Eloi had gone to such pains to warn me about the aftermath of the sudden re-start of the pyramid that I walked out expecting the worst. But compared to the devastation of the sounding of the Trumps, and especially the crash site of Delta 978, this was tame. As I automatically headed for the Diamond Horseshoe building, I had the sensation of being the only guy who’d stayed sober through a citywide bacchanalia. There were moans and groans from all points, but they really did have the ring of the world’s worst hangover more than any genuine agony or despair.
As I made my way into Frontierland, I muttered Eloi’s name, barely audibly even to myself. Immediately his voice was in my ear: “I am here.” Suddenly I felt like the sick little kid in an old sit-com, ringing the bell to see if Mommy would really come—I didn’t need anything from Eloi; I was just testing the system. Eloi probably sensed this, but I came up with a question anyway: “How much local time has passed since I was here last?” Again, I was able to “speak” almost entirely sub-vocally; it was entirely possible that I could just “think” the question and Eloi would hear and understand, but that raised issues I didn’t want to deal with right now.
“The pyramid has experienced approximately one hundred and sixty days—”
“WHAT?” I didn’t mean to speak out loud, but a hundred and sixty days? I’d had no idea.
Meanwhile, Eloi had interpreted my incredulous outburst as a challenge to his data. “It is difficult to be more exact, since the period in stasis was not...”
But I wasn’t listening. Over five months? Geez, no wonder these people had rioted in the streets—they were going stir-crazy. “Thank you, Eloi,” I said aloud. This would have been good intel to have before I walked out here. Then again, I hadn’t asked before. “I’ll check in again later.”
I was coming up to the Diamond Horseshoe building. There was no sign of the two Zacks out front, but not only had it been five months since that had been the norm, until about a half-hour ago it had been the middle of the night here, both inside and outside the pyramid. A good percentage of the population had probably slept through the riot, the stasis, and the sudden restart. As I understood it, quite a few of the Strays bunked down right here at the theater.
The sun was currently almost at zenith, which meant it suddenly seemed quite dark as I stepped into the shaded queue area. As I squinted and my eyes began to adjust, I saw that it was deserted. I could hear voices inside; I took a deep breath and opened the door.
If I had teleported directly inside, I wouldn’t have recognized the place. Over the past five months it had morphed into a crazy-quilt community, like some hobo heaven. Most of the seats had been resituated or removed altogether, and a weird warren of walls and fabric and carpet had taken their place. Lighting was quite theatrical; some drama geek had been very creative with the original Diamond Horseshoe equipment.
I nearly tripped over someone lying on the floor. It was a large young man; maybe one of the Zacks—I honestly didn’t recall their faces clearly enough to be sure. He was out cold, but his pulse was strong. Extending my hangover analogy, he just needed to sleep it off. While I knelt next to him, I realized that there was a hushed hubbub in the air, the kind of whispered panic you sometimes find at the scene of a bloody accident. It’s an unsettling sound, and I felt goosebumps rise as I stood up.
A teenaged girl I didn’t know ran out from behind a blanket, sobbing. I grabbed her by the arm before she got past me. “What’s going on?” I asked.
She looked up at me with bleary red eyes. “Please let me go, mister,” she pleaded. “I’m gonna be sick.” I let her go; she hopped over the big kid on the floor and dashed out the door. I stepped through the blanket-doorway she had just come through and started making my way towards the source of the nervous buzz.
After a couple of blind alleys I finally got there. There was a cluster of girls gathered not too closely around a bed; a few feet away a huge black fellow sat on a crate, his head in his hands. One of the girls turned and saw me; she wore a full-length gingham skirt, no doubt appropriated from the Hillbilly show wardrobe rack, a Tinkerbelle tank-top and a blissfully incongruous kelly-green beret. It was Kimberly, and she immediately ran over to me. “Oh, Mr. K, it’s so awful,” she whimpered as she hugged me fiercely.
She looked up at me, tears welling afresh. “It’s Danielle... She lost the baby,” she managed to squeak out before sobbing again on my chest.
I let her have a moment, then took her by the shoulders. “Kimberly, sweetie, you’ve got to pull yourself together.” I glanced over at the big guy on the crate and realized it was Geoff. Poor kid, he had to be devastated. “Come on, now. Why don’t you check on Geoff, okay? He needs somebody right now.” She sniffled and nodded, then headed his way.
I stepped a little closer to the scene. A woman I’d never seen before was sitting on a chair next to a bed. I got a glimpse of some bloody sheets. She glanced in my direction, did a little double-take, then stood and took a step or two in my direction.
