Sam paced rapidly until he was sure that the two were out of sight. Then he smiled and eased into a more comfortable pace. He even caught his hand before it reached his pocket. He rubbed his hands together and stared at them before shaking his head.
“What’ve I got myself into?” he whispered.
The hallway seemed to stretch forever. The walls were barely decorated, just peaceful lines of dark tones. The sunlight at the end flickered as someone passed by. He broke into a jog.
Finally, after he had come several city blocks’ distance, another grand vista opened up. He stopped before the glass.
Sam spun around, startling the woman. She was stretched out on a tilted couch, catching the sunlight through the glass. Before she clicked something in her hand and her robes turned suddenly blue and opaque, Sam’s jaw dropped open.
She laughed. “Fona cup, d’jo.”
Sam nodded. “Sorry, Ma’am. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
She looked puzzled, then said, “Oh. You’re the Visitor. The Elders have been talking about you. I had to get translation from Flick. You aren’t disturbing me. I just like to feel the sun.”
Sam looked back out the window. There were still more of the dagger towers in this direction. He could see six. Each had its own color. He put his hand on the window and breathed heavily.
“Is something wrong, Visitor?”
Sam grinned and looked her up and down. “No, Doll. I’ve just realized how big these towers are. It shook me, is all. Just how big is this city?”
She raised an eyebrow at his frank examination of her. She stood up. The chair followed her every move and when she was fully on her feet, it folded up and sank into the floor. In seconds, it left no trace.
“I assume you mean population? Because each tower is just like any other in physical size.”
He nodded, paying more attention to her eyes. They were a dark blue, set in a flawless dark face. “Yeah. Population.”
She looked distracted for a moment, as if remembering.
“Flick tells me that nearly nine million people live in this tower. It was designed to house ten million in comfort.”
“So, this Ninth City has,” he gestured out the window, “ten towers ... ninety million people?”
She laughed, “No. Of course not. The Ninth City is this tower alone. There are a hundred towers. A hundred cities. The Earth’s population is just under the planned one billion souls.
“And we will all die unless you save us, Visitor.”
“Call me Sam.” He rubbed his chin, which was rough from a long day, searching the streets of San Francisco for a man who had convinced a widow that he had proof that her long lost husband was still alive.
“I’m D’sonna. So, Sam. Should I be worried? Should I spend the next few days making up with old friends and relatives so I can go out in a glow of good feelings.”
He grinned at her. “I’m not the guy to advise you on personality problems. You fight your wars, I’ll fight mine.”
“Oh, I’ll do just fine on that score.”
He nodded, “I’ll bet you do, D’sonna. By the way, is there a joint where a guy could get a bite to eat around here?”
She led him down long corridor that literally sloped downward. It opened up into a maze of carpet and greenery and statues. In among hundreds of comfortable little nooks, other groups of people were dining. A murmur of soft conversation filled the air. Most of the nooks were empty, and she led them to a tidy little table with room for only two. She named two dishes he didn’t recognize. The table itself opened up and the settings unfolded out of the opening.
“Smells good.” Sam watched until D’sonna picked up a small container like a cup or bowl and brought it to her lips. He matched her actions.
She watched as he ate. “You’re going to help us, aren’t you?”
Sam shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Surely you wouldn’t let the whole world die?”
“I haven’t heard one thing that I can do. I’m here by mistake.”
“Oh, surely not. The Elders were quite confident when they made the announcement.”
Sam set his empty cup/bowl down hard enough to rattle the other settings on the table. “I’m a tired of this runaround. Who is Flick? Who are the Elders? If they want something from me, they’d better say so to my face.”
D’sonna looked ashen, frightened by the hard words. She looked like she would like to scoot farther away from him, but the dining nook was designed to bring two people closer, not farther away.
“You talked to the Elders,” she said quietly.
“Who? Alanda and Griditch? They were hardly elderly. Alanda is just a kid.”
D’sonna put her fingers to her lips, but her eyes were laughing. “Um. She does look young, doesn’t she? But it doesn’t matter. The title ‘Elder’ doesn’t really refer to a person’s age any more. It’s a position. Elders can speak to Flick. There are only two here in the Ninth City.”
All pleasantness dropped from her expression. “No. No matter how idiotic an Elder may act, they can’t lose the position. And no matter how strong the reason, no one else may be elevated to Elder status until one of them dies.”
Sam thought about it for a moment, before he lightheartedly shrugged it off. “No matter. It doesn’t seem like they’re anything more than flunkies. Mr. Flick has the real power. All they do is pass on his orders.”
“They speak with Flick,” she said patiently, correcting him.
“And what does that mean?”
D’sonna seemed at a loss for words. “Do you even know what Flick is? Flick is a machine. Flick is the spirit of the city—all of the Hundred Cities.” She tapped the plate where several strips of decorated pastry were artistically arrayed. “Flick provides the food. Flick keeps the air comfortable. Flick keeps us alive. Flick protects us.”
Sam shook his head. “I can’t tell whether you think he’s a god or your servant.”
She nodded energetically. “Yes.” She gestured at the others in the dining area. “All of us can ... communicate ... with Flick. We can order our meals, choose our dress, arrange transportation to the other cities—any of a thousand things.
