The Complete Stories (Page 24)
"It’s all right. I’ll just wait."
They ushered him into a small room just next to the one in which he had been questioned. He let himself sink into a plastic-covered armchair and closed his eyes.
As well as he could, he must wait out this final hour.
He sat perfectly still and slowly the tension left him. His breathing grew less ragged and he could clasp his hands without being quite so conscious of the trembling of his fingers.
Maybe there would be no questions. Maybe it was all over.
If it were over, then the next thing would be torchlight processions and invitations to speak at all sorts of functions. The Voter of the Year!
He, Norman Muller, ordinary clerk of a small department store in Bloom-ington, Indiana, who had neither been bom great nor achieved greatness would be in the extraordinary position of having had greatness thrust upon him.
The historians would speak soberly of the Muller Election of 2008. That would be its name, the Muller Election.
The publicity, the better job, the flash flood of money that interested Sarah so much, occupied only a comer of his mind. It would all be welcome, of course. He couldn’t refuse it. But at the moment something else was beginning to concern him.
A latent patriotism was stirring. After all, he was representing the entire electorate. He was the focal point for them. He was, in his own person, for this one day, all of America!
The door opened, snapping him to open-eyed attention. For a moment, his stomach constricted. Not more questions!
But Paulson was smiling. "That will be all, Mr. Muller."
"No more questions, sir?"
"None needed. Everything was quite clear-cut. You will be escorted back to your home and then you will be a private citizen once more. Or as much so as the public will allow."
"Thank you. Thank you." Norman flushed and said, "I wonder-who was elected?"
Paulson shook his head. "That will have to wait for the official announcement. The rules are quite strict. We can’t even tell you. You understand."
"Of course. Yes." Norman felt embarrassed.
"Secret service will have the necessary papers for you to sign."
"Yes." Suddenly, Norman Muller felt proud. It was on him now in full strength. He was proud.
In this imperfect world, the sovereign citizens of the first and greatest Electronic Democracy had, through Norman Muller (through him!) exercised once again its free, untrammeled franchise.
"Come, come," said Shapur quite politely, considering that he was a demon. "You are wasting my time. And your own, too, I might add, since you have only half an hour left." And his tail twitched.
"It’s not dematerialization?" asked Isidore Wellby thoughtfully.
"I have already said it is not," said Shapur.
For the hundredth time, Wellby looked at the unbroken bronze that surrounded him on all sides. The demon had taken unholy pleasure (what other kind indeed?) in pointing out that the floor, ceiling and four walls were featureless, two-foot-thick slabs of bronze, welded seamlessly together.
It was the ultimate locked room and Wellby had but another half hour to get out, while the demon watched with an expression of gathering anticipation.
It has been ten years previously (to the day, naturally) that Isidore Wellby had signed up.
"We pay you in advance," said Shapur persuasively. "Ten years of anything you want, within reason, and then you’re a demon. You’re one of us, with a new name of demonic potency, and many privileges beside. You’ll hardly know you’re damned. And if you don’t sign, you may end up in the fire, anyway, just in the ordinary course of things. You never know. . . . Here, look at me. I’m not doing too badly. I signed up, had my ten years and here I am. Not bad."
"Why so anxious for me to sign then, if I might be damned anyway?" asked Wellby.
"It’s not so easy to recruit hell’s cadre," said the demon, with a frank shrug that made the faint odor of sulfur dioxide in the air a trifle stronger. "Everyone wishes to gamble on ending in Heaven. It’s a poor gamble, but there it is. I think you ‘re too sensible for that. But meanwhile we have more damned souls than we know what to do with and a growing shortage at the administrative end."
Wellby, having just left the army and finding himself with nothing much to show for it but a limp and a farewell letter from a girl he somehow still loved, pricked his finger, and signed.
Of course, he read the small print first. A certain amount of demonic power would be deposited to his account upon signature in blood. He would not know in detail how one manipulated those powers, or even the nature of all of them, but he would nevertheless find his wishes fulfilled in such a way that they would seem to have come about through perfectly normal mechanisms.
Naturally, no wish might be fulfilled which would interfere with the higher aims and purposes of human history. Wellby had raised his eyebrows at that.
Shapur coughed. "A precaution imposed upon us by-uh-Above. You are reasonable. The limitation won’t interfere with you."
Wellby said, "There seems to be a catch clause, too."
"A kind of one, yes. After all, we have to check your aptitude for the position. It states, as you see, that you will be required to perform a task for us at the conclusion of your ten years, one your demonic powers will make it quite possible for you to do. We can’t tell you the nature of the task now, but you will have ten years to study the nature of your powers. Look upon the whole thing as an entrance qualification."
"And if 1 don’t pass the test, what then?"
"In that case," said the demon, "you will be only an ordinary damned soul after all." And because he was a demon, his eyes glowed smokily at the thought and his clawed fingers twitched as though he felt them already deep in the other’s vitals. But he added suavely, "Come, now, the test will be a simple one. We would rather have you as cadre than as just another chore on our hands."