There wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
My view was poor; the windows were frosted and the street below was smoky, but there was definitely a loud, violent upheaval under way. I tried the door and all the windows. I even threw a chair at the French doors out to the balcony, but I only got a broken chair for my efforts. Under the theory that I was probably constantly monitored somehow, I tried shouting out loud for Eloi. Shouted myself hoarse. Nothing.
The noise outside faded; from my limited point-of-view, it appeared that the fracas had shifted away from Main Street, but I could still hear the shouting in the distance. And more than one building in the park was on fire.
I donned my silver suit so that I’d be good to go come morning. While I sat stewing, I finally nodded off again. When I woke up, I was back on the good old soft gray floor in the weird gray realm of the Angels. I felt as if I’d been drugged senseless, which of course may well have been the case. My mouth was dry, my throat was sore, and my head was full of cobwebs. I sat up and looked around, trying to shake off the stupor. I was alone.
Some immeasurable amount of time passed, whatever that means anymore. I sat. After a while, I got up and walked around, but as far as I could tell I never went anywhere. I played with the controls of my gravity harness; I couldn’t fly or achieve true weightlessness, but I got it to a setting that must have been a lot like lunar gravity—I could take great leaps and drift back down to the gray floor. Eventually, I got bored. I sat some more.
I’d have paid real money for a book to read. I had more data crammed in my head than most public libraries, but I had no way of accessing any of it for anything like recreational perusal. Finally, believe it or not, I fell back to sleep.
There is no sound of footfalls in the vast grayness; I woke when Eloi spoke my name. It didn’t occur to me until much later what a big deal that was—he called me “Graham,” not “Chosen.” I sat up, hoping I wasn’t drooling. I ran a hand through my beard just to make sure. As I stood I started to tell Eloi about the riot. He held up a hand to silence me. “The attempt at insurrection is over. Now your mission as the Chosen will truly begin.”
What? “I don’t understand. What the hell happened out there?”
He took a moment, no doubt considering how much to tell me. “One of the Ishim was discovered by some of your people.”
Discovered? What? How? My confusion must have shown on my face, because Eloi answered as if I’d spoken out loud: “While provisioning one of the large kitchens, the Ishim stepped into a trap. A crude device called a snare? The suddenness of this attack overwhelmed the usual detection safeguards. The Ishim was taken captive. Perhaps hostage is the better word. In any case, the Ishim Command responded immediately, but the time differential between the park within the pyramid and the Command Center—elsewhere—caused an unfortunate delay. This scenario had not been properly anticipated. The situation, as you might put it, got out of hand.” Ah, Eloi; ever the master of understatement. He went on: “The entire pyramid is now in stasis. This cannot be sustained indefinitely without risking a collapse of the field.” He read my querying expression. “This would result in the annihilation of everything inside.”
“That would be bad,” I said, just to fill the silence.
“Yes. Even so, there was a strong opinion among some of us that this pyramid should be terminated and another started elsewhere. In many ways, this would be the sensible approach—”
“Objectively, yes. It would be a fresh start, with an untainted population. But it is not an entirely objective situation, is it? Some of us argued that since revealing the Ishim and ultimately ourselves was inevitable anyway, this incident amounted to nothing more than an inconvenience; hardly worth completely restructuring our plans.”
“Not to mention the loss of several thousand lives,” I said, with more than a dollop of sardonic disdain.
Eloi looked directly into my eyes. So directly, in fact, that it was disconcerting. “If I have learned anything about humans so far, it is your endless capacity for hypocrisy. You build whole religions around the sacredness of human life, and then kill each other defending those religions. You sell recreational poisons to your own children. You execute your own countrymen. You dismiss safety equipment as too expensive, or uncomfortable, or inconvenient to use. Human life is sacred, but not when it conflicts with corporate profit or patriotism. Even now, when we have neutralized your technology worldwide, at least a dozen wars continue essentially unabated.
