“Samuel!” Alanda’s voice turned his head. She also attracted the attention of dozens of other people in the wide-open atrium where Flick had led him, and then vanished.
It was an indoor park, with trees and grass and a red flagstone path that wound past fountains and mirrored pools. Sunlight was directed into the expanse from some trick of the architecture.
Sam had been watching the people stroll and splash.
Alanda sat down on the bench beside him. “Flick told me you were here. You’re going to help us?”
Sam looked her over. “You look dressed for tennis, except for those scarves coming out of your sleeves. Very nice.”
She beamed. “You like it? What’s tennis?”
He just shook his head. “Luckily, I’ll be going home soon. I just can’t get used to this.” Across the nearest pool, a muscular man climbed to the top of what looked to be a stone cliff and executed a complicated dive.
She followed his gaze. “What’s wrong?”
Sam reached for his pocket again. “Do you people know what a swimsuit is?”
She shook her head. “No. Oh, look what I’ve got for you!” She reached into her pocket and produced a fat cylinder as large as her fist. “A present.”
He took it and opened the lid. His heart hammered when he took out one of the thin paper wrapped sticks.
“I know it’s not a real cigarette, but I did some research in the literature archives and I found reference to a menthol cigarette.”
His fingers wrapped around it possessively. He rolled it between thumb and forefinger, and sighed. A sniff confirmed the chemical scent.
Alanda explained. “We have menthol, so I made up a batch of menthol inhalers.”
He slipped it between his lips and pulled in a potent drag that made his tongue tingle. He coughed. She looked alarmed.
“It’s okay, Angel.” He took the package and flattened it, until it would fit into his coat pocket. “It will help.”
“Do you want to set it on fire? I made sure the inhaler would burn with no toxic byproducts.”
He reached his arm around her shoulder and gave her a hug. “No, Precious. That wouldn’t work, but just having this dangling from my lips is the best thing that’s happened to me all day.”
She leaned back and pulled in the scent of the blooming trees. “I like this place. I’m glad you came here.”
Sam took the cigarette from his lips and played with it in his hand. “It’s a nice enough park. I’d rather see what the forest outside looks like.”
Alanda shivered and crossed her arms to hold her shoulders. “Don’t even think that, Samuel. People don’t go outside.”
He frowned. Staring back at the white tube in his hands, he said, “During the Great War, I was with the AEF, the American Expeditionary Force, in France under Pershing. The only pleasant memories I have of those days were in the forests. The trees there were thick, taller than these, and so close together that you couldn’t see the sky above.”
Alanda’s face had gone ghastly white; her eyes were wide and fearful.
Sam put his fake cigarette back in his mouth and stood up, bringing her upright with him.
“Come on, Angel. Let’s go find out what we can about this asteroid.” He force-marched her to the quickest exit. Once she was enclosed inside the soothing hallways, her smile returned and she began to relax.
“Let’s go to Griditch’s workshop. He has all the information there.” She pointed to the walls where the lines changed. “Here’s transport.”
Sam grimaced as the second of his menthol cigarettes fell apart in his hands. He reached into his pocket and extracted another. Automatically, he inhaled, and winced.
Alanda laughed. “I’m sorry. Your expression is so funny.”
He took the tube from his mouth and glared at it, before sticking it back between his lips. “A habit of a lifetime. It’d taste like arsenic and I’d still be sucking at it.”
He nodded at the image she had conjured up from what appeared to be a solid slab of marble. “How’s your model coming?”
“It is almost done. Come see.”
He sat down next to her on the bench. She pointed.
“Here is where the asteroid was first detected. It came in from far beyond the planets. Flick tracked it for decades before calling it to the attention of the Elders. We studied it, but there was nothing we could do that Flick had not already considered.”
Sam looked over the diagram of the solar system. There were considerably more planets that he remembered from school. And there were not just one asteroid belt, but four. At least she had labeled the planets in old familiar English.
The rogue asteroid coming in from far outside the system indeed appeared to be headed straight for Earth.
Sam stood up and walked around the room, looking at the rich furnishings, often stone inlaid with metal. The closest one was an eight-foot tall totem pole, with perfectly formed human heads crafted in gold. The place was hardly a science lab.
“Yes. Isn’t it? Those are all made by Griditch. This is his work area.”
“He’s a sculptor?”
“He used to be. With the asteroid impact so close, he’s spending most of his time conferring with the Elders of other cities, trying to keep the people from panicking. It’s been hectic.”
