November is not Chicago’s best month, and Saturday morning was a poor specimen of November. A chilly wind pelted flurries of wet snow into Harold’s face, making him regret that he had left his rented car parked so far from the hotel.
Happily, the drive would be short. His firm had a Schaumburg office, and Lon Margolin, the local computer guru, had agreed to meet him there.
At eight a.m., the hotel had been preternaturally silent. A desk clerk, a bell boy, a figure sprawled on a sofa and a couple eating in the coffee shop were the only remnants of last night’s activity. Harold had crossed the lobby on tiptoe, for much the same reason that those who pass by graveyards try to move without making a sound.
He was almost convinced, as his numbing fingers tried to work the lock of the automobile door, that last night’s memories were an elaborate dream. The Zephyrcon folk were a species of faery, perhaps, formed of an overheated imagination and tricks of the moonlight.
Against this feeling was the tiny disk in his pocket, for the sake of which he had forced Lon Margolin and himself out of bed early on an unpleasant weekend morning. He shook snow crystals from his hair and wondered at his conduct.
Margolin was waiting for him, a large, jolly man with a good-ole-boy accent and an air of offhand expertise. He sipped a can of Dr. Pepper while Harold explained his errand. At the end of the explanation, he toyed with the disk in one hand while the other stretched his chin into a bloodhound countenance.
“Well, sir, there’s three ways I can think of this might have happened. First, one of them girls grabbed the wrong damned disk. Not much even I can do ‘bout that. Second, the theory your buddy had - it’s done gone through a magnetic field and got itself erased. Can’t do nothing ‘bout that, neither, but it ain’t likely. Third, these girls somehow reformatted it. Fool thing to do, but you know what they say: you can’t make anything foolproof, ‘cause fools are so damned ingenious.
“Now, we might as well put our chips on number three, since we can’t win nohow if it ain’t right.”
“If that does turn out to be the problem, can you fix the disk?” Harold asked.
“Hay-yell, it ain’t no harder’n rollin’ stones off a barn roof. Now, if you-all’ll just give me a few minutes to concentrate, I’ll shout the word in a jiffy.”
Harold took the hint and wandered to the vending room, where he coaxed a decrepit coffee maker into yielding a single, bitter-tasting cup. He then settled into a nearby office, picked up yesterday’s Daily Tax Report, and began reading about probable changes in the membership of the Congressional tax-writing committees.
A ringing telephone interrupted his concentration. After a long wait, Lon Margolin answered it. The conversation remained below the threshold of hearing until the computer expert exploded with a burst of down-home expletives, followed by a curt, “Soon as I can get to it, you hear?”
A few minutes later, Margolin sought Harold out, looking as if nothing had ever perturbed him. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Mr. Bramwing, but there’s a little ole bug in our LAN. I’m gonna have to see to it afore I go on with your disk.”
Harold gestured magnanimously. “Take your time. I’ll get a bite to eat and walk around a bit.”
Outside, the wind had picked up. He looked around for some sort of eating place and idly wondered what Melisande Thomas was doing at that instant.
Melisande was meditating whether to wake up, fall completely back to sleep or doze in a half-conscious state until some external event made the decision for her. In an attempt to make her choice better informed, she looked around for a clock. Unfortunately, she was too groggy to realize that her eyes were still shut tight.
The noise of a door opening and closing pushed her toward wakefulness. “Jody?” she whispered.
“Are you awake, Melisande?” her roommate answered softly.
“Sort of. I don’t know what time it is.”
“A little after eight.”
“Ooohhh. . . . Am I supposed to be anywhere?”
“Not unless you promised to have breakfast with Milos Savoy - or whoever he really is.”
“I don’t think I did. . . . His real name is - ah - Bramwing, Howard Bramwing.”
Jody pulled herself onto a corner of the bed, wrapped her arms around her knees and assumed a maternal expression that would have been more effective if Melisande had been able to see it through fastened eyelids.
“You should be careful around that man.”
“Careful? I’m a grown woman, Jody. I don’t need to be protected from males. Besides, he never so much as hinted -”
“That’s not what I mean. The trouble is, he’s very controversial. I don’t want him identified too closely with our Worldcon.”
“Why not? He writes good books.”
“Have you ever read any of them?”
At last Melisande’s eyes opened. For an instant, they held an expression that might have been annoyance, or even hostility. But it passed in an instant, and she spoke mildly. “Of course I have. Bronc got me reading him years ago.”