“No Angel has taken another Angel’s life in the memory of our kind. Not one generation of humans can say the same. So your disdain for our lack of respect for human lives rings false. What does your Bible say? ‘First take the log out of your own eye.’ Why should we care about human lives when you yourselves don’t?”
Ouch. This was by orders of magnitude the longest speech I had yet heard out of Eloi. Our daily chats were often about religion; he could now quote the Bible chapter-and-verse, and like a good preacher always use it to make his point. A few seconds slipped by; we still stood almost toe-to-toe in the gray void. “Fair enough,” I said, trying to form a response Eloi would respect. “I can hardly defend the entire human race to you. Right now, I can only speak for myself. I’m no saint; I can’t claim to have equal respect for the lives of all the abstract billions out there. But I guess I’ve started thinking of the folks inside the pyramid as ‘my people’; certainly the kids that I brought to the party. ‘Chosen’ or not, I—” Dammit, I was starting to choke up. Go figure. “I won’t be much good to you if you kill them all now with a wave of your mighty hand.”
He stared at me for a moment, his expression inscrutable. Finally, he said, “I hear you.” Coming from Eloi, this trite expression actually meant something.
“The pyramid is safe enough at the moment. In the end, as you might say, ‘saner heads prevailed.’ But the status quo has changed. Too many of your people have now seen the Ishim to continue covertly supplying the stores. When we end the stasis, you will be escorted by the Ishim Guard into—”
“Wait, wait, wait.” Eloi had learned to be tolerant of my interruptions. He raised an eyebrow, a gesture I was familiar with from the mirror. “I can’t just go rolling in there in some golden chariot announcing myself as The Chosen. Ishim Guard or no Ishim Guard, they’d tear me to ribbons.”
“The Guard is more than capable of protecting you.”
“Even so. You’d have another riot on your hands to make the first one look like a playground rumble. No. I need to know more about what I’m getting myself into. What exactly happened? An Ishim was taken hostage. By who, exactly? What happened when the—what, Ishim Command?—responded? Where is—?”
He held up a hand to shut me up. “See for yourself.”
He put a hand on my shoulder, turned me around. Another mysterious doorway had appeared in the Gray. We stepped through into a strange collection of incomprehensible artifacts. Eloi picked up a device that looked like a silver carnival mask and handed it to me. I put it on.
It was a bit like stepping into someone else’s dreamscape. This device transmitting data to my brain was not designed for humans; my old friend Mr. Headache started saying hello. Point-of-view shifted around willy-nilly, like some David Lynch nightmare sequence. There were times I had no idea what was going on. But put into a more sensible narrative, this is what had happened:
An Ishim female, dressed like all the Ishim I had ever seen in the obligatory silver suit, approached a huge stainless-steel refrigerator in a dark Disney kitchen. She wore a helmet that included some sort of night-vision, and I saw the same way, not the glowing green from spy movies, but somehow processing the infra-red as a visible image. She opened the big metal door and was suddenly yanked off her feet and hoisted upside-down into the air. Some kind of homemade alarm rang out; it sounded like a dozen Mickey Mouse alarm clocks going off at once. It probably was.
Several men came running. They carried various tools as weapons: screwdrivers, hammers, one had a heavy rake. There was a lot of shouting. Somebody shut off the alarm. One stalwart fellow carrying a big monkey-wrench approached the Ishim, who dangled limply. As he poked at her chest she came to life with lightning speed; she grabbed the wrench and swung it at the Stalwart’s jaw. He went down in a heap. Rake-Man stepped in too close and she sent the rake flying; it knocked Mr. Screwdriver right off his feet. This dance went on for a while, but reinforcements were arriving every second, and finally there were enough brave souls to circle around her and rush her all at once. Another two got knocked cold for their trouble, but soon she was pinned. Someone yanked off her helmet, and before long she was beaten unconscious.
By now the kitchen was full of people, and word was spreading through this corner of the park. Someone tied the Ishim’s hands behind her back and she was lowered none-too-gently to the floor. Lights were turned on. Struggling with her unconscious body, the men finally realized how big this creature was—nearly seven feet tall. They also became somewhat awkwardly aware of her female nature, as some of her silver garment had been pulled open in the struggle.