She was a substantial woman, at least five-ten, with a close-cropped head of salt-and-pepper curls. She had a no-nonsense air and the furrowed brow of someone working through a throbbing headache. I would have known she was a nurse no matter where I met her. Right; the last time I was here Jake had mentioned that an OB nurse had joined the Strays. “Are you Mr. K?” she asked. Coming from her it sounded like she was using a password, as if we were playing out some Kafkaesque mystery. Maybe we were. I said I was indeed Mr. K. She looked at me rather harshly, even judgmentally. “Where the hell have you been?” she asked, and like every other female I’d encountered today, her eyes filled with tears. “These kids were counting on you.”
A bit defensive, I said tersely, “Just tell me what’s going on. Kimberly said Danielle miscarried.”
She shook off her angry tears and answered me. “Yes, but that’s not the worst of it. I can’t seem to get Danielle’s bleeding under control.” She stepped closer. “I’m doing everything I can,” she added in a lower voice, “but that’s not much. She needs to be in a hospital.”
“How bad?” I whispered.
“If the bleeding doesn’t stop, she’s going to die within the hour, tops.”
Not on my watch, dammit. “Do what you can,” I said. “I’m going to get you some help.” She nodded and went back to Danielle’s bed. I muttered Eloi’s name; he responded. “Eloi, I need an emergency medical team at this location, right now. I’ve got a teenage girl bleeding out from complications of a miscarriage.”
“Wait. Will these—Ishim medics be able to understand me?”
“Yes, as long as you refrain from overly colloquial speech. Be very clear. They are instructed to obey your commands.”
“Okay,” I mumbled. A few of the kids on the periphery were starting to notice me talking to myself. Better to get it out in the open. “When will they arrive?” I said aloud.
“Whenever you are ready.”
I addressed anybody within earshot. “In a moment, a medical team will be here to help.” I had their attention. “They are called Ishim, and they mean no harm.” Then, sub-vocally: “Now, Eloi.”
Immediately, two towering Ishim appeared next to me. Several of the girls let out little startled screams, but everyone maintained their composure rather well, considering. The Ishim carried mysterious medical gear and both wore helmets, but their visors were up. One male, one female, both quite handsome—although not beautiful, like the Angels—they had bright eyes, dark eyebrows, and prominent noses. I would learn that although there was variety among Ishim features, this rather Mediterranean appearance was quite common. They looked at me for instructions, or dare I say, orders. “This way,” I said, and stepped up to where the nurse now hovered next to poor Danielle. I spoke quietly to the nurse. “You can stay right here, but they need to examine her, okay?” She stared at me for a moment, then nodded and stepped aside.
The female Ishim stepped forward with a little silver Star Trek medical scanning device in her hand. After a second or two she spoke a few words to her companion, too rapidly for me to follow, then addressed herself to me: “We must remove her to the _______.” She spoke a word that sounded something like “ramala.” Or maybe “ramajal” or “lamadar.” I don’t know. I heard it, but my brain didn’t seem to know what to do with it; she might as well have said “ramalama-dingdong” for all the sense it made.
Finally, my head pounding with the involuntary effort, I understood it to mean the Gray Space, whatever and wherever that was. I still didn’t know. In fact, even now I don’t know. Sometimes I’m dead sure it’s the interior of their “spaceship.” Other times I’m equally certain it’s a null place, outside of normal space-time. Then I’ll get the idea that it’s not a real place at all, but a virtual construct, like something from The Matrix. Usually my brain sorts these kinds of questions out, and I come to understand a consistent answer, at least as well as my puny human intellect can manage, but this knowledge is apparently off limits. I’ve asked Eloi about it point blank many times, to no avail.
I frowned. They wanted to take Danielle away to the Big Gray, and this was guaranteed to shake things up here in a bad way. I responded to the Ishim: “Understood. This woman and I will be coming with you.”
She took this in, then nodded. The other Ishim had produced a device that acted like an expandable high-tech stretcher, which he was sliding into place next to Danielle. I looked at the nurse. She was a solid professional, accustomed to emergencies, but right now she looked terrified. If she found herself suddenly naked in the Ishim’s Ramalama-dingdong ER she was going to fold like a bad hand. “Eloi,” I muttered, “I need a silver suit for the woman next to me.” I needed no acknowledgement—a little gray pile almost immediately appeared at my feet. I picked them up and looked the nurse in the eye. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Donna, I need you to put on these clothes.” I handed them to her. Her eyes narrowed as she slowly reached out for them. I didn’t give her a chance to argue. “Right now. Your clothes can’t travel the way we’re going.” Her frown deepened. She glanced down at her wardrobe; jeans, a light sweater, sensible nurse-type tennis shoes, all worn down to threads over the past few months. They were her only possessions, the proverbial “clothes on her back.” Giving them up was no small matter. I started peeling off my shirt, revealing my own Amazing Silver-Man costume in the process. “You’re going to have to trust me. We’ll wait for you, but only for a few seconds.” She broke eye contact; I followed her gaze to a little draped-off area nearby. “Perfect,” I said. “Go on. Now. Stat.”
