boats. It was strange thinking about all those megatons of water perched over his head.

            He noticed the waves crashing in at the shoreline in front of him, and began wondering if there was some kind of wave-making machine out there. Then he realized this was a foolish thought. There was a perfectly-natural (and quite stiff) sea breeze coming in. It was certainly adequate for creating waves in the normal way. This was a place that had natural weather. Only it was a weather which man could guide around to his own preferences.

            Wendell began looking around nearby. The sand seemed strange, somehow. It took him a moment to realize it was the color. This sand here was grayer than on most beaches on Earth. Of course it was because this used to be lunar soil. In fact, most of what surrounded him right now was derived from lunar resources: the only economical source of raw materials for the construction of such a structure as this in a high Earth orbit.

            But wait, these people had to have access to a source of raw materials other than the moon. There were many thousands of tons of hydrogen in that impressive body of water, and the moon was very hydrogen-poor. This civilization must be capturing Earth-approaching asteroids into high orbit, and then mining them for their elements.

            He began looking around for other people. There were precious few. Looking up and down the arcing beach as far as he could see, he counted less than half a dozen people enjoying this lovely place.

            That was logical. This space-based society was capable of manufacturing additional living area, almost certainly at a rate which exceeded their population increases. The population density in any space habitat was doubtless far below the norm for Earth.

            This beach contrasted so dramatically with what Wendell was used to. He had just once made the ghastly mistake of taking the family to Houston one Fourth of July weekend back when the girls were little. It had been an unqualified disaster. The humidity was unbearable, the mercury was spurting out the top, and the beaches were one uninterrupted mass of seething humanity. Wendell was the type to worry about that bully from the comic-book ad showing up to kick sand in his face. On this beach, he doubted the bully could be within five miles of him!

            Wendell set the pineapple back down on the little table, laid his head back, and basked in the orange glow penetrating his closed eyelids. He meditated on the artificial nature of the "sun" overhead. It certainly felt as nice as the real thing. And in a sense it was. This was real sunlight, just bouncing off a complicated arrangement of mirrors. One thing kept it from being a perfect simulation: This sun neither rose nor set. Wendell had designed it to emulate the red and gold colors of a low-hanging sun at the appropriate points in the daily schedule, but this sun was always straight overhead more-or-less (depending on where in the cylinder you were at). These people were never blinded by a sun sitting at the horizon. Another blessing of this man-made place.

            "Would you like another, sir?"

            Wendell opened his eyes to see a waiter standing beside his chair. The waiter was picking up the pineapple.

            Did he want another pineapple? A devilish grin came to Wendell's features.

            "Only if they're still in season."

            "In season, sir?" the waiter asked, genuinely puzzled. Then he began to smile. "Ah, I see. You are making a joke. Very good sir!"

            This guy seemed intent on elevating the stereotype of the obsequious waiter to new heights. It made Wendell wonder if he was a human, or some kind of android.

            Wendell enjoyed a little laugh with the waiter.

            Wendell was back in the den.

            He looked about, confused, and a little concerned.

            "Either I'm seriously losing my grip," he thought to himself, "Or I'm actually going someplace when this happens."

    * * *

            The next day at work, Wendell decided to tell his friend Jimmy about these strange occurrences. Jimmy, to his credit, listened to the entire tale without smirking. But as Wendell was finishing up, describing how he had instantly flashed from the beach back to his den, Jimmy abruptly took up the narrative from there...

            "And then... when you looked down at your hands... they were... SUNBURNED!"

            Then he launched into the Twilight Zone theme: "Dee-dee-dee-dee dee-dee-dee-dee dee-dee-dee-dee!!"

            "You're no help," Wendell chided. "Besides, that's silly. You could never get sunburned in a space habitat. The windows the sunlight comes in through would block the ultra-violet light. Yet another advantage of life on the High Frontier."

            "OK, OK, I'm through," Jimmy promised. "All right, just for the sake of an entertaining conversation, let's assume you haven't just gone around the bend on this stuff. What are you proposing? That you're somehow traveling into the future?"

            "No, I don't think so," Wendell said thoughtfully. "I don't seem to be any older in this... other reality than what I am right now."

