by R. Scott Russell
"Paper?!" the Plenipotentiary of the Everything Machine cried. "It's untouchable!"
Art Shraede swallowed nervously. The Plenipotentiary was the most powerful man on three planets and the space in between. Nobody made demands of the Master of the Everything Machine. Not presidents, popes, or premiers, and especially not obscure voyageurs running the Commune circuit.
Nevertheless that's exactly what the people of Orinda Commune had asked Art to do: make demands.
Stalwartly, Art tugged his collar and said in a barely audible voice. "Paper isn't merely contraband. It's an historical artifact that my clients require to...expand their art form."
The Plenipotentiary shook his head stubbornly. He was a rotund, sour-faced man whose complexion was becoming a deeper shade of red with each passing moment. He waved a ham-sized paw as if warding off a curse and said: "Paper! That stuff's illegal and I won't touch it! I'd sooner fac a wooden plank or a piece of beef! Those carry shorter prison terms, I believe."
Art sighed. Only a few hours ago he had held such hope for this meeting. The ghost within Art's augmented nervous system offered the sensation of an encouraging hand being placed on his shoulder. Or was that a prodding nudge? Art recalled the long journey here. They had been days crossing the high plains of what the ghost called Guayaquil. This had been its home, back when cities swelled the Earth and primitive rockets bruted their way into orbit. Such tales had been myth before Art joined with the ghost. But the entity believed, and so did Art.
Now, if only he could write a poem about it.
* * *
Of course, that was impossible. Poetry was beyond him. Oh, he could rhyme and verse, of course, but he couldn't create. Any attempt at creation was a path into frustration and sadness. So at the time of his Introduction he had chosen the trade of voyageur. Endurance and a love of travel were his skill set. And a good voyageur was as necessary to a Commune as was a gardener or artiste. At least, that's what he tried to believe.
And so he wandered, running the circuit of Communes. Hauling mails and supplies and trade goods across a thousand kilometers. There were companions. Sometimes human, sometimes enhanced work beasts, and occasionally ghosts.
The ghosts were free-hoppers. Two centuries ago, the Communes had disavowed the world's Cybernetic Transect in favor of pseudo-isolation. The Grand Experiment, it was called. Some ghosts had opted to remain cut off from the Transect, as well. Instead, they traveled via a host's bioware. Most ghosts were helpful. They offered companionship, advice, listened to his struggling poetry, and lied to him about the possibility of his eventually finding a form. Everyone needed a form, after all, especially if you lived within a nation of artists.
The current ghost had been different, however. Instead of stroking his ego about a bardship, it offered a blunt assessment: Give it up and accept being a voyageur. Life's too short and we should do what suits us.
This angered Art. He wanted to be an artist in his own right and a true member of the Commune. Yet, he would lie awake next to a fading campfire and feel a gnawing truth that the ghost was right. He was not an artist. When Final Introduction came around in the spring he would have to announce himself a voyageur yet again.
He viewed this possibility with torment.
Then came Orinda Commune and a new task. Stope, an old wordcrafter, offered him a Placement within the Commune if he could secure them the paper. "No more holographic poems," she said adamantly. "We want to try wording in the way of the ancients. On paper."
When Art suggested that paper was illegal, Stope only smiled mysteriously, her face a web of wrinkles. "The Communes are not as isolated as the Grand Experiment suggests. We have sought, no we have been offered, help from a higher power. A Concubus looks into the matter for us."
Concubus? The word sent a shiver through him.
Art had wanted to quiz Stope more but that was all she would say. Then, as if the incentive of a Placement wasn't enough, Art had also been offered a woman, a horse, and a ghost. He accepted the horse and the ghost and made a number of sweet promises to the woman, who was more bemused than serious about her supposed fate. They parted as friends. He liked the Poets of Orinda, and would love to call the place home, but didn't want to stumble into a marriage or parent-contract. Hell, he was only twenty-five, and there would be several centuries of that ahead. So he journeyed out with a fresh horse swaying beneath him and a ghost buzzing in the back of his brain. Luxuries both.
And that was how he arrived at the Everything Machine.
The world had its share of Towers, of course. They linked the Earth with the Great Ring that encompassed it, forty-thousand kilometers above his head. The two towers of Guayaquil erupted from a pair of islands at the center of a great artificial lake. They rose up into the blue sky. Higher... higher... until they were little more than a pair of silver threads shining in the sun, seemingly a trick of the eye and imagination than anything real, anything material. Between them stood the great dome of the Everything Machine, ten kilometers across and almost a third as high.