“Then you must have noticed that he’s a raving sexist.”
“That’s silly. You don’t really think that, do you?”
“It doesn’t matter much what I think. The point is, he has that reputation, and it would be a bad thing if it rubbed off on our Worldcon. You’ve seen what’s happened to Deno Stavrakis.”
“Do you want me to be rude to a perfectly nice man just because he’s violated some feminist taboo?”
“Now, Melisande, don’t get excited. You don’t have to be rude to him. I’m merely asking you not to hang around him every minute.”
“Well, I can’t hang around him this morning. I remember now. He’s taking our data disk to his office to see whether it can be repaired.”
As the ensuing silence lengthened, sleep began to muddle Melisande’s thoughts. But at the edge of her semi-conscious mind, something prowled, a disturbing question that would not rest until put into words.
All at once, almost with volition, she sat up. Clutching her pillow to her breast, she leaned forward. Hair spilled over her face, hiding her expression.
“Jody, did you go to Lunacon?”
“Huh? What does that have to do with anything?”
“Did you? Bronc said he met you there.”
“Well, he might have. . . . Yeah, I was there. Why do you ask?”
“You never told me.”
“Didn’t I? Oh, I must have. You just forgot.”
“No, no, no. I forget a lot of things, but I would remember if you’d told me you were going to Disclave. For one thing, I’ve been so worried about your finances. . . .”
“All right, Melisande, if you insist on being inquisitive, I won’t lie to you. Mark paid my way. I kept it quiet, because I don’t want gossip about my relationship with him.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“Unfortunately, your meaning didn’t come through too clearly. It seemed very much like prying to me.”
“Don’t get mad. I won’t do it again. And I won’t say a word about you and Mark.”
“Forget it. Isn’t it about time for you to get up and take your medicine?”
Melisande slowly acceded to the suggestion. She was not a fast riser, though. By the time she had gotten out of bed, swallowed a pill, showered, put on makeup, dressed and completed the rest of her matutinal preparations, the clock was nearing eleven, and Jody was warning her not to be late for her guest of honor interview.
“Lars, darling, did I wake you up?”
“Not at all. I was about to go to breakfast.”
“A good thing I caught you before you went. I have bad news.”
A dreadful premonition paralyzed Lars Gleason’s tongue. Happily, his premonitions were not very reliable, and his lover’s next words dispelled this one.
“Dr. Bell says I can’t go on vacation until all the Medicare paperwork is finished. So I won’t make it to the hotel before tomorrow.”
“That’s too bad, Caroline. I’ll be waiting for you. You know how much I’m looking forward to our trip.”
“Enough that you won’t drag this sci-fi business along.”
“Don’t worry. I have one intrigue to bring to a climax and a bunch of budget figures to review. After that, I’m one hundred percent, unadulteratedly yours.”
“Right, I’ll see you tomorrow. Love ya.”
“Love you, too, honey.”
As she put down the receiver, Caroline Corsi’s grim smile bore no relationship to her fond words. “God,” she muttered, “if this goes all right, I’ll never doubt him again. I promise.”
The telephone buzzed, its intercom light flashing. She punched the speakerphone button. “Hi, Larry.”
“Hi, Caroline. Everything’s okay. I looked over the Medicare forms, and they seem to be in order. Have a nice vacation.”
“I will, doctor, I will.”
Almost the first sight that greeted Harold upon his return to the hotel was his guide of yesterday running frantically through the lobby, pursued by her red-haired friend. He would have let them pass, but Melisande happened to look up. She decelerated abruptly and waved.
Today her T-shirt was royal blue with an illustration of a wizard conjuring a rocket ship out of a cauldron. She had exchanged her jeans for an off-white skirt cinched at the waist with a purple sash. As she approached, Harold read a new set of buttons: “Remember: Only YOU can prevent entropy” and “Casually obvious to the most intuitive observer”.
“Good morning, Miss Thomas. I seem to have caught you in the middle of a foot race.”
“I’m on an item that starts right now. Come on, and you can watch me make a public spectacle of myself.”
She resumed moving, this time at a brisk walk instead of a run. Harold tagged along.
“Your disk is okay,” he said, a bit breathless from the rapid pace. “The computer whiz says he can recover all the data.”
