It was a very long two hours. I stayed there in the parking lot, fielding questions from those that had the nerve to ask them. Like a good politician, I curbed my usual frank cynicism and tried to win them over with “sincerity,” while answering their questions obliquely, if at all. Gave ’em the old razzle-dazzle. Baffled ’em with bullshit. Because the truth was I had already said everything I really wanted to say up on top of the van, and no matter how they phrased their questions, I had nothing new to offer.
One guy with coke-bottle glasses, an Indiana Jones brown felt hat and a black beard that went almost up to his eyeballs kept shouting out accusatory questions and jotting down the answers on a little pad. Apparently he fancied himself a journalist; Jake told me he had commandeered an office with a giant copier and was putting out a weekly rag called The Armageddon Gazette that nobody liked, but everybody read. His name was Joel Blum, but he called himself Marcus Deuce, an obvious tip of his fedora to Mark Twain, and wrote all the articles himself under “clever” pseudonyms like Flip DeFinger and Y. Zenheimer. The guy was a pain in the ass, but I couldn’t help admiring him anyway. I doubt he felt the same about me.
Jake and several of the Strays made themselves quite useful as a sort of ad hoc staff, keeping eager beavers at bay, organizing a queue. I noticed a little huddle of grumblers a few yards off, all nodding their heads and frowning as the red-faced Disney guy groused, but they apparently decided not to challenge me—at least not yet. Unfortunately, they were not among those who elected to leave.
In fact, in the end very few people left; less than a hundred. Quite a few made runs out into the parking lot, retrieving stuff from their cars, no doubt trying the keys in the ignition, but they all hurried back. We even picked up a few newbies; some folks who had been stranded at their cars or waiting for the next tram had camped out where they were, left with nowhere else to go.
When the time came to restore it, I climbed back up to the top of the camper (I had toyed with the idea of leaping up, using my gravity belt, but I hadn’t practiced it, and was frankly afraid of overshooting and landing flat on my face on the far side); I gave a series of warning announcements, and even a countdown. There was another lurch as the time pace was restored as well. I had tried to bargain with Eloi for leaving the inside time alone, but the Angels were adamant that it remain accelerated. And as usual, there was no point in asking why.
With the sky back to its golden hue and the seagulls once again barely moving as they wheeled above it, the crowd quietly began to break up and start moving back into the park. I had the strange feeling that they were relieved that things were back to the new normal; that the pyramid had gone from scary unknown to security blanket, all in an afternoon.
The kids were reluctant to leave my side. I think they were afraid that if they turned their backs on me for very long I’d disappear again, and another six or eight months would go by before they saw me again. Jake finally had a chance to rag on me about shaving my beard off. I kidded around for a few minutes, then I thanked them for their help, not to mention their faith in me, and asked them to head on back to the Horseshoe while I used this opportunity to take a walk around and attempt to mingle with some of the other citizens of the pyramid.
I had only walked a few paces away when I felt an arm slip through mine; I turned to see Nurse Donna looking up at me. She was wearing one of the outfits the Ishim had provided, a simple pink sweater over a pair of jeans, and I could be wrong, but it seemed like she was wearing some eye make-up and lipstick she hadn’t had on before. “Hey there,” she said, slowing us to a stop.
“Hey there yourself.”
“Huh.” She smiled, then changed her mind about it. “Listen. What you did for Danielle. I, uh...” She shook her head. “Anyway. Thanks.”
“Seriously: Don’t mention it. If I’d been there sooner maybe we could’ve saved the baby.”
“Hey, don’t beat yourself up over that.” She lowered her voice. “Danielle doesn’t know this, but I’m pretty sure her baby was already dead. The trauma that brought on the miscarriage probably did her a favor.”
Now it was my turn. “Huh.”
“Something I just realized? Danielle is the closest thing to a sick person I’ve seen in months.”
“Yeah. Haven’t seen so much as a case of the sniffles. Diabetics all ran out of insulin ages ago, but they all feel fine. I mean, nobody’s regenerated any limbs or anything, the paraplegics are still in their wheelchairs, but nobody’s been sick. Weird, huh?”
It certainly was. “Yeah. Weird in a good way, I guess.”
“True. So. Anyway.” We walked a few more steps, then she squeezed my arm. “I’m glad you shaved.” She reached up and gently touched my face, then gave me a peck on the cheek. Immediately about a half dozen of the kids, who were only a few yards away and had apparently been watching us like a bunch of peeping toms, let out a good old-fashioned adolescent “Wooooooo!” Donna blushed, rolling her eyes. “See ya.”