Sam frowned. “Everyone knows about it?”
“Everyone I’ve seen has been placid, going about their business.”
Alanda chuckled. “That’s not what I’m seeing! Didn’t you see how people looked at you in the park? Probably half the population of the planet is gossiping about D’sonna taking you away the first night. She’s been trying to become an Elder for a very long time. I don’t think she’ll ever forgive me.”
Sam turned, “Forgive you, for what?”
She shrugged. “For still being an Elder.”
“Yes, after my regression.”
Sam held up his hands. “Angel, you’ve lost me. Flick may think he’s decoded Twentieth Century English, but believe me, there’s some gaps. What’s ‘regression’?”
Alanda looked down at her hands, and a blush crept over her cheeks. “It’s not something I like to talk about.”
“You brought it up, Precious.”
She sighed. “I guess you should know. Sam, maybe you’ve noticed, I look a little younger than anyone else.”
He nodded. “I wondered about that. Everyone I’ve seen has looked mid-twenties to mid-fifties, all healthy, of course. But there’s no old people, and no children.
“Flick may have been hiding them away from me...”
Alanda shook her head, “No, Samuel. No one is hiding. The reason people look that age has nothing to do with how old people actually are. What you just said—about people looking ‘mid-twenties’—that’s just nonsense words to me. How a person looks is just an expression, like a smile or a frown.”
He pulled out another cigarette from his pocket. When he realized he had two, he stuffed the new one behind his ear.
“Let me get this straight. You can grow old and wrinkled, or young and fresh, just at will?”
She laughed, “Oh, no Samuel. It’s just that, over time, a person’s body changes. I feel young, so my body grew that way. No one could possibly tell a person’s age from their appearance.”
“Excuse me.” Flick appeared in the room with them. Alanda jerked and put her hand to her mouth.
Sam faced the illusion and grumbled. “What do you want?”
Flick nodded his direction. “Griditch is returning from his meeting. I thought it would only be polite to inform you.”
“Fine. Go away.” Sam dismissed him with a wave of his hand. Flick gave one nod to Alanda and did as he was told.
Sam turned to her. “Angel, it’s important, and we don’t have much time. You were startled when Flick appeared. Why?”
She waved her hand. “I’ve never seen him appear like that.”
“But you’re an Elder. You talk to Flick.”
“Right. But it has always been a voice in my head. Never an image before. It must be something he is doing for you.”
Just then, the wall opened, and Griditch strolled in. He nodded. “Hello, Samuel. Alanda.” He pointed to the model of the solar system. “Have you made any progress?”
“I’ve got the idea now.” Sam nodded at the array of images that Griditch had quickly brought up. He pointed at the star field. “Did you get that from a telescope?”
The man looked puzzled. “No, I asked Flick for the representation.” He pointed to a dot of light on the screen. “You can see how the asteroid has changed position from last night ... to what it is now.” The dot shifted visibly.
Sam frowned. “How can you see the stars in the daylight?”
Griditch shrugged. “Flick can see them.”
“So this isn’t from a telescope? How can you be sure what you’re seeing? It seems to me that you’ve got the whole world upset over a little dot of light.
“Have you seen it yourself?”
Alanda asked, “What do you mean, Samuel? We can all see it, right here in front of us.”
Sam shook his head. “That’s not what I mean. Can you go outside and see it with your own two eyes?”
Both of them were visibly shocked. But Griditch shook it off. “Ah, no. Of course, it is impossible go outside, but even through the windows, it is still much too small to see. It is only through Flick’s instruments that it is visible like this. Maybe in the last few hours, it could be seen directly, but not now.”
Sam took another distasteful puff of his cigarette. “Do you guys even have a telescope?”
They looked at each other. Griditch said, “No. I think I understand what you are asking for. It’s a visual amplification apparatus of some kind?”
Sam shook his head. “It’s not some kind of fancy gadget. I’ve used binoculars and spotting scopes in the war. There’s nothing to them. Just a couple of glass lenses, like that over there, and a tube.”
Griditch and Alanda looked at the sculpture he indicated. It was a complicated array of glass and stone that created the image of a yellow flower when looked at from the proper angle.
“You bend the light?” asked Griditch.
“Yeah. Can you build me one?”
Alanda laughed, “Griditch is the finest sculptor in the world. He could build anything.”
The sculptor was muttering. “It’s been a long, long time since I’ve done anything. But yes, if you can give me the details. I have all the equipment right here.”