I would send out for assistance but there's someone on the signal wire
And the corporation logo is flashing on and off in the sky
They're putting all your names in the forbidden book
I know what they're doing but I don't want to look
—“Night Rally,” Elvis Costello
Illya tried on three outfits, and none of them were remotely fitting. The black turtleneck he usually wore in an attempt to blend into the background of any milieu made him look like an aging beatnik. The flannel shirt, jeans, and workboots that he thought might make him look like some kind of outdoorsman signaled “Christopher Street bottom” now, especially with the delicacy of his face. Putting on a white tank top made him look no more butch, but put him in mind of the young man he'd seen earlier, the one who'd licked his lips in sordid invitation.
He grunted in disgust and changed back into the unhip, professorial blazer and turtleneck, topped off by his thick black glasses. It was the outfit he'd been invited to the rally in—surely it would pass for something like normal. Fashion hadn't changed so much as its meaning had, the message sent by simple clothes now a subversion of everything they once stood for. Everyone seemed to be in costume, in disguise, and it made creating a simple fake identity nearly impossible.
He straightened the paisley tie he'd added to his ensemble and looked in the mirror. He still looked young, far too young. Younger than he'd looked that morning. How was that possible? His face was fresh, babyish, his cheekbones tightly rounded, nothing like the subtle sagging of the jowls he'd seen in the mirror that morning. The lines that had begun to creep over his face, at the corners of his mouth and around his eyes, were gone—the grooves of thought that appeared when he wrinkled his forehead in confusion remained, but only as long as he did not school his expression into neutrality. His hair was the same, but not really; the uncared-for hair, down around his ears and creeping over his neck, looked hip and careless, rather than old and uncaring.
Illya had been dosed with hallucinogens before. There was always a sensation of physical disorientation, the giddy whirl of a world gone off its rocker around you. Usually there were other physical symptoms—crawling or itching of the skin, thirst or nausea, some kind of disconnection to your body itself. Nothing would be perfect; there would be random smears of color, things that popped in and out of existence, auras and patterns, visions that you could only see out of the corner of your eye. No drug he knew of could produce something as seamless and subtle at this. Mere delusion, then, but what was the delusion? That he had once been old?
The road took him past little brick boxes, painted mint green and sky blue and custard yellow, where he could see lights on in the houses when the sun started to set. Then to neighborhoods where the houses were taller, made of wood, with ornate gables and sagging front porches, ivy and ragweed exploding out of their peeling and rotted shells. And then there was a strip of nothing but grass, ragged and tall, waving sullenly in the light of the waning sun, and above their rattling yellow seedheads stood the towers of the factories.
Illya maneuvered the station wagon into the industrial park, watching for any signs of a gathering. The factories had clearly been shut down already. The huge metal tanks and metal towers that dotted the park were dark, unlit, and he saw signs of rust on the ladders and scaffolding that supported them. He could see machinery clearly through the windows of the factories, the glass already broken in some places. The machines were silent and still. A single pipe, rising high above the welter of metal and plastic, spurted a sad gout of flame, like a guttering candle.
Eventually he began to see more cars—pickup trucks and station wagons trundling along on paths parallel to his, roads that twisted in and out of inexplicable cul-de-sacs and expanses of concrete where metal dumpsters and crates sat empty. He followed them as well as he could, the station wagon juddering over speed bumps and gigantic cracks in the pavement. Eventually, he came to the point where the road was clogged with cars that were still and silent, too. He turned off the engine and put his glasses on, walking forward, wending his way among the cars.
The FAPpers had set up camp in a gigantic parking lot, a rectangle of clear space surrounded on all four sides by the red and brown brick of the factories. Someone had brought strands of red, white, and blue fairy lights and strung them up on the walls of the factories, festooning the pipes and ladders that littered the brick facades with pools of light. The strings of lights all led to a generator which purred calmly away in a corner, surrounded by stacked gas cans. Illya wondered how many FAPpers had hoarded their gas rations to pay for the hours of light.
He wandered around the square a little, pushing his way past men and women clad in jeans and overalls, flannel and t-shirts, leather jackets and puffy coats. There were oil drum bonfires set up at periodic intervals, people standing around them and warming their hands, sipping what was probably coffee from Styrofoam cups. Illya saw card tables with boxes of donuts carefully stacked, cases of beer out in the open—the beer had barely been touched, although a few die-hard enthusiasts clutched cans in their gloved hands, grimly sipping. There didn't seem to be anywhere obvious that people were getting the coffee. He smelled smoke, smelled meat, and followed his nose to where someone had set up a makeshift grill in a hinged oil drum. A squat woman, frizzy hair tied back in a messy ponytail, was handing out hot dogs in buns to anyone passing by.
