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Chapter II

             She was dressed in much the same outfit as I, though later in the evening I saw that the female version was even more flexible, though I could hardly think it possible, than the male version. Her hair had the uncanny sheen that mine had, and, looking into her eyes, I saw that she'd been given the "eye-treatment" too. Dozens of questions crowded to the front of my mind, but I pushed them all back, determined to wait and see. The end of the corridor was reached in a semicircular cul-de-sac, and again the ubiquitous panel was touched, and a segment of the hemisphere at the end of the hallway slid back to reveal another elevator like the one in which we'd reached this corridor. Light music came out, and there was a coolness and freshness from the open elevator like I'd experienced long before coming to the terrace of my hotel overlooking the Adriatic at Rimini, fresh, almost sweet to the open mouth, and scented with bursting spring flowers, the coolness of dawn joined with the salted freshness of the open sea. I found it hard to distinguish where the carpets met to separate the hall from the elevator, but the walls curved in as the door closed, and again we were in a ball-like womb, being rushed farther into the unknown. The feeling of amazement grew as my ears popped with height, though the building we'd entered was only a dozen or so stories. Of course, our walk through the corridor could have taken us anywhere in the three- or four- block area. "Where are we going?" I asked for the third time. Leda sighed and looked at me, then laughed. "I'd better tell you, or you'll wreck the gathering by asking everyone, and you'll turn into a terrible bore." I kissed her in thankfulness. "But I won't tell you much, just that we're going to the top four floors of one of the big office buildings down here. Our host owns the building, so there was no trouble locking off the top floors, and when there are so many floors, the lack of rent from so few hardly costs him anything at all." "Who IS our host?" "Now, does that really matter?" She frowned at me as if I'd asked why the sky was blue. An interesting question, but one to which I could hardly expect an answer. "If I told you his name, you'd know who he is, and then where are you? You won't recognize his face, because people like him don't make it a point to patronize places where the press would be likely to inquire about him. Just call him Milo." Upward and still upward we hummed, and I couldn't tell if my head spun from the altitude or from the expectancy. Then, with the stomach-rising sensation of a diving plane, the elevator swooped to a stop, and the door slid open. As the segment widened, I first caught sight of the sky above, just turning into twilight, turning from blue to fiery red. It was a moment before my memory told me it was long dark outside, and in that moment Leda stepped out onto a black parapet and I could stare over a flimsy silver railing---at Rio! "Oh, good," said Leda, not surprised, but delighted, "It's Rio again. That's Milo's favorite." But it was a Rio without the stifling humidity and heat, it was a Rio as viewed from ABOVE the Christus on Corcovado, and the hills stretched away in red dotted lines of radio towers into the distance. The ocean still glimmered like steel toward the eastern horizon, and far below the lights were beginning to come on along the streets. Cars moved slowly past, and a huge pyramid of lights in Leblon Park proclaimed that it was Christmas, but no sound reached us from the city far below. I jolted into the realization that we, however, were NOT in Rio, but in New York City, yet my mind, torn by the mental image of Rio, refused to settle for any reality. The smell of tropic nights swelled over us as we walked the little causeway connecting the elevator to a closed doorway at the other end, and the illusion of height was so compelling that I kept steadily away from the railing which looked as if it couldn't prevent the both of us from toppling over the side into the jagged morros of Gavea.
            From the distance came the muffled beat of drums, and it appeared that Carnival was through the door ahead. I gaped at the light below, and gawked at the Sun going down in a fiery blaze beyond Two Brothers and looked back to see lightning play along the coast of Niteroi. The green smell of hills came to my nose, and somewhere a warble of a bird rose through the night to give it life. "Rio?" "Yes," said Leda, "there's usually a theme city, gives you something to build around, even if it's only a diving board from which to launch off into fantasy. You should see it when the city is Rome or Athens. Ummmm." Leda smiled in recollection, but I could only follow behind, learning the oddities of this incredible atmosphere as quickly as I could. Before we stepped through the opposite door, I turned around and saw the lights of the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema come on one after the other, and the thin ribbon of surf from the ocean waves glowed in the reflected light. The causeway presented a view as if from a helicopter flying low over the city, and the drums in the night grew louder as the door slid open before us. Caught in the eddies of air around the door, flecks of confetti boiled out at us, and we were swept into a scene of fiesta, trapped in seconds by fronds of streamers that cascaded from all sides. Actors filled the room with their singing and dancing. But they were not actors, Leda told me loudly above the din: these people had been flown in from Rio for the evening, and most of them didn't know where they were, only the experienced ones. "How could that be?" "Easy, they were told that there was going to be a party on a cruise ship just off the coast. They were told that it was going to go on for a week, so that they should tell their families not to worry when they didn't get back. Then they were taken by launch out to what LOOKED like a pleasure cruiser, but when they got on board, they were ushered into the 'Party Room,' and the 'air-conditioning' took care of the rest." "What do you mean?" "Harmless gas was flooded into the room, it lasted just about ten hours---we told them they were just going to go to sleep for the evening, then start performing for us the next morning." "But that's kidnapping!" "I suppose you could call it that, but you can see, we're not doing them any harm." Beautiful Cariocans threaded their way through the crowd with trays and glasses, and both were emptied in no time. The revels went on with a frenzied air: costumes twirling and flashing in the lambent lights from the walls. Across the ceiling mock fireworks would coruscate with convincing blaze and clamor. Bands thumped in the corners of the room, and