“We are all intimately connected. That is how I can speak your language. When I heard you speak gibberish, I asked Flick, and the translation was linked into my mind, and now I have no problem.
“But the Elders!” Her dark blue eyes were bright. Her voice was low, but her rich tones washed over him. “They have power over Flick. There is no greater power in all the world.”
Sam nodded, understanding her. “Then if he has all that power, why was I brought here?”
She turned her attention to the food. After a few bites, she said, “Our world has become less than it was.
“After your time, the Solar System was explored. People settled on other planets. People used great forces to tame the harsh places, but those powers were too tempting, and many wars happened. Too many wars.”
Sam nodded. He had seen wars too. Great ones and small ones.
D’sonna shrugged. “There is more history than I can remember. Humanity pulled back. Earth itself was tamed, and the Hundred Cities were grown. Each time we matured a bit, we gave up a little power. Flick was created and most of the power was put in its control. Life became more pleasant.”
She shook her head. “But power unused is power lost. Flick knows how to keep us healthy and happy here on Earth, but lost and never recovered is the technology of space flight. Lost with rejoicing was the ability to create earth-shattering weapons. Who thought their like would be needed again?”
She patted Sam’s hand. “The history and technology of your era was lost entirely, except for a thread of literature. As the Elders tell it, our only hope was to bring a man of that time here. Men like you created marvels from nothing in the blink of an eye. A man like you could save us.”
Sam reached into his pocket. He shook his head as he pulled it back out.
“There were some mighty bright eggheads in my day, but your Flick kidnapped the wrong guy. The sooner I can tell him that in person, the better.”
She shook her head and said, “Only the Elders can....”
Suddenly, the settings on the table folded out of sight. D’sonna stopped with her mouth open.
Just like the image of the asteroid, a transparent image of a man’s head appeared above the table. It was looking straight at him.
“Samuel. I am Flick. You wish to talk to me?”
Sam ignored the woman’s frightened response. He searched the face, the transparent, floating face. Flick’s face was smiling. The gestures matched the words. Eyebrows lifted, the brown eyes sparkled. But it was surprisingly devoid of any real emotion.
Sam nodded to the floating head. “D’sonna here tells me you are a machine. Is that right?”
Flick appeared to consider the idea. “Yes, I think that is an accurate assessment. Men built me. They designed me, constructed me, and then one day, they turned me on. I was never born. People of your century talked about such things. Had you never heard the concept?”
“No. Dealing with a machine had an entirely different meaning in my burg.
“But enough of this chit-chat. You needed help and kidnapped me to get it. Well, you’re the sap. You nabbed the wrong guy. You wanted a Twentieth Century scientist. I’m not a scientist. And I suspect I’m from the wrong part of the century.
“So the sooner you send me back and get the right man, the better you’ll be.”
Flick smiled tolerantly. “I suspect you are more a man of your era than you believe. In any case, no person of the Hundred Cities will be able to save us, and I am certainly at a loss. You are our best bet. It’s time to ‘step up to the bat’.”
Sam listened with a sour smile on his face.
“I’ve dealt with you kind before. Facts have nothing to do with it, do they? You ask for a miracle and expect me to whip one up with a smile.
“Well, buster, it’s not gonna work like that!”
Sam stood up. With the design of the table, it was a clumsy move, and as the floating head raised its eyes to meet his gaze, Sam gritted his teeth. He slapped the table, hard.
“I’ve done my bit saving the world back in the Great War! I don’t owe you a thing. Send me back to my time! Now!”
Flick shook his head. “Certainly, Samuel. But not just yet. Your position here is unique. I could only get one Twentieth Century man, and you are he. I am unwilling to give up on you yet.”
“So you’ll keep me here, against my will?”
Flick nodded once. “Yes. Until after the crisis is past. Then, I will return you.”
D’sonna was pleading with her eyes, but obviously too frightened to make any other sound or gesture.
Sam wavered. “I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit. You think, just because you’ve got me trapped in this place, that you can tell me to do whatever you want.
“Well, you’re just another two-bit tyrant, and I’ve dealt with your kind all my life. If you want my help, you’ve got to pay me!”
Flick tilted his head. “I don’t know what you mean. Please explain.”
Sam stood straighter. “You want me to save the world? Make it worth my while.”
“Money? Surely you understand we don’t use Twentieth Century currency here?”
“But you’ve got gold? Jewels? You’re the head honcho. You’ll pay me plenty.”
Flick nodded. “I can give you whatever you want. Unfortunately, you couldn’t take it back to your time.”
“Why not?” Sam snarled.
“I could only bring you here. Even your clothes were synthesized here. You’ll go back the same way. I apologize, but that is the way the process works.”
“So after I save your Hundred Cities, you’ll drop me back at my office, bare naked, with nothing to show for it?”
Flick smiled. “I can only do so much. This is a plan born of desperation.”
Sam shook his head. “It’s not enough. You’ll have to do better.”
D’sonna whispered. “Sam, stay here, as an Elder! That would be reward enough for anyone.”
“No!” He glared at Flick. “You’re the ruler of the world. Think of something better, or I walk!”
With that, he turned and stalked out. He avoided the eyes of others who had been watching the scene play out.
He whispered. “Nobody’s gonna make a sap out of me.”