            "Oh, you thought I meant your... soul, or whatever... traveling into your future self. A future where you've retired to space. No, I really meant actual physical travel into the future."

            "That's a possibility, I suppose. Another is that I'm shifting over to some parallel dimension."

            "What do you mean?"

            "We've had the technology in hand to build space habitats ever since the 1970's," Wendell explained. "Let's say there's another parallel universe where history unfolded a bit differently. We landed on the moon in 1969, but Congress kept the money coming afterward. Maybe we made it all the way to Apollo 20. Maybe both the Shuttle and Space Station Alpha came on line together around 1980. We could've been back to the moon, back to stay this time, by... 1985, say. In such a universe as this, we could easily have been building orbital habitats by the late 90's.

            "Oh, but wait, there's a flaw in this," Wendell said suddenly. "In the forest, the trees were mature. The habitat I was in had to be three or four decades old. No, the more I think about it, the time I was seeing was well beyond my lifetime. So I suppose the only explanation left is bodily travel into the future. Even if I'm destined to live to be a hundred, it couldn't have been my future I was seeing, because I wasn't any older."

            "Well, maybe you were just very well-preserved," Jimmy supplied helpfully.

            "So what do you think?" Wendell asked him.

            "I think you should run, not walk, to the nearest pharmacy. Get some Prozac, I beg you."

            "You're not helping!"

            Abruptly, Wendell looked down at his watch, and cried out in alarm.

            "Oh, mercy! I was supposed to be showing Mr. Burton the Sledge Mall presentation fifteen minutes ago!"

            Wendell scooped up some floppies from his desk, and streaked away.

    * * *

            The presentation was not going well. Wendell's boss, Mr. Burton, kept scowling at the designs being displayed on the overhead projector.

            "This design looks damned familiar," he groused. "Ah, I know! It's hardly any different than what you pitched five months ago for that mall in Toledo!"

            "Well, both designs are derived from the same basic model, but I've made numerous improvements in this latest drawing."

            "Oh yeah?" Burton asked skeptically. "Like what, for example?"

            "Umm... err... the trash barrels are prettier?" Wendell tried.

            Burton glared at him for what seemed an eternity. "Wendell, I don't know what it is you're doing at your desk every day, five days a week, but it doesn't seem to include pushing the edge of contemporary mall design. Now I want you to get back to your workstation, and I want you to come up with a design that'll knock the Sledge people off their ass! Don't screw this, Wendell!!"

            Wendell scurried off to his cubicle.

    * * *

            Wendell stared at his monitor morosely. How could he make the twentieth mall he had designed in as many years exciting or fresh? His heart just wasn't in it anymore, and hadn't been for some time.

            He pulled up the drawing of his Paradise One Model on the system, hoping that gazing at his baby might recharge his creative juices.

            The "Dimensional shift" command beckoned to him from its hiding place on the menu.

            No, surely he couldn't afford to satisfy this vice right here in the office! But maybe just a few precious moments in paradise would stoke his enthusiasm, and lead to new, more-creative ideas for the project. Yes, that was it!

            Wendell selected the command. The colors emerged, and pulled him away from the office.

            Wendell Drake was with a flaming red-head.

            She looked to be in her late thirties. Freckles were liberally dashed across her wide face. She was a bit on the chunky side, but not enough to be anything other than pleasing.

            "C'mon," she was saying to him enthusiastically. "Everyone's heading up to the axis! Let's go!"

            The axis. The area of reduced gravity. This would be fun. Wendell began following after her.

            They, along with three or four other people, were heading over to an open, bowl-shaped vehicle of some kind. They were at the base of one of the end-caps, the one opposite of the light-pipe which pointed at the central mirror. This was the end where Wendell had put the entrance to this cylinder. And the low-g recreational facilities.

            They all piled into the curious little vehicle, and it quickly began climbing up the slopes of the end-cap. It rode on a track which seemed to go all the way up to the middle of this hemisphere.

            Wendell looked around, taking in his surroundings for the first time. His other two visits to this place had been on perfectly-clear days. Today it was partly cloudy. The cloud deck wrapped around into a perfect cylinder centered neatly about the axis. Through gaps in the nearer clouds, Wendell could see the tops of the clouds covering the far side of the habitat, brilliant white in the outward-radiating light of the central solar reflector.