A red-faced man with a fringe of gray hair and a huge bristling white mustache leaped up onto a stainless steel table and began to shout at the crowd. It was a lot of hateful nonsense about the obviously Russian amazon that they had captured, and now we’d show these Commie bastards a thing or two about invading America. Some in his audience were eager believers; others tried to shout out their own pet theories, none of which were any closer to the truth.
One smaller group came up with a stout pole from somewhere; before long, the Ishim was hog-tied to it and being carried by four sturdy bruisers out into the street. It was starting to look like something out of an old Frankenstein movie—adding to that image, a few folks had even fashioned old-school torches out of rags and broom handles. This impromptu Disney parade headed down—where else?—Main Street.
What did they hope to accomplish? I have no idea. Hopes and accomplishments weren’t really on the menu. In the time-honored tradition of howling mobs, soon windows were being smashed and buildings set on fire. The riot began to spread outward, where many in the crowd knew nothing of the captured Ishim. I had the strange sensation of remembering that I had heard and half-seen much of this as it happened from an entirely different vantage point in Walt’s apartment.
Then the Ishim Guard appeared. Apparently, there was some kind of Angel-lojack technology built into the captured Ishim’s helmet. A unit of about twenty or so silver-clad seven-foot-tall soldiers materialized in the kitchen where the helmet still lay on the floor. The mob had already moved on, but it didn’t require any fancy tech to follow them. The Ishim moved out quickly, with no more than a subtle nod or two by way of communication. This was an all-male group; each carried a weapon strapped to a forearm, and each wore a more substantial version of that discarded helmet.
I expected them to catch up with the main body of the mob from behind, but they had a better plan: they split into two sub-units and arced around to catch the leading edge of the rioters. I saw a couple of minor skirmishes on the way, as each group met with stragglers from the human mob. “Skirmish” may be the wrong term—it implies a two-way engagement. It was more like “mini-massacres” as the Ishim simply cut these people down. They used their forearm weapons, which I would have to characterize as “ray-guns”; there were brief flashes of blindingly bright light and bodies fell in smoldering heaps. Soon enough, the units reunited just ahead of the original group, who still carried the Ishim on the pole. The crowd slowed to a stop. A group of young people near the front—none of my kids, but probably not much older—had been chanting, “Live Free or Die!” Now they sputtered into silence.
I wanted to shout out at them to lay down their so-called weapons and surrender. The Ishim had no ability to communicate in English, or any human language. Nor did they have a way to fire warning shots, even if they had been inclined to do so. The mob would have only seen something like flashbulbs; I knew that these were strictly bio-effects weapons—when pointed at life forms they were instantly deadly; fired at brick or concrete or over heads they would have no effect whatsoever. Still, the Ishim were an obviously formidable force: twenty-plus towering aliens in silver, they looked like something out of George Lucas’s sketchbook.
There were two or three men at the front of the mob that might have been considered leaders, including the little bald guy with the big white mustache. He barked out a command, and the four carrying the captured Ishim dropped her abruptly onto the asphalt. They joined the bigger guys with White Mustache and stepped forward, boldly brandishing their “weapons.” I could see their faces—they were all scared, a couple even terrified. They had no idea what they were up against. Maybe they qualified at that moment as “brave,” I don’t know. After all, these were the same guys that had captured and beaten senseless an unarmed Ishim. A big black guy amongst them stepped out and spoke: “Who are you?” he shouted, trying not to let his voice break. “What do you want?”
The Ishim fired. The black man and six or seven others nearest him collapsed. One man’s clothes burst into flames. The crowd instantly fell apart. Most broke and ran. The little guy with the mustache had been just outside the initial barrage. Now he knelt next to the captured Ishim, pulled her partly up by her hair and held a screwdriver to her throat. “Back off!” he screamed. “I’ll kill her, I swear to God I will!”
