(Author’s note: The following is from Chapter One of Part Two, meaning that we have again skipped ahead so as not to reveal certain plot elements. Since the previously published chapter—“I am your friend”—Sam has witnessed a series of bizarre events in and around Pittsburgh. Pacy, wanting to help her confused husband but unsure of how, throws him a surprise birthday party, which ends abruptly when Sam sees Lloyd standing in the corner, invisible to everyone else at the party. Sam tries to attack Lloyd, but he vanishes before Sam can get him. In the following chapter, Lloyd briefs the leader of the Unit during a meeting at Heinz Field.)
I would be lying if I were to describe my meetings with Walt as anything but disagreeable.
Walter Lee Tripp, leader of the Unit since its inception more than 100 years before, certainly deserved respect. And he was sure to command it. At all times. He was, after all, the smartest person in the world. More than that: He was the smartest human ever to live. Of the billions of people who had walked the face of the earth, Walter Tripp was more intelligent, more advanced, and more evolved than any of his predecessors. His intellect was simply dizzying, and I had revered him since we first met all those decades ago in London.
That did not make him any less of an asshole.
As intelligent as Walt was, he was insufferable as a human being. He was ornery. He refused to concern himself with other’s emotions. He viewed feelings as useless, small talk as blather, and any indication of weakness as punishable. Every member of the Unit feared Walt. If you had something to say to him, we all knew, it better be what he wanted to hear. But my news on this day was most decidedly not what Walt wanted to hear.
When I entered the stadium he was sitting alone in the last row of bleachers high above the north end zone, as planned. Walt always changed meeting locations when it was necessary to talk away from headquarters. We’d never met here before, but I knew that the old man had an affinity for the new stadium, mainly because of the striking views it offered of the rivers and Downtown. As much as Walt despised its inhabitants, he adored the city of Pittsburgh. No place like it, he’d say; a mixture of new and old, hills and rivers, strength and beauty unlike any city in the world. But mention the old stadium and Walt bristled. Rather than leaving it open to showcase the skyline, as the new stadium did, they closed it off, erecting instead a huge concrete bowl that blocked any view of anything interesting or scenic. Walt was certain, and it was hard to argue his point, that the ugly Three Rivers Stadium contributed to the city’s negative image elsewhere in the country. Great teams played there and a stunning cityscape sat just outside, but every time a national audience tuned in, they were forced to stare for hours at a lifeless concrete pit with its faded artificial turf. These Normals, Walt would say, are so damned senseless.
The football season had ended months before and the stadium was empty. I started up the aisle to meet him. Walt’s gaze lowered and settled on me still many rows below. I stopped, smiled and waved. He stared back with no sign of emotion or even recognition. I lowered my hand and continued up the stairs.
Walt was unhappy with my progress, a displeasure he did not bother to mask. Too much hinged on this mission, and that made the old man nervous. Despite everything the Unit had achieved over the past century, its survival now relied heavily on a Normal. What a colossal misstep, Walt said the moment our predicament became clear. The Unit had changed the course of history, decided wars without ever picking up a weapon, carved out a utopian world for those who cared to experience it—and mostly out in the open without the Normals ever bothering to notice, let alone take part. Yet, inexplicably, we had failed to see this problem in advance. We were unprepared. And this unforgivable lack of foresight left us vulnerable and at the mercy of an intellectually fragile, utterly average Normal. “Perhaps,” Walt once told me in a moment of naked self-awareness, “perhaps my criticism of the old stadium is not so fair after all. The stupidity of building an ugly, sealed-off bowl resulted in a problem of mere perception. But the stupidity of not seeing or preparing for this—well, this could very well usher in our demise.” And what then? Without the Unit, the world would be left to the Normals, unchecked and unmanaged. And without the Unit, the Normals would all be dead by now.
I sat next to Walt and waited. He did not greet me. I took off my hat and rubbed my hand over my head. It was a warm day and the sun felt good on my scalp.
“Walt,” I said as a greeting.
“Lloyd,” he replied flatly.
“I assume you’re eager to hear my report?” I said.
Walt did not immediately respond. I turned to look at him and saw that his eyes were closed. He was leaning back against the fence, his wrinkled face bathed in sunlight.
Finally he opened his eyes. He sighed, sat up straight and adjusted his tie. He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out his flask, unscrewed the top and took a sip. Blinking at the sunshine, he took another drink, then returned the flask to his pocket.
“Begin,” he said.
“Well,” I said carefully. “The plan is in motion. I have made much progress, of that there is no doubt. But as you know, I cautioned from the beginning that this would take time, and I was right: It is taking time. I must stress, however, that it’s going about as well as I’d anticipated.”
“Meaning … I knew this would be a difficult process,” I said. “I am progressing, but he’s reluctant. That’s hardly a surprise, but, still—reluctant is how I would describe him.”
I shifted my weight forward on the bleacher seat and looked out over the rivers. It was a spectacular day, a rarity in Pittsburgh where gloomy or downright inclement weather was the norm. Across the Point, the Duquesne Incline carried tourists up the side of the cliff to Mt. Washington. I watched the once utilitarian, now merely decorative box climb upwards and waited for Walt to respond.