            He looked back down, and now understood the design of the bowl-shaped craft in which they rode. As they headed further up the end-cap, the landscape steadily grew steeper. It was nearing forty-five degrees now. The base of the vehicle continued to hug the track, but the inner part slowly rotated, keeping itself and its passengers level.

            Wendell could now tell he was much lighter than he had been, and was continuing to get lighter the higher they climbed.

            Now they were nearing the underbelly of the cloud-deck. In less than a minute, they had passed through, and were now ascending above the clouds. If they had climbed to this altitude on Earth, they would by now have been having difficulty breathing. But they weren't on Earth.

            Wendell turned to the mysterious woman at his side. "Say, have you ever been to Earth?" he asked her.

            "Oh yeah, I've done the summer vacation thing," she responded.

            "What did you think of it?"

            "It was really crazy. The landscape's perfectly flat, the cloud deck above it was flat. The old saying is true: Walking around on the Earth really does make you feel like an ant crawling around on a pool table. But man, the sunrises and sunsets were really spectacular," she began to enthuse. "I highly recommend to anyone that they see a sun rise or set at least once before they die."

            Wendell nodded politely. "Where did you go, exactly?"

            "The Grand Canyon, and the Kennedy Space Center."

            Now they were passing a row of houses and small buildings arranged in a perfect ring which went all the way around the axis at this level. Wendell was puzzled, then noted they looked to be about 5/6ths of the way up to the middle of the habitat. This was the 1/6th G level, where former lunar citizens lived in the gravity they were accustomed to. They could now enjoy the benefits of living in orbit, even if a trip down to the cylinder floor could not be made without a certain amount of discomfort.

            They were close enough to the axis now for a good view of the cylinders and rings which comprised the recreational areas. The surrounding landscape was very nearly vertical. The vehicle pulled up to a platform, and slowly came to a stop.

            Wendell cautiously began following the others out of the vehicle. This didn't feel like more than about 1/10th of a G, and he found he could now easily cover five or six feet with a single step. He felt almost giddy with the new-found freedom the reduced gravity afforded.

            They proceeded into a cylindrical structure about a thousand feet across, and glided dream-like up corridors which very visibly curved upwards ahead, and yet were always level underfoot.

            Wendell paused as they passed a large glass wall. On the other side was a low-G gymnasium. People of all ages were engaged in elaborate slow-motion flips and tumbles. Several ballerinas danced a soaring kind of dance impossible on Earth. Wendell was transfixed by the other-worldly beauty of these performances.

            "C'mon, Wendell," his companion was calling. "We're heading to the swimming pool."

            Wendell slowly bounded over, his portly frame now gazelle-like. "I'm afraid I didn't bring my swimming trunks with me," he said smiling.

            "Oh, that's OK, they rent them."

            Wendell was a bit crest-fallen, as the cliché seemed to suddenly fall apart somehow.

            The group glided through a wide doorway, and entered the pool room.

            The pool, like seemingly everything else in this place, was cylindrical. The water extended upward and arched overhead, held in place in the pool by the feeble centrifugal force here. The waves on the water moved with an unreal slowness.

            The diving ladder looked suicidally-high to Wendell. He watched as a middle-aged man soared up the ladder, slowly bounded down the board, and leapt. He did an amazing number of flips, somersaults, and spins on his way down. It was like watching a slow-motion instant-replay at an Olympic diving match, only it was live. At last the diver plunged neatly into the surface, sending up a lazy, conical splash.

            Wendell felt confident even he could do maneuvers like this. He was far from an athlete, but the entire dive took over ten seconds: plenty of time for the most elaborate acrobatics.

            There were almost a dozen children in the spacious pool. Several were having water fights. Each seemed to have a plastic bucket which they used to fling water at one another. The water would come out of the bucket in a shimmering glob which throbbed and oscillated as it sailed over to its intended target.

            Suddenly one of the boys started yelling, "Waterball! Waterball!"

            The cry "Waterball! Waterball!" was now spreading from child to child, until it had completely run around the circumference of the pool.

