As we kept moving through the crowd, I began to notice a few people in modern attire, a woman in a suit here, a nameless horror in a little black dress there. More and more twenty-first century outfits appeared, until those wearing the garb of the fair stood out as the minority in the crowd. The scent of baked goods and farm animals became mingled with exhaust and motor oil; the ground became harder beneath my feet, the unpaved paths transforming into sidewalks, and I found myself trailing Forrest through the deep valleys of a modern city.
I was puzzled. “I thought we couldn’t move between places on our own?”
“We’re still in the marketplace. It would change around us if stood still and waited long enough; the walking just helps move things along. And the exercise will do you good.”
Forrest pointed at a long window as we passed, an elaborate array of jewelry that looked as if a spider had spun webs of gold and platinum to catch a gemstone flies. Beyond that was a display of what was probably better called “couture” than clothing, since it didn’t look like it was meant to be worn by real people. Elves, maybe. Thin elves. Store after store displayed the whimsical, beautiful, but frivolous and ultimately useless toys of the extremely rich. “Every culture, real or imagined, is represented here somewhere,” said the Captain. “That’s one of the reasons I brought you here; you can find dreamers from anywhere in the world to take you where you need to go.”
I realized that everywhere I’d been so far had seemed stereotypically American, the dreamers mostly English speakers if they spoke at all. It was probably a reflection of my own cultural bias. But this was a nexus of sorts, where different societies came together. It made sense; where else did the world come together, except in trade and commerce?
I still wasn’t sure where specifically Forrest was taking me. I’d expected that he would drop me off in the middle of his mystic market and then high-tail it back to his boat, so that he couldn’t be accused of doing anything. But when I’d asked where we were going, he’d simply said that there were people he wanted to talk to me. The way he said it, I got the impression that it wasn’t a matter of me talking to them.
The transition of the shadowy figures around us was nearly complete. The city shoppers wore severe blacks and grays, and many carried black umbrellas, although the sky was a strip of bright blue between the buildings. The remaining fair-goers were obvious in the crowd, a flash of red or yellow here and there.
Forrest led us in a straight line, never turning his path, or even his head. I could see a cross street ahead of us, and could just make out the names on the signs...Cupido Street intersecting Satis Avenue.
We never reached the corner, but somehow the shop windows gave way to columned porticos, and tunics and togas began mingling with the business attire. We soon reached the edge of a Greco-Roman style forum, all shining white marble, packed with people.
I’d picked up a little about Greek and Roman art. Many of the marble statutes that had survived to the modern era, staring into the distance with their blank eyes, had originally been painted with vibrant pigments. This place should have been a riot of color; instead, the dream world presented us with the B-movie interpretation. In fact, between the growing number of togate Romans in white and the gradually dwindling city dwellers in black, the only spot of color was one fair-goer in red who had wandered out of his area. I stopped and watched him for a moment, but I quickly lost him in the crowd.
Forrest’s hand on my shoulder startled me. “We’re here.”
We were standing in the shadow of a massive temple. Beneath a peristyle of towering columns, the figures who stood on the temple steps were diminished by the scale, mortals on the front porch of a god.
We passed between the columns and through doors carved from ivory, into the sanctum. Servants closed the doors behind us. As they shut, the thousands of voices outside engaged in buying, selling, haggling, peddling, busking and begging were suddenly cut off, leaving a quiet broken only by the crackle of the braziers that lit the interior of the temple, the low drone of priests at prayer, and the ringing in my ears.
The braziers were spaced throughout the wide central hall of the temple, but the fires seemed to cast more shadows than they dispelled. At the far end of the room was a statue three times the height of a man, seated on a curule chair. The image of the god leaned forward in its seat, with one elbow propped on an armrest and the hand supporting the figure’s chin. The other hand held a short wand entwined with two snakes. The expression on the god’s face was one of wry amusement. At the base of the statue, a group of twenty or thirty robed priests knelt in worship.
“Mercury,” whispered Forrest. “Roman god of commerce. Also travelers, thieves, advocates, and all the rest who make their way in the world by their wits and their tongues.”
“These are the people you wanted me to talk to?”
“No. These are the people I suggest you listen to. Outside, you can find people who will sell you any tangible thing you can imagine. In here, they trade ideas and information. And you’re about as clueless as they come.”
I bristled, but he was right. I had no idea where to go next. “What do I do?”
“Make them an offer. Tell them something you think is worth hearing.”
I approached the statue; the assembled priests did not turn around to face me, although a murmur ran through them as I drew near. What on earth would dream priests in a fictional temple be interested to hear? Baseball statistics? Recipes? I couldn’t see why anything interesting to me would be interesting to them. Somehow I didn’t think a lecture on great painters of the late 20th century would do the trick
“Uh. Hello.” I said, awkwardly addressing the backs of their heads.
“Greetings.” The response was a susurrus of low voices, overlapping one another.
“My name is Matt Larkin. I’m trying to return to the real world.”
The murmuring of the priests grew intense, then stopped. They spoke.
“We provide this in exchange for your name.
“The second consulship of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus saw the death of the natural philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus and the posthumous publication of his most famous work, the Epicurean treatise De Rerum Natura.
“In the second book of the work, Lucretius describes the origin of the world arising from the collision and accumulation of atoms. Lucretius saw atoms as irreducible particles, sleeting endlessly side by side through the open void, neither slowed by wind nor stopped by earth, none faster, none slower. But how then could these atoms collide, if they all fell in parallel courses?
“Lucretius held that each atom must be inherently capable of changing its own direction, to swerve ever so slightly, just enough to collide with other atoms. In fact, this swerve, which owed no allegiance to outside impulse, was for Lucretius no different than that which drives a man to choose one course or another regardless of the forces pressing upon him. That is, the Lucretian universe arose from, and could not exist without, free will.
“And yet, the slightest swerve of a single atom would be enough to set off an infinite chain of impact and recoil, particles accumulating into ever larger masses, forming earth and air and water and fire, land and sea and stars. Collisions become no longer impossible, but inevitable.
“One thousand seven hundred forty-two years later, another natural philosopher would posit that all bodies, from particles to planets, move in the open void according to rules of mutual attraction. The more solid an object is, the stronger its pull on other bodies. No choice is necessary, or even possible.
“All things will be drawn together. The only question is how.”
What the hell, I wondered. I felt certain Forrest was somewhere behind me stifling a laugh. “How is that supposed to help me get home?” I asked the priests.
“You gave us the value of a name. When you learn what that value is, then you might understand the value of what we have provided in exchange.”
“Thanks a bunch.” Mercury seemed to be smirking at me.
“You are welcome. It was nice to meet you.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 11.4]