The Age of Saturn
He wandered far, to a place he had not seen before. Beyond the gardens, in an isolated dell, he entered a grove of silver-crowned trees. He paced slowly through the grove, hands clasped behind his back, sniffing the air and gazing up at the stars between the leaves above. In the gloom, the dark and fine-grained bark was like black silk, and the leaves had mirror tissues, so that when the night breeze blew, the reflections of moonlight overhead rippled like silver lake water.
It took him a moment to notice what was odd about the scene. The flowers were open, even though it was night, and their faces were turned toward one bright planet above the horizon.
Puzzled, Phaethon paused and pointed two fingers at the nearest trunk, making the identification gesture. Evidently the protocols of the masquerade extended to the trees as well, and no explanation of the trees, no background was forthcoming.
“We live in a golden age, the age of Saturn,” said a voice from behind him. “Small wonder that our humor should be saturnine as well.”
One who appeared as a wrinkle-faced man with white hair and beard, wearing a dark robe, stood not far away, leaning on a walking stick. During masquerade, Phaethon had no recognition file available in mind, and thus could not tell what dream-level, composition, or neuroform this old man was. Phaethon was not sure how to act. There were things one could say or do to a computer fiction that a real person, a telepresence, or even a partial, would find shockingly rude.
He decided on a polite reply, just in case. “Good evening to you, sir. Then there is a hidden meaning to this display?” His gesture encompassed the grove.
“Aha! You are not a child of this present age, then, since you seek to look below the surface beauty of things.”
Phaethon was not certain how to take this comment. It was either a slight against the society in which he lived, or else against himself. “You suspect me to be a simulacrum? I assure you, I am real.”
“So simulacra must seem to themselves, I suppose, should anyone ask them,” said the white-bearded man with a wide-armed shrug.
Then he seated himself on a mossy rock with a grunt. “But let us leave the question of your identity—this is a masquerade, after all, and not the right time to inquire, eh?—and study instead the instruction of the trees here. I do not know if you detect the energy web grown throughout the bark layers; but a routine calculates the amount of light which would shine, and the angle of its fall, were the planet Saturn to ignite like some third sun. Then, true to these calculations, the energy web triggers photosynthesis in the leaves and flowers, and, naturally, favors the side and angles from which the light would come, you see?”
“Thus they bloom at night,” Phaethon said softly, impressed by the intricacy of the work.
“Day or night,” the white-bearded man said, “provided only that Saturn is above the horizon.”