            Now each child was diving down, and then springing porpoise-like up from the surface, shedding streams of shimmering water in their wake. They gently soared up into the air, often to a height of twenty or thirty feet. Once clear of the water, they took up the craziest paths through the air: curious spiral motions that sometimes landed them on the far side of the cylindrical pool from where they had started. But the goal always seemed to be to come as close to the center as possible. As they drifted past the central point, each kid dumped out the contents of their plastic bucket. Each new blob of water merged with the rest. In time this resulted in a huge, slowly-oscillating ball of water hanging in mid-air.

            Wendell supposed a waterball formed precisely at the spin-axis of the space habitat, one with no motion to it at all, might hang there for quite some time. But of course nothing is perfect. The huge sphere of water, now over six feet across, was not precisely on-center, and in fact was beginning to drift further away from the axis in a steadily-widening outward spiral.

            The waterball moved around in bigger and bigger orbits with a period of around two minutes. It seemed strange to see this massive sphere of water soaring over the heads of the swimmers as they watched it pass, unconcerned.

            Then Wendell saw one of the older boys leap up from the water, straight into the path of the oncoming blob. The waterball hit and engulfed the child, and carried him away with it, tumbling and bubbling in its clear heart.

            It was all Wendell could do to keep himself from crying out in alarm. He feared the child would drown. But the boy, now orbiting the axis of the pool with the sphere, swam to one side of the throbbing globe and penetrated the surface with his head. He shook his head vigorously, sending clinging globs of water slinging off in radial rivulets. He laughed gaily.

            The waterball was now skimming along just inches above the surface of the pool. Soon its bottom was starting to contact the waves. Now its motion was beginning to slow as it was dragged down by the forces of friction. It slowly smeared out, re-merging with the body of water which had spawned it. The boy tumbled under the water, and then came to the surface, giggling.

            The red-head was pulling Wendell's rapt attention away from the spectacle.

            "Hey, I hope this is OK, but the others have been talking it over, and they've decided they'd really rather fly today than swim. Is that all right with you?"

            Would he like to fly? "Yes," Wendell answered eagerly. "Let's go flying!"

            "WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?"

            Wendell jerked upright. He was back in his cubicle in front of the computer. Mr. Burton was towering over him, glaring at him.

            "Asleep on the job!" Burton thundered. "I should've guessed. Had to be a good reason why you haven't been good for anything for so long. Well, guess what, Wendell? YOU'RE FIRED!!"

            Wendell meekly got to his feet, and began emptying out his desk drawer into a cardboard box provided by a secretary. He pulled the push-pins out of his beloved Island Three poster, and pulled it down from his tack-board, all under the watchful eye of Mr. Burton, who glowered at him the whole time.

            Shortly, the little cubical was stripped of all human touches. Burton looked in the cardboard box, removed the pocket calculator and the stapler, and then escorted Wendell out of the office.

            Wendell drove home. Even at this earlier hour, the traffic was already beginning to pile up. Snow was once again starting to fall out of the gray, dismal skies. He drove on, dreading every mile.

    * * *

            Wendell walked into the living room. Lonnie was in front of the television.

            "I got fired today," he announced.

            "What?!" she shrieked. She then launched into a diatribe so hysterical that only parts of it were comprehensible. Some of it was about Wendell's responsibility to the family. Some of it was about finances, and Ruby's education. Mostly it was about Wendell the Failure.

            Wendell stood, weathering the verbal onslaught. He yearned to escape from this time and place, to enter Paradise. Surely he'd soon get an opportunity.

            The doorbell rang. At first Wendell considered himself saved by the bell, but Lonnie was continuing her fit uninterrupted. She followed him all the way to the door, yammering behind him.

            At the door was a man wearing a cap with the Sys-Lease logo. "Wendell Drake?" he asked. "I'm afraid I'm here to repossess your computer."

            "What?" Wendell said, quavering.

            "I'm very sorry. Your computer system is on lease for... " the man glanced at a clipboard, "... MallWorks, is it not? I'm afraid they just canceled the lease. I have orders to take it back today."

            "Nooooo!" Wendell cried.