Illya took a hot dog and nodded his thanks, then wended his way towards the stage. It was a makeshift affair, a wooden platform with a card table and a loudspeaker. He stole a glance at his watch—it was 5:30, and the cloudless sky was darkening, a faint blue glow emanating from behind the mass of brick where the sun was setting. Whatever they had planned for the riot, whatever demagoguery or violence would take place, he had thirty minutes to prepare for it.
He leaned against the edge of the stage and scanned the crowd. The bulky winter clothing most of the attendees wore made it difficult to tell who had a weapon. There didn't even seem to be any obvious leaders, organizers, or guards—people wandered at random, chatting to each other, distributing food or drinks, congregating in small clumps and then breaking up again. He chewed on the hot dog and tried to track the movements of the group, watching for patterns. The hot dog tasted burnt and chemical.
Suddenly, the patterns of the crowd became clear. They were organized into little clumps, never more than five or six, everyone standing around with a cup or a can or a donut or a hot dog in their hands. Someone would join a clump, chat for a minute or two, and then someone else would break off and join another clump of people. Information was being transmitted, like termites in a hive or neurons in a brain, and something vital was being disseminated. Every so often, the people who broke off from a group at the same time would congregate together, forming another clump, before hurriedly breaking apart and insinuating themselves into another conversation.
He finished his hot dog, feeling as though the protein had cleared his head. The brick walls of the factory lit by the colored lights, the blue sky, the smell of the roasting hot dogs, the massed flesh of the people around him—it was all very real, very tangible. It was a relief to realize that. Surely this reality couldn't slip apart on him, no mysterious messages could get through to him, in the midst of all this reality, this humanity.
Illya found himself with a cup of coffee in his hand, somehow. He sipped at it and winced when the burnt liquid stung his tongue. Nonetheless, it was getting colder and the coffee was warm, so he held it to his face and breathed in the fumes. It was unpleasantly fragrant and comforting, redolent with the smell of bad coffee anywhere. Everything was so very much in focus, so very real.
He heard snatches of conversation.
“—fucking foreman grabbed my ass while I was working a goddamn miter saw. Wouldn't bother with the asshole except I had my hand right next to a goddamn moving blade, damn fucking safety hazard, so I chewed him out a new one and they sacked me the next day—”
“—was gonna send Sally to college, y'know, the pension plan was great, and six months before I retired this shit happens and they're tellin' me I ain't eligible for the pension, like it's my damn fault I won't up and move the family to Mexico—”
“—fucking Spics reproducing like animals, just don't know when to stop, I tell ya the whole neighborhood's gone brown these days, I walk down the street and I don't understand nobody—”
“—just never came back from the war, he never really did, I mean he's sitting right in my living room watching Wheel of Fortune but I know his mind's right back there in Da Nang—”
“—a man can't provide for his family anymore because nobody respects the gol-dang paterfamilias is the problem, this Women's Lib bull-pucky, they want my wife to go out and work on the line and a man can't catch a break—”
“—it's the liberal media is what it is, nobody respects the office of the President, they call cops pigs, they call soldiers baby-killers, they say politicians are crooks, well how do you expect the country to do anything when you're out there saying it's all just a heap of junk—”
The voices blurred together, a whirl of complaint and fear. Illya drifted into groups, nodded and sipped coffee, drifted out again. At every moment, it seemed as though the voices were on the verge of coalescing into a unified voice, something that would deliver him an answer he didn't know he was looking for. And at the same time, they threatened to overwhelm him, to swallow up his mind in their babble.
And then a squeal of feedback cut through the noise. It echoed off the brick walls, sending its jagged vibrations up to the dirty blue sky, and workboots shuffled and heads turned as the crowd gravitated towards the stage. Illya found himself swept up in the wave. He clutched his Styrofoam cup to his chest, the rapidly cooling liquid sloshing onto his shirt, the warmth seeping through to his skin, tacky and unpleasant.
“Friends of the American People!” The voice was nasal, drawling, eminently familiar, and the end of the sentence was drowned out by a cacophony of cheers. Illya pushed his way to the edge of the stage, his glasses skewed on his nose, and stared up in a parody of worship at F. Ferris Fremont.
The man didn't look anything like Illya had imagined. He was wiry and gangling, all flailing arms and legs, jutting nose and black hair combed back from his forehead. Sharp black eyes stared through thick square glasses, roving over the crowd, and at last that piercing gaze settled on Illya.
“Friends,” F. Ferris intoned, “Americans, countrymen...” He grinned, and to Illya it looked predatory. He nodded to himself, chuckling, and to Illya it sounded like the low growl a cat makes while it stalks its prey. “I have your ears. And I hope, oh, I hope...” He placed his hand over his heart, as though pledging allegiance. “I hope I have your hearts.” Another round of cheers. “I hope I've placed the truth into your heart, friends. I hope I've started a fire within you—a fire for justice. A fire for victory...victory over the forces of darkness that are claiming our nation!”