tiny parades wound among the tables, but it was hard to tell where the parade ended and the party began, since people stood up and danced frenziedly, or sat down to their pink and green drinks as the will took them. Laughing rose up from the room, split with cheers as some new costume would swing into view more lavish than the ones before. Small shops were set up along one end of the enormous room, and here flowers, small gifts, miniature water-cannons filled with perfumed liquors, multi-colored paper favors, firecrackers, castanets, tambourines, horns, bells, streamers, colored whirling globes, noisemakers, all the implements of Carnival madness were distributed. Smells of the Churrascaria filled the room, and cooks in puffed hats sweated over pits in which sabers skewering chops and steaks were broiling. Ashen-faced actors from Candomble lurched though the crowd, portraying Sweet Water, Salt Water, Love, Greed, and Innocence. But the most surprising shapes threading through the room were those in white gowns like we wore. "Who are those in white?" "Those are party-goers." "But there are only five or six of them." "Of course, the rest are merely the entertainers. We want to see how the people enjoy themselves, not how we enjoy ourselves." "How did they get here?" "After they were put to sleep, the 'pleasure cruiser' turned from a dolphin into a flying fish, and they flew here in ten hours." "But what about immigration?" "Who bothers with immigration? This goes on all the time. The seaplane lands just outside the US territorial waters, and then a helicopter takes a number of trips to fly them to a private heliport not too far from here. They're stacked," Leda saw the amazed expression on my face, "much like cordwood onto a conveyer belt and sent up here. They get a bath," Leda grabbed my chin and turned my face forcibly toward her when she saw my eyes go out of focus in fond memory of the bath, "in not quite the style you got yours so they're safe from infection while they're here." "What about the clothes?" "They're changed, in most cases into clothes much better. The costumes are washed and dried. They don't ask many questions: they're paid well, and they can't remember when anything so terrific has happened to them. When we have our Hong Kong and Tokyo nights, they take the place at slightly different times, or else they'd wonder why they seemed to be attuned to another clock that's so different merely by driving out to a 'cruise ship.'" "Can't the helicopters be seen?" "Of course they can, but we have friends all over, and even if some are reported, the really important people know we're essentially harmless, so they let us alone, in exchange for, shall we say, donations to their favorite charity. Sometimes their favorite charity is themselves, of course, but that's their business. This is an expensive proposition, as you can well imagine, and no niggling bureaucrat is going to put an end to it if a little grease where he squeaks will help!" "How long has this been going on?" "Quite a number of years before I got invited, and by that time much of it was already completed. Even the passages were there---the one we came through was only one of many---because a number of people began to be overly curious as to why so many limousines would drive up at a particular building in the Financial District during a Saturday evening, so we put in a set of tunnels---I think we have six---so that we could get in less conspicuously." I found myself beginning to twitch lightly back and forth in rhythm with the drums. The melody was quite fetching, and a few couples were doing a step-step-step dance of marvelous simplicity but a beautiful grace, and Leda told me it was the Bahaian. Dusky women weaved in time with the music, and men who could be half-Negro, half-oriental danced with them. I recalled from my visit to Rio that the beaches were full of young people with enviable zest for living, and a clutter of these now filled the room. The ceiling was far overhead, and again dotted with artificial stars. "Where are the windows?" "Don't be silly, of course they're boarded up." "There's no trouble with time zones if these people are from Rio." "No, but what would they say if they looked out and saw the Statue of Liberty instead of Christ on Corcovado? Or Sugar Loaf? Don't you think they might question?" "You could say it was a very clever movie, like that one around the causeway was." "Movies can never be as good as real life---they'd never be convinced a movie that filled a wall and went down to the floor and up to the ceiling was a movie, anyway." "What are those people waiting for over there?" I pointed toward a ghostly clump of figures in white clustered around another door leading to a huge spherical room in the center. "That's the Illusion-Dome" "What's that?" "It's like the Causeway, only in 360 degrees---it's like flying in a helicopter over any city you can think of, with some national parks and oriental temples thrown in for good measure." "I'd like to see that." "First you should meet your host---there he is---Milo? Milo!" The man who looked over was a tiny man, both in height and in weight. Despite all the fabulous food in "The Hidden World" he managed to keep his weight down, though before the evening was out I heard the ghastly rumor that he did it with tapeworms. I was quickly reminded about "Not being able to add a cubit to your height" from the Bible---here was undoubtedly one of the richest men in the world, and he was saddled with the cross of being under five feet tall. Yet there were compensations, like his wife. "How is your wife, Milo?" Leda asked, seriously, though I was amazed to hear that a man who could have had any woman in the world would be content with one wife. "Just fine," he said. Through long cultivation, the voice was that of a much larger man, though not booming to make the idea of such a sound out of such a body ludicrous. There had also, I had heard, been talk about grafting lengths of bone onto his legs, but that would only have made him look like a badly proportioned stork, and I was happy for him that he hadn't had the operation. He wore his garment tightly wrapped so that everyone could see that though he was an older man, he kept himself in enviable shape. Seeing what he could do with the folds of his gown prompted me to try a few adjustments with mine, but when I almost listened to Leda when she said "Try pulling that cord, there" and remembering only just in time that in a moment I would have been standing naked except for a loincloth which I sensed had a wet spot where the aftermath of my bath had seeped through. I laughed at her and cuffed her playfully under the chin. Much later I was to meet Milo's wife, and suddenly all train of thought goes to her, and she must be next on the list.