The Everything Machine was a vast factory. It was the most complex machine ever developed. Within its core an alchemy of physics and engineering blended to produce, well, everything. The solar system's asteroids and comets were herded to the Great Ring and used as raw materials. These were fed down the towers to the Everything Machine. The blister that Art spied across the lake was merely the iceberg's tip, for the machinery that powered it went deep into the Earth, spreading under plains and mountains and oceans. The Plenipotentiary who was charged with running the complex was combination Secretary General, Celebrity Extraordinaire, and Pope Regent to billions upon billions of people whose work and lives were focused on the attainment of one thing: consumer goods.
* * *
"Well?" the Plenipotentiary growled archly. Art drew back from his reverie and looked into the other man's deep, black eyes.
Art felt the ghost send a ready tingle along his neck. He ignored the urge to transfer. He knew the facts better than anyone, having had a week on the trail to mull them over. But the ghost had once lived in an era when... images flashed of things Art didn't recognize. He shook his head, brushing the ghost away.
Art said, "The act which made paper illegal was approved during the Century of Reclamation. With the dawn of computers, info-slates, and neurological symbionts it quickly became apparent that information could be produced and distributed without the use of paper. When the Paper Conservation Act was passed by the World Reclamation Congress of 2094 it was readily and universally accepted."
The Plenipotentiary's large bulk shifted in his chair. "Like I said, paper is illegal. And has been for fifteen-hundred years."
Art's mouth formed a tight line. He felt like a gnat trying to impress a whale. Why had the Poets sent him, anyway? Sure, he knew more about trading than anyone: lived it, worked it, and breathed it. Right down to the bartered boots he wore. The Communes were an ideal, but all ideals needed a support system to function. Glass, painting, sculpture, dance, theatre, music, and literature were their lifeblood. The fact was that anything new and, well, marketable, helped keep the Communes going. The novel idea of poetry on paper might be a dead end, or something sustaining. That was the harsh reality. Harsher still since paper was illegal.
But how to change things so that he might obtain this precious material?
Art sought a millisecond's comfort by biting his lip and then, in a nervous hurry: "B-but there are loopholes in the law. One such corollary refers to traditional arts."
The Plenipotentiary snorted. "But the quantities you're asking! Three tons! That would clog any legal loopholes, my friend."
Art nodded. "As I said, this is a special case."
"Special case! It's an indictable offense!" the Plenipotentiary declared.
"Securing paper is vital to the future of the Communes!" Art cried in exasperation.
"If I produce it they'll throw me in jail!"
"But I've been told that the Quito-Regio Concubus is working to change the law as we speak."
The Plenipotentiary growled. "Concubus? Dammit! I don't like politicians! I don't like threats! I don't appreciate the fact that you used a Concubus to worm an appointment on my chrono-slate. I'm not impressed by anybody's connections, no matter who they are."
Art raised an index finger. "Plenipotentiary... I'm from the Communes. We live under the Grand Experiment, the Isolation. My contact with the Concubus is non-existent. I've been told she is only a helper in times of extreme..."
"I don't care! She may have gotten you through my door..."
"But, Plenipotentiary... I came here with only hope. I expected to wait months for the appointment."
"...And damned if that'll ever happen again. I'm going to re-program my office manager never..."
Art's index finger waved slightly, "Plenipotentiary..."
"...Ever to let anything like this happen again."
"MAX!" the Plenipotentiary bellowed.
A small blue mobius, roughly the size of a baseball, appeared above the wide desk. It torqued about, like a squirming malformed donut, and a violet hue spread across its inner surface.
"Last thirty seconds of conversation," the Plenipotentiary ordered. "Re-program as stated."
The mobius flattened and became a scarlet pancake. The Plenipotentiary's eyes widened. "What!"
Art sighed, flustered and embarrassed. He said, "Plenipotentiary, I apologize if you are offended. I don't mean to name-drop but the Concubus was helpful. How this appointment was secured is unknown to me..."
As Art spoke the Plenipotentiary waved his hand in a hushing motion. Above the desk Max became a black oval with a dip in it. The dip grew, becoming a tethered egg and then a quivering uvula. Then Max collapsed into a compact spheroid that spun madly.
"Max!" the Plenipotentiary barked. The spheroid split into uncountable raindrops that scattered across the desk and then regrouped to form a revolving robin's egg.
The Plenipotentiary seemed to sag in his large chair. He said, "Max reports that it wasn't a Concubus that got you in here."
