It was not long before they passed the city limits of Vigilanceville.
Stoney was struck by how the homes in what Merrybelle called the suburbs were
spread out, with much wasted open land between them.

"Is something wrong?" asked Merrybelle.

"I’m simply struck by the amount of space that is wasted in
your city," Stoney said. "What is the use of all that open ground covered in
nothing but grass?"

"People want their privacy," explained the girl. "They don’t
want to live cheek by jowl with their neighbors. Also, good-sized yard space
enables some to retain a connection to the land. See? Many have smaller
versions of my kitchen garden in the back."

"It’s just disconcerting to see citizens living horizontally
instead of vertically," said Stoney. "Such isolation from others would make me
lonely."

"It’s something you’ll have to get used to if the council
decides you can’t go back," said Merrybelle, with a note of concern in her
voice. "Really, it’s not so bad living outside the ‘plex. If you end up
staying, you’ll see what I mean."

Stoney kept his thoughts to himself, doubting that he could
ever get used to such a confusing lifestyle. He appreciated the girl’s concern,
however, and wondered if it could mean anything more. But his musings were
interrupted by the sight of an unusual-looking structure.

"What kind of building is that?" Stoney asked, pointing.

"Oh, that’s a church."

"Really? Are there many worshipers of the Prophet on the
outside?"

"Prophet? What are you talking about? A church is where
Christians meet."

"Christians! You mean to tell me that there are enough
Christians to fill such a building?"

"Of course. There are many churches in Vigilanceville used by
different sects." Merrybelle glanced at Stoney. "Don’t tell me there are no
Christians in the ‘plex?"

"Oh, I’m sure there are," replied Stoney. "It’s just that
I’ve never met any. I’m told there are a few who still practice their faith,
but if so, they don’t advertise the fact."

"Why not?"

"Like citizens of European descent, the Christian religion
was responsible for much suffering in the world. For that reason it has long
since been removed from society and those who continue to cling to it have been
marginalized," said Stoney matter-of-factly. "Today, worship of the Prophet is
the sanctioned religion."

"So as far as you’re aware, there are no Christians in the
‘plex?" asked Merrybelle, clearly disturbed.

"No. That’s why I’m surprised to hear you say there are
enough on the outside to demand the use of so many buildings. You mean to tell
me that the Christian religion is still practiced openly here?"

"Of course! The Christian religion is a beautiful faith
directed by a desire for peace and love. Why should anyone want to remove such
a thing from society?"

"On the face of it, I’ll admit your definition sounds
attractive. But religion has been responsible for more bloodshed throughout
history than any other factor," said Stoney.

"So your society has chosen to embrace the evil men have done
in the name of religion, instead of the peaceful intent of the religion
itself?" commented Merrybelle. "Certainly, the twentieth century regimes of
Germany, Russia, and China alone far surpassed in bloodshed anything that could
be laid at the doorstep of religion. The slaughter engendered by those
political entities was not done for religious reasons but for those of the
state . . . the same kind of state that currently rules in the ‘plex. How many
citizens have lost their lives or were never allowed to be born because of the
laws limiting population growth? How many millions over the centuries since the
war?"

For once, Stoney had no reply. It had never occurred to him
to look at the situation in quite that way. Due to the finite nature of its
resources, the Administration did control the number of births and, at least in
the early years of the Municiplex, it had put to death thousands of people in
order to bring population levels down to numbers that could be managed in the
closed environment of the towers. For the first time, Stoney sensed, if only
dimly, the vast crime perpetrated by the Administration on its citizens.

Recoiling from such notions as he would from the edge of a
deep pit, Stoney quickly changed the subject.

"Do you belong to any of these churches?" he asked.

"I do," replied Merrybelle, without elaboration. There was
silence then and he knew that he had upset her with the conversation regarding
Christianity. Try as he might to get her to speak again, she demurred, and it
was not until the ground car had come to rest in a lot containing many similar
vehicles that she spoke to him again. "We’ll leave the car here while we do our
errands. First the bank."

The balance of the afternoon was spent checking on the Daidin
account, shopping in the local food store for items not available on the farm,
and simply walking about, with Merrybelle showing Stoney the sights.

Stoney was struck by the ease and equality with which those
of European descent and citizens of color interacted with each other. Just as
surprising, there seemed to be many more of European descent, and yet both
groups held positions of employment at all levels.

"How are citizens assigned employment in Vigilanceville?"
Stoney asked.

"No one is assigned employment," replied Merrybelle.
"Employers own their businesses and hire whom they please. If they wish to
succeed, they make sure to hire the best person."

