* * *
On the edge of the Eternal Carnival sat a boy in a clean, modular hotel room, watching the shining creatures at play in the poisonous land outside.
The boy was alone today. Not an unusual state of affairs, all things considered. Father was off, again, having Meetings With Important People and the boy, again, had been left with scads of old-style printed reading material and a fully functional video hookup to keep him busy, which, as always, never ever did so. And so, once again, six hours in, the boy was reduced to staring out the window and watching the world without.
This was fine when it was a relaxing sort of world. The chilly hydrogen seas of Mithronax, for example, had a lulling, hypnotic quality that the boy found quite soothing. He could stare out at them for hours on end without becoming bored; in fact, he had been asked to do just that on a particularly nasty weekend full of lots and lots of Meetings With Important People -- unpleasant ones, to hear his father curse about them. And after long enough gazing into the endless corrosive sandstorm that was Hyfrydol, the boy found himself seeing things in the twisting, shifting patterns of clouds and grains. Odd things. Multi-legged demons, winged seraphim. They scared him at first, but in time he grew fascinated beyond all reason and eventually it was all his father could do to tear him away from the window when it finally came time to go to sleep.
But this, this was the Eternal Carnival. And all it did was itch.
Not that it was much to look at, mind you, anymore. There was a time, long ago, when the Eternal Carnival had been a singularly dazzling sight, a great amusement park an entire continent wide, sea to sea, a nation of light and color and smell propped up with only the barest of social and practical infrastructure, just enough to keep the whole thing from exploding like some bright firework flower or folding in on itself like the rickety business that it truly was beneath all the glow.
That was before the poison bombs, of course.
The Eternal Carnival was quiet now, as it had been for decades. You could still see the lights, faintly, through the muddy brown-black aerosolized soup of viruses and irradiated particles, but there was no motion. Nothing whirled or twirled or spun anymore. The great city's-breadth roller coasters were silent, and bits fell from their decaying tracks on occasion.
Nobody minded much. At least, none of the shining people did. And this was why: seated in tiny booths at the foot of each attraction was a shining person with a small, shining machine, and when you loaded your brain into it, it would precisely duplicate the experience that its corresponding attraction once offered. Want to go on the Ferris Wheel? Step right up! Here's the frequency you need! Why bother with the real thing? Your internal gyroscope isn't connected to your emotional centers anymore, anyway, so why risk the wear and tear on your parts? Just do what the barker-man says and in minutes you'll feel like you're whizzing through the air, falling like a stone, or perched precariously right on top, stalled and swaying, with your best girl sitting right beside you.
Crowds of shining people gathered around each of the old rides. They sat still, lifeless and motionless, their brains all souped together in the shining boxes in the tiny booths beneath each one.
This all was quite maddening to the boy. Watching an entire country's worth of people standing about, quietly having the times of their lives in the electronic depths of a barker-man's machine while he was denied even a simple lump of cotton candy was driving him to distraction. Oh, sure, one could purchase the experience of a lump of cotton candy -- if you were one of the shining people, that is. But no, it was soy food for the boy, soy food that could sort of kind of be flavored like cotton candy if you requested it to be so but-actually-not.
The boy didn't understand, at this age, why his father always balked at the idea of letting him upload himself, why he had to feel like a hopeless Luddite (the boy had just learned the meaning of that word) next to... well, next to virtually everyone else anymore. Mom had done it, after all. Not that Mom was around anymore. Privately, the boy suspected that Mom's decision to upload herself had been responsible for the split, responsible for this strange, itinerant lifestyle he and his father now "enjoyed", and he was actually quite correct in this.
And so the boy sat there in his clean, oblong room, a single stubby branch jutting out from a tall tower containing a thousand other such stubby branches that, together, made up the Nautilus Inn: Eternal Carnival. And he was going, sad to say, quite spare.
Another quarter-hour mark passed, and the hotel began another rotation. Every fifteen minutes, Nautilus Inns all around the Cluster pivoted forty-five degrees on their central spindle to give guests the full panorama of their world of choice, assuming they were in to that sort of thing. The mechanism was smooth enough that you wouldn't even notice if you weren't actively looking out the window, so one could wholly ignore it if one wanted to, and many did.
Not the boy, of course. The boy relished each regular change of scene. It did wonders to alleviate the boredom. And he had been waiting two full hours for just this particular one, when the lone window of the hotel room pointed out, once again, at the old carousel.
It was a grand thing, the old carousel. Huge, of course, built to the scale of everything else on this world. Four stories high, studded with a thousand different animals of myth and fancy, not one of them a horse. Dire wolves coursed over the land, the foam upon their muzzles painstakingly picked out in white enamel; sea serpents leapt through clouds of carved wooden foam; lamia prowled and slithered low; and breathtaking unicorns paused, mid-stride, to gaze warily at the far-off horizon. In its prime, it had been the crown jewel of the Eternal Carnival, and never was a promotional hologram made for the place that did not include its awe-inspiring image.
That was, once again, before.
The closet with his father's environment suits in it was easy enough to jimmy. They ran rather big on him, he found, and the internal warning alarms cautioned him that optimum protection could only be obtained with a well-fitting suit, but he silenced them because they were quite annoying, and he felt certain that he knew what he was doing. The exterior airlock door was a bit more difficult, seeing as his father had quite responsibly locked it against any egress, but on one particularly tedious day -- spent gazing out at the bleak, grey waste-world of Tauris -- the boy had discovered a loophole in the Nautilus Inn franchise's security systems that he could exploit to leave unhindered. He had been saving it for a rainy day, so to speak, since the good people at Nautilus Inns, Inc. would almost certainly patch it up lickety-split as soon as they got word that someone (i.e. him) had compromised their system security, but the boy figured that this was as good a time as any.