The rush of air pulled Evan out of the shuttle craft jump door, down into the largest room he had ever seen, called Earth.  Falling backwards through the dark sky, he caught a glimpse of the small unlit spaceship heading back home, and saw stars he'd watched his entire life fade behind clouds.  Then he thrusted his arms and legs out into a spread-eagle position, corrected his fall, and rotated face-down towards pin-dots of light spread out among the meadows and forest below.  The wind flapped the skin of his face and fluttered his hair.  Counting down, he pulled the parachute release cord, floated towards the designated lit cross marks, just like he had been trained in simulations.  He bent his knees when his feet hit the ground, rolled, then stopped, lying flat on his back in the grass. He had arrived.
An automobile drove towards him in the clearing and stopped a few feet away.  A Mercedes -- he recognized the front grill from images on his video screen during briefings.  The driver stepped out and opened the back door.  “Welcome to America.  Hope you had a nice fall.  I'm Ray, your driver and assistant.” He helped Evan collect his parachute, placed it in the trunk, and quickly drove away.
After the car pulled onto a two-lane country road, Ray glanced back.  He had short brown hair and a nose that looked like it had been broken.  “Next to you in the wallet are your driver’s license and credit cards.  The other papers are back at the house.  They told me you've gone by the first name 'Evan' up there, so I arranged that for your fake ID's.  Your full name is 'Evan Lyles'.  Remember that.”
“Were my parents named Lyles?”
“No.  I don't know who your folks were.”
Evan didn't even know if his parents knew each other.  His hosts had borrowed them, extracted their egg and sperm, then later combined the two to produce him.  His mom and dad were two androids that held him when he was a baby, and told him they loved him.  As he grew up, they played learning games with him, and taught him how to read.  Then one day they smiled, told him that they were machines, and revealed a large interactive video screen.  It flashed You are a special human, and vocalized the words in a soothing voice.  Afterwards, mom and dad came by less and less, until only the video screen greeted him each morning.
Ray glanced back again and handed him a small printed slip of paper.  “Hey smile, it's your lucky day.  You've just won the Connecticut lottery.”
They drove up the driveway of a two-story brick house, surrounded by trees.  Inside, the furnishings looked as though he'd been living there for years.
“We have all of this for ourselves?” he asked.
“No.  You have it all.  I live on top of the garage.  Looks best that way.”
Ray gave him a brief tour of all the rooms, ending with the bedroom.  “Here’s where you sleep.  We start tomorrow; I've already set your alarm clock for six o'clock.  Good night.” He closed the door as he left.
Evan estimated the room to be about four times the size of the one he had lived in for more twenty years on the hosts' spaceship.  He'd  measured his room there in body lengths; it had been two by two lengths.  This room had a large bed in the middle of one wall, with a small table beside it.  A simple video screen, called a television, sat against the wall opposite the bed.  It had no keypad, and needed to be turned on manually.  He did, half-hoping to hear a soothing voice greet him. 
Instead, he watched people talk to each other, unaware of his presence.  He turned it off, switched off the lights, got into bed, tried to sleep, then laid on his back with his eyes open.  After a few minutes, he got up, pulled the bed to a corner of the room, laid back down and fell asleep.
The next morning, after breakfast, he memorized all of the information contained in his official records.  Then Ray drove him to the state lottery office in Hartford, where he filled out the papers necessary to claim the $27 million prize.  Everyone congratulated him.  He smiled and shook hands.
The following day, Ray drove him to New York City to begin his assignment.Art catalogues lay on the back seat of the car.  He reviewed them, marking paintings and sculptures to consider buying, based on his years of training.  He wouldn’t be considered an art expert; he had minimal knowledge of history and technique.  But he knew what his hosts desired, because it was basically what he liked.  He'd been tested many times during his training, choosing one art piece over another on his video screen.
As soon as Evan saw the Manhattan skyline, he knew he'd like this place.  Millions of rooms stacked on each other, reaching towards the heavens.  From one gallery to the next, he journeyed, carefully examining each creation.  He looked for what he called purity of beauty, uncluttered by needless embellishment.  But mainly, he noticed how he felt inside -- elated, desolate, yearning, or just nothing at all.  Evan searched.  Ray wrote checks and made delivery arrangements.
Before sunset, he walked around his neighborhood.  A cool summer breeze blew through the trees.  He was surprised to see so many small animals -- birds and squirrels.  He already knew about them from past video screen instruction, but he'd never actually seen them.  
