The suite was luxurious enough, furniture that molded itself to your contours and came when you called, a box which washed and brushed and massaged you and finished up by blowing scent on your scrubbed hide, softness and warmth and pastel color everywhere you looked. Langley remembered checked oilcloth on a kitchen table, a can of beer in front of him and the Wyoming night outside and Peggy sitting near.
“Chanthavar,” he asked suddenly, “do you still have horses?” There was a word for it in this Earthspeak they had taught him, so maybe—
“Why... I don’t know.” The agent looked a bit surprised. “Never saw one that I remember, outside of historicals. I believe they have some on... yes, on Thor for amusement, if not on Earth. Lord Brannoch has often bored his guests by talking about horses and dogs.”
“If there aren’t any in the Solar System, you could have one synthesized,” suggested Chanthavar. “They can make pretty good animals to order. Care to hunt a dragon some day?”
“Never mind,” said Langley.
“There’ll be a lot of important people here tonight,” said Chanthavar. “If you can entertain one of them enough, your fortune’s made. Stay away from Lady Halin; her husband’s jealous and you’d end up as a mind-blanked slave unless I wanted to make an issue of it. You needn’t act too impressed by what you see... a lot of the younger intellectuals, especially, make rather a game of deriding modern society, and would be happy to have you bear them out. But avoid saying anything which could be construed as dangerous. Otherwise, just go ahead and have a good time.”
They were not walking: they sat on comfortable benches and let the moving floor carry them. Once they went up a gravity shaft, it was a rather eerie experience to ride on nothing. At the end of the trip, which Langley estimated as three miles, they came to a gateway flanked by artificial waterfalls, and got up and went in past armed guards in gilt livery.
The first impression Langley got was of sheer enormousness. The room must be half a mile in diameter, and it was a swirling blaze of flashing color, some thousands of guests perhaps. It seemed roofless, open to a soft night sky full of stars and the moon, but he decided there was ah invisible dome on it. Under its dizzy height, the city was a lovely, glowing spectacle.
There was perfume in the air, just a hint of sweetness, and music came from some hidden source. Langley tried to listen, but there were too many voices. Nor did the music make sense, the very scale was different. He murmured sotto voce to Blaustein: “Always did think there wasn’t much written after Beethoven, and seems like I was right into the indefinite future, world without end.”
“Amen,” said the physicist. His thin, long-nosed face was bleak.
Chanthavar was introducing them to their host, who was unbelievably fat and purple but not without a certain strength in the small black eyes. Langley recalled the proper formulas by which a client of one Minister addressed and genuflected to another.
“Man from past, eh?” Yulien cleared his throat. “Int’restin’. Most int’restin’. Have to have long talk with you sometime. Hrumph! How d’y’ like it here?”
“It is most impressive, my lord,” said Matsumoto, poker-faced.
“Hm-m-m. Ha. Yes. Progress. Change.”
“The more things change, my lord,” ventured Langley, “the more they remain the same.”
“Hmph. Haw! Yes.” Yulien turned to greet someone else.
“Well put, fellow. Well put indeed.” There was a laugh in the voice. Langley bowed to a thin young man with mottled cheeks. “Here, have a drink.” A table went by, and he lifted two crystal goblets off it and handed one over. “I’ve been wanting to meet you, ever since the word got around. I’m at the university here, doing an historical study. The common element in all the thinkers who’ve tried to correlate the arts with the general state of society.”
Chanthavar raised one eyebrow. His own severely simple dress was conspicuous against the jewels and embroideries which flickered around him. “And have you reached any conclusions, my friend?” he asked.;
“Certainly, sir. I’ve found twenty-seven books which agree that the virile, unconscious stage of culture produces the corresponding type of art, simple and powerful. Over-ornamentation, such as ours, reflects a decadent state where mind has overcome the world-soul.”
“Ah, so. Have you ever seen the work done in the early stages of settlement on Thor, when they were fighting nature and each other all the time and known as the roughest two-fisted tribe in the universe? The basic pattern is the most intricate looping of vines you ever saw. On the other hand, in the last days of the Martian hegemony they went in for a boxlike simplicity. Have you read Sardu’s commentaries? Shimarrin’s? Or the nine spools of the Tthnic Study?”
“Well... well, sir, I’ve got them on my list, but even with the robots to help there’s so much to read and—”
Chanthavar, obviously enjoying himself, went on to cite contrary and mutually contradictory examples from the past three thousand years of history. Langley took the chance to fade out of the picture.
A rather good-looking woman with somewhat protuberant eyes grasped his arm and told him how exciting it was to see a man from the past and she was sure it had been such an interesting epoch back when they were so virile, Langley felt relieved when a sharp-faced oldster called her to him and she left in a pout. Clearly, women had a subservient position in the Technate, though Chanthavar had mentioned something about occasional great female leaders.
He slouched moodily toward a buffet, where he helped himself to some very tasty dishes and more wine. How long would the farce go on, anyway? He’d rather have been off somewhere by himself.
It was summer outside. Always summer on Earth now, the planet had entered an interglacial period with the help of man, more carbon dioxide in the air. With Peggy, this could have been a high and proud adventure; but Peggy was dead and forgotten. He wanted to go outside and walk on the earth to which she had returned, long and long ago.
A flabby person who had had a bit too much to drink threw an arm around his neck and bade him welcome and started asking him about the bedroom techniques of his period. It would have been a considerable relief to- Langley unclenched his fists.
“Want some girls? Min’ster Yulien most hospitable, come right this way, have li’l fun ’fore the Centaurians blow us all to dust.”
“That’s right,” jeered a younger man. “That’s why we’re going to have the hide beaten off us. People like you. Could they fight in your time, Captain Langley?”
“Tolerably well, when we had to,” said the American.
“That’s what I thought. Survivor types. You conquered the stars because you weren’t afraid to kick the next man. We are. We’ve gotten soft, here in the Solar System. Haven’t fought a major war in a thousand years, and now that one’s shaping up we don’t know how.”
“Are you in the army?” asked Langley.
“I?” The young fellow looked surprised. “The Solar military forces are slaves. Bred and trained for the job, publicly owned. The higher officers are Ministers, but—”
“Well, would you advocate drafting your own class into service?”
“Wouldn’t do any good. They aren’t fit. Not in a class with the slave specialists. The Centaurians, though, they call up their free-born, and they like fighting. If we could learn that too—”
“Son,” asked Langley recklessly, “have you ever seen men with their heads blown open, guts coming out, ribs sticking through the skin? Ever faced a man who intended to kill you?”