How I came to be in charge of the logistics, I don’t know. It just happened. I was busy as a campaign manager on the eve of the Iowa caucuses.
Take money. Lawrence and Elvis had eleven dollars and twenty-three cents between them, plus a stash of diamonds that could send the world diamond market through the cellar. Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but they can’t help you at the automat—they don’t fit into those little slots. I didn’t have much cash left after breakfast, and the credit of a graduate student wouldn’t buy us a Variety Bucket of KFC. Lawrence—Larry—had discovered on his previous visit that the quality of his diamonds would raise eyebrows at any neighborhood jewelry store. And I had no connections on the black market, not in Indiana and not here.
“Got anything else we can sell or hock?” I asked.
“Just some sports equipment,” Elvis offered. “We have some very fine boogleball sticks and frip-frip racquets.”
So it went.
“I don’t suppose either of you has a credit card lying about, do you?” I asked.
“What does it look like?” Elvis asked.
I held up my overextended Visa, dull with use. Elvis examined it and they held a brief conversation.
“We could clone it,” he said.
“Yeah, but the company wouldn’t approve its use,” I objected. “The account number and security code would have to be legitimate. And you can’t use my numbers. I’m over my limit already. And as for my bank account, forget it. The balance is so low it’s beneath contempt. If you guys leave me in the lurch, I’ll have to thumb my way back to Indiana.”
“Why would we leave you there, Hank?” Elvis asked. He looked at my thumbs.
“Hitchhike,” I amended. “If you abandon me, I’ll have to hitchhike home.”
“By ‘money,’” Larry said, “do you mean coins or gold or what? I thought that all of your banking was electronic now.”
“Then there is no sweat, man,” Elvis said. “We are hip to that.”
“We can create a new account electronically,” Larry said. “That’s what he means.”
Then there was the housing question.
“Will we find a motor court?” Elvis asked. “I only got to visit last time,” he said wistfully. “I had to stay with the ship.”
“We should probably check into a hotel, for the sake of convenience, but we won’t have any luggage, unless we go shopping first. And we can’t go shopping without a car, because we can’t just set this thing down in a mall parking lot.” I gestured vaguely at the spaceship around us, which was humming along—invisible, or so they assured me, inside its security shield. “We could rent a car, but only if we can get close enough to some place we can catch a cab.”
“I’m sure you’ll think of something, Hank,” Elvis said.
From the beginning, it seemed, he’d placed entirely too much confidence in me. They both had. Who was I, after all? Just another overeducated Gen X outcast with no practical skills, unless you count diagramming a sentence a practical skill. It wouldn’t save the planet. In fact, in terms of planet-saving capabilities, I had zip. When Homeland Security hauled me off to Guantanamo and introduced me to the waterboard, I’d have nothing to offer them. In my spare time, I should start inventing a life.
As it turned out, when we arrived in the D.C. metro area, parking, for once, was not a problem. We set down on stilts in Rock Creek Park, not far from the National Zoo, our landing cushioned by an air pocket created by the ship and the trees mostly undisturbed by our vertical maneuver.
An hour later, we emerged with a new Visa card that Larry assured me would work. Elvis and I had passed the hour playing a card game with an unpronounceable name, while I explained his new identity. I walked down the ramp, turned to wave at Elvis, and saw nothing there. The invisibility shield was down, Larry explained.
A disembodied voice drawled, “Later, gator.”
“Do you think he’ll stay put?” I asked Larry, as we began hiking.
“Not for long,” Larry said.
The air was chilly, and I missed my jacket, but Larry seemed unaffected.
“You can’t blame him, though,” I said. “You two have been cooped up in that ship together for a long time.”
“Oh, I don’t blame him,” Larry said. “Not at all. He’s an extremely gregarious fellow. But I worry about what would happen if he appeared prematurely.”
We emerged at the north end of the zoo. I stopped to study the map. “This way to Connecticut,” I said, pointing. “We can follow the fence.” I paused. “Tell me something. Where does he come from? A really big planet populated by tall people?”
“He comes from a planet in the Roan Galaxy,” he said, distracted by his first sight of the city. “They are famous for their laboratories and design studios. He’s one of their best.”
I was confused. “Best what?”
“Best models,” Larry said. “You know, like—.” He looked around for inspiration and spotted the traffic in the distance. “Like a Mercedes, isn’t that right? One of your best cars? He’s like that.”
I stopped, stunned. “He’s a robot?”
“Yeah—you know. Not a life form, but a machine. An android. You don’t mean that, right? He has so much personality.”
Larry said, “I’m sorry. I expressed it badly. Elvis is a manufactured life form, but he’s not a machine in the way that a refrigerator or an automobile is a machine on your planet. On Earth, you tend to classify beings by race or origin because that is a category of significance to you. But in our world, the division between manufactured life forms and nonmanufactured life forms is not absolute, so the distinction isn’t very important to us. Yarp—Elvis—is a member of the race of peacemakers—intergalactic police officers.”
“But when you created them, the peacemakers, you gave them personalities?” I tried to picture some alien sitting at a high-tech computer console millions of space-miles away, deciding to have some fun with the personality programming. I hadn’t seen much evidence that Larry had a sense of fun, of course, but that didn’t mean anything. Then it occurred to me to wonder whether Elvis, in all his charming eccentricity, his warmth, sensitivity, and candor, was perhaps typical of those beings who had created him.
“Well, I didn’t,” he said patiently. “I’m not that kind of engineer. But if you’re using ‘you’ in the generic sense, yes. They were given emotions, but it would be an overstatement to say that they were given personalities. Where I come from, we believe that peacemakers should be able to identify with those whom they’re policing, so of course, they had to have emotions. But—how can I put it? The structuring of the self into a personality—that is up to the individual.”