"And does this system apply as well to mating?"

"What do you mean?"

"Do citizens choose their own mates as they choose their own
employees?"

"Of course, silly!" replied Merrybelle.

"That would explain why so many couples are made up of people
of the same skin color," said Stoney, thinking aloud. "Are citizens then
forbidden from choosing mates of a different color?"

"No," said Merrybelle. "Like I said, people are free to
choose whomever they want. Look, there’s a mixed couple there."

The contradictions of the society in which he found himself
continued to pile up, giving Stoney a headache. Would he ever figure out how
such a chaotic community could remain healthy and viable? But the question was
one he soon abandoned as he began to feel more comfortable in the presence of
Merrybelle who, by the end of the afternoon, had slipped her arm through his
and was holding him close. Stoney found the contact more thrilling than anything
he had ever experienced. Certainly there were young women in Sunshine that he
had known, but contact with them was usually within the strict rules governing
the activities of unmated individuals. Rarely . . . no, never had he felt the sort
of pleasurable sensations he was feeling with Merrybelle, who was proving to be
a free-spirited young woman.

By the time they returned to the farm, Stoney Vander was
quite taken by the vivacious Merrybelle, a fact he had some time to ponder as
she turned him out of doors while she prepared the evening meal.

He wandered through the kitchen garden and out to the edge of
the cornfields, where he walked quietly along the rows of stalks toward the
sunset. Unbidden, memories of the life he had left behind paraded through his
mind, and he was seized by a sudden longing to return to the familiar routine
of work and family life. He thought of his parents and sister and how worried they
must be, and he was struck by the strangeness of life outdoors. Suddenly the
open sky made him nervous, and the feel of the wind on his skin carried with it
a sense of vulnerability. Sounds from the chicken coops and barn underscored
the air of unnaturalness and from somewhere deep inside of him, the feeling
grew of wanting to run, to get away from these odd people, back to his air car
and home, where all was normal and sane.

But the panic welling within him dissipated with the sound of
Merrybelle’s voice calling from the house. The evening meal was ready; Stu
would be there with news of the council and, for the first time, Stoney was not
sure what he wanted that to be.

Inside, he was relieved to find that, once again, Merrybelle
had prepared a meal that did not include meat or dairy products. The food was
pleasing in its variety of greens and yellows and a big bowl of fresh fruit sat
at the center of the table.

"Is this what you call a meal for a hungry man?" demanded Stu
half-jokingly.

"In deference to our guest, I prepared supper without any
meat," replied Merrybelle sweetly, looking at Stoney out of the corner of her
eye.

The smile on her face chased all the doubts of the last hour
away, and he knew only the desire to remain in her company as long as possible.

"I appreciate the effort," he said, smiling.

"Hmmm," was all Stu could muster, as he looked at a bunch of
lettuce leaves stuck on the end of his utensil.

After a few minutes of silence while they ate, Stoney
ventured the question that all of them knew was coming.

“So, did the council decide what is to be done with me?”

“No,” replied Stu, picking an apple from the fruit bowl.
“They spent all morning and part of the afternoon arguing until finally
deciding to pass the problem on to the feds. It seems it’s been longer than I
thought since someone from the ‘plex wandered outside. No one really knows if
any of the old rules about what to do with you people still apply. It seemed
pretty harsh to simply shoot you like they did in the days immediately after
the war.”

“I’m happy to hear that!”

“Me too!” said Merrybelle, with such emphasis that it caused
Stoney’s heart to leap.

Stoney passed his second night watching some televised
programming on the family’s entertainment center and listening as Merrybelle
played an old-fashioned upright piano in the living room. She was very good, at
least as judged by Stoney’s limited experience. But simply being with Merrybelle
was pleasant enough.

After he retired for the evening and was alone with his
thoughts, Stoney had to admit he was conflicted. He recalled the electric
thrill whenever Merrybelle held his arm or came into contact with him for any
reason, and the empty feeling when he was away from her. Admitting a growing
affection for the girl, one that he felt strongly was reciprocated, he found
the situation unsettling. Being raised outside the Municiplex placed Merrybelle
at odds with his own beliefs, which despite her arguments had failed to weaken.
For that reason, he felt that whatever relationship he might enter into with
the girl was doomed to failure.

In fact, whenever he felt the possibility of things becoming
serious between them, he grew conflicted, fearful, and wary of giving up his own
beliefs and way of life for hers, which he considered alien and unreal. Twisted
up inside over his growing desire for the company of Merrybelle and his
yearning for the comforting familiarity of Sunshine, it was a long time before
he was able to fall asleep.