The man in the glass elevator used the several seconds of ascent to nervously tuck his favorite feather into the trim of his hat. Far below, the city lay subdued in the waning dawn, like a dull jewel waiting to be polished. Floor one-hundred-eighty, the elevator voice announced, and the doors opened. He stepped out into an elegantly styled reception space, and an attractive woman approached, directing him into another room. This room was an office, more comfortably appointed than the other, homey in fact. In the center of the room behind a well-worn but painstakingly polished desk stood the person he had come to see.
“Welcome, Bob,” said the Exemplar, a clean-cut younger man with an easy smile. “Thank you, Lil. Have a seat, Bob. Would you like some coffee?” He picked up a silver pot, poured carefully, and handed the cup and saucer across the desk. “Cream or sugar?”
“No, thank you, sir. I’m fine, sir.”
The trim man settled into his leather executive’s chair. “Please, call me Em. So, I see you’re from — ” his eyes flicked toward the screen on his desk “ — floor seventeen? What did you want to see me about, Bob?”
“Actually, sir — Em — it’s Bubb, with two ‘b’s. Yes, I’m from floor seventeen, and thank you very much for seeing me. I know you’re very busy.”
“Ah, sorry about that. I’m glad you’re here, Bubb. Now, you were saying?”
“Well, I’ve been part of the System for a while, um, Em. I’m still learning — trying to, anyway. But I’ve been wondering about something and hoping you can help. The thing is, it’s hard to explain without sounding untoward — which is not my aim, at all, sir.” He hesitated and looked at the man behind the desk.
Em leaned forward, noting the surprising candor in the other man’s eyes. “Go ahead.”
Bubb took a deep breath. “Well, Em, sir, I don’t understand what my place is here, as a creator. When I create something I spend a lot of time and care on it. Maybe more than I should. I put my heart into every creation I initial for processing. Not to sound cocky, sir, but I think what I produce is mostly pretty good. But once creations leave my cube I don’t know where they go. I’ve heard they’re supposed to go to all the other cubes and floors first, before they go out to the city. That’s what everyone says. But I can’t help but worry, sir, about what the System does with mine.”
“The System knows best, Bubb. It’s programmed that way.”
The other man paused as if gathering his thoughts then spoke again. “The problem is, sir, I don’t know what my creations mean to the System. It isn’t very transparent, if you don’t mind my saying so. I mean, does the System process a creation based on its own merit? Or is it based on something else? I’ve heard people say where your creations end up depends on the number of feathers in your hat, the number of your floor — even your cube’s ‘volume velocity.’ If that’s true, then that worries me. It makes me wonder if this is the right place for me. Respectfully, sir, it makes me wonder if my being here might be a waste of time.”
The Exemplar sat back and gazed at his visitor coolly. “If the issue’s feathers we could tweak your specification so you receive a little more. That’ll help you jump a few floors.”
“It’s not the feathers,” said Bubb. “In fact, I don’t know what the feathers mean anymore. At first they held some magic that made me feel I had reason to be part of the System; but now after some time’s passed, it seems to me a faithless sort of magic, one that only serves itself. Feathers look nice in hats; but in the end, all they are is feathers.”
“Well, what do you want, Bubb?”
“Your last transmission, Em, made me hope there will be a way to determine, once and for all, whether or not there’s value in this System for a creator like me. That’s what I want to know. And while I am just Bubb, from floor seventeen, my time’s worth more than feathers. And if the System knows best, it must know that already. So maybe it’ll know the right thing to do.”
Once the visitor had left, the man behind the desk sat motionlessly for several minutes, fingers tented in meditation. Abruptly, the screen flashed a summons: the System was ready for him in the meeting hall, his presence was required.
Far below in cube 1327, floor seventeen, Bubb removed his hat and placed it back in its usual drawer. He wore it only once in a while, when he thought he had to, but in truth he found it rather restricting. Then, diligently though without much enthusiasm, he applied himself to fiddling on a new creation. After a few hours he stopped, put the fragment away, and checked out.
As Bubb left the building, bracing himself against the winter chill, a sudden gust drew round him a glittery phenomenon: sparkling whorls of tiny flakes of snow that danced above and beside him as he walked. It was so unexpectedly beautiful he laughed out loud in pleasure. Whether it was a fluke of the wind or something else, he didn’t know, but it seemed to follow him home like a twinkling entity, dissipating with a last shimmering wave just before he reached the door of his small apartment.
With a last backward look, noting the elements again seemed as normal, Bubb went in and distractedly attended to his usual routines. When dinner and dishes were finally done, he immediately went over to the tall cabinet in the sitting room. The cabinet was full of special creations he’d been working on for some time. Most were nearly or half-way finished, but tonight he wanted to start on something new. The mysterious manifestation he’d seen on the way home had stirred his imagination, and he felt the tickle of an inspired creation, like a raw diamond tumbling in his mind, waiting to be burnished. He was just about to begin when the transmitter chimed. Bubb groaned and impatiently toggled the receiver.
A familiar, friendly face appeared on the screen. “Hello, Bubb! Not sure if you remember me, but we met at the Creator’s Exchange last month. Clive — Clive Johnson.”
“Clive, hello! Of course I remember you. We had such a pleasant chat that day. How are the creations working out for you?”
“They’re simply wonderful. That’s partly why I called. I wanted to tell you ever since I put them out in the square we’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback. They’re such a big hit I’d like to order a few more, if you have the time.”
“Sure thing, Clive. I’m so glad to hear folks are enjoying them.”
“Also, Bubb, I wanted to ask you something else. We’d love for you to come and visit, maybe even stay if you like. We’re not as big or as fancy as the System, and it’s a bit warmer here than in the city, but we’ve got a lot of space, and we could use a creator like you.”
“I’m flattered. So, tell me, what’s your system like over there? How many floors do you have?”
“Oh, we don’t have a system. It’s more like a community. We call it the Wellspring. And there aren’t any floors. Most of us create remotely. Each creator discovers where the magic guides him or her. Some find they work best in the mountains, others among the meadows, still others along the shore. But once a week or so we gather and share our creations at a round table. It’s pretty inspiring stuff, and always a great time.”
“Do you have feathers?”
“Feathers? Well, we have our fair share of birds, if that’s what you mean. They like to nest in the trees round the square. And some folks raise chickens. Why do you ask?”
“Ah, just curious, nothing important. Everything you mentioned sounds amazing.”
“Tell you what. Tomorrow when I transmit the funds for the order I’ll include some pics and patterns about all of us here at the Wellspring. You can look it over at your leisure. I really hope you’ll join us.”
“Great! Thanks so much, Clive.”
Bubb said his goodbyes and toggled off. With fresh energy and a smile to light the sun, he turned his attention back to the design of his latest creation. He knew exactly where this one would go.