HARLAN: There are always those who ask, what is it all about? For those who need to ask, the Hokey Pokey is what it's all about. For those who need points sharply made, let me tell you this story.
The Ticktockman was never called that to his mask, not more than once per flunky. He was called the Master Timekeeper to his mask, and in e-mails. It was safer that way. All his staff feared him: The ferrets, all the loggers, all the finks, all the commex, even the mineez. No one knew what a commex or a mineez was, but the titles were listed in the Ticktockman's organizational chart and no one had time to look it up. It would make them late. And being late was the worst thing imaginable. Worse than having no mouth but needing to scream. Worse than working on The Starlost. Ooh, being late was bad. You didn't want it to happen to you. Really. Trust me on this.
The world was structured, tight. Everything fit in a cubbyhole, a pigeon hole, a rabbit hole. To be outside of your cubbyhole meant you weren't where you should be; it meant you weren't when you should be. The Ticktockman was in charge of when.
"This is what he is," said the Ticktockman with genuine softness, " but not who he is. Who is this… Ellison?" His flunkies scurried to find out, especially the commex and the mineez without tenure.
High above the third level of the city, he crouched on the humming aluminum-frame platform of the makeshift swizzleskid, and he floated like a Chagall fiddler and stared down at the neat Mondrian arrangements of the buildings.
Somewhere nearby, he was bathed in the actinic LED of the giant digital clock that towered over the workers, the syncopated susurration of their collective feet moving in precision as they went to and fro at the appointed time. Like a chorus line of tap dancers seen from the highest balcony. Busby Berkeley would appreciate the rehearsed choreography; Fred Astaire would cringe at the lack of individual expression. Only one of these antediluvian dancers had a state approved DVD. No points for guessing which one.
An elfin grin spread across his tanned California features. Dimples appeared for a moment, as they are wont to do when he's winning an argument where the other person doesn't know the stakes. Scratching at his speckled-gray hair, he girded for what came next and threw the joystick forward, and bent into the wind as the airboat dropped.
As he pulled the pins holding his cargo, the air-boat slid over the factory workers and one hundred and fifty thousand dollars worth of jelly beans cascaded down on the expresstrip.
Jelly beans! He had wanted jelly babies, but some guy showed up in a police box and substituted this oblate confection. Just as well. Millions and billions of purples and yellows and greens and licorice and grape and raspberry and mint and round and smooth and crunchy outside and soft-mealy inside and sugary and bouncing jouncing tumbling clittering clattering skittering fell on the heads and shoulders and hardhats and carapaces of the workers, a torrent of color from the sky above.
It was a holiday, a jollity, an absolute insanity, a giggle. But…
The shift was delayed seven minutes. They did not get home for seven minutes. They missed seven minutes of commercials on state-mandated HDTV. Seven minutes worth of sales on the Home Shopping Network were irrevocably lost. Dinners were served late. Babies cried.
He had tapped the first domino in the line, and one after another, like chik chik chik, the others had fallen. He was the Paladin of the Lost Seven Minutes in the Thick Red Moment. He was pleased.
The Ticktockman was impatient, and ordered him to appear at exactly 7pm, dammit on time. He decided to save Pretty Alice from a bad experience and turn himself in. At 8:32, of course.
"Repent Harlan," said the Ticktockman.
"Get stuffed," replied Harlan, sneering.
"You are the rebel, the tester, the stubborn resisting force of intellect and insight which donkey-like stands its ground, refusing to budge, and challenges what is acceptable and valued and thought to be sensible and true. Why shouldn't we kill you now, dissolve you in the bile of contention? Or, worse, force you to read all the stories you wrote as a 15 year old?
"I will not apologize for my past, nor regret the present I have brought about."
"Repent Harlan," said the Ticktockman again because it didn't take much time to say.
"For better or worse, fool or artist, young snotnose or old fart, I am precisely the person, precisely the artist, I have made of myself. I am responsible."
"I'll win, you know."
"Maybe, but I'll have the last word."