            Wendell pushed at the man, knocking the clipboard from his hand, and his ass into a snowbank.

            "Wendell, have you gone crazy?" Lonnie asked. "What the hell's going on?"

            Wendell ran up the hall, into the den, and slammed the door shut behind him. He grabbed a chair, and kicked it under the doorknob. Just one more visit, just one more...

            He powered up the computer, watching with frantic impatience as it booted. It always seemed to take a long time. Now it seemed to take an eternity.

            "Wendell, you bastard!" Lonnie was pounding on the door. "Don't make trouble!"

            Wendell saw to his horror that the computer's virus-checker software was starting to load. He savagely stabbed at the "Cancel" button.

            "Mr. Drake, would you please open this door?" Now the repo man was at the door, too.

            Quick, load RealCAD. God, it was a monster. It was so big, and took so long to load. At last it was finished.

            He hit the "Dimensional shift" command.

            Nothing was happening.

            Idiot!! He had to have the Paradise One drawing loaded first! He pulled it up, watching as it came onto the screen, line by line, curve by curve, with excruciating slowness.

            "Don't make us break down this door, you old fart!" Lonnie was hollering. "Come on out of there!"

            It was done! He selected the magic command. Purple and orange blossoms pushed out of the screen, embracing him.

            Wendell Drake was in Paradise.

            And better yet, they were handing him his wings.

            They were long and straight, like the wings of a glider, with smooth, curved edges. They were made of some surprisingly-light yet tough plastic-like material.

            His red-headed companion was here. "What's the matter, have you never flown before?" she asked him teasingly.

            "Well," Wendell responded, "No, I guess."

            "Ooohh, a virgin," she murmured. "We'll be gentle with you, I promise. Seriously, there's nothing to it. Anyone who can learn to walk can learn to fly."

            She began guiding his hands into the handle-grips on the underside of each wing, and cinching down Velcro straps all around him.

            They seemed to be in an open, cylindrical area. A couple hundred feet overhead, Wendell could see people slowly bounding about upside down. Ahead, beyond a tall glass wall, lay the main habitat. They were still up close to the axis.

            In the air up ahead, the tiny figures of almost a dozen flying humans could be seen. Each had long, narrow wings of red, blue, yellow or green which they flapped languorously. Some did slow barrel-rolls, or loops. Others climbed to the very center of this tiny inside-out world and just lazily hung there, enjoying the view.

            Wendell's wings were on tight, and he knew it was his turn. The apparent launching point was a small platform almost twenty feet up, which extended over the top of the glass wall. There was no ladder. How the heck was he supposed to get up there?

            "Moron," he thought to himself. "You fly up."

            Wendell began flapping his wings. With surprising ease, he lifted off from the floor. He staggered around through the air a bit, and eventually came to light on the narrow platform.

            "That's OK, Wendell," the red-head shouted to him. "You're doing great! Fly like an eagle!"

            He looked out at the vast expanse of Paradise One. The far end of it was hazed by the blue mists of great distance. There was land around him on all sides, but none of it was less than two miles away.

            Wendell launched himself into the air.

            This was great. His wings provided total freedom of movement in all three dimensions. He slowly swooped and glided. He climbed. He tumbled, surrounded on all sides by a roll of fleecy, white clouds.

            He wondered what would happen if he flew toward the sun. It probably wasn't a good idea. This close, the sunlight bouncing away from the solar reflector would be much more highly-concentrated than on the cylinder floor. What if his wings started to melt?

            Shades of Icarus!! Wendell wondered if that ancient myth wasn't a premonition of the future.

            Wendell gently rolled, dancing with the clouds. If this wasn't the Heaven of old, it was as close as anything need come, far as he was concerned.

    * * *

            The repo man was now having some success in knocking the chair loose from the doorknob. He and Lonnie entered the den. Wendell was slumped over the computer, forehead resting on the screen. Some peculiar engineering drawing shined around the sides of his head.

            "Oh, for Christ's sake," Lonnie exclaimed. "He's fainted!"

            The repo man touched Wendell. No response. He felt for a pulse.

            Then he suddenly turned to Lonnie. "Quick, call 911! He hasn't got a pulse, and I don't think he's breathing either!!"