“Unfortunately, he had to attend to some kind of binary emergency, and I got tired of waiting in lovely downtown Schaumburg. He’ll bring the disk here when it’s ready and leave it at the front desk.”
Melisande was in too much of a hurry to say anything, but her beaming smile was an ample thank you.
Their destination was a medium-sized space labeled “Ballroom C”. A couple of hundred chairs faced a raised platform, on which a long table and five places for speakers had been set. One of those was occupied by a bearded, balding, fiftyish-looking man whom Harold recognized with surprise as the co-author of a leading treatise on pension plan terminations.
“Do you know who that is up there?” he asked Melisande.
“Sure I do. He’s going to interview me. You don’t think I’d answer impudent questions from a stranger, do you?”
About a third of the chairs in the audience had been taken. Harold selected one. Jody sat down on the other side of the center aisle. Melisande rushed up to the platform.
“Ah,” said the interviewer, peering ostentatiously at his watch, “our guest has thoughtfully given us an example of Melisande Standard Time.”
That was the last portion of the hour that Harold found fully intelligible. The parties took for granted a vast store of background information that most of their listeners apparently shared. All that a neophyte could do was catch the general drift and show enough amusement, when everybody else laughed, to avoid appearing utterly out of touch.
The interviewer opened the floor for questions. An elongated man with thick, bushy hair and matching beard jumped up. “Melisande, one of the points that you and Ed were making doesn’t fit the facts. You talk about fandom as a family and cons as family reunions. Now, I’ve been going to cons for a long, long time, and they used to be like that. But let’s be honest. These days, we don’t have family reunions - we have business ventures.
“And the Worldcon is the worst of all. Six or seven thousand attendees. The way I see it, concomms aren’t interested in fans anymore; they’re trying to draw tourists, and they have to do that in order to cover their incredible expenses. It’s all a corporate mentality.
“I don’t want to criticize you personally, so I’ll direct my question at a generic ‘you’: Are any of you having fun at this? And if not, why do you do it?”
Melisande shook her head. “You’re seeing fandom from the wrong angle, Neil. Families come in different sizes. A big family can’t hold a reunion unless some of its members are willing to do a lot of planning and sweating. What they’re doing may look like a business, but the motive isn’t profit; it’s to help the whole family have a good time.
“Let me give you an example. St. Petersburg was chosen to host the Worldcon two years ago. The first thing that became very obvious was that our finances had been chaotic during the bid and, as things were going, could only get worse. Handling them was going to be a huge, boring job.
“That’s when Jody Silverbury stepped in and offered to run the finance division. She doesn’t get anything out of it except grief. It doesn’t further her career. In fact, she’s given up working overtime at her mundane job. And she does marvelous work for the con. I barely have to think about finances now and never even look at a ledger.”
“I’m sure that some conrunners are selflessly devoted,” the questioner persisted, “but what do you think when you see these vicious contests for the right to put on the Worldcon? It’s fine if Uncle Frank and Uncle Ned want to organize the family reunion. I get a wee bit cynical, though, when they start competing for the honor, and downright suspicious when they slander each other in order to get it.”
“Am I? Last night I went to all the bid parties and listened to what people were saying. At one party, I’m told that Bid X wants to control the Worldcon business meeting and punish its co-chairs’ enemies in some way or another. Next party, the word is that the chair of Bid Y is a sexual pervert and drug user. The party after that, I learn that Bid Z isn’t trying to win at all; its sole purpose is to sink the chances of one of the other bids. Sorry, Melisande, but I don’t believe that this is all in the spirit of a family reunion.”
“I don’t know,” said Melisande’s interviewer. “The Borgias were a family, too.”
The remark drew a laugh, after which the questioning became less contentious. The apparent aim of most of the questioners was to give the guest of honor openings for anecdotes about her convention experiences. Again, Harold felt all at sea. Why was it a faux pas to open a bottle of Jack Daniels in front of a person named “Tucker”? What did Melisande mean when she talked about having been kidnapped by aardvarks at Noreascon? Who were the numerous personalities whom she casually mentioned by first name or nickname or no name at all?
At length, the time allotted to the session ran out. Another set of speakers waited in the wings. There was a period of confused milling, at the end of which Harold found himself standing beside the interviewee.
“How did I do?” she asked.
“I could tell you better if I’d known what you were talking about.”
“Poor baby. To a neo, it must have sounded like Greek. Don’t worry. You’ll catch on after a few more cons.”