The Ishim soldiers had already fired again at those slowest to escape. At least another dozen went down, some literally in flames. Among them were the “Live Free or Die” kids. One girl, her tawny hair in a ponytail, wearing an oversized Minnie Mouse sweatshirt, surely no more than sixteen years old, seemed to look right at me as the ray suddenly boiled her blood. I’ll never forget the look of terror on her face.
Meanwhile, White Mustache kept on screaming threats as he used the upper part of the battered Ishim as a shield. He pressed the screwdriver into her neck hard enough to draw blood, but there was barely a trickle—she was already dead. The leader of the Ishim Guard fired. The man fell away from the dead Ishim, screaming in pain. Apparently there was a way to use the Ishim weapon that was not immediately fatal. Two Ishim soldiers ran up to retrieve the dead female. The Ishim Commander walked closer to the screaming man, writhing on the ground. Helmeted as he was, I couldn’t read the Ishim’s expression. The only part of his face showing was his mouth, and that seemed utterly impassive—no grimace of hate, no frown, no sneering upper lip. Finally, he fired again, a long blast that effectively cremated the little man. Then the image froze; this must have been the moment that the pyramid was placed in stasis.
I was still watching the frozen flames when Eloi removed my visor. The sudden shock to my senses, especially my eyes, was too much for me; I fell forward onto my hands and knees. Eloi knelt next to me. I tried to look at him, but my eyes refused to focus. My headache was off the scale. I felt bile rising, but I swallowed it back. Eloi tentatively placed a hand on my shoulder. I didn’t know if he was attempting to express real concern or just mimicking the human norms. Either way, I took little comfort. Some, maybe, but precious little. “Gee, Doc,” I said weakly. “I didn’t know you cared.”
So far, his education was sadly lacking in the Bugs Bunny basics. Probably just as well. “Just give me a few seconds to pull myself together, okay?” I said. I shifted into a sitting position.
“Okay.” He sat next to me.
I let a few seconds tick by. Finally, the throbbing behind my eyes abated a little and I turned to face Eloi. “Listen. I think I finally understand something. The reason—or part of the reason, anyway—that you’ve sped up time so much inside the pyramid, it’s about me, isn’t it? My job as ‘The Chosen’?” Eloi nodded ever so slightly. “Okay. So capturing an Ishim threw a kink in your plans. But you never planned on me being outside for so long, either, did you? Never mind, you don’t have to answer that. My point is, I should have been there all along. Send me back in, but not with an Ishim guard.” I tried to read his expression; nothing. Dammit, I was making this up as I went along. Thinking out loud. I needed to know if I was on the right track.
I took a breath and stood up. Eloi followed suit. “Can we take a walk? I think better when I’m walking.” He may have smiled a little. We started walking, the gray space shifting subtly as we went. I started laying out my thoughts, backing up every now and then to refine a detail, and eventually Eloi started contributing.
Finally, we had a “plan”: Perhaps most importantly, I would be in constant touch with Eloi, never again helplessly throwing chairs at windows while current events ran amok. With this link in place, I would return to the pyramid, where time flow would resume at its former highly accelerated pace. I would pick up where I’d left off that day at the Diamond Horseshoe theater, telling everyone some of what I knew about the giant soldiers in silver suits. I would have access to the Disney PA system, which should help establish at least some respect and/or credibility. Then, after a day or so, the Service Ishim would return, no longer in secret. Finally, I would begin to broach the subject of the Angels themselves and try to make the pyramid population understand that, to coin a phrase, resistance was not only futile, it was suicide.
This would not be a popular message. For generations we had been taught by science fiction that Humanity would always prevail: the invading Martians would fall to the common cold; the Starship Troopers would push back the Bugs; Captain Kirk would take down the giant Lizard Man.
“Live Free or Die!” those kids had chanted. They had understood well enough the first half of that phrase—they had all been “living free” their entire lives, up until a few months ago. But they had never given any real thought to the “or die” part. And they had probably never heard the rest of General Stark’s motto: “Death is not the worst of evils.” Maybe not, General Stark, but I was going to do everything in my power to convince anyone who’d listen that there was no such thing as a Fate Worse than Death.