I turned to the Ishim; they were very gently transferring Danielle to the silver stretcher. One of them then unfurled a silver blanket and covered her with it. They stood and raised Danielle into the air; she didn’t weigh much and the Ishim were huge powerful creatures, but I was pretty sure the “stretcher” had some of the harness/belt gravity-neutralizing technology built into it. The female looked at me. Her words translated easily in my brain this time: “We are ready.”
“Donna!” I called out. She stepped out, wearing the silver suit, rather well in fact. She was carrying her old clothes and shoes. “Never mind those,” I said. I kicked off my own shoes and quickly stripped off my jeans. I tossed them aside. She shook her head ruefully and tossed hers on top of mine.
I reached out and took her hand.
I honestly thought about saying, “Beam us up, Scotty,” but I was afraid Eloi wouldn’t get it, and I’d spoil our exit. I looked out and saw Kimberly standing next to Geoff, who still sat on the crate, but now looked up at our little silver-clad tableau. The expression on his face was heartbreaking. Kimberly’s face was one giant, desperate question mark. “We’ll be back soon; I mean it. Danielle will be just fine,” I said. “I’m sorry I haven’t been here for you guys, but as of today, that’s over. You understand?” She nodded ever so slightly. “Good. Hold down the fort.” She nodded again, a little more confidently this time.
I squeezed Donna’s hand. “Now, Eloi.”
There’s an age-old bit of wisdom that advises us to “look before you leap.” I’m sure the expression goes back to prehistoric times, and no doubt many a caveman paused at the edge of a precipice and saved his own life by remembering that Uncle Ugg had said something like that last night at the bonfire. On the other hand, quite a few cavemen probably got torn in half by the saber-toothed tiger on their ass while they hesitated on that cliff.
Obviously, I’m more of a “leap before you look” person. Here I was feeling so proud of myself for getting some traveling clothes for Donna that I never stopped to think that the Powers That Be might not appreciate my decision to bring her along in the first place. Why had I? I’d chalk it up to “seemed like a good idea at the time,” but that implies that I’d given the idea some thought. I hadn’t thought about it, I’d just done it; I don’t really know why.
And, silver suit or no, Transition packs a wallop. As soon as we materialized in the Gray Beyond, I felt Donna’s nails sink into the back of my hand. I looked over at her; her eyes rolled up into her head, and I was just able to ease her to the gray floor as she fainted. I called out to Eloi, but got no response. As I glanced around I saw that the Ishim with Danielle were an apparent distance off, and that a larger team of Ishim medicos were now at work as well. Good. I tried gently slapping Donna’s face. No response. I felt her throat—her pulse was fine; a bit fast, but good and strong.
I saw a slight shadow and looked up to see Eloi standing a few feet away. “She won’t awaken here,” he said matter-of-factly. Then again, Eloi tended to say everything matter-of-factly, which may have been why I was slow to realize that he was a bit miffed right now.
“Why not?” I asked, although the answer was already starting to come to me.
Eloi took a moment to look at her. “Because her presence here is unacceptable.”
As usual after Transition, my head was throbbing. It was making me testy. “Then why did you let me bring her along?”
Eloi looked at me, apparently trying to decide whether my IQ had just dropped sharply. “You commanded it. You spoke it out loud in front of your own people. We decided that leaving her behind would badly compromise your credibility with the citizens of the pyramid.”
“So you just knocked her out?”
“I was able to make this arrangement so that she might return. Otherwise...”
“Okay, okay. I get it. At least she didn’t get zapped to the cornfield.” Eloi raised an eyebrow. It was a sore subject. I had asked what had happened to Leslie and the others a hundred times, but he had always utterly ignored the question. “Fine. Thanks. Now what?”
“I suggest that you accompany her to your apartment. I will let you know when the girl has recovered sufficiently to return.”
“How long will that be?”
“Perhaps an hour, Mickey Time.”
He had picked this expression up from me, and of course had no idea how ridiculous it sounded coming out of his mouth. “Good.”
“In the interim, if I may offer some counsel, perhaps you could use the time to begin establishing yourself with the general population there. Your people are beginning to recover from their initial shock and need leadership right now.”
I don’t think he was criticizing exactly, but I was a bit defensive anyway. “Danielle was dying! I didn’t have time to play Big Brother to the sweaty masses.” Eloi just raised that eyebrow. “Sorry. I understand. I’ll do my best.”
And in even less than the blink of an eye, Donna and I were in Walt’s apartment.