She walked off at a tangent while I gave the kids the stink eye. They suddenly pretended they couldn’t see me, and I gave up and headed back out on my original trajectory. I almost went after Donna, but those silly kids had made me self-conscious.
Of course, this set me to thinking about Donna in a whole new way. She was not really my type; physically, I was usually attracted to the more zaftig type, and Freudian implications about my mother be damned, I was a sucker for tall redheads. Donna was tall all right, but she had short salt-and-pepper curls. She had a slim-hipped, almost boyish build, and probably didn’t quite merit even a B-cup. She was all planes and angles, with barely a curve to her. And on top of all that, her personality was kind of sharp around the edges too. She was, what? Brusque. Contrary. Short on basic people skills, unless you happened to be a patient.
On the other hand, she was intelligent, self-confident, and not inclined to bullshit. And she had pretty dark eyes, amazingly white teeth, and a thoroughly beguiling sway in those slim hips that I found myself appreciating as she walked away.
Then again, she was plainly older than me, and definitely married. Some poor guy back home in San Diego was probably hiking up the Five even as I was standing here starting to have impure thoughts about his wife.
This was ridiculous. I did my best to shut off this pointless inner monologue and marched with a purpose out into the park.
By the time I staggered up the stairs to Walt’s apartment several hours later—nearly eight o’clock “Mickey Time”—I was exhausted. My feet were killing me; the silver slippers weren’t designed for hiking around a theme park. I was losing my voice from saying the same lame things over and over again all day. My freshly-shaven face was sunburned. In short, I had all the complaints that ever plagued every politician who ever pounded the pavement and pressed the flesh.
I took a shower, trying to concentrate on how much I hated politics, and not so much on how nice Donna had smelled as she had pressed her lips to my cheek. I was walking out of the bathroom still toweling my hair, when I looked up to find Eloi waiting for me in the main room. Oh, well; wasn’t the first time he’d seen me naked. Probably wouldn’t be the last. I wrapped the towel around my waist and waited for him to speak. It was not likely to be “Hi, Graham, sorry to intrude; how was your day? Excellent job out there today by the way; keep up the good work.” Still, something like that would’ve been nice.
Instead, without niceties or preamble of any kind he said, “Over three full solar days have passed since our advent here. It is time you began the greater part of your mission as Chosen, and speak to the leaders of the various nations.” He was speaking in his big official Angel voice, out loud and thundering like Darth Junior in my head.
“What, right now? Tonight?”
“As soon as you are ready, yes. As we began here today, our next stop will be Washington, DC.”
I had tried many times to get details of my so-called “mission,” but other than “you will speak for us,” none had been forthcoming. It had long since seemed clear to me that now that Eloi had mastered English (not to mention a dozen other languages), he could speak for his own kind, but apparently I was missing the point. I was human; I should speak to humans. At any rate, this was the first I’d heard of world leaders or Washington DC.
“Don’t you want to try some baby steps first? Maybe pop up to Sacramento, knock on the Governor’s door?”
“That may become necessary, but for now the leaders of this state seem to be concentrating on coping with the emergencies related to the loss of electricity and other services. They are demonstrating that their first priority is survival.”
“Good for them.”
“Exactly. In Washington, however, they are putting all of their energy into identifying and retaliating against ‘the Enemy,’ which they of course believe to be terrorists or another nation. Already they speak of war.”
“It’s the American way.”
“You intend ironic humor, but it is consistent with your people’s history. It is time they understand that we are not Communists, or Islamic extremists, or any human enemy.”
“Or any kind of enemy.”
“Just the new Masters of the World.”
He was being very patient with me; I was flashing a bit of attitude, and to what end? “No. After all, you really are the new Masters of the World.”
“No,” he said, then looked at me intently for a moment. “We aren’t new.”
He went on in strictly his physical voice: “Graham. We have talked about this many times. It is in the best interests of humanity to acknowledge our absolute suzerainty over all the nations.” Wow. “Suzerainty.” My dad would be impressed. As usual with Eloi (not to mention my dad), he had chosen exactly the word he wanted; the Angels didn’t want to run the world, they just wanted the world to acknowledge them as the ultimate authority. From our point of view, the ultimate arrogance. From theirs, simply the way of things, the natural order.
“I know.” This didn’t make it any easier to handle the fact that soon I might well be the most hated man on the planet.