Art said nervously: "Really?"
"Max says you've always been scheduled for today's appointment. In fact, the appointment is registered as having been logged at the same instant as my chrono-slate's incep date, nearly three decades ago."
Art said, "All I know is that our local Concubus was trying to secure an audience with the General Omniscient Device."
A low whistle escaped the Plenipotentiary's lips. "The G.O.D.? That high up, eh?"
Art peered sheepishly at his scuffed boots. "I hope I haven't created too much of a flap, Plenipotentiary," he said.
The Plenipotentiary slumped in his seat and huffed, "Gravy and gauss lines, man! Start again at the beginning!"
Art wrung his hands. Now he was getting somewhere! "Well..."
The Plenipotentiary held up a large hand. "But first is there anything I can get you? Liquor, water, anything?"
Art wrinkled his nose. Could the Plenipotentiary of the Everything Machine produce a cappuccino? He was from the Communes, after all. Art shrugged and asked.
The Plenipotentiary smiled. "Which flavor?"
Above the desk Max seemed to brighten and a moment later a steaming cup rose from a small recess in the Plenipotentiary's giant, wraparound desk.
"I wish we could do that in the Communes," Art murmured. He took a sip. Perfect. Just like everything else that the Everything Machine produced. Perfect.
"I've never visited the Communes," the Plenipotentiary said conversationally. "I should probably take a virch sometime. Getting away is quite difficult." He waved his hands expansively.
Art nodded. Understanding.
The Plenipotentiary smiled. "In a way, the Communes are competitors."
The Plenipotentiary waved a hand. "Oh, not serious competitors. Not in an economy like ours. But the Communes produce things that, as wonderful as the Everything Machine is, it simply cannot."
Art smiled. "Which is the issue. We need paper to create poetry."
The Plenipotentiary said, "But why not use a holofield or slate?"
Art placed his cappuccino back on the desk. Max buzzed briefly around his head and he wanted to swat the AI away. His annoyance was compounded because Max and Art's ghost seemed to be carrying on a very rapid conversation. Voices filled his head. And they seemed to be talking about him.
Max spun away and Art shook off his discomfort. He said, "We do create poetry with the usual tech. But many of the poets would like to experiment by using different media. They would like to merge the words of imagination with the form and substance of an old recording technology. A traditional technology. Paper."
The Plenipotentiary leaned forward. "Are you a poet, then?"
Art smiled sheepishly. "I wish I were. I've tried many forms but they never come to me. As of now I seek experience and form as a voyageur."
"A worker?" the Plenipotentiary smiled as Max bobbed above his shoulder. "Are there many like you?"
"We number roughly a tenth the population. Farmers, crafters, builders, voyageurs, a medica or two. The machines help us, of course, letting the rest of the Community pursue their art."
The Plenipotentiary nodded. "Not unlike those of us who maintain the Everything Machine. You and I are alike, Art, do you realize that? We keep our world turning. A noble form in itself."
Art laughed, incredulous. "Not as important as you, Plenipotentiary."
"Well, important enough for the G.O.D. to predict that we would need to meet... and make that prediction before you were born."
Art shifted. "Why would the General Omniscient Device..."
The Plenipotentiary wagged a thick digit. "One moment."
The Plenipotentiary's attention was drawn to his AI. Max was on fire. The projection blossomed like a tiny, angry sun. Within Max's furious form a brighter speck revealed itself. It flared and grew. Soon it consumed Max and filled the office with brilliant light. Art winced.
The Plenipotentiary growled a knowing growl. He had witnessed the General Omniscient Device in action before. It had found its way through his comm system and had taken over Max. He sighed and said to Art: "It's best to just give into it."
* * *
An instant later Art found himself standing upon a patch of green grass. Above, white puffy clouds drifted within the blue bowl of a sky. He took a deep breath and stepped back. The ground swayed and bobbed. He looked down and saw that the grassy patch curved down and down and then back up behind him. The grassy "patch" was no patch. It was a fuzzy grassy sphere! He stood awkwardly, balanced like an extinct lumberjack on an illegal log. He hovered at the center of a larger sphere across whose surface crawled clouds and sun. He stretched out his arms. One false move and he would plunge a thousand meters. Then he realized that the grassy sphere seemed to anticipate and compensate no matter how he moved. Indeed, he realized with great relief, falling was impossible.
This place could only exist within the human mind, but only the General Omniscient Device could make it real.