“Elvis is his own robot.”
“You might say that. It can create problems, though.”
“If Elvis decides he just has to get out and meet and greet, for example?”
“Yes.” Larry sighed. “He has a very good heart and a very good mind. He won’t deliberately do anything to jeopardize our mission, but—.”
“He’s only human.”
Larry smiled. He didn’t respond, but he didn’t have to. Clearly, he believed that Elvis was better than human. I didn’t take offense. If I wasn’t going to defend neckties, I sure wasn’t going to defend the human race.
He started at a blast of music rushing past us on roller blades. “Fashions certainly have changed, haven’t they?” he said. “Is that a new mode of transport or is it a form of recreation?”
“Both,” I said.
“It looks rather like roller skates,” he said.
“Just redesigned,” I said, “like Elvis.”
I caught Larry’s elbow as he stepped off the curb and into the path of a messenger on a bike. “Everything seems to have accelerated,” he observed. “But of course, the pace of life will always be faster in a capital city than in the countryside, I suppose. I like to walk, though. You can get to know a planet more intimately if your body makes contact with its surface.”
As he continued to take things in, he had plenty of questions. If the devices people were holding to their ears were telephones, not translators, why was everyone talking on them? Did Earth people talk face-to-face anymore, or was that only in bars? Did people not mind the noise and pollution of the gasoline-powered vehicles—the automobiles and the motorcycles and the mopeds? Why were all the cars so big if they carried only one person at a time? Why were there so many stores everywhere? Did people really purchase enough goods to keep all these stores in business? Were there no motor courts in the capital city?
Hanging around spacemen really does something to your head, I can tell you. For example, I was just about to write, “In spite of the chill, the sun was out,” when I stopped to consider that, astronomically speaking, of course, the sun was always out. But if I made that observation to Larry and Elvis, they might get that anxious look they wore whenever they had bad news for me. They might change the subject—Larry’s usual strategy—or they might inform me, with sorrowful expressions, that, regrettably, the sun would not always be out. Some time in the distant future, the sun would burn itself up, and the human species would need to relocate, assuming that we were still around at that point, which, as a betting proposition, was a total nonstarter. Elvis had told me that there was a planet in our dimension in the Pinwheel Galaxy where the bookies gave thirty-to-one odds against human survival for another millennium. Elvis, though sensitive and sympathetic, was big on candor.
We checked in at the Marriott Wardman Park, where the plastic card Larry had somehow produced back on the ship was cheerfully accepted. We left a vague impression of lost luggage in our wake and went out to cruise the streets of Adams Morgan to see what kinds of men’s wear was available in XXL. Half an hour later, having rejected yoga pants, camouflage, Rastafarian caps, dashikis, and embroidered Mexican shirts, we stumbled across a building like a big warehouse, the Columbia Road Discount Center, which advertised, in English and Spanish, “the best prices in town.” When we left the store, Larry was wearing khaki slacks, a sports shirt, a sports jacket, and a digital watch, and I was wearing a new pair of chinos, a knit pullover, and a leather jacket.
“I don’t miss the tie,” he said, “but I rather miss the hat.”
We were carrying our old clothes and our other purchases in a pair of carry-on bags we’d bought. We’d again left behind the impression that we were victims of incompetence in baggage claim. Also inside the bags was the longest pair of Big and Tall sweatpants they had and the largest Hoyas sweatshirt.
“He will be very pleased,” Larry said.
I’d decided that Elvis would be a Georgetown basketball recruit from the rural South, and Larry would be his agent. I doubted that there was any place left in the rural South where people would be as clueless as Elvis, but prejudices die hard, particularly inside the Beltway. I didn’t think anybody would question his story.
We also picked up a couple of cell phones while we were out, though it took some convincing on my part to persuade Larry that such primitive technology might come in handy. Elvis’s phone, in Hoya blue, played the Hoya fight song for its ring tone.
Larry’s energy flagged quickly. He was not a shopper. He kept glancing up at the sun.
I tapped him on the arm. “If you want to blend in with Earthlings, look at your watch, not the sun. Younger people look at their cell phones. Just a suggestion.”
He smiled sheepishly and gave his watch a conspicuous inspection.
“It’s okay,” I said. “We’ll take a cab back to base, and you can stay home while I take Elvis shopping. You’ll need another jacket and dress pants, but that can wait.”
We stopped at a cash machine, which gave up its cash without a murmur, and then hailed a cab.
Elvis was still in the ship, playing some kind of video game, and he brightened when he saw his new outfit. Everything was a little short on him, but he didn’t know it.
“It’s just the beginning, kid,” I told him. “Let’s go shopping.”
“Will we eat something, too? Can we go to a Big Boy restaurant? Or maybe a Howard Johnson’s? I never went there before. Or—.” His eyes brightened. “How about an automat? Can we go to an automat, Hank?”
“Things have changed since you last visited the planet, big guy, but sure, we can eat.”
“And after we get our car, can we go to a drive-in restaurant, Hank? I would like to see the car jumps on roller skates, and also those—.” He frowned. “You know, those—.” He formed his hands into cees and pointed them down.
“The trays that clip onto the car window?”
“Yes! The car window clip-on trays.”
“I don’t know about the car jumps on roller skates,” I said. “We’ll have to look around. But in the meantime, remember, the Hoyas coach is John Thompson. We’re going to need a team roster for you to study, so in the meantime, just smile knowingly.”
He curled his lip at me. It was a knowing smile, all right, but it was the wrong kind. It was the kind that the King gave his adoring female fans.
“Close enough,” I said.