As he walked along someone's backyard, he came across a large sandy brown-haired dog inside a square chain-link fenced pen.  The enclosure measured about two times the dog's body length in size.  The dog started barking.  Out of curiosity, Evan walked closer.  It reacted by barking louder.  He knelt down just outside the enclosure, until their eyes were level with each other.  The dog looked into Evan's face and stopped barking.  He noticed the outline of its ribs, its matted hair, its musty smell.  He shook his head.  At least the hosts would have fed and cleaned it regularly.
His daily trips to New York became the routine for the weeks that followed.  He became well-known to gallery owners, who would personally greet him, and present their latest acquisitions.  One afternoon, he stood in front of one of a painting, oblivious to the nearby pieces of art, the polished hardwood floor, the surrounding white walls, and the two women approaching him.
“Excuse me, Mr.  Lyles,” said the gallery owner.
“Yes,” he answered, slowly turning towards them.
“I thought you two should meet.  Evan Lyles, this is Anna Tumias.  You're looking at her latest painting.”
Anna had eyes the color of jade and copper, below wisps of dark hair.  She smiled, extending her hand, while the gallery owner walked off.  They shook hands.  He'd been introduced to artists before and chatted about their endeavors.  This time, though, he didn't feel like chatting.  He turned back to the painting.  “I have many of your paintings, and I was really looking forward to seeing this one.  I can tell that it began as a sublime effort.  These graceful lines, the delicate use of color.  But its original ideal has been blurred by these elaborate strokes.”
She stiffened, then sighed.  “I was distracted in the middle of that.  I didn't realize it was so apparent.”
“It is to me, but maybe I shouldn't...”
“That's okay.  You're probably right,” she said, looking down at the floor.
Evan felt a pang of guilt.  “My legs are tired from standing.  Could we go sit somewhere and have a cup of coffee?
She thought for a moment.  “There's a cafe on this block.”
After they sat down at a small table between two palms, and ordered, Evan leaned forward.  “I'm sorry if my remark at the gallery troubled you.  I just feel strongly about your paintings.  It would be a tragedy if you couldn’t continue.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do.  I've had some really tough times lately.  Really tough.  And it started right in the middle of that painting.  Afterwards, when I looked at it again, it reminded me of how I felt before.  Before...  well, I just wanted to finish it.  I know it’s not right, but I’d lost the vision.  I kept thinking ‘What is it all for anyway?’”
Evan wasn't sure what to say, so he reached over the table, held her hand, and recited the words that had always comforted him.  “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.  Its loveliness increases.  It will never pass into nothingness, but still will keep a bower quiet for us, and a sleep full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”
“Who said that?”
“The poet John Keats.”
She looked into his eyes, but said nothing.  They finished their coffee in silence.
Then Evan asked “I will be back here tomorrow.  Would you like to have lunch with me then?”
She hesitated then reached into her purse and pulled out a card.  “Yes.  Call me when you get into the city.”
At the end of the day, he returned to his house and took another walk, watching the setting sun bathe the nearby mountains in various shades of amber.  The sandy brown-haired dog was still in its pen when he walked by, but didn't bark at him this time.  Evan sat down right outside the chain link enclosure, reached into a paper bag he'd brought with him, and fed it scraps of food he'd pulled out the refrigerator.
He heard a loud, angry voice.  “Hey! What are you doing with my dog?”
“I'm feeding him.  He's hungry.”
A large, overweight man walked towards him.  “Who the hell are you to decide when my dog eats?”
Evan stood up.  “What about his needs?”
“What are you talking about?  He's just a dog.”
Evan looked right at him.  “And we're just humans.”
The man's forehead wrinkled as he tilted his head.  “Get off my property, or I'll beat the shit out of you.”
Evan hesitated.
“You heard me.  Get off.”
Evan reached into his pocket and took out his wallet.  “I want to buy your dog.”
“What?  He's not for sale.”
Evan pulled out ten hundred-dollar bills and held them in the air.  “A thousand dollars.”
The man eyes narrowed and stared at the money.  “Let me see that.” He grabbed the bills, looked at them carefully, then looked back up and grinned.  “Sure, you can have the mutt.  His name's Spike.” He opened the door of the pen, reached in and grabbed a piece of rope and tossed it at Evan.  “You can use this as a leash.” Then he walked back to his house.
Evan crouched down and called out “Spike.” No response.  Good, he could name him something else.  He tied the rope to the dog's collar and took him home.
Ray was watching television when the two of them walked through the side door.  “What's that?”
“I bought him from one of the neighbors.”
“You go take a walk, and come back with a dog?  Jeez.” Ray stood up and headed towards him.  “Here, give me that rope.  I'll take it back.  Where did you get it?”
Evan tightened his grip.  “No.”
“Look, it's not in the plan.”
“Not everything has to go by the plan.”
Ray stopped, looked right at Evan, and shook his head.  “Fine.  Another thing for me to worry about.  What's his name?”