"Hello?" he called in a small voice.
In the distance a black speck appeared against a pale cloud. The speck became two and these approached rapidly. Soon the Plenipotentiary of the Everything Machine hovered nearby, balanced, like Art, upon a grassy orb. Adjacent to him, a small woman in white robe and cloak stood upon a crystal sphere wherein galaxies burned. Her skin was vestal and lips bloodless. Dark ophelian hair framed her gamin face and intensely burning eyes. The Concubus raised her hand and smiled.
"Greetings," the woman called in a warm contralto.
"Hello, Concubus," Art said respectfully. He would have fallen to his knees if not for his uncertain perch. Those who served as avatars to the G.O.D. were treated with awe. Whether they strode the halls of power or the loneliest village streets on Earth, Luna, or Mars, their appearance and stature were instantly recognized. Art was more than a little humbled that one so close to the G.O.D. had taken an interest in his lowly task.
"We've done it Arthur," the Concubus said.
"Done..." Art blinked. Only his mother called him Arthur.
"In High Council. The Reclamation Nexi's majority has granted a waiver to the law. They've voted to allow the Everything Machine to produce your paper."
Art quivered. "Concubus, the Commune is forever indebted..."
The woman raised a thin hand. "Your continued good work is all that we require. In years to come people will know that the poetry of the present, written upon the paper of the past, is a link with our future."
"Future, past...I don't..."
"The Communes are an aid to society. A teacher of things that were can allow us to inspect the things that are..."
On the sphere next to the Concubus the Plenipotentiary shifted uncomfortably. Otherwise he said nothing. Art was left to blurt out: "Well, we try to educate..."
"Farewell Art Shraede. Keep the world turning. Warmest intent and wishes."
* * *
And then she was gone, and the sky whirled and the sphere beneath Art's feet opened and he seemed to land... plump!... back in the chair in the Plenipotentiary's office. He stared wide-eyed at the Plenipotentiary behind his giant desk. A desk panel hissed open and two full glasses of whiskey rose to the surface.
"Wishes..." the voice of the Concubus drifted through the room. "World turning..."
The professor and the Plenipotentiary locked eyes.
"Hell of a way to run a government," the Plenipotentiary growled. He downed the contents of one glass and smacked his lips resignedly.
"That was the G.O.D.," said Art. It was more statement than question.
The Plenipotentiary nodded. "Done through the neurological symbionts embedded in our brains. Takes control of all the senses. Controls physiology to keep you from panicking. Quite an experience, eh?"
Art reached for the other glass of brown liquid but his hand was quivering so much he decided against it. "Glad I've been paying my taxes."
The Plenipotentiary smiled and then laughed. A big, hearty laugh. "I like you, Art. I'm glad you got your paper. Let's fac it so you can get the hell out of my office."
Art leaned back in his chair and waited for his head to stop spinning. Max reappeared above the desktop, none the worse for wear. Max and the Plenipotentiary whispered back and forth. Max ran a legal-comb through the databurst that the General Omniscient Device had just handed down.
"The databurst is ironclad," Max reported. "Just one tiny wrinkle."
"Well if its tiny let's ignore it," the Plenipotentiary sub-vocalized while smiling at Art. "Just get that load of paper facked so we can get back to normal."
"On its way. However, the General Omniscient Device cleared the order through the Reclamation Act's traditional arts clause."
"Prior to receiving the paper, Art Shraede must use it to produce some form of traditional art."
The Plenipotentiary felt his stomach tighten. "Well... let's have him make a...a...."
"Poem? I've consulted the ghost currently loaded in his system. He has no talent for that."
The Plenipotentiary issued a word that was older than papermaking. Art glanced up, shocked.
"I'd better explain," the Plenipotentiary said hurriedly. And he explained, hurriedly.
"So I have to make some traditional form of art," said Art, crestfallen. "But what? I'm a poor poet, at best."
"That is a problem," the Plenipotentiary said over bridged fingers. "We can't even give you one sheet to take back. And the Poets cannot come here, given the Grand Experiment of Isolation."
Art sank several inches into his chair.
"A small limerick or haiku would get you all the paper you need."
"No," Art said disdainfully.
The Plenipotentiary continued: "Max has suggested an alternative."
Art was intrigued. "Such as?"
"Origami." As the Plenipotentiary spoke a tidy ream of paper rose from the center of his desk.
Art stared at the gleaming white rectangular stack. Wonder flowed. "Paper," he breathed.