“I’m not sure. I never was good at foreign languages. . . . Let’s see, are you interested in lunch?”
“I’d better be. I didn’t get any breakfast, and Jody’ll yell at me if I skip another meal.” She looked around, somewhat apprehensively. “She must have her own lunch plans. I don’t see her.”
“She left just after your encomium.”
“No doubt I embarrassed her with those syrupy compliments.” She turned suddenly reflective. “On the other hand, she may be annoyed with me. We had some words this morning.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Oh, it was nothing. I think she’s jumpy about the disk. She’ll be her normal self once your fellow brings it back.”
They had been walking as they talked. Now they turned a corner and could see the coffee shop. “Ugh,” Melisande said.
Harold quickly grasped the point of her succinct comment. A line at least fifty customers long extended from the restaurant’s entrance into the lobby.
“And I promised Bridget I’d get you to the green room on time.” Melisande’s face was a portrait of despair.
A voice materialized behind them. “Never fear, fair lady. You wish to dine now, and you shall.” Deno Stavrakis took Melisande’s arm in his own and escorted her toward the front of the line.
A harried waitress guarded the door, trying desperately to cope with the lunchtime throng. Deno stepped smartly in front of a group of four.
“Excuse me, this is one of the Zephyrcon guests of honor.”
“So?” The waitress’s expression convinced Harold that he would be better off without lunch.
“So Zephyrcon’s contract with your hotel specifies that the guests of honor are to be given preference in all restaurant lines.”
“Would you like me to call the manager to confirm it?”
The woman shrugged. “How many in your party?”
They were handed off to an approaching waiter. Harold glanced at the group whose place they had usurped and cringed at their hostility. He hoped that no one could read the name on his badge.
“Just takes a show of authority,” Deno said complacently.
“Is that really in the contract?” Melisande asked.
“Beats me. Since they didn’t ask me to call the manager, we’ll never know.”
“It’s a rotten trick, but I suppose I’m grateful.”
“Someday, Melisande, you’ll learn what is due to a Worldcon chairman. Then I won’t have to arrange priority treatment for you.”
“Deno, nothing’s due me as chairman.”
Deno looked at her sympathetically, like someone humoring a naive adolescent. “If you don’t use your position, Melisande, you’re only cheating yourself. Fans expect the Worldcon committee to take some perks. You probably paid your own airfare to Chicago, right? Well, the Seattle bid paid mine - and is picking up my hotel room and two days’ lost salary. Not to mention all my telephone bills.”
Melisande obviously wanted to avoid a reply. Luckily, the waiter came at that moment to take their orders.
Lunch was not lively. Harold and Deno tried to catch up on the last few years, but neither could bring himself to talk unreservedly or at length. All that Harold learned, in fits and starts, about his old friend’s current life was that he was struggling to make ends meet as a middle-level administrator at a community college. Stray allusions hinted at an unhappy, expensive, short-lived marriage. The grand ambitions of yesterday had dwindled year by year, until Deno’s most important goal in life was, it seemed, to be co-chairman of a World Science Fiction Convention. Harold remembered a youth who had aspired to the Nobel Prize.
The depressing meal ended on a hurried note. Melisande looked at her watch, saw that one o’clock was only five minutes away and ran around the restaurant searching for their waiter and their check. Harold paid and felt guilty at his half-formed resentment when Deno took the gift as a matter of course.
“All right,” said Melisande when the bill was settled, “we’ve got three minutes.”
“Don’t worry. No panel ever starts on time,” Deno assured him.
They left the coffee shop by an exit that debouched near the front desk. “If you can delay just a second,” said Harold, “I’ll find out whether your disk has arrived yet.”
Melisande nodded, and they approached the lone clerk on duty at this hour.
The clerk listened to Harold’s inquiry, then vanished into the back room for interminable seconds. When she finally reappeared, her face wore a cheerful, fatuous grin.
“Everything’s fine, Mr. Bramwing.”
“Ah, you have my package, then?”
“No. There’s a note about it.” She looked down at a slip of paper. “A man brought a parcel for you at eleven-thirty. At eleven forty-five, your secretary picked it up.”
Harold decided, after brief but profound doubts about the acuity of his senses, that he had heard this speech correctly.
“That’s fascinating,” he replied. “My secretary is extremely efficient, but at the moment she happens to be over five hundred miles away.”