“Looks like an ordinary mutt to me, but hey, you're one of the home-growns who knows what's good-looking.  I'm just a recruit keeping things rolling along.  But we have to follow the plan.  Remember that.  We don't have much time.”
“What do you mean?  Not much time.”
“Just that.”
Evan arranged to meet Anna for lunch the next day at a Russian diner he liked in Manhattan.  She was waiting for him there in a booth, wearing jeans and a short-sleeve cotton shirt.  They chatted about various things for awhile.
Then she paused and bit the inside of her lip.  “I did some sketches this morning for a new painting.”
“That's wonderful.  How's it going?”
“I don't know.  We'll see.  Would you like to see them?”
She pulled out a sketchbook and handed it to him.  He slowly turned the pages of drawings, and felt sorrow.  When he looked up, there was a tear in his eye.  “Something is wrong, isn't it?”
She took a deep breath.
He placed his hand on hers.  “Tell me.”
She sat still for a moment.  “I'm going to die.”
“We're all going to die.”
“But I'm going to die soon.  I have lymphoma.”
Evan paused for a moment and wiped under his eyes.  “I could die tonight -- the highway's full of maybe's.  I know nothing about the future.  Right now, we're alive.  That's all.”
She searched his face.  “Everybody looks at me different after I tell them,” she said, “Everyone except you.”
When they left the diner, Anna hugged him tightly.  Evan could feel her warmth.  He pressed his face against hers.  Her beautiful face.
They saw each other many times in the weeks that followed,
and then he told her about his past and his assignment.  It was at her apartment, on her leather couch, lying behind her, with his arms around her stomach.
When he finished, he waited.  She thought for awhile, before turning around.  “I don’t know if I really believe you -- but I don't have to believe it.  I just have to know.”
Evan then asked her to move in with him, to have her nearby, and to be near her when she felt the sickness.  She accepted.  He explained the situation to Ray, adding, “Having her live with me will help her be more creative, and the hosts like her creations.”
Ray smiled.  “Yeah.  Right.  Just don’t let her slow you down.  We’ve got work to do.”
After she’d moved in, she’d suffer periods of swelling, fever, and weakness.  Evan helped her in whatever way he could.  And thought about another possibility.
On the drive back from New York one afternoon, he told Ray, “I need to communicate with the hosts.”
“That’s my job.  Why do you want to do it?”
“Anna’s illness.  I thought maybe they could help her.”
“You know, they'd have to take her up there long enough to fix her.”
“I know.”
Then Ray asked what Evan had already thought hard about.  “What if they don’t want to send her back?”
He took a deep breath.  “She would decide.”
Ray glanced back.  “Hey, don't worry.  If they'd wanted her, I'd have nabbed her by now.  You're the man when it comes to picking out artwork, but they still call the shots.  I wasn’t kidding when I said we didn’t have much time.  I can tell you now, everybody's going to know soon enough anyway.”
Ray slammed his fist into the dashboard.  “A big rock going to hit Earth -- wipe us all out.”
“The hosts won’t stop it?”
“I asked why they wouldn’t.  The answer I got was: What would have happened if sixty-five million years ago, someone wanted to save those poor dinosaurs and had a way to do it?”
“Yes.  That’s the kind of answer they’d give.”
“But we’re going to be okay.  They’ll pull us off in time.  I think of it like that Monopoly game.  We have handfuls of cash and ‘Get Out of Earth Free’ cards.  I just have to keep doing the grunt-work, and you just have to keep buying art.  Hey, can't you see me floating up there in space in one of those fancy spacesuits?”
Evan felt the hosts would use Ray as long as there was grunt-work to be done.  After that, there’d be home-growns trained to float in space.  But he also knew the importance of keeping things rolling along.  “Yes, I think you belong with them.”
“You damn straight.  It's going to get messy, but just follow the plan.  Okay?”
Later, Evan explained the situation to Anna in their bedroom.  He ended with, “You must finish your latest painting tonight and leave it behind for Ray to deliver.  Before sunrise, we’ll take Adonis and leave.  We’ll find ourselves a new home.”
“You don’t think they’ll come after you.”
“No, there’ll be too much confusion.  I’ll just be written off.  I’m free now, for the first time in my life.”
That night, Evan watched Anna apply graceful lines to canvas, and concluded that creating beauty is a reflection of life -- or a reaction to it.  It could never be conceived in a vacuum.  They made dinner together, and went to bed early, with Adonis sleeping near the bedroom door.  They were asleep in each others arms, when the Special Bulletins hit the airwaves, interrupting the normal flow of things, and dissolving all  expectations.
Copyright © 1997 to 1998 John Gerner.
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