Illya looked around as F. Ferris continued on. It was the same empty rhetoric any politician from any party tended to spout, and it was almost a relief. Perhaps all this was simply a platform for F. Ferris to launch a formal political career. Illya started composing his report to Napoleon in his head. F. Ferris Fremont's constituent base is vocal and radically right-wing, nativist, and paranoid. His entry into politics seems a bid to gain power, but also to legitimize himself within the political process. However, this may alienate his followers who see him as a grassroots leader and a Washington outsider, and his views are also likely to alienate him from the more moderate Beltway crowd—his influence on American politics may, ironically, wane. But there is a slim chance that he may actually gain some true influence in Washington, which we have to be on the lookout for...
F. Ferris dropped his voice, hunching into the microphone as though sharing a secret. His eyes darted from left to right, and he paused every few seconds to allow the cheers and boos coming from the audience to die down. “I'm speaking, of course,” he intoned, “of the members of the New World Order. You know them, of course—the Communists and Illuminatis who control the United Nations and those filthy Democrats, all of them using underhanded and Satanic techniques to weaken the resolve and the strength of our great country. And today, friends...today we see the fruits of that labor.”
He balled his hand into a fist and shook it at the audience. “No fruits for you, friends, and no labor! The factories are cold, the machines still. And why? One word, friends...Greed.”
This was exciting. Was Illya about to witness the beginning of a genuine populist movement right there in Hoboken? Perhaps, beneath all the half-baked conspiracy theories and off-kilter rants, beat the heart of someone who truly had the best interests of the workers at heart.
F. Ferris opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it. He pointed up, slowly, at the sky.
“Do you hear that?”
Illya strained his ears. The only sound was the murmuring of the crowd, the faint squeal of the microphone, and the whoosh of wind far in the distance. But as F. Ferris pointed at what seemed like random places in the sky, the crowd began to mill, and the murmur became louder. The wind picked up, scattering dead leaves and pieces of paper around the feet of the crowd.
“I knew it, friends!” F. Ferris bellowed. “This is about what I said today, yes. You were all listening? You all heard me?” He shook his finger at the crowd. “It's the United Nations' goons! I knew they existed, friends, but I've never seen them before today—and here they are to show their corrupt faces! Their infernal machines!”
Illya squinted at the sky. It was dark blue now, blank and pure with the cold stars of winter.
He closed one eye, and suddenly his ears were battered by the deafening slap of helicopter blades. The sky was filled with huge black helicopters, bulbous and sleek, and he gaped in awe, staring at the bellies of the choppers. They were so low that he could see—no, it wasn't possible at that height, and yet he could—their bellies bristling with microphones and the flared lenses of cameras, and he could even pick out the United Nations logos stenciled on their bellies in iridescent decals.
Illya's other eye shot open, and the helicopters disappeared. The only noises were the crowd, the wind.
Experimentally, he closed his other eye, and he almost laughed. People were ducking, shouting in terror...from a toy helicopter zooming around the brick courtyard. One single toy helicopter. The crowd was panicking, screaming and pointing at the sky.
He should contact Napoleon, he thought...but the helicopter had to be controlled by someone nearby, and it would be better to discover the perpetrator before he made his report. He opened both eyes again to search—
—and the helicopter disappeared. One moment it was buzzing over the grill that now held shriveled burnt hot dogs, and one moment it was gone. It hadn't even flown into the shadows or to some other place Illya could not see. It had simply blinked out of existence.
The crowd was still screaming. Illya turned around and around, trying to orient himself and gain some kind of idea of what was going on. He was no longer used to being so deeply in the thick of confusion. The past few years, he had been eased out of field duty, had only witnessed riots and mayhem from the point of view of an observer, a reader. Spending so long out of action must have dulled the skills that allowed him to assess a situation like this from a calm, objective point of view even while he was physically in the middle of it; this was confusion, and it would not let up for him.
He felt bodies pressed up against him, pushing and shoving, kicking him. He heard the sound of breaking glass, the whoosh of a fire starting. The generator, he thought, and the cans of gasoline. The parking lot was large, but hemmed in by so much brick—the crowd, at this density, would surely jam itself in.
Illya tried to squeeze through the seething bodies, looking for a safe place to contact Napoleon. Surely there could be someplace, a cranny or corner out of the way that he could pull out his communicator. He elbowed and shoved, and after a moment he had managed to create a kind of logjam of bodies around himself—it was close enough, and he could only hope that nobody would hear him in the roar of the crowd.
He fished in his pocket, drew out his communicator, held it up to his face. “Napoleon,” he said, “I'm at the riot, I don't know what's going on, there are black helicopters or a toy helicopter or nothing, send backup, it's going to get violent, there is a fire, Napoleon—”
“Hey!” He heard the voice, loud and angry and rough, as if from a far distance or underwater. “Hey! He's talkin' to one of those gadgets! He's one of them!” And then something heavy slammed against the back of his head and the world went black.