The Plenipotentiary slid the stack toward Art. "We can't release this order until the recipient demonstrates some traditional art form. Origami is a common form that requires no writing."
Art had never heard of origami. Something akin to butterflies tickled his stomach. Had he stumbled upon a lost form? Something he could bring back to the Communes and make his own? Could he become... an origami artist and give up wandering for an artistic niche in the Communes?
The ghost tickled a warning. You haven't the temperament for...
The Plenipotentiary saw the mix of emotions on Art's face. The small chrono that shunted via his optic nerve told of other duties, appointments, and rounds to make. The big man's tummy growled. Oh yes, and he also wanted lunch. The cornucopia ensign on the wall forever mocked him.
"Please," the Plenipotentiary coaxed. "Try some paper folding. Max suggests a small box or bird."
Art regarded the paper. Slowly, carefully, as if reaching for some holy relic, his hands sought the paper. Inches above the top sheet his hands stopped and hovered, uncertain.
"For the Communes," the Plenipotentiary urged.
Art smiled sheepishly and took the first sheet. He placed it gingerly on the table and ran his hand over it to make it flatter. Then he folded it in half, then in half again. Several folds later he was heard to say: "Oh, that's not quite right."
The Plenipotentiary's stomach grumbled.
In the air around Art, Max flashed a series of diagrams that showed proper paper-folding techniques. They went unnoticed. Half an hour later a tangle of poorly constructed forms lay scattered across the desk and floor. Art looked weary. He grabbed sheets in rapid succession. His hands and fingers working in short, desperate bursts. The novelty of paper and paper folding had quickly worn off. Now it seemed to exist only to torment him. Such was the case with all his artistic endeavors.
Art took a shot of the proffered whiskey.
The ghost buzzed unsympathetically in his ear. Give it up, kid!
Art cried: "I can't believe the G.O.D. did this to me!" He folded a sheet diagonally and mumbled something about an origami hat.
"I don't think there is such a thing as an origami hat," the Plenipotentiary cautioned. "At least not one that you can wear."
"Dammit!" Art yelled. He crumpled the paper in his hands until it became a convoluted, wrinkled ball. It bounced idly across the desk and landed in the Plenipotentiary's lap. The big man picked it up and carefully scrutinized it. Max bobbed just above his shoulder.
"Sorry, Plenipotentiary," Art groaned. His head fell into his hands. He had come so close! "It's no use!"
"Nooooo," the Plenipotentiary suddenly crooned. "I think not."
Art looked up.
The Plenipotentiary smiled. "Your task is complete. You may go and take your paper with you."
Art was shocked. "B-b-but I haven't created an example of traditional art."
The crumpled ovoid, resting on the tips of the Plenipotentiary's large fingers, was elevated gracefully into the air. "You most certainly have," he said.
Art stared up at the crushed spheroid. "I don't know what you can possibly..."
"This, my dear sir," the Plenipotentiary announced in his deepest, sincerest, and most authoritative voice. "Is the most perfect example of an origami boulder I have ever seen."
"But that's ridiculous!" Art cried.
The Plenipotentiary's eyebrows shot up. "No more ridiculous than placing words down on a recording device that is nearly seven thousand years old. Let's leave art to the artists, by damn!"
Art's eyes went wide. One would never hear such talk in the Communes! He was shocked. Then maybe it was the whiskey or the ghost or the stress of the last hour but Art suddenly found himself laughing.
"Where do I go to pick up my paper?" he managed to say, rising.
The Plenipotentiary lumbered around the desk and the two men walked toward the door. The Plenipotentiary said, "Max has arranged a wagon and two work beasts are being decanted. They are programmed with the route to Orinda Commune. You can follow them back with your delivery or you can go about your business elsewhere."
Art smiled. A feeling of victory swept over him. He had done a fine job securing the paper for the Poets. It was the kind of work only a true voyageur could do. The idea of following the trail round to another Commune was tempting, but he wanted to see this job to its conclusion back at Orinda. Besides, it would soon be his new home. He would do Final Introduction there, and Orinda Commune would find a new and very happy voyageur in Art Shraede.
The ghost signaled agreement and the Plenipotentiary clapped him on the back.
As Art walked down cathedral-sized corridors to his waiting horse and the wagonload of paper, he thought he heard the voice of the Concubus whispering: Keep the world turning... keep the world turning....
Story copyright 2002 by R. Scott Russell email@example.com
Illustration copyright 2002 by Eric Seaholm firstname.lastname@example.org
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