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357. Retreat (IX)

Before I went up to the cave, I drank in a dark hotel beneath the mountain. It had been constructed as if it were a Swiss chalet, though we were far from Switzerland. At the bar, I sipped cheap lager and listened to the sparse chit-chat from the other patrons. A few, just like me, were to climb up to the cave tomorrow—some might be in the same party as me. It was no easy matter to gain admission to the cave, and every year the authorities restricted the numbers allowed on the tours; the tours themselves only took in five people at a time. “Nothing good is open to all,” said my grandfather; and he was right about that. I had been given a place on the tour thanks to my connections with the trans-Olympian project. This was my reward, and it meant that I was about to join the 20,000 or so people who have seen the cave.

“No pictures, of course,” said a woman a few yards away from me. “If they find you have anything that looks like a camera...They are completely merciless about that.” Her friend sipped her white wine and chirped away for a time. The cave was secret; it turns out that in modernity we have too few secrets. Mankind needs secrets; in the past, we had the wrong secrets—the wrong things were concealed. Yet we were free and open about things that should not be seen. I watched the woman adjust her veil slightly. We were free and open about things that should not be seen.

We assembled in the courtyard the next morning in time to watch pink fingers peel back the clouds. The women were not in my group. They went earlier, perhaps. I was sure I heard them mutter about an early start before I ordered my second drink. The guide outlined the basic rules—yes, cameras were strictly forbidden and we would be scanned at the cave entrance; and if anything was found then items would be left at the owner’s own risk. After the short talk, we filed up the path in silence.

You are familiar with how artists and writers and even scientists say they are never finished with a project? The same goes for craftsmen. You know that nothing is built in a single night: our projects—all our projects—are constructed from little dabs here and there. “I can’t say it was finished, it was just that was when it had to be handed in so I handed it in.” I think that is true for all projects, perhaps for all life. The cave took this fact to its apotheosis; it was built about five-hundred years ago or so by one of the first billionaire-founders. His name was Gray. He devoted his whole fortune to the project, although there were those who said it would be better to spend it on Africa.

Inside a little grotto in the cave—amid stalactites and stalagmites—lies a canvas made from an adamantine compound. At the canvas, century after century, work robots programmed to paint; to paint, and to self-repair and regenerate. Each day they add a little dab to the picture and so the picture grows more and more beautiful as the centuries roll over the cave.

Now it was reckoned to be the most beautiful artefact in the cosmos, and every year it became more beautiful; of course, very few had ever seen it and there was much speculation as to its appearance. Those who visited the cave could never convey the picture’s beauty in a coherent way. In the end, many people forgot all about it; and some, those with a mystical inclination, said that it was so beautiful that it changed the nature of reality. I gently stepped down the stairs to the grotto; ahead of me I could hear the party that had just left the picture, each step away marked by a woman’s gentle sobs.


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