"Ypsilanti? That's right out on the Fringes! If Zagreb is your idea of a good time, then fine, but do you want to take a job out in the boonies like that?"
"Listen, Bob, it ain't that bad. For one thing, these frontier postings are big money, because you don't have anything to spend it on, or a big town to get to. You live in one of those big central cities like New York, or Moosejaw, you spend half your money just on rent. I'll be saving it. And hey, I'll come visit you. I can afford a trip to Detroit every once in a while. Wish I could've got the Ann Arbor posting--that's still Fringes, but at least it's closer."
So now I feel guilty because I know he has to bankrupt himself if he wants to come visit me. I mean, sure, we're good friends, the best, but I can't expect him to come all that way just for companionship. I watched him pack his stuff into the Shifter and cycle his way inexorably down the alphabet--Ypsilanti was a few days away, so he'd have to make a few stops--figuring I'd maybe see him again in ten years when his job was up.
Come the holidays, who should turn up on my doorstep but Dave. And he's got goddamn presents for the whole family. And not cheap ones, either.
"Geez, Dave," I ask him later, "you sure you can afford this? Sure, you got no kids, but I don't want you stranded in Toledo or Vladivostok or something because you didn't have fare home."
"Let me tell you a little secret, Dave." He sipped at his drink. "You ever wonder how we got around before the Shifters?"
I snorted. "Horseback, I suppose. Why? You ride horses in part way, and that's cheaper?"
"You ever see a Map, Bob?"
Yeah, that's what he called it. He pulled one out of his pocket, a battered and faded-looking thing made of folded paper. Yeah, paper. God knows why the thing hadn't been recycled ages ago, but on the Fringes they get a bit lax that way, I guess. Smelled a bit, a weird smell. I'd noticed it on his clothes too, so it wasn't just whatever paper smelled like.
Anyway, it was sort of like one of those neighbourhood grids, except that someone had put the names of cities on it. And with no rhyme or reason, either--Ypsilanti was right next to Ann Arbor, and Detroit right close by. And some place called Windsor--which I'd only vaguely heard of--was practically right next to us, except there was a red line Dave called a "Border" in between. Frankly, I couldn't make head nor tail out of it, and I told Dave so.
He sat there thinking for a moment, then said, "Okay. How do you get around your house and yard?"
"I walk, of course. What's with this transportation obsession alluva sudden?"
"And your neighbourhood?"
I shrugged and decided to humour him. "If it's not too far I walk. Maybe I take the bike."
"How about to another neighbourhood?"
"Ride the Local Shifter, of course."
"You ever been to the edge of your neighbourhood?"
I shrugged. "Once or twice. Edges aren't very nice places."
"What would happen if you went to the edge and just kept on walking?"
I laughed. "Probably get knifed. What's your point?"
"Okay. Imagine that Detroit was all one big neighbourhood. All the existing neighbourhoods were joined together, so you could walk from the edge of one to the edge of another."
"In a line, you mean?"
"In a grid. Like blocks in a neighbourhood."
I struggled with that for a minute. It's hard to think two- dimensionally past a certain scale, I discovered. I ended up with an image of entire neighbourhoods shoved into tiny blocks. "Okay. Maybe. But I'd hate to have to walk from, say, Brightmoor to Strathmoor."
"Another thing. Forget alphabetical order. It's all arbitrary. Brightmoor is right next to Strathmoor. Just like on the Map. And that's what the Map is. Cities are arranged on the surface of the Earth more or less randomly."
"But if all they had were horses, before the Shifter, then how'd they make so many cities? And so big?" I figured I had him, there.
"They had more than horses. They had Cars, big machines they could use to propel themselves across the surface of the planet. Bob, I've seen them. I've been in one. That's how I got here. It's only a short Drive."
I gave up. "If you say so, Dave."
He didn't stay for very long--he said that even with the short trip back, he didn't want to arouse suspicions. Before he left, though, he took me to see this Car, which he'd put in a warehouse on the edge. It wasn't as big as I thought--I could see over the top, anyway. And it gave off that same awful reek.
I watched him Drive away--he said our neighbourhood was pretty much on the edge of Detroit, otherwise it would have been too risky. He'd left the Map behind, since he said he had some extras in Ypsilanti, and he wanted me to have it.
After a few days, I gave in and went to the authorities. I hated to do it, but he sounded like he'd really gone over the edge, no pun intended. After that, I never did see Dave again.
But sometimes I took out the Map and looked at it. And once I walked almost to the edge of my neighbourhood, where Dave had Driven off, and looked out to see if I could see anything. Dave told me that between the cities was wilderness, grasslands, forests. All I could see was tenements and slumhouses.
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The Den of Ubiquity / Aaron V. Humphrey / firstname.lastname@example.org