“Does he know about the procedure?” Walt said.
“No,” I said. “I haven’t been able to tell him yet.”
“And he hasn’t figured it out on his own?” Walt said.
“Well, no,” I said. “But don’t be so hard on him. How could he know?”
“Oh, Christ,” Walt said, rising suddenly to his feet. “These Normals are so insufferably stupid. How could he not know?”
I considered the question. It had been so long since I was Normal that I often, admittedly, had trouble relating to their unnatural simplicity. But I knew Sam. I had spent his entire life shadowing him, observing, noting his actions and deducing why he did the things that he did. The fact that the young man had yet to realize the changes in himself was not surprising. Not to me. Sam was thoughtful and self-aware, but this was an awful lot for him to take in, a fact that other members of the Unit failed, or refused, to recognize.
“Don’t forget one of the primary reasons we chose him,” I said. “Had he picked up on the changes right away, that would be a strong indication that we chose poorly, no?”
Walt had no patience for Normals. When he’d had his chance to separate, he seized it. Though it had become increasingly clear that the Unit could not survive without Normals, Walt could never shake his feelings of repulsion for their willful inability to see the world around them. In Walt’s mind, there was nothing redeeming or understandable about Normals’ insistence on making the world worse. He shook his head. Walt could not remember what it was like being Normal, and for good reason. He had always known he was different. Being born into the Normal world was, in his mind, a mere procedural glitch. He may have been born among them, but he had always been destined for the Unit.
“How long since the procedure?” Walt asked, sitting back down.
“Nearly a month now,” I said.
“How many contacts have you had with him?”
“A handful,” I said. “In the beginning, before I spoke to him directly, I presented myself only as a passerby, allowing him to notice me, establishing myself in his mind as a vaguely familiar, benevolent presence. Then I spoke to him briefly Downtown.”
“When he was with the detective?”
“Yes,” I said. “The detective did not see me, though. I contacted him next in West Virginia.”
“In Sistersville,” Walt said.
“Yes, Sistersville,” I said. “He did not take it too terribly well, which was exactly what I expected. But the process had to begin.”
“And since then,” Walt said, “he’s been walking around the city watching things happen. Consistently, unfailingly, he sees things that cannot be chalked up to mere chance. Yet, still—he doesn’t have a clue.”
I shook my head. “He does not, but again, it’s going essentially as I expected,” I repeated. “This is a lot for him. You forget what it was like to be Normal.”
Walt sighed. “How long until he realizes?”
I hesitated. This process allowed for—demanded, even—a period of adjustment, an unknown amount of time before Sam would understand the changes, let alone comprehend what they meant. I’d always known Sam would resist, even before Sistersville. Of course he would. That’s why I revealed only a fraction of what was to come during our talk there. It was intended only as an introduction, and I left the table that night confident. But Sam’s erratic behavior since was cause for concern. All he had to do was open his eyes. I did not expect him to cling so stubbornly to ignorance.
“Are we certain he’s the right one?” Walt said. “Could it be that we’ve made a mistake?”
“No,” I said. “No mistake was made. He was and is the perfect candidate.”
“Yet, I sense that you have reservations.”
“Well,” I said carefully. “I wouldn’t call them reservations, exactly. But I am anxious. He’s … he’s fighting more than I expected, resisting to a level I did not anticipate. Certainly I expected resistance, but from what I’ve learned of him over the years, he is nothing if not reasonable. He accepts situations when it becomes clear that he must. He doesn’t hide from obstacles or give up when things become difficult. He adapts and overcomes. Usually.”
“But not this time,” Walt said.
“Not yet,” I said. “But I remain confident that he will.”
We sat in silence for several minutes looking out over the city. Along the banks of the Allegheny River, divers continued their endless forays into the murky green water, searching for clues into the mysterious and spectacular plane crashes. News vans sat like bored sentries on either side of the river, waiting for something different to shoot. They were rarely rewarded.
“What do you intend to do next?” Walt said.
“It’s quite simple,” I said. “I intend to talk to him again.”
“To talk to him again, or antagonize him again?” Walt said.
I’d anticipated such a comment. My appearance at Sam’s birthday party was a gamble, one I expected to pay off. Time was running out. Sam was teetering between two worlds and clinging stubbornly to his former life. I needed to deliver a message, and more. And it worked. Though I felt terrible for the tactic, what better way to nudge him into the future than to alienate him from everyone in his past?
“That was a one-time event,” I said. “It was harsh, I admit, but necessary. And it will bring results. I know the path, and this is the correct one. I just need time.”
Walt reached into his pocket and took out a small brass device. He opened it, studied the face, sighed and slid it back into his pocket.
“Time is running out,” Walt said.
“I am aware of the situation,” I replied.
“Then you understand that we cannot afford delays,” he said. “None. Or the ramifications will be extreme. For Sam, for you, for all of us.”
I did not reply. I hoped to get away with this simple reprimand and nothing more.
“One week,” Walt said. “Mt. Washington. Atop the incline.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “I’ll be there. And I can assure you I’ll have better news to report.”
Walt chuckled softly. “Oh, you’ll have news all right,” he said. “Whether or not it will be better is what concerns me.”
Then he was gone.