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The Pleasure of Their Company

by Robert Silverberg

He was the only man aboard the ship, one man inside a sleek shining cylinder heading away from Bradley’s World at ten thousand miles a second, and yet he was far from alone. He had wife, father, daughter, son for company, and plenty of others, Ovid and Hemingway and Plato, and Shakespeare and Goethe, Attila the Hun and Alexander the Great, a stack of fancy cubes to go with the family ones. And his old friend Juan was along, too, the man who had shared his dream, his utopian fantasy, Juan who had been with him at the beginning and almost until the end. He had a dozen fellow voyagers in all. He wouldn’t be lonely, though he had three years of solitary travel ahead of him before he reached his landfall, his place of exile.

It was the third hour of his voyage. He was growing calm, now, after the frenzy of his escape. Aboard ship he had showered, changed, rested. The sweat and grime of that wild dash through the safety tunnel were gone, now, though he wouldn’t quickly shake from his mind the smell of that passageway, like rotting teeth, nor the memory of his terrifying fumbling with the security gate’s copper arms as the junta’s storm-troopers trotted toward him. But the gate had opened, and the ship had been there, and he had escaped, and he was safe. And he was safe.

I’ll try some cubes, he thought.

The receptor slots in the control room held six cubes at once. He picked six at random, slipped them into place, actuated the evoker. Then he went into the ship’s garden. There were screens and speakers all over the ship.

The air was moist and sweet in the garden. A plump, toga-clad man, clean-shaven, big-nosed, blossomed on one screen and said, “What a lovely garden! How I adore plants! You must have a gift for making things grow.”

“Everything grows by itself. You’re—”

“Publius Ovidius Naso.”

“Thomas Voigtland. Former President of the Citizens’ Council on Bradley’s World. Now president-in-exile, I guess. A coup d’etat by the military.”

“My sympathies. Tragic, tragic!”

“I was lucky to escape alive. I may never be able to return. They’ve probably got a price on my head.”

“I know how terrible it is to be sundered from your homeland. Were you able to bring your wife?”

“I’m over here,” Lydia said. “Tom? Tom, introduce me to Mr. Naso.”

“I didn’t have time to bring her,” Voigtland said. “But at least I took a cube of her with me.”

Lydia was three screens down from Ovid, just above a clump of glistening ferns. She looked glorious, her auburn hair a little too deep in tone but otherwise quite a convincing replica. He had cubed her two years before; her face showed none of the lines that the recent troubles had engraved on it. Voigtland said to her, “Not Mr. Naso, dear. Ovid. The poet Ovid.”

“Of course. I’m sorry. How did you happen to choose him?”

“Because he’s charming and civilized. And he understands what exile is like.”

Ovid said softly, “Ten years by the Black Sea. Smelly barbarians my only companions. Yet one learns to adapt. My wife remained in Rome to manage my property and to intercede for me—”

“And mine remains on Bradley’s World,” said Voigtland. “Along with—along with—”

Lydia said, “What’s this about exile, Tom? What happened?”

He began to explain about McAllister and the junta. He hadn’t told her, back when he was having her cubed, why he wanted a cube of her. He had seen the coup coming. She hadn’t.

As he spoke, a screen brightened between Ovid and Lydia and the seamed, leathery face of old Juan appeared. They had redrafted the constitution of Bradley’s World together, twenty years earlier.

“It happened, then,” Juan said instantly. “Well, we both knew it would. Did they kill very many?”

“I don’t know. I got out fast once they started to—” He faltered. “It was a perfectly executed coup. You’re still there. I suppose you’re organizing the underground resistance by now. And I—And I—”

Needles of fire sprouted in his brain.

And I ran away, he said silently.

The other screens were alive now. On the fourth, someone with white robes, gentle eyes, dark curling hair. Voigtland guessed him to be Plato. On the fifth, Shakespeare, instantly recognizable, for the cube-makers had modeled him after the First Folio portrait: high forehead, long hair, pursed quizzical lips. On the sixth, a fierce, demonic-looking little man. Attila the Hun? They were all talking, activating themselves at random, introducing themselves to one another and to him. Their voices danced along the top of his skull. He could not follow their words. Restless, he moved among the plants, touching their leaves, inhaling the perfume of their flowers.