    * * *

            Wendell was drifting among the clouds with a smile on his face when he noticed a sudden dimming in the brilliant sunlight. At first he wondered if night was falling. He supposed someone used to the sun moving across the sky and then setting in the evening might let the end of day catch them by surprise. But it wasn't just the light that was failing. All of his sensations were fading away. His body was growing numb, and there was a sudden deadening in the sounds of the wind around him.

            "What's happening to me?" he wondered. Wendell could no longer control his limbs now, and was starting to go into a slow tumble.

            For the first time since arriving here, Wendell's "real life" circumstances intruded on his thoughts. He wondered if the repo man had made it into the den, and had turned off the computer or something. But Wendell's transitions back into the "real world" had always been very sudden, abrupt. Never this gradual fading-out.

            Suddenly it hit him. "Oh my God, I must be dying," Wendell realized.

            Wherever his spirit might be now, it seemed obvious that his body must still be back at the computer. Mr. Burton had seen him while he was having one of these experiences. Wendell could visualize his body right now, sitting immobile in front of the monitor, lungs stopping, heart ceasing to beat...

            The whole world was turning a dark gray. There was perfect silence. His completely-numb form spun downward to the cylinder floor two miles below, only it didn't matter anyway because the landscape was going away. Everything was going away.

            It wasn't fair... it wasn't fair...


    * * *

            The ambulance crew had Wendell on the floor now, working on his prostrate form. The blonde man was administering CPR to Wendell's fleshy chest, while the middle-aged woman tried to force air into his lungs.

            Lonnie was sobbing. Great rivulets of mascara descended her pudgy face.

            The male ambulance worker stopped, exhausted. He checked one more time for a pulse.

            "I'm sorry, ma'am," he said, looking up at Lonnie. "I'm afraid your husband is gone."

            Lonnie began to blubber. The repo man now considered that he had an interesting story to tell back at the office. This guy must have really been attached to that computer.

            The ambulance worker pulled out some kind of dog-tag from around Wendell's neck, and looked at it closely. Abruptly, he came to his feet.

            "Quick, where's your bathroom?" he asked Lonnie.

            "What?! Wh... . there," she indicated, confused now.

            "Help me get him into the tub," the ambulance driver commanded his assistant. She helped the driver carry Wendell's limp body into the bathroom, and deposit it in the bathtub. Then the driver rushed away to the kitchen, returning with a bag of ice he had snatched from the freezer.

            In a bizarre display, the man began dumping the ice all over Wendell's corpse.

            "Wh... what the hell are you doing?" Lonnie asked in a uncharacteristically-subdued voice.

            The worker turned to his assistant. "Quick as you can, get to the nearest 7-11... I think there was one at the last corner we turned off... and get at least ten more bags of ice. Hurry." The woman was off in a flash.

            "What are you doing?" Lonnie demanded to know.

            "This dog-tag is from the CryoSlumber Foundation. Apparently your husband is a member."

            He held the tag up. A curious logo was prominent. It looked something like the Egyptian Ankh, the symbol for life. But instead of a single loop at the top, there was something more like a figure eight lying on its side.

            "Our instructions on the death of CryoSlumber members are to immediately pack the body in ice," he explained.

            "Whatever for??!!!" she wailed.

            "People who sign up for a cryonics plan believe that if they're frozen quickly enough after death, they may be revived some time in the distant future when a more-advanced medical technology might restore them to life and health."

            "It's insane," Lonnie protested. "Oh, it's just like him to sign up for something foolish that'll suck our life savings away, right at a time when his wife and daughters need that money the most!! I'll sue to keep this from happening!!!"

            "Well, I could be mistaken," the ambulance worker began, "But I'm pretty sure the way they arrange these things is by setting up a trust. The money's already in the account, and belongs to CryoSlumber. I don't think anybody can touch it. That's just part of the package."

            Lonnie stormed off, crying inconsolably now. The repo man looked down at the rapidly-chilling remains.

            "Trying to come back from the dead? Isn't that an awful long-shot?" he asked the ambulance driver.

            "Oh, I don't know," the driver responded cheerily. "You don't know what kind of things might become possible over the next one hundred years!"

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