Out of the chaos came Lydia’s voice.

“Where are you heading now, Tom?”

“Rigel XIX. I’ll wait out the revolution there. It was my only option once hell broke loose. Get in the ship and—”

“It’s so far,” she said. “You’re traveling alone?”

“I have you, don’t I? And Mark and Lynx, and Juan, and Dad, and all these others.”

“Cubes, that’s all.”

“Cubes will have to do,” Voigtland said. Suddenly the fragrance of the garden seemed to be choking him. He went out, into the viewing salon next door, where the black splendor of space glistened through a wide port. Screens were mounted opposite the window. Juan and Attila seemed to be getting along marvelously well; Plato and Ovid were bickering; Shakespeare brooded silently; Lydia, looking worried, stared out of her screen at him. He studied the sweep of the stars.

“Which is our world?” Lydia asked.

“This,” he said.

“So small. So far away.”

“I’ve only been traveling a few hours. It’ll get smaller.”

He hadn’t had time to take anyone with him. The members of his family had been scattered all over the planet when the alarm came, not one of them within five hours of home—Lydia and Lynx holidaying in the South Polar Sea, Mark archaeologizing on the Westerland Plateau. The integrator net told him it was a Contingency C situation: get offplanet within ninety minutes, or get ready to die. The forces of the junta had reached the capital and were on their way to pick him up. The escape ship had been ready, gathering dust in its buried vault. He hadn’t been able to reach Juan. He hadn’t been able to reach anybody. He used up sixty of his ninety minutes trying to get in touch with people, and then, with stunner shells already hissing overhead, he had gone into the ship and taken off. Alone.

But he had the cubes.

Cunning things. A whole personality encapsulated in a shimmering plastic box a couple of centimeters high. Over the past few years, as the likelihood of Contingency C had grown steadily greater, Voigtland had cubed everyone who was really close to him and stored the cubes aboard the escape ship, just in case.

It took an hour to get yourself cubed; and at the end of it, they had your soul in the box, your motion habits, your speech patterns, your way of thinking, your entire package of standard reactions. Plug your cube into a receptor slot and you came to life on the screen, smiling as you would smile, moving as you would move, sounding as you would sound, saying things you would say. Of course, the thing on the screen was unreal, a computer-actuated mockup, but it was programmed to respond to conversation, to absorb new data and change its outlook in the light of what it learned, to generate questions without the need of previous inputs; in short, to behave as a real person would.

The cube-makers also could supply a cube of anyone who had ever lived, or, for that matter, any character of fiction. Why not? It wasn’t necessary to draw a cube’s program from a living subject. How hard was it to tabulate and synthesize a collection of responses, typical phrases, and attitudes, feed them into a cube, and call what came out Plato or Shakespeare or Attila? Naturally a custom-made synthesized cube of some historical figure ran high, because of the man-hours of research and programming involved, and a cube of someone’s own departed great-aunt was even more costly, since there wasn’t much chance that it could be used as a manufacturer’s prototype for further sales. But there was a wide array of standard-model historicals in the catalog when he was stocking his getaway ship; Voigtland had chosen eight of them.

Fellow voyagers. Companions on the long solitary journey into exile that he knew that he might someday have to take. Great thinkers. Heroes and villains. He flattered himself that he was worthy of their company. He had picked a mix of personality types, to keep him from losing his mind on his trip. There wasn’t another habitable planet within a light-year of Bradley’s World. If he ever had to flee, he would have to flee far.

He walked from the viewing salon to the sleeping cabin, and from there to the galley, and on into the control room. The voices of his companions followed him from room to room. He paid little attention to what they were saying, but they didn’t seem to mind. They were talking to each other. Lydia and Shakespeare, Ovid and Plato, Juan and Attila, like old friends at a cosmic cocktail party.

“—not for its own sake, no but I’d say it’s necessary to encourage mass killing and looting in order to keep your people from losing momentum,

. . .
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